The first time I tasted a warm bowl of the thick cornmeal porridge known as polenta was on a cold summer day in an Italian mountain village at a restaurant. I was seated at a table with a group of locals and followed their lead by ordering polenta. We enjoyed this creamy, soul-satisfying dish with a generous sprinkling of dried goat cheese for a lunch entree.
I began experimenting with different polenta combinations and came up with a variety of combinations. Traditional polenta takes at least 30 minutes of cooking in a copper pot over low heat with continual stirring. Fortunately, imported instant (precooked) polenta with a silkier texture has become available nationwide. This fine-grained polenta, which cooks in just a few minutes, yields an excellent flavor as well as texture. Substituting chicken or vegetable stock for part or all of the water called for in savory recipes will produce a more flavorful result. Remember that polenta is really a foil, like pasta or pizza, for its topping.
Polenta is one dish that runs the gamut from breakfast to dinner. You’ll find an unusual breakfast idea as well as a lunch or dinner dish below. The savory version can be varied easily. Other ways to enjoy it include topping the soft polenta with Bolognese sauce, a saute of fresh and wild mushrooms, favorite herb pesto, or cheeses like creamy Gorgonzola, burrata or a soft Saint Andre. You can also pour the warm polenta into a greased pan, let it cool, cut into squares and then grill it. We will revisit that idea when the weather turns warm. In the meantime, enjoy this rustic Italian dish.
Breakfast Polenta with Mascarpone and Maple Syrup
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The topping of the rich mascarpone cheese and the sweet maple syrup nicely complement the Parmesan cheese flavored polenta. Serve this with crisp bacon or sausages for a hearty start to your day.
3 cups milk
¾ cup instant polenta
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup mascarpone cheese
¼ cup maple syrup
1. Bring the milk to a boil in a medium saucepan on medium-high heat. When the liquid is boiling, add the polenta and stir continually with a wooden spoon for about 3 minutes or until the mixture is slightly thickened. Reduce the heat to medium-low so that the mixture will not thicken before the polenta is cooked through. Add the Parmesan cheese and blend well.
2. Spoon into cereal bowls and top with mascarpone and maple syrup. Serve immediately.
Warm, Soft Polenta with Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, minced
2 scallions, white and light green parts only, finely chopped
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
7 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups instant polenta
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
¼ cup mascarpone cheese
½ cup favorite Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto (see below) or your favorite pesto
Basil leaves for garnish (optional)
1. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and saute the shallots and the scallions for 5 to 7 minutes or until softened and just beginning to caramelize. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more, being careful not to brown it.
2. Add the stock and bring to a fast boil on high heat. Using a liquid measuring cup, add the cornmeal very slowly in a thin stream, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Lower the heat and continue cooking, stirring all the time, for about 5 minutes, or until it is very thick, smooth and creamy. Add 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese and the mascarpone cheese and stir just until the cheese has melted into the polenta.
3. Spoon the polenta into shallow soup bowls and spoon on a large dollop of the pesto and the remaining 2 tablespoons of grated cheese. Serve immediately.
Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto
Makes about ½ cup
2 garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained (reserve oil)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon reserved oil from tomatoes, or olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
With the motor running, add the garlic cloves to a food processor. Add the tomatoes, basil, oil, salt and pepper, and process until a thick paste is formed. If it is too thick, you may need to add a bit more oil. Place the pesto in a covered container and refrigerate. Add the cheese just before serving.
Diane Rossen Worthington is the author of 20 cookbooks, including “Seriously Simple Parties” (Chronicle Books, 2012), and also a James Beard award-winning radio show host.