March 9th, 2010

Polenta Torta with Wild Mushroom Ragu

vertical polenta hero

This past weekend I was in Highlands, North Carolina, a charming mountain community that is home to a number of high-end restaurants. I was there in an unusual capacity—dispatched, you might say, to be one of three judges for their first-ever Iron Chef style culinary competition.

Who would be “King of the Mountain?” Four area chefs faced off, armed with kitchen staples, a box of Secret Ingredients, their sharpened French knives and wits, trying to execute as many daring dishes possible within a 40 minute time period. Yikes, 40 minutes!

And then, we judges got to sample, and score, on the basis of Taste, Presentation, and Creativity….in what seemed seconds.

Indeed, these chefs came up with some exceptional delectables. For one heat, the secret ingredient was sushi-grade Red Grouper. Witness: a gorgeous Grouper Carpaccio, translucent fillet dressed with peppery olive oil, basil and fennel. Grouper and crawfish in a spicy African Peanut Stew, presented in the hollow of a halved coconut. Grilled baby eggplant, mango, and grouper salad in a gingery-caramel-tamari-based dressing that was ultimate Umami.


It wasn’t until the morning after the competition, while driving the winding way down the mountain, that I started to wonder, what would I have made in 40 minutes…

I didn’t arrive at any great answers. And when I arrived home, I made this Polenta Torta.

Now, even though it is not King of the Mountain caliber, it would score very high points for taste. Mushroom ragu can be as rich and complex as a meat bolognese, and in much less time.

Presentation and creativity score well in the acceptable range.

And, it can be made and assembled in that 40 minute time period…if you’ve got your sharp knife and wits about you.

close up slice polenta

Polenta Torta layered with Spinach and Mushroom Ragu

For the Polenta:

4 cups Water
1 cup Polenta
1 t. Sea Salt
1 t. good Olive Oil

Bring water a boil and stir in polenta and salt. Stir continuously until polenta incorporates into the liquid. Simmer, stirring occasionally.


Polenta is very forgiving. If it gets too thick, thin with more water. If it’s too thin, just simmer along and it will thicken up. When it is a good, almost pourable consistency, remove from heat and stir in the olive oil.

mushroom saute

Mushroom Ragu:
1 T. Olive Oil
1 T. Butter
1 medium Onion, small dice
½ Yellow or Red Bell Pepper, small dice
2 cloves minced Garlic
12 oz. coarsely chopped assorted Mushrooms: portabellos, shiitakes, oyster, cremini…you don’t have to get all of these, 2 or 3 varieties are nice
4-6 sprigs fresh Thyme
Black Pepper
¼ cup Red Wine
1 cup diced Tomatoes and juice
½ cup low fat Milk

In a skillet under medium heat, melt butter and olive together. Saute onions and peppers until softened; stir in garlic, mushrooms, and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Saute until mushrooms brown. Add red wine, tomatoes and juice. Stir well, scraping up any browned bits in the skillet. Simmer and stir. Mushrooms will release their liquid and sauce will acquire a pretty reddish-brown hue. Stir in milk; taste for seasonings and adjust.

mushroom ragu

Spinach Sauté
½ lb. fresh Spinach
2 cloves minced Garlic
Olive Oil
shredded Pecorino Romano

Simple: Heat the oil, toss in the garlic for 30 seconds, then add the spinach leaves. Toss around in the pot until the leaves are coated and collapse. (another minute or two) Remove from heat and dust with a little romano cheese.

ready to layer


In a 9×13 casserole dish coated with olive oil, spread a layer of polenta. Follow that with a layer of spinach, then a layer of mushroom ragu. Sprinkle some shredded pecorino romano at this point, if you like.

Repeat the process—all layers again.

At this point, if you are making things ahead of time, you can refrigerate the casserole. It will be ready to bake when you are.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for about 30 minutes–until browned and bubbly.

layer one

For my Vegan Friends:
Polenta Torta lends itself to numerous variations.
Simply delete the butter and romano; no milk in the mushroom sauce.
It won’t be quite as Lush—but still very good.
Layers of swiss chard and marinara sauce would be Delish.
And, Pesto layers? Absolutely.


Posted in Recipes, Rice/Other Grains/Legumes, Sauces, Vegan, Vegetables

18 Responses to “Polenta Torta with Wild Mushroom Ragu”
  1. Christine @ Fresh Local and Best Says:

    This is a beautiful dish. Polenta is one of those wonderful filling and comforting ingredients, and I bet it was absolutely delicious with the mushroom ragu.

  2. Renee Says:

    Another winner from Iron Chef Nancy! I plan to try this recipe tonight. Yum!

  3. rhonda Says:

    As usual…..YUM!

  4. Maggie Says:

    Nance, glad your trip was fun and inspiring! This torta sounds fantastic, yet simple – one to try soon!!

  5. Kelli Says:

    I’ve been wanting to try more vegetarian dishes (both for health and $$$ sake). This recipe is definitely one that I will try. I’ve never worked with polenta before, but your good instructions have helped me in the past with new dishes.

  6. John Reef Says:

    This looks great. I just made polenta with spinach and sausage the other day. Have you tried using instant polenta? Even Marcella has good things to say about the instant variety.

  7. goodfoodmatters Says:

    John, I never have tried the instant, but if Marcella gives it a thumbs-up, that’s one strong recommendation. Your sausage and spinach combo sounds delicious.

  8. Leisa Hammett Says:

    Nancy, this looks scrumptuous. My mouth is watering. And how cool of you to be a judge at such an event. I’ve been to Highlands. If you go back, I highly recommend for lodging Fire Mountain, which is on up beyond the crowds. I was thinking of you just this morning. You lead an interesting life! Good for you.

  9. goodfoodmatters Says:

    Thanks for the tip, Leisa. This was my first visit to Highlands—there was still snow! They put us up at the Old Edwards Inn and Spa, in the Piermont Cottage—which was a Some Cottage: 4 bedrooms, 6 baths, gourmet kitchen, fireplaces, full appointed…..

    Highlands was not too busy—I imagine the crowds really come throughout the summer. Fire Mountain lodging then would be lovely, indeed!

  10. Nancy Says:

    Sounds like a fun weekend! Whenever I watch Iron Chef I always wonder what it would be like to be one of the judges… And the torta looks fabulous; I will definitely be trying your mushroom ragu recipe!

  11. Fluffy Says:

    This looks magical with the correct ’shrooms

    as always the best

  12. rachel Says:

    What a wonderful, inspiring, recipe with lots of our favourite ingredients. It sounds perfect for a March supper (after a glimpse of spring we have plunged back into cold rainy days)
    Thyme and mushrooms are a magical combination..

  13. Teri Says:

    What a fun weekend! And your recipe looks wonderful. I look forward to trying it.

  14. Allison Wright Says:

    wow, it looks wonderful as always! I can’t wait to hear more about the judging at this competition!

  15. Sook @ My Fabulous Recipes Says:

    Great pictures! This dish looks wonderful!

  16. Roger Says:

    Congratulations for Highlands

    Marvelous creation, the missing ingredient to my bare place setting.

  17. Katarina Says:

    I made this the other day and it turned out great! A lot of surprising flavors and not too rich. The perfect dish since I just had dental work and needed something more interesting than mashed potatoes. Thank-you!!

  18. Mary @ Fit and Fed Says:

    Mmm, looks delicious with all the flavors in the wild mushroom sauce. I wouldn’t have thought of adding milk but I can see that it would add some richness.

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