The last time I tried to eat polenta, my family and I were visiting Rome. I say tried because the restaurant we were at was doing its damnest to foil my plans for a delicious dinner. I wanted gnocchi, because it is my favorite pasta in the whole world, but they were out. Alright, how about arrabiatta pasta? Nope, out of that, too. Polenta? Nope, try again. My mother offered to go somewhere else, because we were now halfway through the menu. I should mention that it was only 5PM, and that this restaurant was quite a ways off the beaten Roman-tourist path.
I wound up with ravioli, and it was fine, and the restaurant very nearly redeemed itself by giving me several free shots of grappa at the end of the meal (that is, until I tasted the grappa, which is a liquor that very greatly benefits from the addition of some other flavoring, in my opinion). But the moral of the story is that because of this event, I have had polenta a total of one time in my whole food-loving existence, and that, friends, is a little sad.
I don’t really know why this is. It’s not terribly hard to make, it’s not terribly rare to find, and it’s tasty. I’ve eaten ostrich and goat for crying out loud, and both of those things are far less normal than some hot cornmeal with cheese and butter. So when I read Gourmet’s recipe for Polenta with Gorgonzola and Almonds in April’s “Quick Kitchen” section, I ripped the page right out and vowed to make it that week for dinner (Did I mention I read these issues several months after they are written? This happened last week, and the month of July is nearly over). But, being incapable of going into anything blind, I just had to go online and check the reviews, which were…mediocre. I mean, they weren’t bad, but no one liked the almonds (and I love almonds, so I thought that would be a huge plus) and with just cheese and polenta, I thought it was kind of a run-of-the-mill recipe. So I didn’t use it. Instead, I decided to improvise, which is an arguably dangerous plan since I’ve never made polenta and really, should we be flying by the seat of our pants with brand new ingredients that we’ve tasted one time (four years ago) in our lives? Probably not. But hey, if it crashes and burns, at least I’ll get a story out of it.
Fortunately, it did not crash and burn, and Boyfriend and I were able to eat a delicious and reasonably healthy dinner. I made extra polenta so that I could eat it for dinner again tonight (while Boyfriend galavants around NYC, lucky duck), so be prepared to have some extra of that and just enough of the topping.
Polenta with Vegetables
1 cup polenta – not finely ground (if you buy quick-cooking polenta, the process will only take about 5 minutes, not 20-30)
2 cups beef stock
1 cup water (plus extra if needed)
3-4 slices of eggplant, chopped into smaller pieces (not the little Italian ones, the big suckers)
½ of a small-ish zucchini, cut into slices
6 leaves of fresh basil, chopped
¼ cup diced red onion
¼ cup diced red pepper
½ cup frozen spinach
2 tsp diced garlic (I put in a little more than this, but I really like garlic. Like more than most people.)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
A small handful of goat cheese
Salt, pepper, crushed red pepper flakes to taste
In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil. Add garlic and red onion, cooking until onion is soft. Add zucchini, pepper, spinach, and eggplant, and season. Finish cooking while you start on the polenta.
Bring stock and water to a boil in a separate pot. Salt boiling water and stream in polenta while whisking (otherwise the polenta will clump and/or stick to the pot like glue). Stir constantly the entire time polenta cooks – about 20-30 minutes, or until polenta begins to pull away from the sides of the pot. If needed, add a little more liquid during cooking. Once polenta is cooked, stir in goat cheese and butter until melted.
Pour some of the polenta into a bowl, and cover with half of the vegetable mixture. Sprinkle with chopped fresh basil.