Cooking polenta is easier than you think. This 20-minute bowl of a comfort is proof.
Polenta could be the easiest thing you didn't know you could make. If you have ever stirred a pot of grits or watched somebody cook Cream of Wheat, you'll recognize the method in this simple recipe: Heat liquid, stir in a medium-grind cornmeal to form a porridge, then add more flavor.
The end result should be just fluid enough to pour, and that's when you should top it with something luscious and juicy — like the roasted tomatoes, fragrant shreds of basil and nutty-salty Parmigiano-Reggiano we're using. A sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes and drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil completes the set for sunny, creamy comfort food.
Polenta purists who prefer to highlight the flavor of the cornmeal itself will use water instead of the combination of broth and half-and-half called for here. You could do that too and cut back on calories. But we liked the consistency and flavor achieved with these pantry ingredients.
If you have leftover polenta, you will notice that it thickens to a fairly firm state as it cools. This is the DIY version of those tube rolls of polenta you see on supermarket shelves, and it will give you more ways to enjoy polenta: Cut it into squares and bake them, like Roman-style gnocchi, or brush them with oil and grill them on the stove top or outdoor grill. Cut them in planks and build a layered casserole. It's polenta power.
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Editor's note: This version corrects amount of half-and-half in the recipe.
Polenta With Basil and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
4 to 5 servings
Adapted from "The New Classics: A Definitive Collection of Classics for Every Modern Cook," from Donna Hay Magazine (Fourth Estate, 2013).
12 ounces cherry and/or grape tomatoes (preferably a mix)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
One 2-ounce block Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 cups chicken broth, preferably no-salt-added (may substitute vegetable broth)
1-1/2 cups half-and-half
1 cup dried polenta (coarsely ground cornmeal)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
10 large fresh basil leaves
Crushed red pepper flakes
Position an oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler; preheat the broiler.
Line a rimmed quarter-baking sheet with aluminum foil, then place the tomatoes on it and drizzle them with oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Broil for 6 minutes, until some of them are charred and have burst. Use the large-holed side of a box grater or a Microplane grater to grate the cheese.
Meanwhile, combine the broth and half-and-half in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring just to a boil, then gradually add the polenta; reduce the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes, whisking, until thickened. (Careful; the stuff may sputter.)
Turn off the heat, then stir in the butter and most of the Parm, until well incorporated. Taste and season lightly with salt, keeping in mind that more cheese will be added at the end.
Stack, roll and cut the basil leaves into thin ribbons (that technique is called chiffonade; we wait to cut the basil because the cut shreds can darken quickly).
Divide the polenta among individual, shallow bowls or plates, then top each portion with some of the basil, the roasted tomatoes and their juices, a light sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes and the remaining cheese. Drizzle with a bit more oil. Serve hot.
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