Mushroom and Caramelized Onion Polenta with Goat Cheese

Andy and I are an independent couple. We have many common friends and interests, but we have just as many separate. We enjoy many evenings together, but we probably spend more nights apart than the average couple. Similarly we vacation together, but we also take the occasional separate trip with our own friends. It doesn’t work for everyone, but we find this way of life keeps us growing as individuals and our marriage happy and healthy.

Recently Andy planned a two-week business trip to Hong Kong and Manila followed by a two-week ski trip in Japan with his friends. We both agreed that if you’re flying half way around the world, you should probably see as much as you can. He’d be gone a month, but we had done long distance for months when we were dating and engaged. Still it’s been many years since we were apart for more than two weeks. In those thirty days I missed him deeply and in new ways I had never missed him before. (Cooking for him, for example, which is so much a part of how I show my love nowadays).

That said, I’ve always been a look-on-the-bright-side sort of person, so while Andy was away, I took the opportunity to spend quality time with my friends. One of my first outings was with Steph, friend and a fellow food-lover whose birthday we were celebrating. We headed to a new restaurant in town called L’Apicio.

One of the many reasons I adore Steph is that whether cooking together, separately, or eating out, we’re nearly always on the same page. We both check out restaurant menus before we arrive, for example, and even though by the time we’ve been seated we’ve practically memorized the restaurant’s offerings, it’s still okay to spend the better part of thirty minutes reading and re-reading the menu, weighing our options, discussing combinations of dishes, and grilling the waiter about what’s best.

This little menu ritual behind us, we ordered a mix of five small plates and sides. The plates kept landing on the table: duck risotto with chorizo and pecorino; charred octopus with fregola, pepperoni, and lemon; broccoli rabe with garlic, chilies, and sausage pesto; and the sunchokes with bacon and pecorino. As much as we enjoyed them all, the one we kept going back to was the first, a roasted mushroom polenta with chilis and ricotta salata.

This dish had a je ne sais quoi about it, particularly the mushrooms’ texture, the mouth feel of which was somewhere in between a rehydrated dried and sautéed. And, oh, the flavor! The dish itself isn’t easily replicable at home, but that’s OK. I go to restaurants for inspiration.

Andy’s back, and so I’m cooking for love again. Here’s a polenta dish that L’Apicio inspired.

Mushroom and Caramelized Onion Polenta with Goat Cheese
Serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 pound mushrooms, sliced (I used a mix:10 ounces baby bellas and 6 ounces shitakes)
3/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, divided
Salt and ground black pepper
1 large sweet onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup sweet vermouth
1/2 cup chicken broth or water
1 cup instant polenta
4 ounces (scant 1 cup) crumbled goat cheese, divided

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and 1/2 teaspoon thyme; sauté until liquid evaporates and mushrooms start to turn golden brown, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper towards the end of cooking, 5 to 6 minutes. Turn into a bowl and set aside. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon of oil, add onions and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of thyme; sauté until impressively golden brown, about 10 minutes. Return mushrooms to the skillet, along with the parsley, and add vermouth and broth (or water); simmer until liquid has reduced by about half, a minute or so.

Meanwhile bring 4 cups of water and 1/2 teaspoon of salt to boil in a large saucepan. Whisk in polenta and return to a simmer; continue to cook, whisking steadily until sputtery thick, just a couple of minutes. Whisk in a scant 3/4 cup of the goat cheese.

Divide the polenta among 4 shallow bowls, top with a portion of the mushroom- onion mix and sprinkle with a portion of the remaining crumbled goat cheese. Serve.