Vegan Creamy Polenta with Mushroom Ragu
This Creamy Polenta and Mushroom Ragu recipe is one for the regular / easy / healthy dinner rotation! You might not think vegan polenta can be creamy and cheesy, but this recipe is here to prove you wrong! Topped with a savory, but healthy mushroom-kale tomato sauce, this creamy polenta recipe will keep you warm all winter long!
Cheesy, Creamy Polenta. And It’s Vegan!
A couple of years ago, I went into a restaurant and ordered polenta. It was totally “Meh.” so I left thinking that polenta wasn’t something I needed in my life. Then, several weeks ago, I was doing some recipe research and came across a picture of creamy polenta. It looked dreamy and I thought, “maybe this polenta thing is worth revisiting.”
I’m really, really glad that I did. As I sit here writing this, I’m eating the leftovers from my recipe test and I’m literally scraping the bottom of the bowl. The polenta is warm and rich. And, with the help of some of my dairy-free, but milk-like friends, it tastes both creamy and cheesy.
What Is Polenta?
Well, it’s made from cornmeal, but it’s not grits, which are also made from cornmeal. I didn’t know that. In fairness though, I didn’t grow up eating either of them, so both polenta and grits are a later-in-life food for me. As such, when I started experimenting with them in the kitchen, I wanted to learn a little bit more about them.
Grits, on the one hand, are made from grinding up hominy into a cornmeal. If you remember my Vegan Pozole Soup blog post, you might remember that hominy is particular kind of corn (dent corn) that is treated with an alkali solution. (1) In a process called nixtamalization, the chemical composition of the corn is transformed, rendering the kernel soft and separating the hull from the kernels. You can experience this in the Pozole soup, where the hominy presents as large, chewy bites. Grind up hominy coarsely and you have the basis for grits. Grind it up finely, and you have masa. (2) Masa, if you recall, can be made into a dough by adding water, as masa absorbs it. Perfect for making pupusas or fresh corn tortillas. Grits, likewise absorb their cooking liquid, often resulting in a flavorful, gelatinous finished texture. (3)
Polenta, by contrast, is made using cornmeal that is coarsely grind up field (often flint) corn. Without the changes induced by nixtamalization, this type of cornmeal maintains a chewier texture when cooked. I read several articles online describing the texture as “toothsome.” (4) In case you’re wondering, “toothsome” means “of palatable flavor and pleasing texture.” (5) Bust that one out at your next dinner party. My blog posts are SO worth reading, aren’t they?
How to Shop for Polenta
For starters, I did read some good advice on how to shop for cornmeal to make polenta. As mentioned above, polenta is a finished dish made using cornmeal. But not all cornmeals are the same. Ideally, if you’re wanting to make polenta, you’ll be able to find a cornmeal labeled as polenta. It’s just a helpful miscategorization of what you’re actually buying, which is cornmeal, but it will help you get the ride grind for making polenta. (Isn’t the research rabbit hole a hoot!?) If don’t find cornmeal labeled as polenta, find a medium-course ground cornmeal made from flint corn. (6)
How to Cook Polenta
Cooking polenta is a bit of a labor of love. It needs pretty much constant, caring attention. I know this because I tried to let it cook itself the first time. It came out crusty and chunky and not at all smooth and creamy like it does in the movies (or all over Instagram). Also, you should consider the cooking directions on the package to be suggestions. Polenta is a more of an art than a science and the grind and type of the cornmeal used will dictate the cook time and the amount of liquid needed.
Generally speaking, polenta requires 4 to 5 times the amount of liquid as the amount of cornmeal. So, 1 cup of cornmeal, should require 4-5 cups of liquid. The operative word being should. For my recipe, I started with 3 cups of liquid and put to additional cups on reserve. If you’re starting to think that this is getting too hard, just keep repeating the word “toothsome” to yourself. It will all be worth it in the end.
Actually, adding liquid as you go isn’t that hard. You’ll know when the polenta needs it because it becomes very thick and difficult to stir. I added liquid at the rate of about a ¼ c. at a time, followed by vigorous stirring to break up any clumps that might be forming. I let it cook for roughly 30 minutes and checked on it/stirred it about every 5. This wasn’t too hard to do because I had my mushroom-tomato ragu going on the burner beside it, so it was just a matter of multi-tasking. Your polenta is done when the texture is creamy and the individual grains are soft (not sand-like or gritty).
Another thing I noticed when researching is that the flavorful ingredients, like butter and cheese traditional used in polenta, are added at the end of the cooking process. Likewise, with the vegan polenta version, you’ll want to add your seasoning (nutritional yeast) at the end.
How to Make Vegan Polenta Creamy
First, creamy polenta in terms of texture is largely defined by your cooking process (see above). But, if you’re thinking about creamy in terms of taste, then there is a vegan-friendly ingredient to help you get there: coconut milk.
For vegan / plant-based newbies, I don’t mean the coconut milk you buy in a carton in the milk section of the grocery store. I mean the canned version, often found in the ethnic section of your grocery store. You’ll likely see: coconut milk (full fat), coconut milk (lite) and coconut cream. You want full-fat, unsweetened coconut milk. You’ll use the full can (13.5 oz in my case and supplement the additional liquid needed with water). Do pay attention to the fluid ounces in the can and convert it so that you know how many total cups of water you’ll need to add as you’re cooking.
A word on coconut milk: you’re not going to end up with an overly sweet, pina colada-inspired dish. The coconut milk offers up a warm, creamy flavor. I use it a lot in my dishes and you would never taste and think “coconut.” Just make sure that you buy the full-fat version and you buy it unsweetened.
How To Serve Your Vegan Creamy Polenta
Where the word “grits” might conjure up images of Southern-cooking favorites like blackened shrimp or warm bacon-esque sauces (not vegan, I know, but there are versions that are), polenta is an Italian dish. So, when you’re thinking about how to pair with polenta, think about what sorts of sauces you would put on pasta.
For this dish, I knew I wanted an Italian-inspired tomato sauce with hearty vegetables to tackle cold, dark winter nights. I wanted a slight acidic bite with to counter the creaminess of the polenta, so when the two were combined, it would be like a little taste-bud party. So, I decided on a slow-cooked tomato-mushroom-kale…
Is It a Ragù, Ragout or Stew?
There is a problem when you’re cooking vegan. Some commonly understood terms do not support the ingredients used in vegan cooking. See my dilemma with my vegan “meatballs” or when you’re describing vegan cheese that contains no dairy. I like using commonly understood terms when I define my recipes. As I’ve said before, no one is searching for “quinoaballs” on google, so there is a desire to be discoverable in my recipe naming.
Before you roll your eyes at me, know that this is all in good fun. Every time I write a vegan recipe, a million questions pop into my head and I like answering them. I find it very satisfying. For this post (in addition to wanting to know all about polenta), I wanted to learn a little bit about what makes a ragù a ragù, a ragout a ragout, and a stew… a stew. Spoiler alert: I went with mushroom ragù. Keeping reading if you want to know why.
What is a Ragu?
This dish has a decidedly Italian feel with the polenta and the tomato-based sauce, so was thinking ragù, right? A ragù, though, is the Italian word for “a meat-based sauce that is commonly served with pasta.” Further to thwart my name-assigning efforts, the definition goes on to include this: “if tomatoes are included, they are typically limited relative to the meat, making it a meat stew rather than a tomato sauce with added meat.” (7) You can see the problem here.
What is a Ragout?
So, I thought: maybe it’s a ragout. Ragout, a word adopted from the French word ragoûter (“to revive the taste”), is a cooking technique involving “slow-cooking over a low heat.” This word, unlike its Italian counterpart, applies to cooking with a variety of ingredients, which may or may not contain meat. (8) This is a much better fit, but my recipe is Italian, not French.
What is a Stew?
How about a stew then? At first, I thought I had it nailed. A stew is generally defined as “ a combination of solid food ingredients that have been cooked in liquid and served in the resultant gravy.” (9) Stews can include meat, but they are not defined by it. Ah, this is it, right? Well, not quite. Another characteristic that defines a stew: they’re thickened by coating the ingredients with flour before searing them, or by using a roux in the cooking process.
After thinking about it (perhaps longer than a normal person would), I decided on “Mushroom Ragù.” It captures the Italian feel. It’s a slow-cooked sauce that I would, but for my newfound love of polenta, serve over pasta. It’s doesn’t contain meat, but it does have mushrooms, a common meat replacement in vegan cooking. I decided that my tomatoes could be “limited relative” to the mushrooms.
Wecome to the vegan fold, ragù.
What’s in My Kitchen to Make This Vegan Creamy Polenta Recipe Easier?
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I often get asked what gadgets and tools I have in my kitchen that help me pull all of my recipes together. I included a list below along with a description about why I like them so much. If you have any questions about them, please feel free to reach out to me in the comments!
Before I get into cooking, I want to share these napkins. I found these on Etsy over a year ago and, not only do I LOVE them, I buy them as gifts for nearly everyone I know.
These napkins are upcycled and reusable, allowing you to not only avoid throwing away paper products but to also reuse fabrics – a small but significant way to cut back on water, dyes and chemicals used in the production process.
These napkins are so darling (they come in lots of different patterns and colors) and they’re machine washable. I just throw them in with whatever load of laundry I’m doing. They don’t wrinkle easily, so a quick fold will have them back on your table doing what they were meant to do… be reused!
Polenta, as discussed above, requires a fair amount of stirring. This wooden spoon & scraper is great for getting your polenta smooth and creamy, but enabling to to get to every corner of your cooking pot.
I only bought one of these a few months ago, but wow! I’m so much happier not peeling garlic cloves with my fingernails. I’m pretty sure I’ll collectively get at least a day of my life back because of this device.
I’ve read a dozen posts about why you shouldn’t use a garlic press. One of them actually suggested that they take up valuable kitchen space. I mean, I guess if you have a tiny kitchen you might have to make those choices. They’re smaller than a can opener. I love mine. I hate, hate, hate mincing garlic.
My cast iron skillet is one of my favorite kitchen tools. It’s a great pan for a number of different recipes, but it’s especially good for the slow-cooking that this sauce requires.
Love to cook with cast iron? Ever forget how hot those handles get? Yeah, me too. The Ove Glove will help to protect your hands when cooking (and forgetting). These covers are heat safe to 540 degrees and two come in a package – one for holding the handle and one for supporting the bottom of your cast iron skillet (because we all know it’s too heavy to pick up with one hand.
No, that’s not the brand. It’s just the idea! But,I own this set of Global™ knives and They’re some of my most prized possessions in the kitchen. This set is universally well-rated for the at-home chef and will get you a good, solid set of knives without totally breaking the bank.
Designed to serve pasta, I use these shallow dinner bowls all. the. time. I love that I can present all of the ingredients of a dish without over-serving in terms of portion. With a standard bowl, food ends up being stacked and that’s no way to display all of your hard work. These bowls are an inexpensive, practical way to present everything from pasta bowls, curry bowls and burrito bowls.
Vegan Creamy Polenta with Mushroom Ragu
For the Polenta
- 1 13.5 oz can full fat, unsweetened canned coconut milk Note that a 13.5 oz can is roughly equivalent to 1 3/4 liquid
- 1 1/4 cup water with 2+ cups of water on reserve (see my blog post on how to best cook polenta)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup polenta or medium ground flint corn cornmeal
- 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
For the Mushroom Ragu
- 1/2 medium yellow onion sliced thin
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp salt
- 12-15 cremini mushrooms washed and sliced
- 3 cloves garlic peeled and crushed
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1/4 tsp fennel seeds crushed with the knife handle to release the oils
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp dried basil
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 1/4 cup red wine optional
- 1 28 oz can diced tomatoes
- salt & pepper to taste
- 1 bunch Lacinato kale washed, destemmed, torn and massaged
- 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- In a small pot, bring the coconut milk and water to a boil. Slowly add the polenta while stirring constantly. Add the salt. Reduce to a simmer and allow to cook for approximately 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. If the polenta becomes too thick to stir, add additional water. You will likely need to add ~2 additional cups of water. The polenta is done when it is smooth and creamy (not gritty or sand-like). When the right consistency is reached, add the nutritional yeast and additional salt & pepper, if desired. I highly recommend reading my blog post on how to cook polenta.
- Heat a cast iron skillet and add the olive oil. Heat until shimmering. Add the sliced onions and reduce the heat to medium-low. Stirring occasionally, allow the onions to gently brown. About 15-20 minutes.
- Add the garlic and allow to cook until fragrant. Be careful not to burn the garlic. About 1-2 minutes.
- Add the fennel seeds, basil, oregano, thyme and tomato paste. Stir until well combined and allow to cook until the tomato paste becomes a dark red. About 2 minutes.
- Add the red wine to deglaze the pan (optional).
- Add the mushrooms. Stir until well coated.
- Add the diced tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes. The sauce should thicken as the liquid from the canned tomatoes cooks off. Season with salt and pepper to taste throughout the simmering process.
- While the ragu is simmering, prepare the kale. I highly recommend massaging the kale before adding it to the ragu, It will make it more tender and less bitter. To massage the kale, crunch the torn leaves with your hands. The kale will become darker and less rigid. With five minutes remaining in the cooking process, add the fresh lemon juice and the massaged kale.
- Serve in small bowls with a bottom layer of polenta. Spoon the mushroom and kale ragu over the polenta. Serve garnished with fresh parsley, vegan parmesan and crushed red pepper.
About Herbivore’s Kitchen
Herbivore’s Kitchen is a blog run by me, a plant-based home chef and aspiring food photographer. I switched my and my family’s diet to a plant-based diet after learning about the health benefits of going vegan. Making this change has prompted a variety of food and holistic-lifestyle related questions that I explore through this blog. I talk about how to pick and prepare the most nutritious foods, to how to reduce waste at home, to how to live a more sustainable lifestyle while on the road.