Want to impress your friends or family with a glam-o meal? Don’t have a lot of time? Want to make something from scratch (-ish) that’s healthy and ethnically adventurous? How about Polenta?
A word to the (un)-wise about this tasty grain: Polenta is essentially just Italian cornmeal (for you Southern folks, it’s a lot like grits). You can cook polenta like grits or cream of wheat and end up with a delicious, creamy, porridge-esque side dish, or you can let it chill and “harden” into a sliceable mass. Trust me, that’s way more appetizing than it probably sounds. In the grand tradition of Southern Italians using whatever they have on hand to “make it work” Tim Gunn-style, Polenta is easy to prep, simply seasoned, and very, very tasty.
My favorite way to prep polenta is to slice it and grill it in its solidified form. Check the refrigerated displays near your grocery store’s deli counter, near the gourmet cheeses. (Mine was in a basket above some hummus and gouda. NICE.) It’s delicious this way, and makes for a fantastic vegetarian entree. You could also use each polenta round as something of a cracker substitute in some fancy hors d’oeuvres, or even as the “noodles” in a layered lasagna-typed casserole. Or you could just deep-fry the suckers like they do at Fogo de Chao, a.k.a. The World’s Greatest Heart Attack On A Plate That’s So Incredibly Worth It.
This preparation, however, is simple and tasty, which makes it perfect for the budding chef.
Easy Grilled Polenta with Mushroom-Pepper Sauce — serves 3-4
- 1 package of pre-solidified (I know that sounds weird, but I’m not sure how else to describe it!) Italian polenta
- Olive oil for the grill / grill pan
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 a white onion, diced
- 1-2 Portabello mushroom caps, cleaned (wiped down with a paper towel, and all gills scraped out with a spoon) and cut into 1-inch chunks
- 3 large whole tomatoes, diced (you can peel them, but it’s not necessary)
- 1 green pepper, diced
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1-2 tsp dried Italian seasoning
- Extra olive oil to taste
- Parmesan and Romano cheeses, grated, for serving
Here’s what you do:
- First, begin cooking your sauce: heat 1 tbsp of Olive Oil (and a small pat of butter if you’re feeling luxurious) over medium heat. When oil is hot, add the onions and mushrooms. Saute for 1-3 minutes, or until the mushrooms appear cooked through. Set aside in a bowl.
- Add a bit more oil; saute the peppers for 5-10 minutes, or until soft and slightly browned. Add the balsamic vinegar, allowing the mixture to cook down for a few minutes.
- Add the tomato chunks, Italian seasoning, and a splash of extra olive oil, stirring until well combined. Add the mushrooms back into the pot, and — using an immersion blender — blend the sauce until it’s uniformly textured (slightly chunky but mostly smooth). *NOTE* If you don’t have an immersion blender, feel free to either use a potato masher for a slightly chunkier sauce, or to blend the sauce in a blender or food processor before returning it to the pot.
- Bring the sauce to a slight boil; then, lower the heat to Low (1 or 2 on your stove dial) and allow sauce to simmer, uncovered, as long as you like. The longer it stews, the more depth the flavors will have.
- While the sauce is cooking down, heat a grill pan over medium to medium-high heat. Drizzle olive oil over the pan.
- Slice your polenta into 1/2 inch or 1/4 inch rounds. (The thinner the round, the more slices to go around!). Use a pastry brush to brush olive oil on both sides.
- Lay the slices down onto your hot pan, grilling them for 5-7 minutes on each side, flipping once. *NOTE* While the polenta is cooked through already, you’re heating the polenta and adding “grill marks” to give it more depth of flavor. Mm-mm good, indeed.
- As you finish grilling your slices, place them on your serving tray and cover lightly with foil until all slices are grilled. When finished, pour 1/2 of the sauce over the top, sprinkling with cheese just before serving. Reserve 1/2 the sauce for dipping and adding according to taste.
So good, right? Once you learn this method, you can top the Polenta rounds with any sort of sauce (pesto, anyone?) or other grilled vegetables. Let me know how your experiments go!