By Angela Denstad Stigeler
Whether you’re trekking over the river and through the woods or staying close to home this Thanksgiving, everyone will appreciate this simple and surprising autumn appetizer. Served warm, it encompasses the best of field and forest in the form of ground corn and fresh mushrooms.
From the field comes the unlikely base of polenta, otherwise known as corn grits. The key is to cook this coarse cornmeal slowly until it gets very thick. Once turned out onto a buttered baking sheet, it will cook again in the oven and cut easily into squares. A tasty side dish all on its own, this hearty polenta base becomes irresistible with the addition of cheese and savory wild mushrooms. Fresh thyme lends just the right herbal note to this woodsy garnish. So if you’re foraging for a tasty seasonal starter or an interesting side dish, take a little inspiration from nature and enjoy a golden field of polenta topped in fall’s forest bounty.
Polenta Squares with Fontina and Mushrooms
6 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups polenta, aka corn grits
4 tablespoons butter
6 ounces grated fontina, white cheddar, or other flavorful melting cheese
1 shallot, minced
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
coarse salt and pepper, to taste
Pour the water and salt into a large, deep sauce pan and bring to a boil. Gradually stir in the polenta. Reduce heat and simmer gently, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, until the mixture is very thick, 20 to 30 minutes. Stir in 3 tablespoons of the butter and adjust seasoning to taste.
Grease a large rimmed baking sheet with the remaining tablespoon of butter and pour the polenta out onto the tray, spreading into an even layer. Set aside to cool.
Just before serving, preheat the oven to 450 degrees and combine the shallot, mushrooms, thyme, olive oil, coarse salt and pepper in a small bowl. Top the polenta with the grated cheese, then the mushroom mixture. Bake until the cheese is melted and the mushrooms are browned. Cut into squares and serve warm.