The first time I made it, I had real reservations about this recipe from Maria Elia’s ‘The Modern Vegetarian’. I had mixed feelings about polenta, creamed corn didn’t sound like something any of us would like, and what the hell would I pair it with?
It’s a great book though, full of interesting textures and flavours – vegetarian (and vegan) cooking is definitely no longer the preserve of the bland and boring – and having marvelled at the way she combines the unexpected I bit back my fears and decided to challenge my preconceptions. I have modified it slightly from the original, but only slightly, and I hope you do the same – written recipes are only a starting point.
The results were simply sensational. For a little effort and forethought, this is a dish for which you would happily pay a lot of money in a very good restaurant. I’m not blowing my own trumpet; this is within the reach of any competent cook that can read a recipe and follow instructions.
RECIPE serves 4
For the polenta:
375ml cold water
125ml full-fat milk
1 bay leaf
1 tsp sea salt
1 corn cob, husk stripped away
125g corn meal
40g unsalted butter, cut into thin slices
75g Parmesan, very finely grated
For the cream of corn:
1 corn cob
25g unsalted butter
1 large banana shallot, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/4 of a nutmeg, very finely grated
250ml creme fraiche
250g shiitake or chestnut mushrooms, sliced
25g unsalted butter
1 tsp dried thyme
tenderstem or purple sprouting broccoli
Put the water and milk in a large saucepan, add the salt and the bay leaf, then bring to the boil. Add the corn cob and cook until tender, this will take around 20 minutes.
Remove the corn cob and allow it to cool until you can handle it. Bring the liquid back to a rolling boil and remove the bay leaf. It has done its job and if you leave it in it will get broken up as you whisk, leaving you with unappealing ‘bits’ in your finished polenta.
Measure the corn meal into a bowl big enough to get your hand into, and when the liquid is boiling take a small handful and let it slowly sift through the fingers of one hand into the liquid while you whisk vigorously with the other hand. Keep doing this until all of the corn meal has been incorporated and there are no lumps. Reduce the heat to a low simmer, continuing to whisk it constantly.
You will see the mixture transform from a loose slurry to a thickening paste over the space of five minutes. Make sure the polenta has properly thickened before you stop whisking, though it will still be a loose mixture at this stage.
Now put your pan on a heat-diffuser, over the lowest heat that you can. Pop a lid on the pan (this is sacrilege to many Italians, but it works) and let it cook very, very gently for around 30 minutes. Every five minutes, go back to the mixture and give it a good whisk. When it comes to the point that it is too thick to whisk, take a wooden spoon to it.
The polenta is done when the texture becomes creamy and amalgamated. When you taste it there should be no hint at all of graininess from the corn meal.
Meanwhile, stand the cooked cob upright and cut away the kernels from the cob by slicing down the sides behind the kernels with a sharp knife. Be careful! Set the kernels aside for now.
When the polenta is cooked, turn off the heat and dot the butter around the top of the polenta, then stir it in until it has almost all melted, then add the finely-grated Parmesan. Stir again, then add the corn kernels, stir yet again, check the seasoning and pour into a baking tray (approx. 10cm x 7cm) that has been lined with plastic film. Smooth the surface and leave it to stand and firm up for at least 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the cream of corn: cut the kernels from the other, uncooked corn cob in the same way as above – still being careful with that knife. Melt the butter in a pan over a medium heat and when it is foaming add the shallots and cook for 5 to 10 minutes until soft, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic, nutmeg and corn, season with salt and pepper and cook for 1 minute. Add the milk, reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the corn is tender – this is likely to take between 20 and 30 minutes.
When the kernels are tender, keep the heat on low and stir in the creme fraiche, until it is fully amalgamated. Bring back up to just below boiling point, then turn the heat off and allow the mixture to cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Puree the mixture in a small blender or food processor; I like a bit of texture in mine, but you can process it until it is completely smooth if you wish. Check the seasoning and set aside until needed.
I have found that the cream of corn gets better if it is made a few hours in advance, as the flavours relax into each other. Just warm it through to serve, you can proceed straight on though…
Heat the oven to 220C/ 200C fan/ Gas 7. Do this when you add the kernels to the milk for the cream of corn, if you want everything to be ready at more or less the same time.
Turn the cooled polenta out onto a chopping board and cut it into 4 equal-sized pieces. Take care, the polenta is firm but not solid so it will need to be supported throughout.
Place the polenta onto a lightly oiled baking tray, drizzle with a little olive oil on the exposed surfaces, and place in the top third of the oven for 15-20 minutes until hot through, with a crisp, golden crust.
Meanwhile, prepare the accompaniments: for the broccoli, steam it for 4 or 5 minutes. For the mushrooms: heat a large frying pan until very hot. Add the butter, and when it is foaming add the mushrooms with a little salt and the thyme. Saute until the mushrooms have given up their liquid, then squeeze a little lemon juice into the pan. Keep cooking to evaporate all the liquid, stirring frequently. When the mushrooms take on a golden hue they are ready.
To serve: place a piece of polenta onto a warmed plate, with some cream of corn on top. Scatter mushrooms over it, then arrange some broccoli on top. I serve this with a big bowl of rocket leaves, dressed with a little lemon juice, alongside a courgette and chilli salad. The salad was a shot in the dark, but the sharpness it brings contrasts really well with the rich butteriness of the dish.