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Polenta with Sage and Bacon
Right Food for the Season - Late Winter
Written by Jane Ward   
The first time I was introduced to polenta, I was in my early teens.  My mother had decided to try her hand at some Italian specialties to keep pace with the Italian cooking my father did on the weekends, and she enlisted a family cousin to teach her a few dishes.  For weeks after the lessons ended we ate, among other things, homemade manicotti, spinach fettuccine, a variety of biscotti and pizzelle, and, of course, polenta.
We had never had polenta before and my mother’s preparation was baked, fluffy and light in texture, very much a souffleed savory cornmeal pudding.  She spooned the golden brown cornmeal out of a rectangular baking dish onto our dinner plates, and served it to us as a main course topped with a spicy tomato and Italian sausage ragout. 
Years later, working for a caterer and hearing the word “polenta” being tossed around as a menu idea, I envisioned a preparation something along the lines of my mother’s casserole.  Imagine my surprise when I saw the finished dish:  decoratively cut circles of firm cornmeal pudding used as the starchy base of a braised beef entrée.
Imagine how much more surprised I was a few years after that, while working in a Chicago restaurant, when our chef presented his fall menu.  There was polenta again, again the base of a braised dish, only this time in the form of a soft cornmeal mush the consistency of a hot cereal.  
So it took me a while, but eventually I discovered that the beauty of polenta is in its versatility. Like bread or potatoes, polenta is peasant food, rib sticking porridge-like fare meant to keep hungry and hard-working people full, but it can be cooked and served in so many ways. Dressed up or dressed down, polenta makes a wonderful staple for the home kitchen.  Polenta may have humble origins but it will never be dull.
When I make polenta at home, I most often make the creamy version, mixed with lots of mascarpone and/or Parmesan cheese, and use it as the base starch for a well-sauced dish, like pot roast or beef short ribs.  Soft polenta catches every last bit of rich sauce and this is very satisfying.
But if you asked me to say which type I prefer, I couldn’t answer.  Soft or firm and crisped around the edges, the polenta I like best is the one I am eating at the moment.  The following recipe can be prepared both ways so you may choose your own favorite, or at least have a tasty time being unable to decide.  Since this polenta is prepared with bacon and lots of cream and cheese, it is very hearty and I have paired it with a mushroom ragout, foregoing more meat. 
But play around with it: substitute a braised green like broccoli rabe for the mushrooms, omit the bacon, serve it in small portions as a starter course, or even take the rich polenta and make it richer with a hearty stew on a cold night.  Versatility is, after all, polenta’s best feature. 
Very Cheesy Soft Polenta with Sage and Bacon
(Serves 2 with leftovers as a main course, 4 as a starter course)
4 slices of thick-cut bacon cut into small pieces
2 tsp. fresh sage leaves, rolled together into a cylinder and cut crosswise into thin ribbons
2 ½ cups chicken stock
½ cup polenta cornmeal (not instant)
¼  cup light cream
¼ cup mascarpone cream
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Cook bacon pieces in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat until browned and crisp.  Remove to paper towel and drain.  Remove 1 Tbsp. of the bacon fat and place this in a medium saucepan.  Heat over medium heat and add the ribbons of sage.  Saute until just wilted, a minute or two. 
To this saucepan, add the chicken stock, cover, and bring up to a simmer.  When stock is simmering, add the polenta in a steady stream, stirring as it is added.  Reduce the heat to low and continue to simmer the polenta as it cooks and thickens, stirring regularly.  This may take up to 30 minutes.
As you wait for the polenta to cook, prepare the mushroom ragout (recipe follows) and set aside over low heat to keep warm.
When your polenta has reached a nice thickness and tastes tender to the bite, remove the pan from the heat and fold in the cream, mascarpone, and Parmesan.  Season with salt (it won’t take much with all the cheese, so add sparingly) and pepper.  Serve immediately on large plates or shallow bowls. Top with lots of mushroom ragout and enjoy.
Fried Polenta with Sage and Bacon
Alternately, you may make the polenta as directed above, but substituting 2 ¼ cups stock and omitting the cream.  Once you have thickened your polenta and folded in the mascarpone and Parmesan, set the saucepan aside and line a cookie sheet with lightly oiled foil or parchment. Turn the polenta out onto the sheet and spread to a rectangle that is 1/2 -3/4-inch in thickness. Cool in the refrigerator until firm.
When polenta is very firm, cut the one rectangle down the middle lengthwise into two rectangles.  Cut each rectangle into triangles or smaller rectangles. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and lightly brush with olive oil.  Grill the firm polenta shapes on both sides until browned and crisped around the edges.
Serve at least two pieces on a plate, topped with sauce.  With this method, you can make your ragout later, when the polenta is fried and keeping warm in a warm oven.
Mushroom Ragout
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp, olive oil
24 ounces assorted mushrooms (I use a mix of crimini and shiitake)
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed under flat blade of your knife
1 tsp. chopped sage
2 Tbsp. brandy
1 cup chicken stock
1/3 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
shredded Parmesan cheese for sprinkling, optional
Melt butter with olive oil in a large skillet set over medium-high heat, and melt the butter until it begins to foam but does not brown.  Add smashed garlic cloves and sauté until they begin to turn golden, then remove the cloves to a cutting board.  Set aside for later.
Add mushrooms to the skillet, toss in the butter and oil to coat, then let them brown without stirring for a few minutes.  Once you have developed a nice color on the mushrooms, stir these with the chopped sage.  Mince the reserved garlic and add this to the mushrooms as well and stir together a minute or two to meld the flavors.
Turn up the heat under the pan a bit and add the brandy, being careful not to splash the brandy near the edges of the pan or your heat source.  You want to deglaze the pan and cook off the alcohol without setting the dish aflame.
Once the brandy has reduced, add the chicken stock to the pan, and let the stock reduce by about half or until it looks nicely thickened.  Add your cream and simmer a minute or two.  Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired.
This ragout may be served over either polenta with or without a grating of Parmesan cheese.    



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