Double boiler makes perfect polenta
By JOHN CARAFOLI 
CONTRIBUTING WRITER

It was one of those blustery wintry days on Cape Cod. The weather was nasty, and I felt like having a substantial, stick-to-your-ribs dinner, which to me means comfort food. I walked into the kitchen and spotted a box of cornmeal.

Then I looked into the refrigerator and saw that I had a variety of mushrooms and a bunch of broccoli rabe. Dinner started to take shape - soft polenta, instead of the firm one I usually make, perhaps topped with a winter tomato sauce.

I started to think about various possibilities. I could sauté the broccoli rabe with garlic, olive oil and a dash of red pepper and do something similar with the mushrooms. Then I could spoon the polenta into a bowl and top it first with the rabe, then with the mushrooms, and add a little grated Parmesan cheese. I also had a small wedge of imported Gorgonzola. Maybe that could be served on the side. In Italy, Gorgonzola is traditionally served with most polenta dishes. And a nice simple green salad drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar seasoned with a little salt and pepper would go well with this meal, I thought.

OK, this all sounded good, but where was this vegetarian meal going? Where was my protein? I thought for a minute of something I had read about how polenta and beans nourished peasants and laborers in the 18th century. I went to the cupboard and found a can of Roman beans. I decided to be creative and incorporate them into the polenta. Perfect!

I sat down to this satisfying meal with a nice glass of 1997 Barbera d' Alba - a great match for what was now a well-balanced vegetarian dinner.

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I have found the best way to cook polenta (We'll call it version one) is in a double boiler. You only have to stir this version a few times and it frees you to proceed with the rest of your meal. I use a 10-inch copper bowl and place it over a 10-inch pan that is 5 ½ inches deep. Bring the water in the bottom of the double boiler to a boil, add all the ingredients below, and when it starts to cook, stir it intermittently with a wooden spoon. While it is cooking, you can prepare the rest of the meal. The polenta is ready in about 15 to 20 minutes. Another way to cook polenta is shown below in version two.

Basic Polenta

1 cup yellow cornmeal

2 cups cold water

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 cups water

1 (15.5 ounce) can Roman beans*

Version two:

In a bowl, combine the cornmeal, two cups cold water and salt; mix and set aside. In a large pot, bring the additional four cups of water to a boil. Add the oil and stir in the cornmeal mixture. With an electric or hand beater, beat the cornmeal until it starts to thicken (about 3 to 4 minutes). This will keep the polenta smooth and free of lumps. Then cook it over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, for about 20 minutes. Cover the pot and leave it on the heat for 3 minutes more without stirring. Shake the pot a little. This will allow some steam to get under the polenta so it will detach itself from the bottom of the pot easily.

* For both versions, stir in the beans the last 5 minutes of cooking.

To serve, place a heaping spoonful of soft polenta on four plates and divide the mushrooms equally over the polenta, top with the broccoli rabe, then the mushrooms, a wedge of creamy imported Gorgonzola cheese and garnish with Parmesan cheese.

You will have leftover polenta that can be fried in the morning and topped with a fried egg and Parmesan cheese. This makes a hearty breakfast.

You can also prepare and substitute dandelion green, escarole or mustard greens in this rabe recipe. This makes a great side dish for any meal.

Sauteed Broccoli Rabe

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 cup vegetable broth

1 bunch broccoli rabe, washed and chopped

Dash of red pepper flakes to taste

Salt and fresh ground pepper

Combine the oil and garlic in a large skillet and cook for 2 minutes. Add the broccoli rabe, broth and pepper flakes and simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 18 minutes or until broccoli is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4.

This dish is delicious made with any variety of mushrooms. Be creative. Here I used shiitake, crimini and portabella.

Sauteed Mushrooms

1 clove garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced (discard stems)

4 ounces crimini mushrooms, sliced

1 portabella mushroom, sliced

1 teaspoon fresh thyme

1 teaspoon fresh marjoram

2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup vegetable broth

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Sauté the garlic in the olive oil and butter for 1 minute, then add the mushrooms, thyme and white wine. Cook on high heat until liquid evaporates and the mushrooms start to brown - about 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the broth to deglaze the pan. Cook until liquid evaporates. Makes 4 servings.

(Published: February 1, 2006)