Most people consider polenta a restaurant food. Because as good as this creamy, cheesy Italian staple is, few of us have the hour needed to crank it out.
But hidden on the grocer’s shelves is a shortcut that can help get polenta on your dinner table any day of the week in minutes: prepared polenta. Which is different — and far better than — a related product known as instant polenta.
But first, some polenta basics.
Polenta is a traditional starch in Italian cooking, an alternative to pasta, rice and potatoes that pairs deliciously well with robust sauces and meats.
Polenta is made by slowly simmering and stirring cornmeal with chicken broth or water. It’s usually also seasoned with Parmesan cheese and butter.
Freshly made, polenta resembles a thick porridge. This variety often is topped with thick sauces, especially meaty ones.
But if you let the polenta set or chill a bit, it becomes firm enough to cut into grill-worthy slabs or wedges.
The trouble is the slowly simmering and stirring part of making it. While there is a dry product called instant polenta (just add water) that promises results in 5 minutes or less, it tends to be grainy and flavorless.
The better choice is tube-style, pre-cooked polenta, usually sold in the grocer’s natural foods section. This product is ready to slice and toss on the grill, under the broiler or into a skillet to pan-fry.
It also can be reconstituted to its soft (porridge-like) form by heating it with a bit of liquid, such as milk or broth.
So now that you know how to have good polenta in minutes, what should you do with it?
• Slice the polenta into ½-inch slabs, brush them with olive oil and toss under the broiler until lightly browned. Now top them with your favorite chili and a scattering of shredded cheese.
• Toss chunks of sausage and cherry tomatoes with garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, then roast until the tomatoes start to brown. Serve over broiled or grilled rounds of polenta. Or soften the polenta and spoon it into shallow bowls, then spoon the tomatoes and sausage over it.
• Use thinly sliced rounds of polenta to make lasagna, layering the slices in place of the noodles. Make the lasagna in a 9-by-9-inch pan and layer the polenta with tomato sauce and cheese.
• For an easy holiday appetizer, set rounds of polenta on a baking sheet and mist with cooking spray. Top each with a round of chevre, then broil until starting to brown. Top each with a bit of jalapeno pepper, then season with salt and pepper.
Spicy Pork With Polenta
For the crushed pepper sauce, I use Pastene’s Crushed Peppers, which is sold by the jar alongside other Italian ingredients or next to the jarred peppers.
If you can’t find that, substitute any jarred crushed pepper sauce, such as sambal.
Start to finish: 45 minutes
½ cup mirin
¼ cup crushed pepper sauce
¼ cup seasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 pound thinly sliced pork cutlets
18-ounce tube prepared polenta, cut into chunks
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
4 ounces crumbled feta cheese
Salt and ground black pepper
In a large glass or stainless steel bowl, stir together the mirin, crushed pepper sauce, vinegar and soy sauce. Add the pork, toss, then refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the polenta and milk. Stir and heat until soft, 6 to 7 minutes. Cover and set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high. Remove the pork from the marinade and add to the pan. Brown on each side for 3 to 4 minutes.
Add the marinade from the bowl to the skillet and bring to a boil.
Stir the feta into the polenta, then season with salt and pepper. To serve, spoon polenta onto each plate, then top with pork cutlets and sauce.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is the author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking. He also blogs at jmhirsch.