Polenta concia with mushrooms is vegetarian Alpine comfort food at its most exquisite. Thick cornmeal polenta is baked with butter and cheese to make polenta concia. A side of game meat is a traditional food to pair with polenta, but in this recipe we are making a creamy chanterelle sauce that brings this polenta dish to an even further level.
What is polenta concia?
Polenta, a thick cornmeal served with various sides, is a very popular food in northern Italy. It has served as main staple in the Alpine regions ever since the introduction of maize in the 15th century. Traditionally eaten mostly by the poor, polenta is still widely consumed nowadays. There are many ways to prepare polenta, and polenta concia is every cheese lover’s favourite.
Polenta concia is traditionally from the Alpine areas of north-western Italy – where I come from! The term concia derives from a northern Italian dialect and means “flavoured, seasoned”. This, because polenta concia is basically polenta served with melted cheese and butter.
What kind of cheese do I need to use?
Traditional polenta concia features some sort of Alpine cheese. Being a regional recipe, it obviously calls for local ingredients in its original form. The type of cheese used in polenta concia depends on the region where it’s made:
- in the Aosta Valley it is Fontina
- in Piedmont it will be Toma
- in Lombardy it often features Gorgonzola.
Most often, polenta concia features a combination of two cheeses. While they usually both come from the same region, it is also possible to mix. I’m from Piedmont, and I swear by the toma and gorgonzola combination. Those who do not prefer the blue cheese, might choose to add parmigiano reggiano. Once I was offered a polenta concia made with mozzarella, which is an unusual choice but tasted delicious, too.
As a general rule, you want to be combining one milder cheese and a sharper one, to give a nice and deep cheese flavour. Another must is to have at least one cheese that gets stringy when melted. You really want “the mozzarella effect” in your polenta concia. So if you cannot find any traditional northern Italian cheese, a good workaround can be to combine mozzarella and cheddar, or cheddar and some blue cheese. In the cheesy polenta we’re making here I have chosen taleggio and gorgonzola.
How to make polenta concia
The first thing you have to make is the polenta. The best advice here is to cook it according to package instructions. Traditional polenta may take up to 40 minutes to cook, as the cornmeal absorbs the water very slowly. You can also find “instant” polenta, cornmeal that absorbs the water much more quickly and only require about 5 minutes of simmering to thicken and be ready. That’s what I’m using.
- Cook the polenta according to package instructions.
- Once the polenta is done, thin it with some warm milk. Polenta concia is runnier than regular polenta as it makes it easier to fold in the cheeses. You could add more water, but I like to thin my polenta with whole milk.
- Melt the butter and cube the cheeses. Have them at room temperature so they will melt more quickly and evenly.
- Grease the bottom of an oven-safe dish (I have used a small cast iron skillet that is perfect for two). Pour half of the polenta into the dish.
- Add about 3/4 of the cheeses to the polenta and give a quick stir.
- Add the remaining polenta covering the previous layer.
- Top the polenta with remaining cheese bits. Last, pour the melted butter over the polenta. As an alternative to melting the butter, you may be inserting cold butter cubes directly into the polenta, to “inject” the butter into the filling. I have chosen two fairly fat cheeses so I prefer to have the melted butter only on the top. It will all combine once you cut through it, anyway.
- Bake at 200°C (390°F) for 10 minutes, or until the cheese on top has nicely melted. It doesn’t need to brown and get crispy, so I would not recommend to broil it or keep it too long.
Polenta concia is a very filling dish and a supplier of a big share of calories for the day. It is meant to be this rich. Polenta is peasant food, and the addition of mountain cheese and butter was the remedy to create a rich and filling dish that would warm you up on a cold winter day on the Alps. Being a very filling dish, you can choose to have it on its own. But if you want to make things a bit more fun, you could be adding a small side. My favourite is a creamy mushroom sauce, and the perfect mushroom would be the chanterelle.
The chanterelle sauce
Chanterelles are a very common variety of wild mushrooms. They are pretty easy to spot and harvest with their bright orange colour and peculiar shape. I have been eating tons of chanterelles since I moved to Sweden, as the Scandinavian forests abound with these delicious mushrooms. On the contrary, in Italy they were a bit more of an exclusive thing. The few times I had chanterelles growing up was when my Italian grandma would make a mushroom sauce to serve with polenta. I brought this combination to Sweden with me.
To make a chanterelle sauce for polenta, you will need the following ingredients:
- Balsamico vinegar
While I don’t have my grandma’s exact recipe, I remember that her sauce always had an unexpected tang for a cream-based sauce. Hence the addition of balsamico vinegar, to infuse the sauce with a deep flavour and a slight tang.
If using freshly foraged chanterelles, remove dirt by gently rinsing them. Here’s a quick overview of how to make the chanterelle sauce. As usual, detailed quantities are listed in the recipe card at the end of this post.
- Set a skillet on medium heat and melt the butter. Dice the onion and add it to the pan. Add the dried thyme and sauté until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes.
- Add the chanterelles and increase the heat to high. The mushrooms will release quite some water, keep cooking them on high heat until all of the water has been evaporated.
- When the water is gone, stir in the balsamico and the salt and remove from the heat.
The last thing to do is to add the cream. Pour it into the skillet and stir it in the warm mushrooms keeping the pan off the heat. If making ahead, skip the addition of the cream until the very last moment. Warm up the mushroom base (pictured above) and only add the cream when the mushrooms are hot, just before taking the chanterelle sauce to the table.
This chanterelle sauce works great as a pasta sauce, too, but to me this is the perfect side to polenta. If you’re in for a lighter version of this dish, you can just make a regular serving of polenta and pair it with this lovely mushroom sauce. But if you really want to take a trip to cheese heaven, polenta concia is what you want. Nothing beats the cheesy polenta flavour and all that lovely butter coming at every spoonful. It really feels like a sensory trip to an Alpine village on an autumn evening.
Other great polenta sides
If you enjoyed this polenta concia with chanterelles, you could try it next time with another side. Here are some suggestions:
- Bolognese meat sauce – you can never go wrong with a classic hearty meat sauce. Perfect for pasta and lasagna, but did you know you can have it with polenta, too?
- Creamy chicken skillet stew – a quick and easy skillet stew with chicken and mushrooms, perfect to serve with polenta.
- Reindeer stew – for a more classic option, a game meat stew is always a good choice. Here in Sweden reindeer meat ranks among my favourite wild meat options.
- Chicken livers with onion – you don’t necessarily need a stew or soupy sauce to go with polenta. These chicken livers with onions can be a great side, too!
Did you ever have polenta concia? What kind of cheese did you have in it? Let me know in the comments!
Polenta concia with chanterelle sauce
- Cutting board and knife
- Hand whisk
- Oven-safe dish
For the chanterelle sauce
- 500 g chanterelles
- 50 g butter
- 1/2 yellow onion
- 1/3 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tbsp balsamico vinegar
- 100 ml cream
For the polenta concia
- 100 g polenta
- 400 ml water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 100 ml milk
- 70 g butter
- 70 g gorgonzola
- 70 g taleggio
- If using freshly foraged chanterelles, remove dirt by gently rinsing them.
- Set a skillet on medium heat and melt the butter. Dice the onion and add it to the butter. Add the dried thyme and sauté until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes.
- Add the chanterelles and increase the heat. The mushrooms will release quite some water, cook them on high heat until all the water has been evaporated and the chanterelles are wilted.
- When the water has evaporated, stir in the balsamico and the salt and remove from the heat.
- Add the cream and stir in.
- As the mushrooms are cooking, set a pot of water on high heat, add salt and olive oil and bring to a boil.
- When the water boils, reduce the heat to medium-high and pour in the polenta in a slow stream, mixing with a hand whisk as you pour the cornmeal.
- Cook the polenta according to package instructions. Instant polenta should thicken after about 6 minutes of cooking.
- Remove the polenta from the heat. Lightly warm the milk and stir it into the polenta.
- Add half of the polenta to an oven-safe dish. Dice the cheeses and add place 3/4 of them over the polenta. Cover with the remaining polenta and place last bits of cheese on top.
- Melt the butter and pour the butter on top of the polenta.
- Bake for 10 minutes at 200°C (390°F).
- Serve the polenta concia with chanterelle sauce on the side, preferably in a bowl.