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The Vegetarian

Polenta Is Simple, Varied, Popular Italian Dish

November 05, 1987|DIANA SHAW | Shaw is free-lance writer in Los Angeles.

I was glad to see a recent restaurant review suggesting that Polenta is showing up on more menus around town. Polenta's current popularity isn't all that surprising since the dish combines aspects of two thriving food trends; deriving from rustic Italian cuisine, this savory corn meal mush has the appeal of hearty down-home American cooking. Like those "little pizzas," Polenta lends itself to imaginative variations. And like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and old-fashioned oatmeal, it is a soothing "comfort" food.

Polenta may be a simple dish, but it takes some effort to prepare it properly. Some recipes call for baking, but stove-top cooking, plus conscientious whisking, assure the smoothness essential to a palatable end product.

POLENTA

1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal

1 cup cold water

4 cups boiling water

1 cup shredded Jack, Cheddar, mozzarella or provolone cheese

Salt, pepper

Tomato Topping

Combine cornmeal and cold water in bowl. Stir to form paste. Add paste gradually to rapidly boiling water. Lower heat and stir constantly with wire whisk 10 minutes, or until mixture reaches smooth consistency of hot cooked cereal.

Remove from heat and stir in cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, with topping of choice, or transfer to double boiler over low heat until ready to serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Tomato Topping

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 large fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 2 (16-ounce) cans salt-free tomatoes

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves or 2 teaspoons dried basil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano leaves or 2 tablespoons dried oregano

2 teaspoons capers

2 tablespoons sliced black olives

1/4 cup white wine

Salt, pepper

Grated Parmesan cheese

Saute garlic and onion in hot olive oil until translucent. Add tomatoes and cook over medium heat until tomatoes break down. Add basil, oregano, capers, olives and white wine. Simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: Here are some additional toppings:

Eggplant sauteed in olive oil with garlic, onion, fresh basil leaves and diced sweet red pepper, sprinkled with asagio cheese to taste.

Peeled, chopped tomatoes sauteed with garlic, smothered in strips of smoked mozzarella, dusted with Parmesan cheese to taste.

Red, green and yellow peppers sauteed with red onion and garlic, seasoned to taste with oregano, basil and thyme. Top with fresh mozzarella and broiled until cheese bubbles.

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