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Polenta Takes the Cake : Cheese and pesto top this variation on a robust Italian theme

February 08, 1996|BETTY ROSBOTTOM

Italian food is good any time of the year, but in my opinion, the robust and hearty qualities of this cuisine make it especially suited for cold-weather menus. And if ever there has been a chilly winter, 1996 will go on record throughout much of the country as one of the worst.

I could eat pasta with spicy tomato sauce, rich Tuscan vegetable soup, creamy risotto and myriad other hearty specialties from Italy on any cold winter night and never tire of their appeal.

Recently, I worked on a recipe for polenta cakes topped with melted cheese and a touch of pesto. Earlier in the fall I had tasted a version of this dish at Grappa, an Italian restaurant in Chicago. From the first bite, I was addicted. Creamy cooked polenta had been placed in ramekins, then unmolded and topped with mascarpone. The unmolded polentas were baked until piping hot and then served with a dollop of pesto on top.

This unusual polenta preparation would make a fine first course followed by pasta and a salad for a winter dinner party. Or you could garnish the warm cakes with a border of salad greens tossed in a balsamic dressing and serve them as a light main course along with soup for a casual luncheon or supper. These polentas are particularly adaptable for entertaining because they can be made a day ahead and baked when needed.

BAKED POLENTA CAKES WITH MASCARPONE AND PESTO

Nonstick cooking spray

3 cups chicken stock

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 cup mascarpone or grated Fontina cheese

1/4 cup pesto sauce

Generously spray 8 (1/2-cup) souffle dishes, ramekins or custard cups with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.

Bring chicken stock to boil in heavy medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Gradually pour cornmeal into stock in a fine stream, whisking constantly until mixture is quite thick, about 5 to 8 minutes. When thick and smooth, remove pan from heat and stir in Parmesan and butter. Mix well to blend.

Immediately divide mixture evenly and spoon into prepared souffles or other cups. Spread polenta evenly with spatula in each container and let cool completely. Then invert and unmold and place, flat sides up, on baking sheet sprayed with nonstick spray. If not using immediately, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to 1 day.

To finish, spread about 1 1/2 tablespoons mascarpone cheese over top of each cake. Bake at 350 degrees until hot and cheese has melted, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove and transfer to serving plates. Garnish top of each with dollop of pesto. Serve warm.

Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

181 calories; 546 mg sodium; 22 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 0.11 gram fiber.

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