Plentiful Polenta

Earlier this week I did my first WIAW, which featured some nice, creamy polenta I had with garlic spinach for dinner that night.

Polenta is something that was completely unknown to me until about 3 years ago while I was living in California. I had purchased a log of polenta from Trader Joe’s one day after hearing rave reviews about the stuff online.

When I said it was a log, I wasn't kidding!

I would slice it into disks, sear it in a hot pan, and top it with sliced chicken, cheese, veggies… whatever I had on hand and was in the mood to eat. Though I definitely loved it, I never really considered making my own until I saw someone do so on a TV cooking show.

I learned a lot about polenta after seeing it being made from scratch on TV! First, it’s made from cornmeal – the stuff that corn bread is made from! Go figure! Secondly, it is not too different from grits (which I always thought I hated, but apparently if I like polenta, I like grits!) other than the texture of the meal and how it is presented. Thirdly, it can be served/prepared in two very distinct ways: soft/creamy or solid.

Soft polenta is similar to how grits are served in the south: hot and creamy. The basic polenta recipe I’ve gotten down to memory is so simple and, depending on your dietary needs, can be easily go from omnivorous to vegan with just a few easy substitutions!

Basic Creamy Polenta
Serves four.

  • 1 cup of corn meal
  • 4 cups of water
  • a dash of salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter (or vegan substitute, such as Earth Balance)
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese (or nutritional yeast)

Bring water to a boil. Add salt and slowly add polenta while whisking simultaneously. Lower heat to medium-low and whisk for about 3-5 minutes or until there are no clumps. Lower heat to low and leave covered for 20-30 minutes or until thickened. Uncover and add butter and nutritional yeast, whisking until combined. Serve while hot.

Add herbs or other spices of your own liking if you want to get creative!

On Wednesday I simply added some chopped fresh basil and a generous helping of Trader Joe’s Everyday Seasoning. (Seriously, buy this. Now!)

Because the above recipe makes 4 very large servings, and I’d only eaten about 3/4 of one serving on Wednesday, I had enough to try something new: making solid polenta, similar to the aforementioned TJ’s roll o’ polenta. It’s ridiculously easy to go from soft polenta to solid polenta; best of all, it requires no additional cooking or ingredients! *gasp!*

Four Steps from Soft Polenta to Solid Polenta
Again, serves four.

  1. Make polenta following the Basic Polenta recipe above.
  2. Pour polenta into a lightly greased or parchment paper lined 9×9 pan.
  3. Put in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, but overnight is best.
  4. Once completely chilled, the polenta is solid… and you’re done!

So, after I was done eating my soft polenta, I poured the rest into a 9×9 pan, following the steps above. When dinner time rolled around on Thursday, I simply sliced it into quarters and pan-seared two of the quarters in a lightly [sesame-]oiled pan until golden on each side.

Getting my polenta nice and crispy!

Note: I was impatient with the square on the right and tried flipping it after a mere 3 minutes of searing. Well, it wasn’t even close to being solid at that point, so it nearly ended up stuck to my wooden spatula. From my trial-and-error-and-error-again method, here are some tips.

  • Use at least 1 tbsp of oil. Polenta is sticky and unforgiving.
  • Don’t be scared to put your pan on medium-high heat. I had it on medium at first, and all that did was start to “melt” the polenta into the soft, near-liquid form it was on Wednesday. If you want to get a good sear, you need to use higher temps.
  • Be patient. Wait at least 5 minutes (it took 7 for me) before your first attempt at flipping the polenta.
  • Use the thinnest spatula you have. My wooden spatula basically jabbed at the sear on the bottom of one of the polenta squares, removing the cripsy portion and spilling soft polenta in globs all over my pan. When I switched to a thinner plastic spatula, it worked much better.

Nicely crisped polenta topped with vegan "cheez" sauce, black beans, and salsa.

Not bad for supper, eh?

I definitely need to work on my mad polenta skillz, yo, but I think my first attempt was a success in that it was edible for not one day, but two!