When I’m craving a substantial and comforting meal, but I don’t want to spend all day braising a tough cut of meat, I make this meatless Mushroom Polenta.
It comes together quickly thanks to the quick-cooking instant polenta—no need to stand over the stove stirring it for 30 minutes. Most brands of instant polenta cook in under 5 minutes and they’re still as rich and creamy.
The polenta is seasoned with butter, Parmesan cheese, and a little parsley. It’s topped with sautéed white button and cremini mushrooms, garlic, and onions in a light herby sauce punched up with a dash of red wine vinegar.
How to Pick the Best Mushrooms
This recipe calls for white button and cremini mushrooms. White button mushrooms have a mild flavor and are suitable for most recipes. Cremini mushrooms are darker, firmer, and have a bold, earthy flavor. Both are the same species, but the difference in color comes with age—creminis are more mature.
At the grocery store, look for whole mushrooms that are plump and smooth, but not dried out or wet and slimy. If you want to learn more about mushrooms, here is a good read!
Pre-sliced mushrooms may seem more convenient, but they tend to be dried out and unevenly cut. This means they may cook unevenly. I like to buy whole mushrooms. Instead of slicing the mushrooms, I like to quarter or halve (if they are large) them. They’ll keep their shape better once cooked.
Mushroom Storage and Cleaning
Pop the mushrooms that come in a container wrapped in plastic in the fridge until ready to use. If you don’t use them all at once, it’s best to store them in a small paper bag in the fridge to absorb any moisture that might make them slimy. They will keep for a couple of days or up to one week depending on how fresh they were when you bought them.
Clean away any visible dirt with a dry paper towel or brush them off with a pastry brush. Trim the tough bottom of the stems.
There are some questions over whether you can wash mushrooms with water. I have done it and I embrace it. It’s easier, especially when the mushrooms are extra dirty. I say cook’s choice! The result will be the same. Just make sure to dry them well with a clean kitchen towel if you’re washing them with water.
Cooking the Mushrooms
This recipe calls for cooking the mushrooms in a hot skillet with water. At first glance, it might seem counterintuitive. Will the mushrooms brown? How will they get crispy? Won’t they be soggy? All great questions.
I learned about this technique from America’s Test Kitchen and Alton Brown—I had faith they’d done the hard work of figuring it out. The mushrooms are steamed in the water, drawing out their natural moisture and thereby shrinking them. Don’t worry. That’s ok! The water will eventually evaporate. Then, you can add just a little oil to help the mushrooms brown.
The benefit of this method is that the mushrooms will brown nicely without absorbing too much oil and getting greasy.
Polenta, an Italian staple, is a savory cornmeal porridge made with stone-ground dried corn. It can take up to 30 minutes to cook and requires constant stirring to soften the grains and prevent clumping.
Fortunately for those a little pressed for time, instant polenta cooks in less than 5 minutes. Check the package instructions for the exact timing.
The flavor of polenta is relatively neutral. The addition of fats like butter and cheese makes it silkier and tastier. Chopped parsley adds freshness. Be sure to season it well with salt, especially if you’re using a low-sodium vegetable broth.
Swaps and Substitutions that Work
Here are some ways to customize this dish to fit your pantry, timeframe, or taste:
- Got extra time on your hands? Make regular polenta, which is more textured and has a more pronounced corn flavor.
- Any type of mushrooms would work here—trim and halve shiitakes or cut portobellos into bite-size pieces. Specialty stores and farmers markets might have oyster mushrooms or enoki that could be fun to use and yummy.
- If you have dried porcini mushrooms, soak them in hot water for about 20 minutes. Strain away any grit and save the broth to add to the polenta or in the sauce for the mushrooms.
- Instead of polenta, the mushrooms can be served over cooked pasta or another grain, like farro.
How I Serve Mushroom Polenta
Serve Mushroom Polenta with a simple salad of bitter or mixed greens with your favorite vinaigrette. I like adding whole parsley leaves to salads and using fresh lemon juice instead of vinegar.
Plan Ahead: Ideas!
I don’t recommend making the polenta ahead of time (beyond ten minutes or so before serving), but the mushrooms can be made one day before and reheated before serving. There’s a reason leftover polenta is often fried—it’s hard to get it nice and creamy again after it spends a night in the fridge. It becomes a solid mass.
Cut it into 1/2-inch slices. Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Pan fry the slices until crispy and browned, about five minutes per side. It’s really the only way to resuscitate it.
How to Store Leftovers
Store the mushroom sauce in an airtight container separate from the polenta if you have leftovers. The mushrooms can be reheated in the microwave or in a small pot on the stove top until warmed through. To store the polenta, place plastic wrap directly on the surface so it doesn’t form a skin.
For the Love of Mushrooms
This recipe calls for 4 cups of vegetable stock to cook 1 cup of instant polenta. Read the instructions on the packaging to confirm that this is the proper ratio for your brand of instant polenta.
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 pounds mushrooms (mixed cremini and white button)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus more to taste
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, minced
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes, plus more to taste
4 1/2 cups vegetable stock, divided
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 cup instant polenta
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves and tender stems, divided
Prepare the mushrooms:
Gently wipe the mushroom caps clean with a dry paper towel. Trim the bottom of stems and cut the mushrooms into quarters if large and halves if small. The cut pieces should be about the same size.
Cook the mushrooms:
Heat a large skillet over high heat until it’s hot. It may take about 1 minute. Carefully add the 1/4 cup water and mushrooms. Cook, stirring until all the water evaporates, about 12 minutes. The mushrooms will release more water, but they will become smooth and shiny. The timing depends on how much moisture the mushrooms have—they’re ready when the skillet is dry.
Add 1 tablespoon of oil and stir. Allow the mushrooms to sit undisturbed to brown for a minute or so, then stir again. Lower the heat if the mushrooms are darkening too quickly.
Continue cooking the mushrooms until they are browned all over and crisp-tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon of salt and black pepper. Transfer the mushrooms into a medium bowl.
Make the sauce:
Heat the same large skillet used for the mushrooms over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt, garlic, onion, oregano, thyme, and crushed red pepper flakes. Cook stirring until the onions are tender and limp, about 10 minutes.
Add a drizzle of oil if the vegetables look too dry. Lower the heat if the garlic is browning too quickly. Add the tomato paste and smoosh with the back of the wooden spoon into the pan to cook out some of the raw flavor, about 30 seconds. The paste might stick to your spoon but just keep swirling it around the pan.
Stir in 1/2 cup vegetable stock. Return the mushrooms to the skillet and stir briefly to re-warm. Turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar and 1 tablespoon butter. Taste and season with more salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes if you’d like. Set it aside while you cook the polenta.
Make the polenta:
In a medium saucepan over high heat, bring 4 cups of vegetable stock and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil. Slowly add the polenta while whisking. Turn the heat down to maintain a gentle simmer.
Once all the polenta has been added, switch to a wooden spoon and cook, stirring until the polenta is thick and bubbly, about 3 minutes. It will pull away from the sides of the saucepan.
Taste it. It should be creamy, not grainy.
Season the polenta:
Stir in the Parmesan, 2 tablespoons parsley, and the remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Turn off the heat.
Divide the polenta among shallow serving bowls. Spoon the mushrooms on top. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons parsley and more Parmesan.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 21g||27%|
|Saturated Fat 8g||38%|
|Total Carbohydrate 22g||8%|
|Dietary Fiber 5g||18%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 17mg||85%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|