This creamy polenta recipe with sautéed mushrooms is the best quick-and-easy weeknight comfort food. A thick hearty bowl of polenta topped with savory mushrooms and a bit of cheese truly hits the spot on cooler evenings. But this recipe is also a light enough meal to enjoy during warmer months too. And it is a great option for meatless Mondays when you need a quick meal to prepare and are short on time.
We have the whole scoop about polenta for you below, including shopping recommendations and tips for the best way to make polenta. But if you’re ready to get to cooking, just click the jump-to-recipe button to get down to it.
What Is Polenta?
First things first, what exactly is polenta? Polenta is a Northern Italian dish made with ground cornmeal that is boiled to make a thick porridge. It is typically savory, and it is kind of like grits (more on that below). But normally polenta is made with yellow cornmeal instead of white cornmeal. In addition to a thick porridge, sometimes polenta cooled after cooking to from it into a more solid cake or loaf. These are great for cutting into squares or triangles for grilling or frying and make an excellent appetizer along side some roasted tomatoes and olive oil.
Historically, polenta was made using other ground up grains such as farro, barley, or chickpeas. Fun fact, ground up cornmeal happens to be one of the few foods that are authentically and originally American. Native Americans in what is now the southern United States used make porridge out of ground up cornmeal. So it wasn’t until after American colonists brought cornmeal back to Europe that polenta was made with corn.
How Do You Make Polenta?
Polenta is really easy to make. While some recipes call for soaking the cornmeal before cooking, or stirring continuously while it cooks, I have found through experience these extra steps aren’t necessary. It seems some recipes try to make polenta sound fancier or more difficult than it actually is. And if you’ve been intimidated about making polenta in the past, let me assure you it is no more difficult to make than a bowl of rice, oatmeal, or grits. Polenta is a really simple dish, just cornmeal and water or broth with a little seasoning such as salt or rosemary.
The classic cornmeal-to-liquid ratio for cooking polenta is 1 part cornmeal to 4 parts water (similar to grits). And to make your polenta more flavorful, I recommend using vegetable or chicken broth instead of water. It’s always best to take a look at the package directions, but generally speaking, the method of making polenta is pretty basic.
To make polenta, bring 4 cups of water or broth to a boil in a large pot, then stir in 1 cup of cornmeal and reduce the heat to a low simmer. Give the cornmeal a quick stir with a whisk to make sure it’s not lumpy, cover the pot with a lid, and let it simmer on low heat for 20 minutes. Once the polenta is done cooking, stir in 1/2 cup to 1 cup of mozzarella or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese until the cheese is completely melted and blended in with the cornmeal. This gives the polenta a rich creamy flavor and texture.
What Do You Eat Polenta With?
You can eat polenta as a side dish with pretty much anything. It goes great with a Bolognese ragu, slow cooked short ribs, or any kind of steak. The polenta recipe below is a quick and easy vegetarian version made with vegetable broth and a variety of sautéed mushrooms.
Mushrooms are a great addition as they have a meaty flavor, even without meat. When it comes to choosing mushrooms, pick up a variety that will give the dish layered textures and flavors. We went with portobello and cremini, but plain button mushrooms or seasonal porcini mushrooms would be delicious additions too. Add whatever mushrooms you find in season at your local grocer or market.
Is Polenta The Same As Grits Or Cornmeal?
Yes, polenta is pretty much the same as grits. In fact, on some packages of cornmeal it will say, “for both grits or polenta.” There are some varieties that will have a blend of cornmeal and buckwheat. Andother things to look out for are the difference in whether the cornmeal is stone-ground or quick-cooking as that will make a difference in your cooking time. But if you have a bag of stone ground grits or even quick-cooking grits, you can make polenta with that too.
Ingredients You’ll Need For This Polenta Recipe
Here’s a shopping list to help you prep for the polenta and mushroom recipe below. Feel free to add other toppings too and make it your own!
- vegetable broth
- polenta (dried yellow cornmeal)
- portobello mushrooms
- Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- olive oil
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 1 cup cornmeal
- 2 cups sliced Portobello mushrooms
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- 3/4 cup fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 2 springs of rosemary (for garnish)
To make polenta, bring 4 cups broth to a boil in a large pot, then stir in 1 cup of cornmeal and reduce the heat to a low simmer. Give the cornmeal a quick stir with a whisk to make sure it's not lumpy, cover the pot with a lid, and let it simmer on low heat for 25 minutes.
While the polenta is cooking, heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add shallots and cook until translusent. Then add the garlic and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes.
Add the mushrooms to the shallots and garlic and cook until golden brown, about 5-8 minutes. Add the chopped rosemary to the mushrooms in the last minute of cooking to bring out their flavor and fragrance. Finish the mushrooms by sprinkling on the salt and pepper and giving them one final stir.
Once the polenta is done cooking, stir in 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (the remaining 1/4 cup is to top the finished dish) until the cheese is completely melted and blended in with the cornmeal. This gives the polenta a rich creamy flavor and texture.
Scoop a cup of polenta into four bowls and top with sauteed mushrooms. Garnish with additional rosemary, a pinch of the remaining cheese, and serve.
- Read the package directions on the cornmeal that you purchase. More or less liquid may be needed depending on the type of cornmeal you buy.
- Grated Mozzarella, Pecorino or Parmesan cheese can be subsituted for the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Though, taste the polenta when it is done cooking as you may need to add more salt as Parmigiano-Reggiano has a naturally salty flavor.
- In a pinch, you can use garlic powder instead of fresh garlic. For this recipe, I'd add 1 tsp of garlic powder.
- Other delicious additions you can add include substituting the olive oil for butter, or adding a 1/4 cup of white wine to the mushrooms in the last 5 minutes of cooking them to layer in more flavor.
More Italian Recipes You’ll Enjoy
Looking for more Italian-inspired recipes? We happen to think roasted rapini is the perfect vegetable to pair with this polenta recipe. Here are a few more of our Italian favorites:
- Champagne Risotto with Wild Mushrooms
- Strozzapreti with Tomatoes, Arugula, and Cannellini
- Pasta Bolognese
- Lemon Pasta with Peas & Pancetta
- Tuscan White Bean Soup
- Contessa’s Lemon Linguine