Easier polenta, inspired toppings


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Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2013, 9:25 am
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By Russ Parsons
In most cases, I'm a terribly traditional cook. If there is a longer, slower, more manual way to do something, almost invariably I will prefer it. But even I push tradition aside when I find an alternative that not only is easier but also tastes as good or better.

Which brings me to polenta, a dish that is about as traditional as Italian cooking gets (I know one terrific cook in the Piedmont who keeps a wood-burning stove in her very modern kitchen that is used only for its preparation). But 15 years ago, cookbook author Paula Wolfert called to say that she had found a terrific shortcut — in a cookbook by Michele Anna Jordan, who, it turns out, discovered it on the back of a bag of polenta.

As someone who always was exploring ways to avoid the constant stirring that polenta seems to require, I was skeptical. But there's no arguing with the results: Mix water, cornmeal and salt, and bake without disturbing, stir and then bake a little longer. The result? Perfect, deeply flavored polenta. Since then, what had been an occasional luxury has become a weekend staple.

Can there be anything better on a chilly night than a big bowl of polenta topped with a ragu with sausage and short ribs? Well, yes, actually. Lately I've been trying a new twist on polenta. Instead of making it in a pot, I use a gratin dish and then, once the polenta is cooked, I strew over some toppings and return it to the oven for one last bake.

The beauty of it is that you can make so many great toppings in the hour or so the polenta is baking.

One of my favorites, inspired by an idea from Yotam Ottolenghi's "Plenty," is to saute mushrooms and arrange them over the top along with shredded Fontina cheese. Or you can make a quick tomato sauce, studded with browned cubes of pancetta. I've made this the simple way — with just onions and garlic — but I find that adding diced carrots and celery gives a sweeter, more rounded flavor to the sauce.

One word of advice: Even stores that should know better will sometimes sell finely ground cornmeal as "polenta." It's not. The flavor is more bitter and the texture is stiffer. You want coarsely ground meal. Try Bob's Red Mill product, which is labeled "corn grits: also known as polenta."

Considering how easy it is to make, and how delicious, it's an investment worth making.

Polenta gratin with mushrooms and fontina
Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Servings: 6 as appetizer, 4 as main course.
Note: Inspired in part by a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi's "Plenty"; the polenta technique comes from Golden Pheasant polenta.
1 cup polenta
4 cups water
Salt
Butter
6 ounces crimini mushrooms, sliced
4 ounces shimeji mushrooms, bottoms removed
2 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1/4 pound Fontina cheese, sliced

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the polenta in a 2-quart gratin dish, and stir in the water and 1 teaspoon salt. Bake for 45 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter and return the polenta to the oven for 15 more minutes.
Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and sprinkle with one-fourth teaspoon salt, or to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms give up their moisture, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the rosemary and continue cooking until the mushrooms are dry, 3 to 4 more minutes.
When the polenta is done, taste and add more salt if necessary. Tear the soft Fontina slices into shreds and distribute them over the top of the polenta. Scatter the cooked mushrooms over the top and return the pan to the oven until the cheese has melted and begins to brown, about 5 minutes.

Each of 6 servings: 241 calories; 9 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 14 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 42 mg cholesterol; 1 gram sugar; 640 mg sodium.

Polenta gratin with pancetta and tomato sauce
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Servings: 6 as an appetizer, 4 as a main course
Note: The polenta technique comes from Golden Pheasant polenta.
1 cup polenta
4 cups water
Salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 pound pancetta, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 cup diced onion
1/4 cup diced carrot
2 tablespoons diced celery
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups chopped tomatoes, with their juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ounce grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the polenta in a 2-quart gratin dish and stir in the water and 1 teaspoon salt. Bake for 45 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter and return the polenta to the oven for 15 more minutes. Taste and add more salt if necessary.
While the polenta is baking, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the diced pancetta and cook until it is browned, about 10 minutes.
Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the fat and add the onion, carrot and celery, and cook until the vegetables have softened, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, season with one-half teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper, and cook until the liquid has all but evaporated and the tomatoes have thickened into a sauce, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and remove from the heat.
When the polenta is fully cooked, spoon the pancetta and tomato sauce over the top. Scatter the Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top and return to the oven to bake until the cheese is melted, about 10 minutes.

Each of 6 servings: 253 calories; 5 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 15 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 23 mg cholesterol; 2 grams sugar; 771 mg sodium.

















 



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  Today is Friday, Aug. 22, the 234th day of 2014. There are 131 days left in the year.
1864 -- 150 years ago: The ferry boat, Rock Island, having been put in good order at the boat yard is now making her regular trips, much to the gratification of those who have to cross the river.
1889 -- 125 years ago: W.J. Gamble, for many years superintendent of the Moline & Rock Island railway, leased the Fourth Avenue Hotel and renovated and refurnished it throughout.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Pending the building of new public schools or additions to the present ones to provide adequate room for all the children, the board of education decided that pupils younger than 6 years old would not be accepted in Rock Island schools.
1939 -- 75 years ago: The fifth annual New Windsor Fair and Horse show, which has been delayed for two days because of unfavorable weather, got off to a new start last night. The parade was held this morning.
1964 -- 50 years ago: The Rock Island County Fair and Rodeo will celebrate its silver anniversary this year. The fair opens Tuesday and will run through Saturday and offers entertainment and activity for young and old.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Earl Hanson School, Rock Island, joins the Program to Assist Latch Key Student, which aids working parents. PALS is a before and after school program for grades 1-6 in certain Rock Island public and private schools.




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