Polenta on the radar screen

I should cook polenta more often

me

I’ve said that to myself recently. Polenta is extremely easy to prepare and goes great with sauces or just grated cheese. It shows up on restaurant menus as a side dish to a meat entrée, but I think it works really well as the basis for a vegetarian or vegan meal all by itself.

Polenta is sort of like grits or cream of wheat cereal. It’s a finely ground corn meal, cooked in water to the desired consistency. Cooking it from scratch can seem like a time-consuming chore, since you have to add the cornmeal slowly to boiling water, whisking after each addition to avoid lumps. But you don’t have to do any of that thanks to pre-cooked polenta “chubs”, which are available in the grocery store. You’ll usually find them near the rice/quinoa/grain display, plastic-covered logs of cooked yellow cornmeal. These chubs make polenta almost too easy to serve.

Cheesy polenta with marinara

To prepare polenta, cut open the plastic package and slice the polenta log into a sauce pan. Put over medium/low heat and add a bit of water. As it heats up, mash with a potato masher. Add enough water for the consistency you desire. You can also add a bit of olive oil for a richer flavor.

Season the polenta directly with salt, herbs and grated cheese, and serve it plain, perhaps with a salad or sautéed vegetables. Or top with a sauce. A vegetarian marinara is perfect. Top with grated cheese. Or try it with a mushroom ragout or with ratatouille. For vegans, omit the cheese. Serve a bean dish on the side, perhaps kidney or garbanzo beans in an herbed sauce. Or top with chopped nuts, such as walnuts or pine nuts.

Nutritionally, polenta is similar to cooked grains. It’s primarily a carbohydrate food, with modest protein and a variety of vitamins and minerals. The real benefits include:

  • it’s delicious
  • really easy to prepare
  • a great basis for other foods used in sauces or as toppings: nuts, cheese vegetables, beans
  • vegetarian and vegan-friendly

Here’s another way to use the polenta that comes in pre-cooked chubs: make polenta “pizza”. Slice the log into uniform slices, maybe 1/2″ thick. Arrange in a greased baking pan and top with marinara sauce and grated cheese. Bake until heated through.

Since polenta is made from cornmeal, you could take it in a Mexican direction. Serve with black bean chili, topped with grated Jack cheese. Or just mix the cheese into the polenta and serve with salsa or bottled chili sauce for a really easy meal. Refried beans on the side.

If polenta sounds appealing, buy a couple of the chubs so they handy when you need a really easy and filling quick meal.

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