Tapas! I love these little bites!
On a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, a group of friends and I went to an incredible and authentic tapas eatery where I first enjoyed Spanish tapas. It was an amazing experience, both culinary and culturally! I was thrilled to be able to experience these wonderful little plates in 1994 when few Americans had heard of these little dishes yet. Tapas were not yet a mainstream food item!
Although tapas are beloved by many today, a lot of people don’t know that Venice, Italy also has a culinary tradition of tapas known as ‘Cicchetti’ — aka: Italian tapas!
Cicchetti are simple, small ‘little bites’, and are often quite salty since Venetian cuisine was founded on salt because of it’s location on the Adriatic Sea (think: salt-cured sardines, anchovies, cod, and more). So for Italian tapas, or ‘chicchetti’, you need a strong salt element to excite the taste buds . . . freshly ground sea salt is my favorite to use in the kitchen. The custom of Italian cicchetti is similar to Spanish tapas – appetizers eaten to offset drinking alcohol in the afternoon or early before the evening meal. There is a strong Mediterranean influence in all tapas: olives, anchovies, sardines, and garlic served on little breads, such as Italian crostini. It’s easy to understand why Venetian ‘cicchetti’ are often compared with the much-loved tapas from Spain.
For this week’s dinner theme of “Tapas” I prepared some flavor-packed Polenta Crostini Bites with Caramelized Mushrooms. I bet you can’t eat just one! These are absolutely delightful! Enjoy!
For the polenta
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 tsp. finely ground sea salt
- 1 cup polenta
- 1 – 2 cups freshly grated Italian Fontina cheese, plus more to pass around to guests
- 1 – 2 cups freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for garnish and to pass around to guests
For the mushrooms
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 pound porcini mushrooms, diced
- Finely ground sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 Tbsp. freshly minced garlic
- 1 tsp. finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 2 Tbsp. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 2 Tbsp. finely chopped Italian parsley leaves
- 1 long, thin loaf of Italian or French bread, sliced thin, toasted, drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with fresh garlic
Cook the polenta
- In a medium, heavy pot over high heat bring the cream, stock, and sea salt to a boil.
- Add the polenta gradually, whisking constantly.
- When the mixture thickens, switch to a wooden spoon and adjust the heat to maintain a bare simmer.
- Cook, stirring often, until thick, smooth, and creamy, about 15 minutes.
- Stir in the Fontina and Parmesan cheeses.
- Keep the polenta warm over low heat, stirring occasionally.
- If the polenta gets dry as it sits, stir in about 1/4 cup of cream at a time, until it reaches your preference of wetness/dryness.
Saute the mushrooms
- In a medium skillet over high heat, heat the olive oil.
- When the oil is hot, place the mushrooms in a single layer, and do not stir!
- Cook the mushrooms to a sizzling point until they have caramelized on the bottom, about 2 – 3 minutes.
- When the bottoms are caramelized, toss them once and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Continue to cook without stirring for about 5 minutes.
- Season mushrooms with salt and pepper.
- Add the butter and cook until it begins to brown.
- Then add the garlic.
- Continue to cook until the garlic begins to brown, do not burn the garlic.
- Add the thyme and cook for about 10 seconds more.
- Add the lemon juice and cook until it evaporates.
- Add the wine, and simmer until the mushrooms are glazed with the sauce.
- Add the parsley.
- Then stir and remove the pan from the heat.
- Place about 1 tablespoon of warm polenta on each little slice of toasted bread (crostini).
- Place about 1/2 teaspoon of the mushroom on top of the polenta.
- Garnish with grated Parmesan and minced Italian parsley.
- Serve immediately.