Cheesy Polenta with Fall Vegetables

Polenta is a food that I did not discover until recently when my partner, Mia, made it for me. We ate it in a great dish where it was cooked with a lot of parmesan and topped with wonderful roasted mushrooms. However, every time we made polenta we struggled a bit. The polenta spattered everywhere or seemed to be thickening far too quickly. So, I decided it was time I learned to properly cook polenta. 

In this recipe, I wanted to make polenta with the warm flavours of fall that we would typically associate more with corn on the cob. Adding in the seasonal vegetables of leeks and brussel sprouts while also combining it with the comforting flavour of cloves. My goal here was to give the polenta a rich, creamy umami flavour without necessarily relying on butter and parmesan. So, in this recipe we make a cashew cream with the polenta and stir it in. Drawing inspiration from Mexican street corn, we mix cotija cheese into the polenta and it creates an ooey-gooey polenta that I can only describe as essentially polenta Mac n cheese. 

Before diving into it, a few quick notes on the recipe. One key to polenta that I learned from a good friend’s Italian Nona is that it is best to add the cornmeal to the water right before it reaches boiling point and turn down the heat right away. This way, the polenta will not splatter and cause a mess. Additionally, if you cannot find cotija at your grocery another alternative is using feta. If you substitute feta, instead of mixing it into the polenta directly, sprinkle it over the top when serving. I hope this dish brings you a warm, comforting meal on a fall night this year!

Active time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 4-5 cups water
  • 1 cup polenta (finely ground cornmeal)
  • 1/4 cup raw cashews
  • 2 leeks
  • 1/2 -2/3 lbs brussel sprouts
  • 1 lbs crimini mushrooms
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1/8 tsp cloves
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 200g cotija cheese
  • Salt & freshly cracked black pepper

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F. In a medium saucepan, heat 4 cups of water on high heat. Right before it reaches a boil (when there are small bubbles being to form at the bottom of the water) slowly add in the polenta while whisking continuously. Whisk until it begins to thicken and then cover and simmer for 25-30 minutes, stirring about every 5 minutes. Throughout cooking, if your polenta gets too thick and starts to sputter, add in a quarter cup of water at a time
  2. Put the raw cashews in a heat-safe glass container and pour a quarter cup of boiling or near boiling water over them and set aside, we are softening them for the cashew cream. 
  3. Now we will prepare the vegetables to be roasted. Cut the tough green ends of the leeks off and remove the roots. Cut lengthwise and then cut into semi-circles, about a quarter inch thick. Toss in a colander and rinse to remove any access dirt and set aside to dry. Now clean the mushrooms by wiping them down with a moist paper towel and dice them into quarters. Lastly, remove the stems from the brussels sprout and quarter or half them, depending on their size. 
  4. Add all the vegetables to a lined baking sheet, toss them with the olive oil, ¾  tsp salt and lots of freshly cracked black pepper. Then separate them to two baking sheets so that they are not too crowded and bake for 18-20 minutes until vegetables are cooked through. 
  5. Heat a small pan on medium heat. Add in the pumpkin seeds and toast for 5-7 minutes stirring frequently until beginning to brown; set aside. 
  6. Once the polenta is done it should be thick and shouldn’t have a raw corn taste.  Scoop a cup of it into a blender and add in the cashews & their soaking water, the cloves, garlic, nutritional yeast and 1 tsp of salt. Blend on high for a few minutes until the cashews are completely pulverized. Integrate it back into the polenta. 
  7. Break up your cotija cheese by placing it in a plastic ziploc back and breaking it up with your hands until it is in small pieces. Dump it into the polenta and mix it in. Your polenta should become cheesy and stringy. 
  8. To plate the dish begin with a layer of polenta and top with the roasted vegetables and finish off with a sprinkle of toasted pumpkin seeds. Enjoy!

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