Creamy, easy bake polenta

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When I was in Milan in October 2012, I stumbled across a great little restaurant (della Republica) where I spent a couple nights – one of which enjoying a 5 course prix fixe white truffle extravaganza!

Hands down my favourite dish at that little resto was the polenta with tomato sauce and a soft poached egg (lots of soft poached eggs served luxuriously in northern Italy). I don’t know why polenta was always a mystery to me. Seemed like one of those exotic things that exotic people made in exotic places for people with exotic palates.

Well, we certainly didn’t have it at the farm in Niton Junction…but looking back, I recall we ate a lot of cream of wheat. Pretty close except for a few significant differences. First, cream of wheat hot cereal was, well, cereal. We had it for breakfast. With brown sugar and whole milk fresh from the cow. And it was white and – obviously – from wheat. Which makes it, you guessed it, a non-starter for people sensitive to gluten.

I’m NOT celiac and my heart goes out to people who legitimately suffer from the disease, but I am trying to expand my repertoire so that I can entertain some dear friends who are celiac. I love them. I want to cook for them and not send them into convulsions. I’ll be posting my thought and understandings on gluten free in another post. (One step at a time…don’t rush me.)

Polenta, unlike cream of wheat, IS gluten free. And it’s for lunch and supper. AND – here’s the best part – every time I bite into it I am transported to that part of the Mediterranean where the vast agricultural lands of the Po valley brush up against the Alps, where people wear down jackets and winter boots, but still grow gorgeous wine grapes and asparagus and truffles and, oh god I love it.Milan, looking north towards the Alps from atop the duomo

So polenta…it’s savoury, it’s Italian, it’s gluten free. And it’s EASY. For real: an exotic mediterranean dish that practically cooks itself and impresses the hell out of all your friends (even the celiac ones). You can read more about the health benefits of polenta here.

Below is a recipe I adapted from Martha Rose Schulman’s Recipe’s for Health on the New York Times site. This is a healthy, inexpensive, fast, vegetarian recipe that I taught at LaSalle women’s shelter. Lots of people there had never had poached eggs! Imagine that…

1 cup polenta (doesn’t matter if you use the fine ground or not, any old corn meal will do. Try to think of it as “artisanal.”)

4 cups of water (the ratio here is always 1:4 so you can adjust easily to make more or less as you like)

1 teaspoon salt (or more to taste. I add about 1.5 teaspoons of a beautiful heritage tomato flavoured sea salt I bought at the market in San Francisco a couple summers ago)

1 tablespoon canola oil (butter is a more traditional fat to put in the polenta, as both corn and cattle are raised in that part of Italy so butter was the primary fat used in traditional cooking, and corn was inexpensive and plentiful)

1/2 cup freshly micro planed Parmesan cheese ( use a micro plane to get little tiny slivers of cheese so a little of that umami flavour goes a long way)

Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Put the polenta, water and salt in a 1.5L baking dish. Stir & pop in the oven. Bake 50 for minutes.

polenta in oven

Take it out of the oven, stir in the oil (or butter) and put it back in the oven for 10 more minutes.

Meanwhile, poach an egg.

poaching egg

Pull out the polenta after  10 minutes and stir in the Parmesan cheese. It should be creamy smooth.

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Spoon onto plates, make a depression in the middle and spoon in a soft poached egg, top with a cup of baby spinach, 1/2 cup of tomato sauce and sprinkle with Parmesan and serve.

This recipe serves four. But if you’re like me and just cook for 1, then you’re in luck! Polenta stores beautifully in the fridge and makes a great quick snack. I pour the excess polenta onto a parchment lined cookie sheet and spread it so it’s no more than about 1/2 an inch thick. In about 30 minutes (by the time I’m done eating) it will be firm and I cut it into strips and pop it in the fridge.

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When I come home famished after work, I take a couple of my polenta strips, give them a little spritz of oil and season with whatever tickles my fancy (cajun, cumin, straight up S&P) and put them in the oven at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes or until they’re browned. They make a nice little finger food treat that tides me over until I can get something made for supper.

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