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Delicious polenta, made easier thanks to inspired toppings

By Russ Parsons
Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 6:39 p.m.
 

In most cases, I'm a terribly traditional cook. If there is a longer, slower, more manual way to do something, 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. Fifteen 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, then 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 saute 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.

My favorite brand comes from Bay Area producer Golden Pheasant (it's also the source for the baked polenta technique). It's available at Southern California Vons supermarkets as well as a few other places. Or try Bob's Red Mill product, which is labeled “corn grits: also known as polenta.”

Considering how easy it is to make, and how delicious, it's an investment worth making.

Russ Parsons is a staff writer for Los Angeles Times.

Polenta Gratin with Mushrooms and Fontina

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Inspired in part by a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi's “Plenty”; the polenta technique comes from Golden Pheasant polenta.

1 cup polenta

4 cups water

Salt

Butter

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 degrees. 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, for about 5 minutes, until the mushrooms give up their moisture. Add the garlic and rosemary and continue cooking until the mushrooms are dry, for 3 to 4 more minutes.

When the polenta is done, taste and, if necessary, add more salt. 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, for about 5 minutes.

Makes 6 servings as an appetizer, 4 as main course.

Nutrition information per each of 6 servings: 241 calories, 14 grams fat (9 grams saturated), 20 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams protein, 42 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams dietary fiber, 640 milligrams sodium.

Polenta Gratin with Pancetta and Tomato Sauce

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

This polenta technique comes from Golden Pheasant polenta.

1 cup polenta

4 cups water

Salt

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 degrees. 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, if necessary, add more salt.

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, for 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, for about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, for about 3 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, season with ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper, and cook until the liquid has all but evaporated and the tomatoes have thickened into a sauce, for about 15 minutes. Season 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, for about 10 minutes.

Makes 6 servings as an appetizer, 4 as main course.

Nutrition information per each of 6 servings: 253 calories, 15 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 23 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 23 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams dietary fiber, 771 milligrams sodium

 

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