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Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Fill your freezer with squares of polenta for dinner anytime

The other night, in need of a fast-but-tasty dinner concept, I remembered my frozen cache of homemade polenta.
I grabbed a couple of the frosty squares from the zippered bag, plopped them onto a baking sheet and shoved them into the toaster oven where they would change from solid chunks of cornmeal mush to something quite alluring and soul-satisfying.
During the transformation I produced a simple little tomato-based sauce with a couple cans of diced tomatoes, some chopped onion and garlic, a splash of chicken broth and a generous glug of balsamic vinegar.
By the time I was pulling the polenta from the oven the sauce had simmered itself into a rich and complex-tasting sidekick. Perfecto! My freezer to the rescue once again.
Italy's answer to grits caught on decades ago as a trendy sort of sidedish, paired up with designer mushrooms, imported cheese and new-style salsas or corn relishes.
Still, polenta's humble, less pretentious roots are unshakeable.
As comfort foods go, it's as good as it gets. In old-country Italy, a simmering pot of polenta, set over a red-hot wood fire, was at the center of every household. The resulting disk of sunny, yellow cooked cornmeal was said to soften the hard edges of life. Not unlike a healthy dollop of perfect mashed potatoes or fresh-from-the-oven bread.
My first experience with polenta came at the age of 12 or so. Mom's favorite potluck casserole was tamale pie, and one of the main ingredients in it was a cornmeal topping we now know as polenta.
It was always my job to stand by the stove and stir the cornmeal until it boiled and thickened.
As much as I loved to cook, this was not my favorite task, because the boiling lava-thick bubbles had a tendency to erupt right out of the pan. The only way to avoid a painful scorching was to wrap a kitchen towel around my stirring arm and place the rest of my body out of line with the flying globs of lethal mush.
These days, as in centuries past, polenta is enjoyed in two basic ways: soft, with the texture of cream of wheat, served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon; or firm, cooked until stiff and then sliced and eaten warm, or chilled and then sliced and roasted until a crisp crust forms around its creamy innards.
I learned from Michael Chiarello, renowned Napa Valley celebrity chef, that the secret to a smooth and creamy polenta is semolina.
Semolina, in combination with the traditional cornmeal, provides the velvet touch. Since then, I keep a premixed batch of equal parts cornmeal and semolina in a plastic container, so when I have a polenta attack, I'm ready to go.
Also, I prefer to use chicken or vegetable broth instead of water, which gives a richer flavor (Chiarello's version uses equal parts heavy cream and broth).
The marvelous thing about polenta is that you can prepare it to the "soft-and-mushy" stage in a pot on your stove top, and then consider three different options:
1) take it right to the roasting phase to serve immediately;
2) refrigerate for up to 24 hours and roast about 40 minutes before serving; or
3) refrigerate until firm, cut into desired size pieces, freeze the pieces individually on a baking sheet just until firm and then pack into a freezer bag to roast at a later date.
So, I'm letting you in on my frozen polenta maneuver. The basic roasted polenta recipe that follows makes enough polenta for several meals. Just cook until firm, cut into serving-size pieces and freeze.
For those harried evenings ahead, simply roast a batch of those frozen chuniks of polenta and while that's happening, make one of the simple sauces below (or one of your own favorites).
Roasted polenta
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 cup polenta meal (see note)
1 cup semolina meal (see note)
½ cup grated Jarlsburg cheese (or sharp Cheddar)
1¼ cups grated Parmesan
Oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish; set aside.
In a heavy-bottomed pot, over medium-high heat, combine the chicken broth and pepper (if using homemade chicken broth, you might want to add up to 1 teaspoon of salt). While this liquid is coming to a boil, whisk together the polenta and semolina. When the broth begins to boil, whisk in the polenta/semolina mixture in a steady stream.
Continue stirring and cooking over moderate heat. The mixture will begin to thicken after a few minutes. Continue stirring. The polenta is ready when it is very thick and begins to pull away from the sides of the pot (approximately 7 to 10 minutes).
Remove from heat and stir in the Jarlsburg and ¾ cup of the Parmesan. With a spatula, immediately scrape the polenta out into the prepared baking dish. Cool at room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 48 hours in advance of roasting.
Cut the firm polenta into squares, triangles, or diamonds.
To roast, cut the cooled polenta into squares, triangles or diamonds. Using a spatula, transfer the pieces onto a lightly oiled baking sheet, sprinkle generously with the ½ cup of grated Parmesan, and place in a preheated 500-degree oven. Roast until golden brown and slightly puffy, about 7 minutes.
If preparing for the freezer to roast and serve at a later time, place the cut pieces of polenta on a plastic or parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze just until the pieces are thoroughly frozen (overnight, for example). Store the individually frozen pieces in a resealable plastic bag.
To roast, remove the desired number of pieces from the bag and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Roast (while still frozen) in a 350 degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until lightly golden and puffy and thoroughly heated.
Note on polenta and semolina: Bob's Red Mill, a Portland-based company, makes both and they are available in the baking section of most supermarkets.
For a richer alternative: Prepare as above, but substitute 3 cups of half and half (or heavy cream) for 3 cups of the broth.
Makes enough polenta for a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, producing 12 to 15 1-inch thick pieces.
Polenta topping No. 1: Zesty tomato and balsamic sauce
1 cup chopped yellow onion
4 large cloves peeled and minced garlic
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 (14.5 ounce) cans diced tomatoes in juice
½ cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil (or 2 teaspoons dried)
½ teaspoon ground white pepper (or freshly ground black pepper)
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt to taste
Roasted polenta squares (as prepared in previous recipe)
Shredded Parmesan cheese
In a medium-sized skillet or heavy-bottomed pot, saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes with the juice, broth, balsamic vinegar, basil, pepper flakes and white pepper. Simmer, uncovered, until the liquid has reduced and thickened. Add the balsamic vinegar and continue cooking to meld the flavors. Adjust seasonings, adding salt and additional pepper to taste.
To serve, remove the roasted polenta from the oven and place 1 to 2 pieces on each plate. Top the polenta with a serving of the tomato sauce. Pass Parmesan at the table.
Makes 4 servings.
Polenta topping No. 2: Marinated roasted vegetables
For the marinade:
1/3 cup of red or white wine vinegar
¼ cup dry red wine (such as Zinfandel, Cabernet, Shiraz, or Pinot Noir)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves peeled and finely minced garlic
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Vegetables for Grilling:
¼ pound mushrooms (halved or whole, depending on size)
1 red sweet bell pepper, seeded and cut in thin strips
1 yellow sweet bell pepper, seeded and cut in strips
1 whole yellow onion, cut into thin strips or rings
Roasted polenta squares (as prepared in previous recipe)
Combine the vinegar, wine, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, garlic and olive oil. Place the vegetables in one large container or two re-sealable plastic bags. Pour the marinade over the vegetables and marinate for up to 1 to 2 hours.
When ready to cook, remove the vegetables from the marinade (the marinade will keep for a couple of weeks, so refrigerate in a sealed jar for another round of veggies within that time-frame). Place the grill pan on top of the grill grate over hot coals or gas flame and let it heat through. Add the vegetables and let them cook, turning and tossing the veggies sort of as you would for a stir-fry, only slower, until they're lightly bronzed and cooked through.
Remove from heat.
To serve, remove the roasted polenta from the oven and place 1 to 2 pieces on each plate. Top the polenta with a serving of the vegetables.
Makes 4 servings.
Polenta topping No. 3: Simple grilled vegetable melange
1 large unpeeled sweet onion (or red onion), cut lengthwise through stem and root ends into quarters
4 or 5 medium-sized Roma-style tomatoes, cored and cut in half lengthwise
8 to 10 medium-sized fresh mushrooms
1 sweet bell pepper, pierced in 2 places with a knife
2 Anaheim chiles, pierced in two places with a knife
4 cloves garlic, unpeeled (snip off the tips, and then secure all four cloves on a bamboo skewer)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Roasted polenta squares (as prepared in previous recipe)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Brush the onions, tomatoes, and mushrooms with olive oil and then place all of the vegetables (including the skewer of garlic cloves) on a grill 4 to 6 inches above a bed of medium coals or gas flame. The onions should be placed with a cut side down; tomatoes should be placed cut-side up. Turn all of the vegetables except the tomatoes as they brown. As the tomatoes brown on the bottom and become very soft, remove to a bowl.
Continue cooking the onions, turning often, until they are tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. The bell peppers and chiles need to be turned several times so they will brown evenly on all sides.
Remove the browned vegetables and store in the bowl with the tomatoes, refrigerated, for up to 24 hours, or proceed with recipe.
Cut each onion quarter into thin slices. Dice the tomatoes and mushrooms. Peel and cut the peppers into pieces. Mince the garlic cloves. Return the vegetables to bowl and set aside. Drizzle with additional olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, remove the roasted polenta from the oven and place 1 to 2 pieces on each plate. Top the polenta with a serving of the grilled vegetables. Pass additional Parmesan at the table.
Makes 4 servings.
Polenta topping No. 4: Winter vegetable saute
2 cups broccoli florets
2 cups julienned carrots
2 cups julienned turnips
2 cups cauliflower florets
6 to 12 pieces of prepared polenta (frozen or fresh, as prepared in the previous recipe above)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 large cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups sliced leeks (white and pale green portions; about 2 medium-to-large leeks)
1/3 cup fresh chopped herb combination (basil, chervil, and parsley is a nice mixture)
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Additional Parmesan to serve at the table
You could omit the following step (blanching the vegetables), and just saute the vegetables (starting with the firmest ones and adding the more tender vegetables a little later in the process) but the step helps make the final preparation go quickly and seamlessly.
Blanch the broccoli, carrots, turnips, and cauliflower separately in a large pot of boiling water. You can do this by lowering each batch into the water in a strainer and lifting each batch out as soon as the vegetables are tender but still holding their shape (broccoli will only take about 1 minute; carrots and turnips, about 3 minutes; cauliflower, about 2 minutes). Using a large slotted spoon, remove each batch to drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water to set the color and stop the cooking process; set aside.
In a large pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and leeks and saute until the leeks are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the herbs and blanched vegetables, and saute just until heated through, about 1 minute. Transfer the vegetables to a warmed bowl, sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese and toss; cover to keep warm; set aside.
To serve, remove the roasted polenta from the oven and place 1 to 2 pieces on each plate. Top the polenta with a serving of the sauteed vegetables. Pass additional Parmesan at the table.
Makes 6 servings.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit," and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.
Story tags » Cooking

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