Creamy, satisfying polenta is an Italian classic comfort food. It starts with whole-grain corn, which is ground into meal and then simmered low and slow in a savory broth. It creates the perfect warm bed for rich, chunky Ragout. Traditionally, the polenta is made using dairy milk and often finished with grated Parmesan cheese. What starts out as a healthy source of gluten-free fiber and plant-based protein (corn) can end up loaded with unnecessary fat, cholesterol, and salt from dairy. Ragout is a rich, savory stew, traditionally made using the wild meats hunted in Italy – classic recipes will feature wild boar, pork shank, and even beef short ribs. While these meats create deep flavor, the same richness can be achieved using mushrooms, which pack hearty vegan texture and satisfying umami flavor. Swapping out the meat for mushrooms drastically cuts the calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol, while amping up the fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Here are my 5 Chef’s Tips for the Making the Ultimate Plant-Based Polenta and Ragout
Chef’s Plant-Based Tip #1:
Swap Mushrooms for Meat in the Ragout
Traditional Ragout is a thick, hearty stew-like sauce where big chunks of meat and vegetables are simmered for a long time in a rich tomato sauce. Italians would use whatever meat or game had been recently hunted or slaughtered. Ragout was a handy recipe to use up some of the gamier, tougher bits of meat until they were meltingly tender. I’ve seen recipes that celebrate wild boar, farm-raised pork belly, grass-fed bison short ribs, and even oxtail. Because these cuts of meat contain more connective tissue, they required long, slow cooking times to achieve that tender texture. These cuts also are known for their intermuscular fat. When cooked at a low temperature, this fat melts into the sauce for a rich, intense flavor. It also adds plenty of fat (and calories) to the final dish. While traditional ragout is undoubtedly delicious (hard to go wrong with all of that fat, salt, and meat), it is possible to achieve that rich, intense flavor without the extra fat.
What’s the secret? Mushrooms!
Mushrooms have glutamines, which hit your taste buds on that same deep, savory, level as red meat. Sometimes referred to as “umami”, this flavor can also be found in other plant-based foods like miso paste, nutritional yeast, and soy sauce. For this recipe, though, we need to also replicate the hearty, chunky texture of meat. Big Portobello mushroom caps are left in big chunks. You can also use halved cremini mushrooms or any wild mushrooms you might find at the market. This is a great recipe to try out some of the heirloom varieties like Hen of the Woods or Lion’s Mane mushrooms.
Problem: Chef Katie, I don’t like mushrooms!
Solution: Have no worries! Many of my personal chef clients have preferences to avoid mushrooms. As a mushroom-aholic, I’m okay with this as it leaves me more mushrooms for the rest of us JAs a chef, though, it means getting creative. To achieve the meaty, chunky texture, you can swap out the mushroom chunks for chunks of other vegetables: carrots, parsnips, pearl onions, giant lima beans, and even whole fingerling potatoes all work. To achieve that “umami” effect, you’ll want to add 1 tablespoon of soy sauce or 1-2 tablespoons of nutritional to your Ragout toward the end of cooking.
Chef’s Plant-Based Tip #2:
Use Traditional Ragout Cooking Technique,
but cut the Oil and Extra Fat
The steps to building a tomato stew are classic and shouldn’t change much. Each step adds layers of flavor essential for creating the ultimate, delicious ragout. The only adaptation for a healthier sauce is to ditch the cooking fat. You don’t need the olive oil or butter traditionally used. Most of us are already getting plenty of empty fat calories in our diets, and you can still get incredible flavor without it. Key Steps to Cooking a Rich Tomato Ragout:
1) Brown the Aromatics –-
For your Ragout, these are the chunks of mushrooms, onions, and carrot in the sauce. Preheat a large, wide pan over very high heat, for at least 3-5 minutes. It’s best to preheat the pan while you prepare the vegetables. In the time it takes to clean, peel, and chop the vegetables, your pan will be sizzling and ready to go.
Problem: Chef Katie, my vegetables aren’t browning!
Solution: Is your pan wide enough to spread them out and allow plenty of space between the vegetables? If you overcrowd the pan, the vegetables will only sweat and not turn golden brown. This still creates a tasty sauce, but you won’t have quite as much golden color and rich flavor without browning the vegetables. Also, be sure NOT to salt the vegetables as this draws out moisture, again encouraging them to steam rather than brown.
2) Caramelize or “Singe” the Tomato Paste --
Once your vegetables are golden brown, move them to the edges of the pan, clearing the hot spot in the center of the pan. Add the tomato paste and spread along the bottom of the pan, allowing the paste to caramelize. After just 1-2 minutes, the paste will start to turn a dark-brick color and the natural sugars will start to release, hence the “caramelize” name for this. Just remember: Caramel color + caramel sweetness = delicious, natural caramelized flavor
Problem: Chef Katie, I just stirred all of my tomato paste in with my veggies and forgot to Caramelize! Aaah!
Solution: For this time, you can get some sweetness by adding a handful of chopped dates or even a diced apple to the sauce. You won’t get quite the same authentic Italian flavor and your sauce won’t be that dark red color, but you’ll have a delicious layer of sweetness. And, for next time, write the note to CARAMELIZE on your wooden spoon
3) Deglaze with Acid –
After the tomato paste has caramelized, you’ll notice it starts to stick to the bottom of the pan. Add a couple tablespoons of red wine or balsamic vinegar to the hot pan. Immediately, the sauce will bubbly and steam. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up the bits on the bottom of the pan.
Problem: Chef Katie, I don’t drink red wine and I don’t have any balsamic vinegar
Solution: Do you have white wine? Or red wine vinegar? Or maybe champagne vinegar? This acidic bite adds a nice tang to the finished sauce. It’s worth investing in a few mini-bottles of red wine or a decent balsamic, even if you only use them for these types of sauce. Don’t waste your money or pantry space on “cooking wines” – these are often terribly salty and not tasty. If you have an open bottle of wine, you can even freeze it into an ice cube tray just for recipes like this.
4) Simmer Low and Slow –
After deglazing, add enough water to come up about an inch around the pan. Once the sauce is up to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer. At this point, you can add your garlic and a bay leaf. Unlike a meat-based sauce, which would need to simmer for hours until the meat falls of the bone, this vegetarian sauce will be ready just after 10 minutes. You can simmer for up to two hours (or all day in a slow cooker), but the flavor won’t change much. This is the perfect time to get working on your Polenta.
Chef’s Plant-Based Tip #3:
Use Roasted Butternut Squash for Dairy-Free Polenta
For a creamy polenta that celebrates the flavors of fall, I love adding chunks of roasted butternut squash. The subtle sweetness of the squash balances the savory richness of the polenta broth and the Ragout that will be served on top. “Butternut” squash, as the name refers, has a creamy “buttery” texture with a rich “nutty” flavor. This works perfectly to replace the dairy butter and nutty cheese used in traditional polenta. You can also substitute with other roasted fall squash like acorn, celebration, buttercup, and even pumpkin.
Problem: Chef Katie, I don’t have time to roast a butternut squash!
Solution: No worries! You can usually find frozen butternut squash cubes, already cooked, in the freezer section near the broccoli and frozen peas. Or, simply substitute with canned pumpkin puree. You won’t have quite the same texture and flavor, but it works when you need to get dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes.
Chef’s Plant-Based Tip #4:
Create a Savory Almond Milk Broth for a Creamy Polenta
Simply swap out dairy milk and cream for almond milk to create a dairy-free, plant-based polenta. Simmer your almond milk with bay leaf, garlic, thyme, vegetable stock, or just a little bit of salt and pepper. This is such an easy swap-out that easily cuts the calories and adds healthy plant-based fiber and nutrition.
Chef’s Plant-Based Tip #5:
Use Traditional “Hot Cereal” Cooking Technique for the Polenta
Whether you’re making Polenta, Southern Grits, or Cream of Wheat breakfast bowl, you can follow a few simple steps to ensure delicious flavor and great texture:
1) Bring liquid to a rolling boil
2) Season liquid to your preference (with garlic powder, chili powder, black pepper, or salt)
3) Slowly stream in grains while continuously whisking
4) Keep whisking another 1-2 minutes, until the polenta (or cereal) is simmering
5) Reduce the heat to low and let simmer until done.
6) Optional Finish: Add in the roasted butternut squash, canned pumpkin, or whatever other “mix-in” you like in the last minute of cooking
Problem: Chef Katie, my polenta got stuck to the sides of the pan.
Solution: Time to grab your wooden spoon! Scrape the sides of the pan vigorously with a wooden spoon. A plastic spatula just won’t do the job.
Problem: Chef Katie, my polenta came out clumpy.
Solution: Time to grab your whisk! Add a little more water and whisk vigorously until the polenta is smooth.
Now you’ve got my 5 Chef’s Tips for Making the Ultimate Polenta and Vegan Mushroom Ragout. You’re ready to practice making this satisfying, delicious recipe. You’ll create incredible, rich flavors with less calories, less fat, and more nutrition than traditional recipes. To get the full recipe, with nutrition information and more, Click Below:
About the Author:
Chef Katie Simmons
Katie is a Personal Chef based in Chicago. She specializes in creating delicious, healthy recipes for those with special dietary concerns like gluten-free, oil-free, plant-based, and low-residue. Outside of the kitchen, she is a Fitness Instructor for Equinox, with over 13 years experience in the fitness industry, and a blogger for Kuli Kuli Foods. For fun, she loves to travel. Some of her favorite trips include 4 days on the Incan Trail in Peru, 10 days of hiking in the Patagonia of Argentina and Chile, and exploring the pretzels and vineyards of Germany.