This dish takes me back to Berkeley's Guerrilla Cafe. I was having a meeting there where I was taking the first step of production of my cookbook and I was so excited that I remember every moment. I had brunch with my now best friend, I pulled out my mood board (pre-Pinterest mind you), and asked her to work as the food stylist on the book. You'd think I was asking her to be my Maid of Honor I was so nervous but that's how pumped I was to write that book.
A version of that dish has stayed with me through the years, filling in for any meal and topped with whatever I had on hand. In the fall and winter, I’ll top it with braised meats, roasted squash or swirl in wilted greens and gorgonzola; then, come spring, perhaps some fiery harissa roast asparagus and a few crumbles of fresh goat cheese.
Combine milk, 1 1/2 cups of water, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. When it simmers, slowly pour in the polenta and whisk to combine. Partially cover with a lid, reduce heat to low, and cook, whisking vigorously (get all the corners of the pan!) every 5 minutes, until polenta is no longer gritty and looks like creamy oatmeal, about 30 minutes total.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt, some freshly ground black pepper, and stir to coat in the oil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and all the liquid is cooked off, about 8 minutes. Remove to a bowl and return the pan to the stove.
Add remaining oil and the onions and stir to coat in the oil. Cook until translucent and soft, about 3 minutes. Stir in the bell peppers, add a big pinch of salt, some freshly ground black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 15 minutes. Add 1/3 cup of water, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until very soft, about 5 minutes more. Meanwhile, when the polenta is done cooking, turn off the heat and cover until ready to use. Add the mushrooms back to the pepper mixture, stir to coat, cover, turn off heat, and set aside until ready to use.
If you’re craving an egg, now would be the time to prepare it. (I prefer mine poached or friend for polenta but do what you please.) Just before serving, whisk the cheese into the warm polenta. Taste the polenta and check out the consistency. If you like it looser (as I do), whisk in another 1/4 cup of water as needed to loosen the polenta to the consistency of oatmeal.
To serve, divide polenta evenly among four bowls. If using the greens, stir them into the mushrooms mixture until just wilted then spoon over the polenta. Top each bowl with a fried egg, a sprinkling of some chives, and a dollop of crème fraiche and serve.
Aida is a food expert, on-camera host, author, avid traveler, and founder of Salt & Wind. Through the years, she’s visited 35 US States and 30 countries, lived north, south, east, and across the pond, and is always on the hunt for new adventures and exciting tastes.