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Pimpin' Polenta

Polenta, grits, cornmeal mush—whatever you want to call it—can be pretty bland by itself so I give it a jumpstart in the flavor department by cooking it in homemade vegetable stock. The stock gives the polenta a well-rounded richness that works well with a large variety of vegetables, meats, and cheeses. If you’re serving your polenta with meat, cook the polenta in a complementary stock or broth: chicken stock with roast chicken, ham stock with sausages, shrimp stock with shrimp or seafood…you get the idea.

This recipe gives you two options for polenta: “puddle polenta” which is like a creamy, warm, corny version of mashed potatoes, or “formed polenta” which is allowed to firm up and is then cut into shapes and baked.

Polenta requires patience: you need to stand and stir for awhile. Personally, depending on where I’m at in my head, I find it either very meditative or slightly annoying. If you’re impatient, put together a “polenta mix” and after singing out loud to four or five of your favorite songs, you’ll have a delicious steaming bowl of polenta as your reward!

The puddle polenta makes four huge servings while the formed polenta depends on how you cut it.

Puddle Polenta

4 cups homemade or low-sodium vegetable stock or broth

½ - 1 tsp salt (I use 1 tsp for my homemade stock and less for store-bought—taste your stock first for saltiness)

1 TBS unsalted butter

1 cup polenta, yellow grits, or coarse grind cornmeal

1-1/4 cups milk

Salt & pepper to taste

Add the vegetable stock, salt, and butter to a large saucepan. Cover the pan and place on medium-high heat. Bring to a boil. Remove the lid and slowly whisk in the polenta. Reduce the heat to medium-low and whisk gently for 5 minutes. Be careful: the polenta will sputter.

Reduce the heat to low. Exchange a wooden spoon for the whisk and slowly add in 1 cup of milk. Cook for 15 – 20 more minutes, stirring gently and continuously, until the liquid is completely absorbed and the polenta is creamy. Remove from the heat. Gently stir in the last ¼ cup of milk. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pour polenta into a large serving bowl or on a platter. Top with your favorite braised or roasted meats or vegetables. Or top with pats of butter (or drizzle with olive oil) and sprinkle your favorite grated cheese on top (parmesan, pecorino, grana padano, cheddar, pepper jack, smoked gouda). Serve immediately.

Or, at this point, use it to make Baked Polenta

1 TBS unsalted butter

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

Olive oil

Grease an 8 x 8 casserole or baking dish with the butter. Pour the cooked polenta into the dish and spread evenly. The polenta will begin to firm. Allow the polenta to cool completely. Cover the dish with foil and place the polenta in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.

Remove the polenta from the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Gently flip the polenta onto a cutting board. Cut into equal-sized pieces or use a cookie cutter.

Line a sheet pan with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper. Place the polenta onto the sheet pan. Equally distribute the parmesan cheese on top of the polenta. Drizzle with olive oil.

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until the cheese is melted and golden brown. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Don’t Freak Out!

1) The formed polenta can also be cut and shallow or deep-fried or grilled instead of baked.

If you’re deep-frying it, I recommend breading the polenta first. Set up a breading station: in one pan, add flour; in a second, add one egg beaten with a splash of water; and in a third, add your favorite breadcrumbs (panko, plain, seasoned, homemade). Coat the polenta in flour and shake off the excess. Dip it into the egg. Coat it on all sides in the breadcrumbs. Set aside. Heat a neutral-flavored oil in your deep fryer (or large deep pan) to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Slowly add the polenta and cook for a few minutes or until golden brown; do this in batches, you don't want to overcrowd the polenta. Remove the polenta from the fryer with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately with your favorite marinara or pizza sauce, aioli, cocktail sauce, salsa, chutney, or applesauce.

If you’re grilling the polenta in a grill pan, heat the pan for at least 5 minutes on medium-high. Brush the pan and each side of the polenta with canola or vegetable oil. Place the polenta on the grill pan gently. Do not move the polenta (otherwise, you’ll have a mess). Cook for 3 – 5 minutes or until the polenta has golden brown grill marks and can be easily removed with a spatula. Flip the polenta over and repeat. Serve with grilled meats, vegetables, or fish.

2) Don’t want to stand and stir? Buy quick-cooking polenta or grits and follow the package directions, using vegetable stock instead of water.

3) Make it vegan. Use unsweetened coconut milk or additional vegetable broth for the milk. Omit the butter. When you serve the puddle polenta, you can drizzle it with olive oil.

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