Long before the advent of the Ramsays, the Fieris and the Nigellas, there was Jacques Pépin—French chef, TV show host, and cookbook author, with a career that spans more than six decades. Pépin emphasizes technique: his 1976 masterpiece La Technique is regarded an indispensable book for aspiring cooks to this day, and in his shows, he takes the pains of manually cutting, peeling, and chopping ingredients, barely taking any shortcuts. A born teacher, Pépin is especially skilled at explaining the processes in a manner that is directive, but cheery and mild-mannered, always with the goal of demystifying cooking’s “hows” and “whys”. Essential Pepin is his latest (and ongoing) TV series, first broadcasted in 2011 and followed by an accompanying cookbook of the same name a year later, where he revisits the best of his recipe repertoire spanning more than 60 years of cooking. Classic French fare mingles with dishes from America, Mexico, and the Far East, made simple and easy to follow.
In the episode ‘Savory Staples’, aired in 2011, Pépin puts the spotlight on an oft-ignored chunk of the meal: the sides and the starches. Though generally thought to play second fiddle to the protein-heavy mains, when done right, they can also stand on their own and make for a complete, well-balanced meal. This meatless recipe features polenta (an ambiguous term that can refer to the Italian dish polenta or the ground corn used to make it, a.k.a. cornmeal). While traditional polenta is notoriously fussy to make, calling for constant, nonstop stirring anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, Pépin’s streamlined version only has you cooking it in a fraction of that time—6-8 minutes, in fact—and most of the action happens under the pot cover, minimal stirring needed.
Topping the polenta is a mushroom ragout that is even simpler to make, but relies on good, fresh ingredients for success. Fresh mushrooms are always a great way to add a “meaty” texture and deep umami flavor to a vegetarian dish; Jacques does not specify any one particular variety, but we went for a mix of brown and shiitake mushrooms (which gave our stew a darker hue, but also a distinct depth of flavor we absolutely loved). Kernels of fresh corn add a light crunch and sweetness (be sure to go for the freshest you can find!), while the tomatoes impart just enough of an acidity that brightens up the mix. Pépin original version goes for a liquid-heavy, soup-like consistency; out of personal preference, though, we left it in for a few more minutes on the heat to reduce the liquid and thicken up to something closer to a stew. Should you want to go all-out vegetarian (and lent-approved!), there’s no reason you can’t substitute a good vegetable stock in place of the chicken stock Pépin calls for. Either way, you get a dish that is both light but hearty, combining all the summery flavors and depth of the ragout against the polenta’s natural nuttiness and creaminess. Simple, but satisfying—zero meat required.
Polenta with Mushroom Ragout
Adapted from Essential Pépin by Jacques Pépin
Yield: 2 servings
Time: 30 minutes ( 10 min prep / 20 min cooking )
- 2 cups water
- ½ cup polenta or yellow cornmeal
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp ground black pepper
Ingredients: Mushroom Ragout
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 5 oz fresh mushrooms, trimmed, cleaned, and cut into ½-inch pieces
- 3 garlic coves, crushed and finely minced
- 4 tomatoes, halved, seeded, and cut into ½-inch pieces
- 2 ears corn, husked and kernels cut off
- ½ cup chicken stock
- salt and pepper, to taste
Ingredients: To Finish
- 2 tbsp chives, chopped
- Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan.
- Sprinkle the cornmeal on top while mixing it in with a whisk and stir in the salt and pepper.
- Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Cover with a lid to prevent splattering. Cook gently for 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until polenta is cooked and has the consistency of a creamy puree.
- Set aside, covered.
Procedure: Mushroom Ragout
- Heat the butter and the oil in a large saucepan.
- When hot, add onion and saute for 30 seconds.
- Add the mushrooms and saute over high heat for about 2 minutes, until the liquid emerges from them and evaporates.
- Add the garlic, tomatoes, corn, chicken stock, salt, and pepper.
- Bring mixture to a strong boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 2-3 minutes.
Procedure: to finish
- To serve, ladle the polenta into soup plates, and pour the mushroom ragout on top and around it.
- Sprinkle with chives and serve.