In most cases, I’m a terribly traditional cook. If there is a longer, slower, more manual way to do something, almost invariably I will prefer it. But even I push tradition aside when I find an alternative that is not only easier but also tastes as good or better.
Which brings me to polenta, a dish that is about as traditional as Italian cooking gets (I know one terrific cook in the Piedmont who keeps a wood-burning stove in her very modern kitchen that is used only for its preparation). But 15 years ago, cookbook author Paula Wolfert called to say that she had found a terrific shortcut — in a cookbook by Michele Anna Jordan, who, it turns out, discovered it on the back of a bag of polenta.
As someone who was always exploring ways to avoid the constant stirring that polenta seems to require, I was skeptical. But there’s no arguing with the results: Mix water, cornmeal, and salt, and bake without disturbing, stir and then bake a little longer. The result? Perfect, deeply flavored polenta. Since then, what had been an occasional luxury has become a weekend staple.
Can there be anything better on a chilly night than a big bowl of polenta topped with a ragu with sausage and short ribs? Well, yes, actually. Lately I’ve been trying a new twist on polenta. Instead of making it in a pot, I use a gratin dish and then, once the polenta is cooked, I strew over some toppings and return it to the oven for one last bake.
The beauty of it is that you can make so many great toppings in the hour or so the polenta is baking.
One of my favorites, inspired by an idea from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, is to sauté mushrooms and arrange them over the top along with shredded Fontina cheese. Or you can make a quick tomato sauce, studded with browned cubes of pancetta. I’ve made this the simple way — with just onions and garlic — but I find that adding diced carrots and celery gives a sweeter, more rounded flavor to the sauce.
One word of advice: Even stores that should know better will sometimes sell finely ground cornmeal as “polenta.” It’s not. The flavor is more bitter and the texture is stiffer. You want coarsely ground meal.
Considering how easy it is to make, and how delicious, it’s an investment worth making.
Polenta Gratin with Mushrooms and Fontina
1 cup polenta
4 cups water
6 ounces crimini mushrooms, sliced
4 ounces shimeji mushrooms, bottoms removed
2 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh rosemary
¼ pound Fontina cheese, sliced
Heat the oven to 350°. Put the polenta in a 2-quart gratin dish, and stir in the water and 1 teaspoon salt. Bake for 45 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter and return the polenta to the oven for 15 more minutes.
Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt, or to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms give up their moisture, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the rosemary and continue cooking until the mushrooms are dry, 3 to 4 more minutes.
When the polenta is done, taste and add more salt if necessary. Tear the soft Fontina slices into shreds and distribute them over the top of the polenta. Scatter the cooked mushrooms over the top and return the pan to the oven until the cheese has melted and begins to brown, about 5 minutes.
Yield: 6 servings as appetizer, 4 as main course.
Source: Inspired in part by a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty; the polenta technique comes from Golden Pheasant polenta.
Nutrition (6 servings): 241 calories; 9 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 14 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 42 mg cholesterol; 1 gram sugar; 640 mg sodium.
Polenta Gratin with Pancetta and Tomato Sauce
1 cup polenta
4 cups water
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ pound pancetta, cut in ½-inch cubes
½ cup diced onion
¼ cup diced carrot
2 tablespoons diced celery
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups chopped tomatoes, with their juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ounce grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Heat the oven to 350°. Put the polenta in a 2-quart gratin dish and stir in the water and 1 teaspoon salt. Bake for 45 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter and return the polenta to the oven for 15 more minutes. Taste and add more salt if necessary.
While the polenta is baking, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the diced pancetta and cook until it is browned, about 10 minutes.
Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the fat and add the onion, carrot, and celery, and cook until the vegetables have softened, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, season with one-half teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper, and cook until the liquid has all but evaporated and the tomatoes have thickened into a sauce, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and remove from the heat.
When the polenta is fully cooked, spoon the pancetta and tomato sauce over the top. Scatter the Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top and return to the oven to bake until the cheese is melted, about 10 minutes.
Yield: 6 servings as an appetizer, 4 as a main course
Source: The polenta technique comes from Golden Pheasant polenta.
Nutrition (6 servings): 253 calories; 5 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 15 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 23 mg cholesterol; 2 grams sugar; 771 mg sodium.
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