To round out our book club experience with bison meatballs, I wanted to make sure I had a vegetarian dish for the vegetarians amongst us. While Empire of the Summer Moon chronicles the rise and fall of the Comanches specifically, other Indian tribes are mentioned as are the white settlers and families of a more agrarian ilk. So the farmers aren’t the stars of the book and there is a scene where the Comanches attempt to eat corn and then spit it out, but hey I opted to go with a creative take and make foods that one would have potentially grown in Texas in the 19th century: items that the farming communities would have harvested and foraged. Here is a recipe for corn cakes with foraged wild mushrooms. Sadly, I didn’t forage them myself. But I totally would have had I lived amongst the settlers or the Arapaho 150 years ago. I did pick the basil from my backyard if that counts.
The recipe below includes making the polenta yourself, but if you’re not feeling it, you can buy a roll of pre-cooked polenta. Most brands’ ingredients are just like you would make: corn meal, water, salt. Just slice the polenta roll into 1/2 inch circles and then follow the directions below.
Crispy Polenta Cakes with Wild Mushrooms
3 Tablespoons olive oil (approximately)
2 cups cooked polenta*
6 cups shitaki mushrooms, or a mix of wild mushrooms
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
3 cups arugula, torn
5 large basil leaves, torn
pecorino romano, optional
Preheat the oven to broil. Lightly grease a 9×13 pyrex dish with the olive oil. Spread the polenta in a layer over the bottom of the pyrex about 1/2 inch thick (more or less according to your taste). Brush the top of the polenta very lightly with some of the olive oil. Broil in the oven for just about 4-5 minutes, until slightly browned and a bit hardened.
While the polenta is broiling, heat 1 1/2 Tablespoons of the olive oil in a cast iron skillet. Brush the mushrooms clean (there are debates about dousing them in water, but I like to brush them clean instead of washing in water) and chop them into small chunks, about 1/2 inch pieces. Toss the mushrooms, garlic, and 1 teaspoon of the salt into the skillet and mix to coat with the oil. Stir just a couple of times while the mushrooms cook over medium heat, about 2-3 minutes until just barely soft. Set aside.
When the polenta comes out of the oven, cut into squares about 2×2. Throw the arugula evenly over the polenta, then spread the mushrooms and garlic on top. Put back in the oven and broil for about 2-4 minutes until the mushrooms brown slightly and the arugula (if you are using) is wilted. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the basil and a dash of salt over the top.
Serve each square individually with grated pecorino. There. Just like the settlers used to eat.