Saturday, March 5, 2011

My First Venture into Polenta

For almost 30 years (yikes), I've avoided polenta. I'm not sure what it was that turned me against it ... most likely my mom's insistence that she didn't like it. It also doesn't exactly look appetizing. But somehow Bill got it in his head that he would like it, and he demanded that I make it. (Well, "demanded" might be a strong word, but he did request it with conviction.)

I figured as I become more and more adventurous with my cooking, it wouldn't be a bad idea to try it. I encountered a bit of an obstacle, though, as polenta seems to be hard to find. My America's Test Kitchen book had a lengthy note on buying polenta, saying that it can often be referred to as coarse-ground cornmeal, yellow grits, or as we eventually found it, corn grits. It can also be located in a variety of aisles in the grocery store - the pasta aisle, the baking aisle, or the cereal aisle. You also have to content with the ready-to-eat and quick-cooking varieties (which are not what you want ... at least not for this recipe.)

After a frustrating search at the Metro Market, I only found ready-to-eat polenta in the pasta aisle. So I told Bill that if he wanted it so bad, he was going to have to track down the right variety himself. And he did. (At Sendik's, for those of you who are wondering. The brand was Bob's Red Mill.) So, at last, I was able to fulfill his dinner request!

Polenta with Sausage and Broccoli

For the Topping:
1/2 cup water
8 oz. broccoli florets, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 teaspoons olive oil
8 oz. mild Italian sausage, casings removed
1 small onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/8 teaspoon thyme
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup drained canned diced tomatoes, with 1/4 cup juice reserved
1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

For the Polenta:
1 2/3 cup water
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup polenta
2 tablespoons butter
1 garlic clove, minced
2 oz. grated Parmesan cheese

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Bring the water to a simmer in a 10-inch ovensafe skillet over medium-high heat. Add the broccoli, cover, and steam about 2 minutes (broccoli should be bright green). Uncover and cook until the water has evaporated, about 1 minute. Transfer broccoli to a bowl and set aside.

Heat the oil in the skillet. Add sausage and cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add onion and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, thyme and red pepper flakes. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomatoes with reserved juice and bring to a simmer, scraping up browned bits at the bottom of the skillet.

Stir in the broccoli and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the vinegar and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and set aside. (Do not wash the skillet.)

Wipe out the skillet with a wad of paper towels and return to medium-high heat. Add the water, milk and 1/2 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Slowly add the polenta while whisking constantly in a circular motion to prevent clumping.

Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook, stirring often and vigorously, until the poletna is soft and smooth, about 10 to 15 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the butter and garlic and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Smooth the polenta into an even layer in the skillet. Spoon the sausage and broccoli mixture over the polenta, then sprinkle with cheese. Bake until cheese is melted and golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Let the casserole cool for 10 minutes before serving.

I was super nervous about this recipe, mostly because polenta was brand new to me. I had never cooked it before, and I had never even tasted it. Therefore, I wasn't entirely sure how we were going to judge my success with the dish! Turns out is was another of those recipes that requires supreme patience. I kept a very close eye on the polenta, abided by the recipe and the notes in the cookbook, and used my best instincts.

And it turned out wonderfully! The topping had really rich, deep flavor, and the polenta was smooth as silk and buttery. I think I was worried that I wouldn't like polenta because of the texture, but that wasn't the case at all.

Oh, and yes, Bill fulfilled his own prophecy. He does like polenta!


  1. I'm with you on polenta. I've never had it and my curiosity has never been piqued, I don't necessarily know why. I actually didn't even know polenta is technically related to grits. This changes things. Grits (and whatever Cream of Wheat is made of) have always been a favorite of mine, as long as they're not too plain. This polenta most definitely doesn't sound plain!

  2. Yeah, I don't know exactly what my aversion to polenta was, but thank goodness I've been cured! This topping was amazing, and the cookbook also had a sausage, mushroom and goat cheese variation that I'm dying to try!

    As a somewhat unrelated side note, have you ever had Malt-O-Meal? Same Cream of Wheat-y concept, but I think it's better. You have to stir in raspberry jam, though. YUM!

  3. I have only ever heard of Malt-o-Meal, never actually had it. But I'm already drooling... and jam is a great idea. I used to put only maple syrup or brown sugar into Cream of Wheat hmmm.

    See, you come up with ideas that I could never have in a million years! I lose any and all creative powers when I enter the kitchen lol!