Polenta . part v . Veneto-inspired pasticcio with mushrooms

Ask anyone from the Veneto, and they will tell you that mushrooms are as essential to  winter  as golden cornmeal itself. It is fitting that a polenta-inspired recipe includes two traditional ingredients, that fit together like the perfect married couple.

Before moving on to the recipe, allow me to tell you a bit about the Italian word pasticcio. This term is most readily translated by the culinary terms pie, pastry or even casserole.   A pasticcio is used in the Veneto to describe any type of layered, oven-baked dish made from pasta or other grains. A savory pasticcio invariably includes layers of cooked vegetables, thick sauces or both. Last but not least, it almost always involves the use of dairy.

This dish takes some time to make, so find a meditative moment to slow cook. If you need some kitchen encouragement, just imagine aromatic mushrooms layered between creamy layers of polenta, laced with ground white pepper. Add melting Parmigiano cheese and butter to the story and an amber-colored ode to comfort food is born.

Ingredients . for 4 

for the polenta 

  • 250 grams of fine cornmeal for polenta
  • 1  liter of water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 stalk of celery
  • 1 small white onion . about 125 grams
  • 1-2 teaspoons fine sea salt

for the mushrooms 

  • 500 grams mixed mushrooms
  • 50 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 50 grams unsalted butter
  • one clove of garlic
  • 1/4 bunch fresh flat leaf parsley . about 25 grams . optional
  • a pinch of sea salt

for the pasticcio 

  • 200 grams Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 100 grams unsalted butter
  • 1 pinch of fresh ground white pepper

additional garnishes

  • 1 head of radicchio di Treviso . or 2 Belgian endive .
  • 50 grams Robiola tre latti cheese or any soft white cheese like Taleggio or Gorgonzola dolce

To make the polenta 

Pour the water and sea salt in a heavy-bottomed pan on medium high heat. If you like, add two bay leaves, one stalk of celery and a small piece of onion to the pan. Traditionalists say that polenta should be cooked in copper, not only  because it conducts heat so evenly, but because it prevents the polenta from sticking to the bottom the bottom of the pan. Not everyone has copper kitchenware  . . . myself included . . . so please feel free to use your best heavy-bottom soup or casserole pan.

Once the water starts to boil, remove the aromatics from the water, then pour the cornmeal in a steady stream while stirring vigorously with a whisk, until the grains are well incorporated. Then, switch to a wooden spoon and keep stirring the cornmeal constantly. This prevents the cornmeal from clumping. After a few minutes, the cornmeal mixture will start to bubble, a sign to turn down the heat to its lowest flame.

Now comes the time to let your creative thoughts and dreams float by, as you continue to stir the cornmeal constantly with a wooden, spoon, making sure to stir the bottom of the pan to keep it from clumping. The process of stirring is not only meditative, it also makes for a smooth and creamy polenta later. After about 20 minutes, check the texture of the cornmeal. If it’s too dry, add a splash of boiling, salted water. If it’s too wet, keep stirring. Once 30 minutes have passed, taste the cornmeal. It is cooked when the grains are no longer sand-like and the mash pulls away from the sides of the pan. At this point, turn off the heat, stir in freshly ground white pepper and put a lid on the pan.  Let the polenta rest ten minutes.

Preparing the filling 

Meanwhile, clean the mushrooms of your choice by removing any dirt or sand with a brush or a paper towel. Slice the mushrooms paper thin with a sharp knife. Wash the flat leaf parsley and shake it dry. Peel the garlic clove. Chop the stems as well as the leaves very fine and set aside. Heat the olive oil, butter and garlic in a skillet. Sauté the garlic until golden, then remove it. Add the mushrooms and stir fry them 10-15 minutes, until they are browned and have lost their moisture. Turn off the heat. Stir through the flat leaf parsley and season the mushrooms with a touch of sea salt.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius, with the fan on. Grate the Parmigiano Reggiano on the fine side of a cheese grater and set aside. Cut the unsalted butter into small chunks and set aside. For individual servings, layer the bottom and sides of four ramekins 12cm in diameter with parchment paper. If you prefer, replace the ramekins with a tart form 22-24 cm in diameter and  4-6 cm in height.

Creating the layers 

While the polenta is still warm, spoon 100-120 grams evenly over the bottom of each ramekin. Sprinkle the polenta with some Parmigiano Reggiano, then top it with 45-50 grams sauteed mushrooms. Top the mushrooms with a tablespoon of grated Parmigiano cheese, then dot it with some a few small pieces of unsalted butter. Repeat this process, ending with a top layer of polenta. Spread a heaping tablespoon of Parmigiano cheese on the polenta, finishing it off with a few pieces of butter.

Bake the polenta 35 minutes, or until the Parmigiano and butter have formed a bubbly crust.

 

Suggested combinations 

This dish would traditionally be served as a first course on its own. I preferred to serve it with grilled red radicchio. The addition of a bitter winter vegetable gives the pasticcio freshness in my opinion.  It also turns the dish into a complete one-plate lunch or light supper.

To grill radicchio (or Belgian endive) simply leave the oven on at 200 degrees Celsius. Cut the radicchio in half lengthwise, then wash it briefly in cold water. Lay the radicchio cut side up (or Belgian endive) on an oven platter, covered with parchment paper. Brush the radicchio with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle it with sea salt. Bake the radicchio 6-8 minutes or until it is charring at the edges. Remove the radicchio from the oven. Serve it warm, or even at room temperature next to the pasticcio.

When testing this recipe, I added  a wedge of cheese from the northern Italian Piemonte region called robiola tre latti, made from a combination of goat’s, sheep’s and cow’s milk.  If you like, you can top your baked polenta with a young, creamy cheese like the
Robiola,
or even Gorgonzola or Taleggio.

Notes 

This recipe was inspired and adapted from “La Cucina Vicentina” by Andrea Sandri and Maurizio Falloppi. 

P.S. Speaking of “pasticcio”

The word pasticcio is not just for the kitchen. It can also refer to a situation of confusion, of general disorganization and even of chaos. If you find yourself in a “pasticcio” , this is the equivalent to finding yourself in “hot water” in English.

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