We’ve all noticed the price increases at the grocery store, especially in the meat and fish departments, so in order to save some pennies in my household, I’ve been trying to cook more vegetarian-focused meals for my family. This can be a tall order when one out of our two children doesn’t really like vegetables, but incorporating some kind of starch along with the veggies usually (not always!) creates enough appeal.
It's so easy to turn to rice, potatoes and pasta as a yummy starch, but we must not forget about polenta and how delicious and easy it is to prepare. We’ve all heard about polenta, but what is it and how is it different from cornmeal and grits? It’s easy to go down the Google rabbit hole when trying to get more information about these grains, so let me save you the time and effort by simply explaining what you really need to know.
- Polenta refers to the name of the porridge-like dish from Italy which can be made with any number of grains, but also refers to the specific cornmeal from an heirloom variety of flint corn that’s desirable for making polenta. Because dry polenta is typically milled differently than cornmeal, it results in a flavorful, sweet product with a satisfying mouthfeel. You can use any variety of cornmeal you like, but I recommend using a coarsely ground cornmeal from a quality mill for the best texture and flavor, and stay away from quick cooking or instant varieties as they lack in flavor and mouthfeel.
- Grits are made from dried and coarsely ground southern “dent” corn, which is a specific variety that produces a smooth and creamy texture. Whether your grits are yellow or white depends on the variety of corn used. Yellow grits are typically stronger in flavor with a hint of sweetness and white grits are milder, but they can be used interchangeably depending on your preference. Hominy grits are when the corn kernels are treated with an alkaline which removes the hull; this process is called nixtamalization and makes the corn more nutritious and digestible. Stone ground grits are when the whole kernels are ground between two stones of a grist mill. This produces a better flavor and texture. Because of their coarse nature, they can take longer to cook. Medium ground grits are a bit more processed, and don’t take as long to cook.
In Marcella Hazan’s cookbook Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, she states “Preparing [polenta] it was a ritual, eating it was like receiving a sacrament.” Polenta (especially coarsely ground) does carry the reputation of having a lengthy and involved cooking process, but I’m about to debunk that way of thinking with one of my favorite home hacks which requires hardly any stirring at all.
How is this possible? The way to accomplish this new way of cooking polenta is baking it in the oven. Start by measuring your cooking liquid (water is traditional but chicken or vegetable stock adds nice flavor) in a heavy saucepan or saucepot; I like using my Le Creuset French oven for the job. Whisk in the cornmeal and set the pan over medium heat. Cook, whisking frequently, until the cooking liquid comes up to a boil and the cornmeal starts to thicken. It’s at this point where you can cover the pot with a lid to avoid being exposed to bursts of polenta lava, and slide the pot right into the oven. While it’s baking in the oven for the next hour, you can do other things instead of babysitting polenta. My life was changed when I learned about this technique!
Once the polenta is done cooking, regardless of my final plans for it, I always finish it with grated cheese such as Parmesan or goat cheese, salt and pepper. From here, you have several options for serving:
- Serve it as is for a comforting bowl of goodness.
- Serve it piping hot and creamy topped with braised meat, fish or shellfish of any kind.
- Top it with some delicious sautéed vegetables or mushrooms.
- Pour it into a baking dish, allow it to chill and then cut into slices or strips. The slices or strips can then be baked or pan fried for a crispy exterior. We make polenta “fries” with our leftover polenta, and it’s always a hit.
- See Chef Quincy’s blog here for some other great serving suggestions and info on polenta and grits.
- And last but not least, follow my recipe for polenta pie.
Polenta Pie with Sautéed Mushrooms, Spinach and Goat Cheese
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Yield: 6 servings
Active time: 40 minutes
Start to finish: 1 hour, 20 minutes
8 cups water, chicken stock or vegetable stock
2 cups cornmeal or dry polenta, medium ground
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound mushrooms such as cremini, button, portobello or oyster, cut into bite-size pieces
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups baby spinach leaves
2 tablespoons fresh sage, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Pan spray as needed
8 to 10 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1 cup your favorite marinara sauce, warmed
1. Preheat the oven to 350°.
2. In a heavy saucepan, whisk together your cooking liquid of choice and cornmeal. Set over medium heat and cook, whisking frequently, until the cooking liquid comes up to a boil.
3. Cover with a lid and transfer the pot into the oven. Allow the polenta to cook for 1 hour.
4. While the polenta is cooking, prepare the mushrooms. Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat, and add the olive oil and butter. Sauté the mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until caramelized and tender.
5. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds.
6. Stir in the spinach, and continue to cook until just wilted. Add the fresh sage, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
7. When the polenta is done, remove the pot from the oven, whisk in the 1 cup parmesan cheese and season with salt and pepper to taste.
8. Spray a 9x11-inch or 7x11-inch baking dish with pan spray, and pour in half of the polenta.
9. Top with the spinach-mushroom mixture followed by the crumbled goat cheese. Top with the remaining polenta followed by a sprinkling of the 1/2 cup parmesan cheese.
10. Increase the oven temperature to 400°.
11. Bake the polenta pie until bubbly and golden brown on top, about 40 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes.
12. Cut the pie into squares and serve with a spoonful of warm marinara sauce.
My inspiration for the polenta pie with mushrooms was inspired by the absolutely gorgeous oyster mushrooms I received from fellow Chopping Block chef, Josh Almanza.
But, you can add any sautéed vegetables you like or add any cooked protein of choice. Feel free to add a drizzle of tomato sauce in between the layers of polenta for some bright acidity, or to change up the type of cheese. This can be completely and totally customized based on your liking and what you have at home.
Because polenta and grits are so delicious and versatile, we created a new virtual workshop featuring some creative ways in which to use these grains. Join us on Saturday, March 12th from 2-4pm for a cook along featuring our very own Shelley Young, chef and owner of The Chopping Block!
Cooking with polenta and/or grits is this week's challenge for our private Facebook group members. Join the group and share your dish to inspire and get inspiration from other home cooks!