One of the first dishes I made when I cut out meat from my diet was this braised mushroom ragu by Jules from The Stone Soup. Her sciencey approach appealed to me, and I was drawn in by the idea of a really slow-cooked meal that emulated cooking meat. Today's recipe is my version of the above dish. Although I adored Jules' recipe - rich, concentrated, intense - I did feel there was room for improvement: both flavour-wise and for practicality.

To start with, I've greatly decreased the cooking time: I've opted to use fewer mushrooms (original recipe uses 1.5kg/3.3lbs... I know right?!) and refrain from adding so much water only to boil it off in the oven. Instead, I've kept this to a stove-top only job, reducing the cooking time to about 45 minutes. It's still braising.. just not going overboard. Other changes I made: no smoked tofu (it's hard to find and expensive - I've added an optional spray of liquid smoke instead, which worked well), more garlic (couldn't resist), and a generous glug of red wine which plays well into the classic Italian theme and also because cooking with booze is awesome.

It turns out mushrooms are perfect ingredients to slow-cook. Not only do they give an intense, umami-rich flavour to the stew, it's nigh-on impossible to overcook them. I found a cool experiment that steamed a mushroom, a courgette and a piece of meat for 40 minutes. By measuring the amount of force to bite into them, they found that at the end the meat had gone tough, the courgette mushy, but the mushroom had barely changed! Something to do with their cell walls being made of a particularly heat-resistant structures. This proved all the more relevant when on one recipe test I completely forgot I had this stew simmering away, but thankfully the mushrooms hadn't gone mushy! I served this mushroom ragu over penne the first time I made it, and it was ok, but I felt like it needed a more absorbent base. Up steps polenta: silky, smooth, like a sponge. Perfect. Also, in my recipe test-runs I've discovered how to get a perfectly creamy, un-stodgy texture! The trick is using a whisk and a glug of olive oil (see details in the recipe below). Trust me. It's so good. Enjoy!

Mushroom Ragu with Creamy Polenta

Serves 4
Hands-on time:
30 mins
Hands-off time:
70 mins


  for the mushroom ragu
2 medium onions, finely chopped
tbsp olive oil
2 medium carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, chopped
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
800g (=1.8 lbs) mixed mushrooms (chesnut, button and portobello all work well)
1 400g/14oz tin chopped tomatoes
3 sprigs thyme
120ml(=½ cup) red wine
2tbsp soy sauce (use tamari if gluten free)
1spray liquid smoke (optional)
  for the polenta
160g(=1 cup) quick cook polenta
¾tsp table salt
1good glug extra-virgin olive oil


  1. In a large pot or casserole dish, sweat the onions in the olive oil over a medium heat for 10 minutes.
  2. Add the carrots, celery and garlic to the pan and saute for 10 more minutes. Meanwhile, roughly slice half of the mushrooms and finely chop the rest.
  3. Add half of the chopped and sliced mushrooms to the pot. When they have reduced in size a little add the rest of the mushrooms.
  4. Once these have cooked down a little (approx 5 min) so there is room in the pot, add the tomatoes, thyme, red wine and soy sauce. If using, spray in the liquid smoke.
  5. Stir well and bring to a boil. Turn it down to a simmer and leave, partially covered, for 45 minutes.
  6. Now that your ragu is ready, it's time to make the polenta. Make sure those who are eating are ready to eat as the polenta goes from creamy to stodgy very quickly.
  7. Bring 950ml/4 cups water to a boil in a medium pot. Add the salt while it is coming to a boil.
  8. With the water at a simmer, slowly pour in the polenta, whisking all the while. Keep whisking until all the polenta is in. Add the olive oil and whisk it in. The polenta I use only takes about 3 minutes, but it can vary, so keep your eye on it.
  9. Turn the heat off before you think the polenta is as thick as you'd like it (it will carry on thickening).
  10. Serve the mushroom ragu over a large serving spoonful of polenta in warm bowls. Grind over some black pepper, and salt if you think it needs it.