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Pass the Polenta, Please

October 17, 1991|MARCIA CONE and THELMA SNYDER | Cone and Snyder are cookbook authors

Polenta, or cornmeal porridge, is the humble grain that made good. Italian in origin, this dish is often found on the menus of some of the finest non-Italian restaurants in the country, and yet it started out (originally made from barley) as the K-ration of the ancient Roman army. Coarse cornmeal, found in any grocery store, is the basis of making polenta today.

What could transform such a humble pudding into a food of fashion is that, like pasta, it is one of the true comfort foods. Steamy hot and often served with a tomato sauce, it makes a good stand-in for the oft-cooked spaghetti dinner. One of our favorite polenta meals is the layered dish that is steeped in tomato sauce and bubbles with two different cheeses.

Also, in these days of salt- and fat-consciousness, polenta when spooned up or grilled is absent of anything that would raise blood pressure or cholesterol.

What may have kept people from making polenta at home in the past is the inconvenience of it. A recipe might call for stirring the grain constantly for 15 minutes over low heat on the range. For the more passionate and those less inclined to stir, there is an electric polenta maker that plugs into the wall to make the polenta automatically. The price hovers around $100. The microwave will perform the task with just three stirs from you and in a glass bowl that makes clean-up easy.

If we've piqued your interest, here are three ways to savor polenta.

Serve plain polenta with tomato sauce and grated Parmesan cheese, or as a side dish to grilled sausage.


4 cups water

1 1/2 cups coarse cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt, optional

Combine water, cornmeal and salt in 3-quart microwave-proof casserole. Cover with lid or plastic wrap, turned back slightly on one side. Microwave on HIGH (100% power) 5 minutes. Stir. Cover and microwave on HIGH 5 minutes. Stir.

Cover and microwave on HIGH 2 to 5 minutes or until all water is absorbed and mixture has consistency of mashed potatoes. Stir. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

This is delicious with grilled chicken or game hen, or smothered in maple syrup for breakfast.


1 recipe Polenta

Olive oil

Turn hot Polenta into 12x9-inch baking dish. Cool until firm or chill about 1 hour. Cut into 3-inch squares, or cut slightly larger squares and cut those in half diagonally into triangles. (Cutting polenta too big will make it difficult to turn pieces on grill).

Oil grill rack and preheat grill. Brush one side polenta with olive oil and place, oil-side down, on hot grill. Grill 2 to 5 minutes or until grill marks show. Brush top side with oil. Turn polenta over and grill 2 to 5 minutes longer or until grill marks show. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Serve this in an earthenware or black dish as a color contrast to the yellow polenta.


1 recipe Polenta

2 cups tomato sauce (garlic-basil flavored sauce is tasty)

6 ounces mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Turn out hot polenta into 12x9-inch baking dish. Cool until firm or chill about 1 hour. Cut into 3x1/2-inch rectangles.

Lightly butter 8-inch round or oval baking dish (buttering dish is only necessary if baking in conventional oven). Pour 1 cup tomato sauce in bottom of dish. Alternating, angle little more than half of polenta slices and mozzarella cheese slices in bottom of dish.

Smooth 1/2 cup tomato sauce over top and alternate remaining polenta and mozzarella cheese on top. Drizzle remaining 1/2 cup tomato sauce on top in ribbons. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese in between ribbons.

Cover dish with lid or plastic wrap, turned back slightly. Microwave on MEDIUM (50% power) 10 minutes or until heated through, rotating dish if necessary. For crispy top, bake in conventional oven, uncovered, at 400 degrees 20 to 25 minutes. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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