Mushroom and Caramelized Onion Stew with Parmesan Polenta / by Chelsea Zwieg

This morning I was laying on my bedroom floor doing my physical therapy mandated stretches (apparently when I pull a muscle running, I PULL a muscle), and pretty much the entire time I was staring up at my bedroom windows thinking how killer they are going to look covered in christmas lights in a few weeks. Now, now, I know that Christmas is two months away and far be it from me to speed up the inevitable invasion of cold, snow and window scraping but for me Christmas is a two month affair. Starting November 1st straight on to January 1st, you can find me listening to christmas music (and nothing else), watching The Grinch, cranking out holiday baked goods like it's my job (oh wait, it is) and this year, decorating every spare inch of our house with lights, paper snowflakes and ornaments. 

When the weather turns colder, my mind goes straight to things like this. Sorry, not sorry. It also goes straight to the most comforting, cozy foods I can think of. I am the coldest person you will ever meet. Not cold in personality, although I'm sure many Southerners I encountered from my stint in Tennessee would beg to differ, but legitimately, real life, wearing leggings, pants, sweater, coat, scarf and still shivering freezing. So I depend on things like really hot drinks and steaming bowls of soup to warm me up. Ok, and my space heater a little bit. And as far as body and soul warming foods go, it is hard to beat a hot stew with creamy, cheesy polenta. 

But before we talk stew, we need to talk caramelized onions. I'm pretty sure I have praised the wonders of caramelized onions on this blog before but I tend to stay away from adding them to recipes on here because, if you are doing right, it tacks an extra 45-50 minutes onto any recipe. In order for onions to be truly caramelized, not just super browned and overcooked in 10 minutes as some recipes will have you believe, they need to be cooked low and slow in order for the sugars in the onions to be pulled out and caramelized. This yields onions that are wonderfully sweet, yet somehow still savory with an almost jam like texture. If you didn't just spend 45 minutes with your face over a hot pan or have a cramp in your arm from the most vigilant stirring you will ever practice, you would not even believe that they are the same food as the biting, astringent things that were making you cry an hour before. 

But recently, I discovered a life changer in the caramelized onion game: the slow cooker. Another bummer to pan caramelizing is that not crowding the pan is key. So after all that work, you usually wind up with about 1/4 cup of onions. But in a slow cooker, this is not a problem. You can fit roughly 4-5 large onions in there, turn the heat to low and not think about them again for 10 hours. When you come back, you will have a giant batch of perfectly caramelized onions and your kitchen will smell so good that you might just plant your face in the slow cooker for a while. The best part is, this makes light work when you get down to making the stew, since the onions are already done, and it leaves extra onions that can frozen for the next stew or added into everything else you eat all week. Trust me, you will not run out of ways to use them. You can stir them into onion dip, put them on burgers, add them to mayo for a sandwich spread, stir them into pasta like Cynthia did here, or keep them in the slow cooker, add beef broth and have the most amazing french onion soup. On top of all that, the onions leave excess liquid after they are done that has unbeatable flavor. I used it along with the broth in my stew, but you can also stir it into sauces, use it in salad dressings or freeze it and use it as stock later on. Have there ever been so many possibilities from 4 onions and a slow cooker?? 

Ok, onion raving done, now back to this stew. It is a mixture of the aforementioned onions and tons and tons of mushrooms. Basically all my dreams come true. It gets flavor from tomato paste, garlic and red wine and reduces down to a thick, silky stew that is perfect for a chilly October night. I served it over creamy, cheesy polenta which is basically food's version of a big cozy blanket and it only gets better when it starts to soak up the sauce from the stew. Lastly, it makes for A+ leftovers, as the stew only gets thicker and more flavorful as it sits. So whether you're already cold, or are waiting for the first snowfall to admit that summer is long gone, I hope this is the first thing you choose to make when you're cold from the inside out and the only thing to be done is crank up the stove and get to cooking. 

Mushroom and Caramelized Onion Stew with Creamy Parmesan Polenta 

Serves 4

| Ingredients

Note: I used all baby portobellos in my stew because I love them, but it's fall, the season wild mushrooms: go crazy. If I had a separate budget solely devoted to mushrooms ( a frequent fantasy of mine), I would definitely add in some shiitakes and chanterelles. Just be careful if you are using dehydrated mushrooms. I have done that before, thinking I was all fancy and ended up with some mysterious strips of leather in my stew. If possible, go for fresh. 


For Caramelized Onions: 

  • 4-5 yellow onions (this will make much more than needed for the stew, see notes in post)
  • 2 tbp. olive oil
  • salt and pepper, to taste (about 1 tsp. of each) 

For Mushroom Stew: 

  • 1 1/2 lbs. mushrooms, sliced (see note above)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp. flour
  • 1 cup broth (I used chicken, but beef would be a-ok, or vegetable if you're trying to please some vegetarians) 
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • fresh parsley, for garnish

For Parmesan Polenta:

  • 4 cups water
  • salt
  • 1 cup polenta
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated

 | Instructions |  

  • Thinly slice onions and place in a crockpot with oil, salt and pepper. Turn to low heat and cook 10 hours, stirring every so often if you can. Once onions are caramelized, remove from crockpot and drain any excess liquid. If you do have excess liquid, definitely save it. I subbed the amount I had into the stew in place of broth, and then used broth to bring the total measurement to 1 cup. You could also save it and use it in soup stocks, sauces or even a dressing later in the week. It is so flavorful, you would not believe. 
  • Bring 4 cups well salted water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Slowly pour in polenta, whisking to remove any lumps. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer 25-30 minutes until polenta is thick and creamy. Stir often to prevent sticking to the pot. 
  • Meanwhile, heat 1 tbsp. oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and sauté until mushrooms are lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add in 1/2 cup of caramelized onions. Stir in tomato paste and thyme, stirring until everything is coated. Cook 1 minute. Sprinkle flour into pan and stir, cooking 1-2 minutes, until stew thickens. Turn heat to high. Add red wine and simmer until the liquid is reduced to about half. Slowly add in the broth. You may need a little more or less than a cup, depending on the consistency you are aiming for. Just keep in mind that the sauce definitely thickens as it sits, so err on the side of a little soupy, unless you are serving it right away. As it sits, especially if you are going to have some as leftovers, it will thicken and absorb more liquid. 
  • When the stew is ready, stir parmesan cheese into the polenta. If the polenta seems dry or too thick, add a little more water, stirring over low heat until it is absorbed. Portion polenta into bowls. Top with stew, garnish with parsley and serve.