Something happens to time in the thick of summer. It simultaneously moves briskly and haltingly, landing us in September or October still decked out in our flip flops and sunglasses, cold drink in hand, wondering how we landed months ahead when just a moment ago we were laughing with friends around the grill. This incongruence of time hits me in the kitchen, especially at dinner time, when it is both late and early, the sun keeping us company well into those languid evening hours. I want to eat something that matches this divergence of time in this season - something that is at once simple and lavish, understated and exquisite. Although I tend to happen upon this impasse every year, my solution tends to vary ever summer. Some summers I’ve resorted to grilled pizza, others it’s been risotto. This year has been the season of polenta. Whether grilled, broiled, sauteed, or creamy, I can’t get enough of its versatility and willingness to host or be hosted by each and every pairing I’ve sent its way. If you’ve been finding yourself standing in a daze in a sun dappled kitchen, wondering what dinner should be, look no further. Here are my tips and tricks for mastering polenta and harnessing summer’s lazy, break-neck pace.
To start, you need a good polenta recipe. I use organic, non-GMO dry polenta. If you know you’re going to grill, broil or saute it, you can also buy prepared polenta. It is more expensive (and in my opinion, less tasty) than dry polenta, but it’s great if you’re in a rush. That said, making homemade polenta isn’t difficult and is very cost effective.
4 cups of broth or stock (if you don’t have any, you can use water)
1 tablespoon cultured butter
1 ½ teaspoons salt (if your broth is salty, you’ll want to decrease the amount of salt)
1 cup of dry, organic polenta
½ cup freshly grated cheese
Bring the salt and broth to a boil over medium high heat in a large pot. Slowly add the polenta, whisking as you go to prevent lumps. Whisk continuously until the polenta begins to thicken, then reduce heat to low. Stir frequently using a wooden spoon and taking care to incorporate the polenta at the edges of the pot. Taste every ten minutes or so - the longer you cook it, the more the individual grains will soften. Some people prefer a grittier, firmer grain, some prefer the longer cooked softness. As the grains soften, the flavor will change and become more sweet. The polenta is finished when you like how it tastes and feels. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter and cheese.
If you are serving your polenta soft, as a bed for vegetables or meats, you are essentially done at this point. I like to top my polenta with a dollop of butter or sour cream, a sprinkle of maldon salt, and a little more grated cheese before adding other toppings.
If you are making polenta to grill, bake, broil, or saute, you’ll want to scoop it into a well greased container or pan (parchment paper is also your friend here) and pop it into the fridge to thicken. Within a few hours, the polenta will have solidified nicely and become easy to slice.
Now that you’ve made your polenta, what should you do with it?
If you’re serving it soft (which is my favorite, by the way. There’s something so comforting and downright indulgent about it), it can be a bed for grilled meats or vegetables (hot or cold - though you’ll want the polenta hot), or you can top it with a sauce made of fresh tomatoes (again, cold or hot). If you don’t mind standing over a hot stove for a minute, you can quickly saute (or even roast) a medley of vegetables to serve on top. Truly, any vegetable works here.
Try using soft polenta as a bed for:
Wilted greens with garlic and vinegar
Chopped tomatoes with fresh herbs
Grilled peppers and eggplant with feta cheese
Green beans sauteed with garlic (deglaze the pan with a splash of white wine - yum!)
Chilled roasted beets with garlic and dill quark
Grilled sausage, zucchini, and onions
Fresh tomato sauce and a drizzle of high quality olive oil
If you want to sear your polenta, slice it into pieces about ½ inch thick. Brush the slices with olive oil and then broil, pan sear, or grill about three minutes per side, until crisp and golden. Serve these crispy polenta slices with grilled or fresh vegetables and a drizzle of good olive oil. Top with a few shavings of cheese and some chopped herbs.
Alternatively, place sliced polenta in the bottom of an oiled baking dish, and bake at 350 degrees until beginning to crisp, about 15 minutes. Top this crust with any vegetables of your choosing: fresh sliced tomatoes, sauteed onions and summer squash, grilled eggplant and torn basil leaves...top with a generous layer of freshly grated cheese and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and return to the oven for 15-20 minutes longer, until bubbling and golden.