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.
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.
1 T. Olive Oil
1 T. Butter
1 medium Onion, small dice
Â½ Yellow or Red Bell Pepper, small dice
2 cloves minced Garlic
12 oz. coarsely chopped assorted Mushrooms: portabellos, shiitakes, oyster, creminiâ€¦you don’t have to get all of these, 2 or 3 varieties are nice
4-6 sprigs fresh Thyme
Â¼ cup Red Wine
1 cup diced Tomatoes and juice
Â½ 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.
Â½ lb. fresh Spinach
2 cloves minced Garlic
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.
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.
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.