This is polenta, a traditional, Italian peasant dish. It can be served creamy or sliced in this fancy fashion pictured above, possibly even rewarmed on an oiled skillet producing a great brown crust. In America, we'd just call this grits. Or cornmeal. The polenta in Italy generally is very similar to yellow grits. I make it at home with cornmeal for two reasons. For one, cornmeal is reasonably cheap. For two, if I just change the recipes to cornmeal, that's one less item that gets lost in my pantry.
The creamier/runnier versions of this dish come with cheese, mushrooms, or other (non-vegetarian) toppings. I loved that this one just had a drizzle of olive oil on it and came with vegetables on the side. This was Nora's dinner one night. She ate it all minus the tastes Paul and I got. But we'd already trained her with a bit of polenta at home in the form of soup and grain-under-vegetable. I do love and enjoy polenta. I'm much better at preparing it in the runnier version, but Paul's mom can do a mean job of slicing the morning's leftover grits, reheating them in a skillet, and serving them with yummy veggies and toppings for lunch.
For the health conscious, I'd like to point out that when I was pregnant, I learned that cornmeal is decently high in iron. Add in some spinach, and it's really high in iron. For the budget-conscious, I'd like to say the peasants didn't use this for nothin'. It's a nice alternative to beans and rice.
Based on Soft Polenta from Moosewood Restaurant New Classics
- 3 cups water or vegetarian chicken-flavored broth
- 1 cup cornmeal
- 1/2 teaspoon salt if not using broth
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoon celery seed (original recipe calls for fennel seeds)
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, topping
- Black pepper to taste
Bring water or broth to boil in a large pot. Slowly pour in cornmeal, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. A whisk works best for me. Turn heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, until polenta is thick. Season. Serve topped with cheese.
Moosewood adds a note that the grind and variety of cornmeal influence the cook times. Be prepared to add hot water to cooking if necessary. However, I don't recall ever needing to.