Monday, January 17

A Kitchen Catastrophe!

Perhaps I shouldn't, but I like to think of myself as a good cook. I love to try new recipes, which means that there are few ingredients I haven't used or techniques I haven't tried. So generally, whether we love it or not, the result is a solid meal. But not tonight...

I was excited to try a recipe for "Polenta with Wild Mushroom Saute" from a cookbook my parents gave me for Christmas. The New Best Recipe Cookbook is put out by America's Test Kitchen, which doesn't publish their recipes online, otherwise I would link to it. I wanted to make something tasty since Michael and I had the day off, but I wanted it to be easy since I'm in the middle of making a wedding cake. More on that later!

This was my first experience with polenta. For those of you who don't watch the Food Network (they make it all the time), polenta is essentially grits made from yellow cornmeal. That simple. I should mention I've also never made grits. I've made a five-layer Bavarian torte, but not grits...

I decided to cook the polenta while I was prepping the ingredients for the mushroom saute. Without thinking, I dumped all of the cornmeal into boiling water at once, only to later read that I was supposed to pour it in a slow stream while stirring vigorously. Whoops! The result was boiling water with a ton of sticky yellow clumps that, try as I might, I just could not break up. As the polenta continued to cook, it got thicker and clumpier, and ended up looking like this. Yuck!

My polenta crisis took my attention away from everything else, so when the sticky stuff was done, I still had to make my mushroom saute. The recipe calls for a total of two pounds of mushrooms. That's a lot of mushrooms! When I was planning my prep time I forgot to factor in wiping the dirt off each mushroom individually.
In case you're wondering, it's not recommended to wash mushrooms because they absorb water. Also, the dirt on them has a tendency to form a sludge that won't rinse off without wiping.

As I prepped my mushrooms I stewed over what I'd done wrong with the polenta. Deciding that I wouldn't be mastered by such a simple dish, and that cornmeal is incredibly inexpensive, I decided to make another batch. It was even more disastrous than the first! I managed to move it to an eye of the stove that wasn't actually on, and after 10 minutes of subjecting it to a firm beating, I discovered it was cold.

At this point, I abandoned my second batch of polenta, which was stone cold and just as lumpy as the first, and made the wine sauce to drizzle over the sauteed mushrooms. It was horrid! It should be known that neither of us likes the taste of wine, but I've had enough good wine sauces at restaurants to have high expectations. This was sour and purple and tasted like feet! I shuddered and immediately poured it down the sink. Sorry, I was too miffed to take a picture!

Here's a look at the finished product, which I served with some steamed sugar snap peas. Thank goodness for frozen veggies, which really are quick and easy! The verdict: the mushroom saute had good flavor and texture, but was a little salty. Even for someone who really loves mushrooms in the right context, it was a little too much fungus. The flavor of the polenta was nice thanks to plenty of butter and salt, but the gummy balls of uncooked cornmeal were not appetizing at all.

Are there any seasoned polenta-makers out there? 
What the heck did I do wrong??  

I'm sure some of you have had a similar kitchen catastrophe, so dish!  


  1. Sorry your Polenta with mushrooms did not turn out as expected; however, the picture looks great and the red plate makes the colors pop! LOL! I love the American Test Kitchens Magazines and cookbooks. I get the magazines from Sam's, and I love them because it's not just recipes. I can get recipes online. However, this magazine discusses technique which I love. I'm sure you'll try this recipe again with success. I've only made Polenta in Food Lab in school- it was my recipe, and I remember it coming out with the thickness and consistency of bread almost. Good Luck!

  2. Hi there, Angelyn. Found this through facebook, so I hope you don't mind the comment :)

    I've found with polenta, it helps to stir it in slowly, just when the water begins to boil, rather than at a rolling boil. Use medium heat and make sure the dry cornmeal has no lumps.

    Also, polenta is supposed to firm up a lot when it's been sitting. A really yummy way to enjoy the cooled polenta is to cut up and fry/saute it in a little olive oil. Top with tomato sauce and some parmesan. It's delicious!

  3. oh and PS: as for kitchen catastrophes, I have them all the time, haha (I like to think it's the mark of a truly experimental chef!) but most recently, I tried to make pie crust from scratch and I subbed half and half for milk and my crust came out burned as all get out!

  4. Call me the eternal optimist but...
    Kitchen catastrophes, like any catastrophe really, are incredibly annoying, frustrating, and what seem to be un-avoidable. However, think of what you have learned instead and it won't be quite a let-down. You learned a couple tricks, recipes for which you should look for alternates, and tastes you aren't a fan of. That information will prove useful later and will allow you to avoid another catastrophe.

    Also, although I wouldn't call myself an expert I have made quite a few wedding and other ceramony cakes before (luckily none of which have ended in catastrophe) and would be happy to offer any advise you may be seeking for that experiment.

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