The Other Polenta

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The most well known version of Italian polenta, in my experience, is the soft and creamy porridge style – what we call grits in the United States. Savory and hearty for breakfast or as a dish served similar to risotto – topped with braised mushrooms, grilled shrimp, or simply with cheese. If you want a grits recipe, check out grits with eggs and red sauce.

But there’s another way to prepare and serve polenta, which I’m calling “the other polenta.” It also deserves a little attention and respect.

This kind of polenta is more like a soft yet dense cornbread. As with American cornbread, this bread-like polenta is wonderful served with stews, pasta, soups, or even salads. It also makes a fabulous appetizer, topped with cheese and served with white wine.

Lorenza de-Medici refers to this polenta appetizer as crostini di polenta. In her cookbook The Villa Table, she states, “I always make more polenta than a recipe requires in order to have some for making crostini for the next day!” It’s a great idea!

I’ve seen polenta used in so many ways in Italian cookbooks, like molded into a timbale served with a meaty ragu, or as dumplings, or layered into a casserole or pie. But however polenta is used, it comes down to preparing the softer creamy version, or the drier, sliceable variety that I’m making today.

So here’s how make the other polenta:

Have 2 cups of cornmeal on hand in a bowl.
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Heat 6 cups of slightly salted water in a heavy pot on the stove over high heat. When it comes to a boil, slowly pour in the cornmeal.
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Whisk well, then turn the heat down to the lowest position, cover the pot and let the polenta cook for 30 minutes.
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Remove the lid and give the polenta a stir. Depending on the grind of the cornmeal, it might be cooked already. Give it a taste and test if it’s gritty, which would indicate more cooking time required.

My polenta looks a bit grainy because it’s a coarser grind, but it’s fully cooked.
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Add a little more water if you feel it could stick to the pot, but keep the additional water to a minimum. Then cover and cook for 10-15 minutes more, still over the lowest possible heat.

Butter a 9″ x 13″ cake pan. You can also use a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan.


While still hot, pour the polenta into the pan. (If you want to make this kind of polenta the traditional way, you can also pour the polenta onto a large, clean work surface or board.)
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Let the polenta cool completely, even overnight, covered tightly with foil.

When you are ready to finish the polenta, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Sprinkle the cooled polenta with grated cheese; I used Gruyère.
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Then bake the polenta until the cheese barely browns a bit, about 30 minutes. The baking of the polenta dries it out, or solidifies it more, if you will, plus it melts the cheese. This step could probably be done under the broiler if you feel your polenta is stiff enough to already slice.

Remove the pan from the oven and set aside to cool slightly.
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To slice, flip the pan of polenta over onto a large platter, then flip it onto a cutting board, cheesy side up. Alternatively, slice inside your pan if it’s not non-stick like mine.


Cut squares or strips of polenta and serve warm. With wine, of course.
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Today I served the baked polenta with a fresh asparagus soup!
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Alternatively, you can cut squares or shapes of the polenta, place them on an oiled baking sheet and then bake them. I’ve seen so many different variations that I don’t think it matters as long as you eventually get to the lovely cheesy polenta. In fact, I’ve seen polenta squares fried on both sides before serving, and also grilled. But I like the easier way of keeping everything in the cake pan, then slicing.

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If you love polenta or grits, you will surely loved baked polenta!
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note: You can use chicken broth in this recipe if you feel the polenta might be too bland for your taste.

Grits with Eggs and Red Sauce

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Many years ago I came across a recipe for grits with eggs and a red sauce. It was similar to shakshuska, a Middle Eastern dish of baked eggs in red sauce, shown below, but with grits!

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I never had grits until my husband and I visited Charleston, South Carolina, for business a long time ago. We ate at a lovely restaurant And I hesitantly ordered shrimp with grits. I think I assumed grits would be too “corny” for me, but they’re not. They’re lovely, and just as much fun to cook as risotto. Below are pumpkin grits I made last fall. So many variations are possible.
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For grits, I prefer the coarse-grained variety, which do take longer to cook, but I prefer the texture. I’ve noticed that the words “polenta” and “grits” are both on the package now!

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There used to be much confusion about the difference, but there is no difference. To make it more complicated, grits and polenta are also cornmeal.

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Grits with Eggs in Red Sauce
Adapted from Baked Eggs in Creamy Polenta and Pepperoni Tomato Sauce

3 cups water
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup grits
Approximately 1/2 cup cream
Red Sauce
4 tablespooons butter
4 eggs
Goat or feta cheese, optional

Place the water and butter in a deep pot over high heat. When the water boils, add the grits.

Stir, and continue to stir, with the heat on medium. I always have about a cup of water handy to add to the grits as they thicken. It seems that more liquid is required than what is stated on the package recipe.

After about 10 minutes or so, when the grits have cooked about halfway, add cream. Continue to cook the grits, and add even more water if necessary.
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When you feel the grits aren’t thickening up anymore, set them aside.

Make the eggs sunny-side up, over-easy, poached, or soft-boiled. It’s your choice. I used 1 tablespoon of butter per egg and cooked them sunny-side up in a skillet. Add a little dab of butter right before they’re fully cooked.

To serve, spoon the grits into a pasta bowl.
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Place some heated red sauce over the grits and, using a spoon, form a hole in the middle.

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Then place the cooked egg in the hole along with any butter from the skillet.

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Crumble some goat cheese and sprinkle on top.
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You can also add chopped chives or parsley.

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It’s a wonderful and hearty breakfast, but I’d certainly eat this for dinner as well!
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If you wanted to bake the eggs in the grits, like in the original recipe, you must use an oven-proof serving dish or prepare all four servings in a skillet.
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But I would make sure that the grits are first on the runny side. They will thicken – especially in the oven.
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Pumpkin Polenta

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Over the years I’ve been asked quite frequently about the difference between polenta and grits. But they are the same thing – essentially, cornmeal. Polenta is the Italian name for the dish, and grits are well known in the states as a Southern staple. They are both a savory porridge of sorts, made with ground corn. The only thing that is different is the grind of the cornmeal. There are finer grinds and coarser ones.

The reason I love polenta (and grits) is that I can do wonderful things with it depending on my mood and the season. For example, with fall approaching, I’ve begun stocking up on one of my favorite canned ingredient – pumpkin puree. I add pumpkin to soups, stews, pastas, meat loaves, risottos, and today, polenta. Pumpkin not only complements the cornmeal flavor, but it creates a beautiful orange color as well. It just screams autumn!

When you go to cook your cornmeal as polenta, you need to read the package directions. Because polenta comes in various grinds, the cooking times vary. Just as with purchased pasta, read the directions. Also keep in mind that cornmeal nearly triples in volume when it cooks, so unless you’re cooking for an army, don’t be tempted to use more than 1 cup of polenta, which is perfect for 4-5 servings. Here’s what I did.

This post is also at The Not So Creative Cook today. Jhuls is the author of this blog, and she actually is very creative! She was kind enough to ask me for a guest post, and I chose this dish because of fall approaching, although not fast enough for me. She used the Pumpkin Polenta for Fiesta Friday, which is a weekly post created by Angie over at The Novice Gardener.

Pumpkin Polenta

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 can pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup medium-grind cornmeal

In a large pot, heat the butter and oil over medium-heat until the butter just browns. Add the onion and stir, lower the heat to medium low. Sauté the onion for about 3-4 minutes.

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Add the garlic and cook for just about 30 seconds, then stir in the broth, pumpkin, and salt.

Turn up the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Using a whisk, slowly pour in the cornmeal. Lower the heat and simmer the polenta, whisking occasionally, until all of the liquid is incorporated.
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If it gets too thick, add a little more liquid. This process should only take about 8-10 minutes unless you’re using a coarser cornmeal.

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Serve with grated cheese, if desired, such as Parmesan, or, in my case, Monterey Jack!

If you want your polenta a little more decadent, substitute some heavy cream or even goat’s milk for some of the broth.

Just think of the ways you can make polenta! Add pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, both fresh and dried, ancho chile paste, achiote oil – you name it!

note: Just like oatmeal, polenta will keep thickening with time. If you need to refrigerate any leftover polenta, make it really soupy before you store it. Only then will you have a chance of not discovering a cornmeal frisbee in your frig the next day!

Double Corn Grits

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There’s nothing quite like fresh corn, especially just picked. Where I live in the Midwestern U.S., corn is a major crop, so it’s readily available and extremely inexpensive. So in the summer, I like to use it in as many ways possible. Some of you may live in areas where corn must be imported, so your choice of corn might be limited to canned varieties, which unfortunately do not compare.

I’m not going to say that canned corn is completely off limits in my kitchen. I have used it, but it’s just not the same, which isn’t surprising, because what is better canned commercially rather than fresh?

Today I’m making grits, which is essentially cornmeal or polenta, and adding cooked corn to it. I mean, why not? Fresh corn has a very different flavor from grits/polenta/cornmeal, so it will just add another layer of corn flavor. So if you love corn…

Double Corn Polenta

3 corn on the cobs, husked
3 cups water
1 cup polenta or grits
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter
Cream or milk

Cook the corn on the cobs until done, about 7 minutes in boiling water. Drain and set aside to cool.
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Meanwhile, pour the water into a medium saucepan or polenta pot. Heat to boiling, then whisk in the grits, salt, and butter.

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Whisking occasionally, cook the grits until it has absorbed all of the liquid. This should take about 15 – 20 minutes on medium heat.
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Turn the heat to low, and cook the polenta for about another ten minutes or so, adding cream as necessary as the polenta thickens. You will probably use about 1/2 cup of cream at least. The amount will depend on how coarsely ground your polenta is, which is why I’m not using an exact measurement. You will know when the polenta is completely cooked.

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Cut the corn off of the cobs, then break the pieces up to get the individual corn kernels. Then add them to the polenta.

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Stir well and taste for seasoning. For this polenta I kept it simple, but you could add cayenne pepper, hot paprika, ground chipotle pepper or ground ancho chile pepper, or just about any herb, fresh or dried.

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I topped the double corn polenta with slices of filet, and sprinkled everything with fresh tomato, goat cheese, and a chiffonade of fresh basil.
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note: If you’ve never made grits or polenta, give it a try. Grits are inexpensive, and one cup of the dried ground corn makes a lot of servings.

Also, I did publish this post last summer, but I’ve been spending a lot of extra time with my pregnant daughter when her husband is out of town. Priorities people!!! Hope you’re having a lovely summer!

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Shrimp and Grits

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I first had shrimp and grits when I tagged along on a business trip my husband took to Charleston, South Carolina. I only ordered grits one night, also with shrimp, because it was the thing to have in Charleston. I’d previously not been a huge cornmeal fan.

Well, thank you Charleston. I’m a huge fan now. The secret is butter, cream and cheese. Which, of course, can make anything better.

So I’m making some good grits today that will be served with shrimp and some Andouille sausage for a Creole flair. Hope you like this dish!

Creamy Grits with Shrimp and Sausage

1 1/4 cups water
1 1/4 cup milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups grits, I use a medium grind of cornmeal
1 1/4 – 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
8 ounces Monterey jack cheese, grated
2 tablespoons oil
12 ounces Andouille sausage, sliced
1 pound shrimp, cleaned, shelled, dried
salt, pepper

Add the water, milk, and butter to a dutch oven over medium heat until the butter melts.

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Then add the grits and cook them, whisking constantly, and adding a little cream at a time. This is almost like making risotto, although eventually you can quit whisking.

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Continue adding some cream until the cornmeal quits absorbing it. This could take about 30 minutes. When you’re sure it’s done, and quits thickening, add the white pepper and thyme.

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Then stir in the grated cheese. Set the grits aside.

Put a large skillet over high heat and add the oil. Add the sausage slices and brown them on both sides. When they’re all browned, scoop them up with a slotted spoon and place them in a large bowl. But keep the skillet on the stove with the oil.

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Salt and pepper all of the shrimp.

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Heat the skillet again over medium-high heat. Then add the shrimp, in batches, and cook them until they are opaque. This only takes a minute. Place the cooked shrimp in the bowl with the sausage, and continue with the remaining shrimp.

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When it is time to serve, have your grits, shrimp, and sausage all warm. Place some of the grits in a pasta bowl. Then top with the shrimp and sausage.

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I also sprinkled what I thought was paprika over the top, but it turns out it was Old Bay seasoning, which worked out well, thank goodness! I would have added some cayenne, as well, but I assumed the Andouille sausage would be spicier.

This meal was delightful with a glass of riesling.

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note: You don’t have to use all of the cream and butter, but I just like creamy grits. I’m not going to eat them made only with water and a drizzle of milk. Ridiculous. So I dress them up into buttery, cheesy, creamy goodness!

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Cuscuz de Galinha

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I fell in love with this Latin American dish, not just because it’s so pretty, but because of the peasant nature of it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Essentially it’s cooked, meat-filled cornmeal layered with peas, that’s then topped with hard-boiled eggs, hearts of palm, tomato slices, and olives. Then the whole thing is steamed before it’s served. I just had to try it.

The origin of this recipe, which translates into “Molded Steamed Chicken, Cornmeal and Vegetables,” is Brazil. The Feijoada I made also originates from Brazil, and interestingly enough, is also served with orange slices. The fanciful nature of this dish makes me wonder if it’s one that is served on a special holiday, but I couldn’t find any info on that.

The recipe I used is from the Time-Life series Foods of the World – my old stand-by cookbooks. This one – Latin American Cooking. I made a few necessary changes, but nothing that compromised the dish. I will type the recipe up exactly how I did it.

Truthfully, the recipe pushed me a little out of my comfort zone just because I’m not used to doing such fiddly presentations, but I challenged my patience and just stuck with it. The good thing? This is a fabulous dish!!!

Cuscuz de Galinha

Chicken:
6 chicken breasts*
1/4 cup white vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 large tomato, chopped, seeded
1 cup chicken stock

Line the bottom of a large skillet with the chicken breasts, then add the next seven ingredients.

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Place the skillet in the fridge and marinate the chicken overnight.

The next morning, cook the chicken in the marinade for about 10 minutes, using tongs to move the breasts around. Then add the chopped tomato and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then cook, uncovered, for about 30 minutes.

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Transfer the chicken to a plate, and strain the marinade, keeping the juices in a large bowl.

When the chicken has cooled, slice it up into narrow slices, and add to the juices, tossing to moisten the chicken.

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Chorizo:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound chorizo, crumbled

In another skillet, heat the olive oil over high heat, then add the sausage and cook them until they have browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Place the sausage on some paper towels to drain.

When they have fully drained, add the chorizo to the chicken mixture.

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Cornmeal:

4 cups yellow cornmeal, medium grind
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups boiling water
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1-2 tablespoons hot sauce (optional)

Place the cornmeal in a large pot and add the salt. Add the boiling water, and stirring constantly, incorporate the water into the cornmeal.

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Then stir in the butter, olive oil, and parsley.

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Add the chicken and chorizo and some of the juices if you think the cornmeal needs a little moistening.

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Preparation:

3 tomatoes, seeded, sliced about 1/8″ thin
hearts of palm from a can, rinsed, dried, sliced about 1/8″ thin
4 hard-boiled eggs, cut crosswise into 1/8″ slices
Pimiento-stuffed green olives, cut crosswise into 1/8″ slices
1 cup thoroughly defrosted peas
Oranges, for serving

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Grease the inside of a large colander, the finer holes the better. If you’re using large tomatoes, center a tomato slice in the middle bottom of the colander. If you’re using smaller tomatoes, just be as creative as you can be with the design. Build the design outward, using the hearts of palm, eggs, more tomatoes, and olives.

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When you are done with lining the colander, place one-third of the meat and cornmeal mixture in the bottom of the colander and press down lightly. Try to lay the chicken slices horizontally, so you end up with a layered effect. Top with half of the peas.

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Continue with one-third of the cornmeal mixture topped with the remaining peas, then press the remaining cornmeal mixture on top, smoothing the top.

Cover the colander tightly and place it in a large pot; the bottom of the colander should be above the bottom of the pot. Add water to within about one inch from the bottom of the colander, then cover everything tightly, either with foil or a tightly-fitting lid.

Proceed to steam for one hour, making sure the water doesn’t completely evaporate.

After one hour, let the dish cool slightly, then turn it over onto a serving plate.

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To serve, carefully slice a wedge, and serve it with orange slices.

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* I used chicken breasts because a certain person who eats my food only eats breasts of chicken. But if I had my way I would have used thighs, or a whole chicken, cut into pieces.

note: The name cuscuz is interesting, and the origin is intriguing, although this isn’t a wheat couscous like in the Middle East. However, the “grains” of cornmeal stay separated like a couscous, but maybe because I used a medium-grind, whole-grain cornmeal.

Verdict: I will probably never make this dish again, but not because it doesn’t taste good. I would actually make a deconstructed Cuscuz de Galinha in the future, because all of the components are really good. It was fun to try.

Achiote Cornbread

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I’m not a huge cornbread lover. For one thing, when I first tried it after I moved to Texas a million years ago, it was way too sweet. And unnecessarily sweet. So I stayed away from it for years. But then I started making it from scratch, and ignoring the sugar. I like it much better sugar-free – besides, corn is already sweet!

But, the great thing I’ve learned about making cornbread is that you can do so many different things to it to make it your own, and really compliment whatever entrée you’re serving with it. Cornbread can be Southwestern with the addition of chile peppers, or it can be Mediterranean with the addition of olives. You can herb it up in the summer, or add any kind of flavor during the winter months like sun-dried tomato pesto. And, of course, you can always add cheese!!!

Today I wanted my cornbread fairly plain, but I wanted a little flavor enhancement and beautiful color from achiote oil. So here’s my recipe for Skillet Cornbread with Achiote Oil.

Achiote Cornbread

Dry Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1/2 cup white flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Wet Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups buttermilk, at room temperature
2 eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons achiote oil, plus a little more
6 tablespoons melted butter

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Have a 10 – 12″ iron skillet on your stove.

Get your dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Then place the buttermilk, eggs, and achiote oil in a medium bowl. Whisk until smooth. Have your melted butter handy.

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When your oven has preheated, turn on the heat under your skillet and let it pre-heat.

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Combine the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients, whisking just until smooth.

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Using a little extra achiote oil, grease the skillet. Then pour the batter into the hot skillet, an immediately place it in the oven.

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Bake for 18 minutes. It should be nice and golden and the middle should be somewhat firm to the touch.

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Remove the skillet from the oven and let the cornbread cool a little for about ten minutes. Loosen the sides, then remove the cornbread onto a cutting board.

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Slice into wedges and serve warm!