Saturday, May 16, 2009

Mushroom Ragu over Soft Polenta

The weather is a little cool and dreary today in the mid-Atlantic. It is a perfect day for a good stick to your ribs meal. Mushroom ragu is one of my husband’s favorite dishes. He loves this dish so much that it is one of the few recipes I will repeat. I prefer to make new dishes everyday, but I also like a happy husband, so this one does reappear on our dinner table regularly.

I make a mushroom ragu that cooks for hours. This is a slow lazy mushroom braise that requires little attention once you get it started. It gets its flavor from the dried mushrooms and Amarone wine. When you read the recipe you may be surprised that I use an entire bottle of Amarone since most recipes use ½ a cup. I want the jammy flavor of the wine to concentrate and thicken as the ragu cooks. The flavor from the wine is one of the secrets to my ragu.

The red pepper flakes are another departure from the traditional recipes. I don’t want the ragu to be spicy, but I do want a bit of heat in the background. I have read that red pepper hits your taste buds in a different way than black pepper. Whether this true or not I don’t know. However, it does give a different kind of heat, which is why the recipe includes both red and black pepper.

Traditionally, mushroom ragu is served over polenta. I usually serve it this way, but it is also good over pasta, barley in the risotto style, brown rice, millet and quinoa.

We do eat a lot of mushrooms in our house because of the potential health benefits. Breast cancer is high on my list of things to avoid. While I don’t know if mushrooms actually help prevent breast cancer since I also like the way they taste I have decided to eat them often anyway. Sometime ago I read that anything that impacts breast cancer also applies to prostate cancer since they are both hormonal sensitive cancers.

The prostate cancer issue brings to mind a story my friend Alexandra thinks needs to be told on the blog. My husband has heard my nutrition information so often that he has given me the nickname of “nutrition nazi”. While this isn’t the most flattering name, it did get his point across that he didn’t generally care why something is good for him, so I stopped telling him. He did occasionally ask why we were eating something and I would give him the same flip answer, “because it is good for your prostate”. Assuming this is a body part that all men hold dear, I decided this was the easy answer and one that he would accept without question. Since meals that don’t contain saturated animal fat are by definition good for prostate health I was telling the truth, just not technically answering the question he was asking.

Mushroom Ragu
Makes 6 large servings


2 ounces of dried mushrooms (I use the gourmet mix from Costco that contains morels, porcini, Brazilian caps, ivory portabellas, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms)
4 cups of water to reconstitute the mushrooms
2 red onions, quartered then thinly sliced
8 garlic cloves, crushed and minced (allow to sit for 10 minutes before putting in the pot to allow the allicin to develop)
24 ounces of fresh crimini mushrooms, quartered if large, halved if small
750 ml (1 bottle) of Amarone wine you would drink by the glass
28 ounces of canned diced tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1 large carrot, grated (for added sweetness)
12 sun dried tomatoes, slivered
1 teaspoon of dried thyme
1 teaspoon of kosher salt
1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons of olives, minced


Put the dried mushrooms in a large glass container and cover with the water. Microwave on high for 4 minutes and allow to stand for 30 minutes to rehydrate and cool enough so that you can handle them.

In a heavy bottomed dutch oven (like an enameled cast iron Le Cruset pan) sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil. When the onions are translucent add the fresh mushrooms and cook for 5 to 10 minutes to allow the mushrooms to release most of their liquid. Continue to stir occasionally so the bottom of the pan does not scorch. Add the remaining ingredients, except the rehydrating dry mushrooms and cook on low stirring occasionally.

When the dried mushrooms are soft and room temperatures cut them into bite size pieces and add the mushrooms and soaking liquid to the pot and continue to cook. Some dried mushrooms can be gritty. To find out if yours are run your finger in the bottom of the container they were soaking in. If you feel grit (and it will be noticeable) rinse the mushrooms in fresh water until the grit is gone and strain the juice through a paper towel lined sieve. I buy my dried mushrooms at Costco and so far have not had any grit, but I have encountered grit in other brands.

Continue to cook the ragu for at least 4 hours, stirring every 15 minutes or so to make certain it is not sticking to the bottom of the pan.

If the sauce is not thick enough for your taste when you are about ready to serve the ragu you can always add a tablespoon of tomato paste or make a quick slurry with a little cornstarch and cold water. I don't find this to be necessary, but if you want to cook the ragu for less than 4 hours you may need this modification.

Before serving check the sauce for seasoning. You may need to add more salt and pepper to suit your taste.


This mushroom ragu has a very big heady background of Amarone wine. It is full of flavor, and is a very substantial meal. I normally serve my mushroom ragu with a big green salad as a starter course.

Soft Polenta
Makes 6 large servings


2 cups of stone ground polenta
7 cups of cold water
1 teaspoon of kosher salt
½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil


Put dry polenta, water and salt in a pot and stir thoroughly to combine. You don’t want any pockets of dry polenta to remain. Place the pot over medium heat and stir until the water is absorbed and the polenta is started to erupt like lava. Then turn the heat down to low and continue to stir occasionally. Taste the polenta periodically for tenderness. The polenta is done when it no longer has any hard bits of grain remaining. When the polenta is completely tender add the olive oil and stir it into the polenta. Check for seasoning and add extra salt and pepper as required.


This polenta is a somewhat blank canvass for other flavors. It makes a nice soft textural counterpoint to the ‘chewiness’ of the mushroom ragu.


  1. I feel I must clarify the use of "nutrition nazi" regarding my wife. It is meant in a loving and humorous Sinfeldesque way. I also refer to the kitchen as "Area 51".

    I love her very much for the time and effort she has put into improving our health through changing our diet while ensuring everything tastes great. Every dish my wife has posted is delicious.

  2. You are the sweetest thing! And ..... thanks for the clarification on the meaning of nutrition nazi.

  3. Looks great! Can I make this in my slow cooker? Do you think I should I cook it 4 hours on high or longer at low heat?

  4. Debbie,

    All slow cookers are a little different in terms of heat and sometimes that also changes as the cookers age. However I would think that 4 hours on high or 7-8 on low would work fine. However you will probably need to refresh the herbs and seasonings at the end of cooking. The slow cooker seem to mute flavors for some reason.

    I hope you like it as much as Dan does,


Related Posts with Thumbnails