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    The confident cook

    Recipe: If you can stir vigorously, you can make polenta cakes, an elegant, hearty holiday dish

    Karoline Boehm Goodnick for The Boston Globe

    All holiday hosts need one easy dish that is hearty but restaurant elegant, something that might be a vegetarian entree or a side to go with juicy chops or a roast. Polenta is that dish. And while making it and shaping it into cakes may seem daunting, it’s actually quite straightforward. If you can stir vigorously, you can make polenta. Choose coarsely ground cornmeal (often, but not always, labeled polenta; do not use instant for this recipe). Plan to make the polenta the night before or at the least, early in the day, so it has enough time to become firm.

    Stir the cornmeal into the water, spread it in a baking dish to firm up, and cut into squares. Fry the polenta and top with a mushroom fricassee made with a mixture of dried and fresh fungi and any favorite combination of fresh herbs. To get the polenta cakes crisp, you need to fry them just before serving and that may take you away from your guests. But we all know that everyone loves to congregate in the kitchen and watch the cook. So invite them in, pass the wine, and start the party at the stove.


    Crispy polenta cakes with mushroom fricassee

    Serves 4



    Olive oil (for the pan)
    6cups water
    1teaspoon salt
    2cups coarsely ground cornmeal or polenta
    ½cup freshly grated Parmesan
    2tablespoons butter, cut up
    Pinch of ground nutmeg

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    1. Generously oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Line the bottom with parchment paper.

    2. In a large pot, bring water and salt to a boil over high heat. Slowly stir in the cornmeal or polenta. Lower the heat, and simmer, stirring often, for 15 to 20 minutes or until very thick.

    3. Stir in the Parmesan, butter, and nutmeg.

    4. Transfer to the baking dish; use a rubber spatula to spread an even layer. Cool; cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.


    5. When the polenta is firm, run a small paring knife around the edge of the dish to loosen it. Invert the dish onto a cutting board. Remove and discard the parchment. Make 1 vertical cut in the polenta cake and 3 horizontal cuts to shape 8 pieces.


    ½ounce dried porcini
    ½cup warm water
    5tablespoons olive oil
    2pounds fresh mushrooms (shiitake, baby portobello, crimini, button), sliced
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    3shallots, sliced
    3cloves garlic, chopped
    2tablespoons chopped, mixed fresh herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley)
    1cup red wine
    1tablespoon soy sauce
    1tablespoon sherry vinegar
    1cup heavy cream
    4tablespoons butter
    2tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

    1. In a bowl, combine dried porcini and water. Set aside for 20 minutes. Set a strainer over a bowl and line it with a paper towel. Strain the soaking liquid (porcini can be gritty). Reserve the liquid.

    2. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the fresh mushrooms, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes, or until the mushrooms are just beginning to brown. Stir in shallots, garlic, and herbs. Cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add porcini and the soaking liquid. wCook for 3 minutes more or until the liquid in the pan evaporates.

    3. Pour in the wine, soy sauce, and vinegar. Cook 5 minutes more.


    4. Stir in the cream. Cook for 6 minutes or until the sauce thickens. Remove from the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of the butter. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper, if you like.

    5. In another skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add 1 tablespoon of the butter. Place 4 pieces of polenta in the pan. Cook for 5 minutes on a side, or until the cakes are golden and crisp. Transfer to a plate. Cook the remaining polenta cakes in the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter in the same way.

    6. Place 2 polenta cakes on each plate. Top with mushrooms and garnish with parsley.
    Karoline Boehm Goodnick

    Karoline Boehm Goodnick can be reached at