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Polenta, the ultimate Italian comfort food

Soft Polenta with Grilled Portobellos and Treviso makes for the ultimate Italian comfort food. (Courtesy Quentin Bacon/MCT)

Soft Polenta with Grilled Portobellos and Treviso makes for the ultimate Italian comfort food. (Courtesy Quentin Bacon/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

Originally made with chestnut flour, polenta was once the catchall term for any grain boiled to a porridge and flavored with spices and cheese. When corn came from the New World to the Italian Peninsula, polenta was made with cornmeal. Today, polenta is found in two forms: as a solid cake or as a creamy grits-like mush. In this recipe, I go with the mush.

Polenta is much less labor-intensive than it seems. It is, quite simply, cornmeal cooked in salt water. Many insist that you start with traditional coarse yellow cornmeal and stir constantly for 45 minutes to an hour. Some start with lukewarm water and cook over low heat for upwards of two hours. In Piedmont, they cook polenta exclusively in a copper pot over open fire.

I often like to use quick-cook polenta. Use five cups of water for one cup of polenta; then season the water with sugar and salt, honey or thyme (the sweetness of the sugar or honey complements the corn flavor). Once the corn meal is whisked in and you’re free from the danger of lumpiness, cook the polenta over medium-high heat for five or six minutes.

I serve this dish hot and runny, directly from the pot. Polenta can be accompanied by any number of ragus, vegetables or meats. It’s the perfect substitute for pasta.

This is comfort food of another world.

Soft Polenta With Grilled Portobellos and Treviso

Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 as a main

4 heads Treviso radicchio

6 large portobello mushrooms, cleaned

¼ cup red wine vinegar

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

4 salt-packed anchovy fillets, rinsed, drained and finely chopped

About ½ cup coarsely chopped fresh marjoram leaves

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup quick-cooking polenta

8 ounces stracchino cheese or soft goat cheese, cut into ½-inch dice

Cut each head of the radicchio in half lengthwise and place them, cut side up, in an 11- by 16-inch baking dish. Remove the portobello stems and cut them in half lengthwise. Cut the caps in half, and place the caps and stems in the same baking dish.

In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar, garlic, anchovies, marjoram and olive oil. Pour this over radicchio and portobellos, and let it stand for 1 hour.

In a 3-quart saucepan, bring 5 cups of water to a boil. Add the salt and the sugar. Then drizzle in the polenta in a thin stream, whisking constantly until all the polenta has been incorporated and the mixture is beginning to thicken. Remove the pan from the heat, switch to a wooden spoon, and continue to stir until the polenta is as thick as paste. Stir in the stracchino pieces. Cover the pan tightly with plastic wrap and set it in a warm place.

Preheat the broiler.

Place the portobellos and radicchio on a cookie sheet, reserving the marinade that drips off, and broil until just lightly charred on one side, about 4 to 5 minutes. Turn them over and broil for 3 to 4 minutes on the other side. Remove and set aside until they are cool enough to handle.

Cut the mushrooms into ¼-inch-thick strips and cut the radicchio in half lengthwise. In a large bowl, combine the mushrooms, the radicchio and the reserved marinade. Toss the mixture gently but thoroughly. Spoon the polenta onto the center of a large wooden board, arrange the mushroom-radicchio mixture in the center, like a turban, and serve.

Mario Batali’s latest book is “Molto Batali,” published by Ecco.

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