Polenta for quick and delicious meatless meals

Want a dinner that’s fast, healthy, filling and tasty?  A dinner that can also be vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and/or low fat?  Then you want to try polenta.

What exactly is polenta?  It’s a traditional Italian food, originally made by slow-cooking coarsely ground grain in water.  The result is a lot like cooked hot cereal.  Before corn was introduced to Europe from the Americans, polenta was made with local grains like rye.  But once corn was widely available, it was increasingly made with corn meal.  The pre-cooked polenta available in modern grocery stores is made with corn.

No surprise, before the pre-cooked version was available, this dish was not on most people’s radar screens.  Serving polenta for dinner involved first cooking the dry ground corn.  This is a slow exacting process, involving sprinkling the ground corn into simmering water while whisking constantly, and then cooking it to desired consistency, still whisking constantly to prevent scorching.  After it’s cooked, you add butter, grated cheese, salt and perhaps herbs.  It’s served plain as a side dish, or topped with marinara sauce or sautéed vegetables.

Now cooking polenta from scratch is not necessary.  You can buy tubes of pre-cooked at most grocery stores, so the preparation time is drastically reduced.  Take the polenta out of the wrapping, slice it up into manageable pieces, put in a sauce pan and add water slowly over low to moderate heat.  Mash it with the water as it warms up, adding more water to the desired consistency.

In my humble opinion, polenta is wildly under appreciated, not just for the convenience and taste, but also for it’s nutrition qualities.  One tube is usually about 500 grams.  The suggested serving size of 100 grams (2 half-inch slices) has only 70 calories, 0 grams fat and 2 grams protein.  If you cook it with more water, it will be even more filling, important for people trying to control calorie intake.

Serving Ideas

Thanks to the handy tubes, you can also serve polenta as slices.  There are plenty of recipes that use it this way, either sautéed and topped with sauces, cheese and vegetables, or layered with other ingredients and baked.  It’s frequently used as a side dish when meat is the main entree, but I think polenta is better used as the base for a vegan or vegetarian meal.  It can be as easy as serving cooked polenta (either as slices or cooked with water) with marinara sauce and cheese.  Here are some other ideas:

Vegetables, white beans, polenta and fried egg

Blue Cheese polenta with vegetables

Polenta pizza bites

I would serve this Lentil Bolognese over grilled or sautéed polenta slices for a vegan meal.  Add cheese and it’s vegetarian.

This Creamy Polenta with Spinach looks delicious and ridiculously easy.

You get the idea: polenta is not only easy but it’s really versatile.  Give it a try.

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