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In an Emergency, Open the Polenta

September 24, 1997|MARION CUNNINGHAM | Cunningham's latest book is "Cooking With Children" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995)

Good home cooks generally know that spending hours in the kitchen trying to create a perfect meal is often disappointing and that a good meal doesn't depend on expensive ingredients, lots of labor and a critical palate. It comes from the pleasure of sharing the table and making the food simple and satisfying.

Being able to taste critically helps, of course, and many cooks have never developed the good habit of tasting often while making a dish, allowing for correcting and sharpening flavors.

Having said that, into the life of every home cook comes the time when you have to quickly come up with a meal for unexpected guests.

My best emergency resource when faced with putting a meal on the table in a hurry is cornmeal. It's terrific and will make a great meal pronto or can be assembled and baked for an hour while wine and spirits are served.

In case you're thinking about traditional polenta--the stirring for an hour to achieve a creamy, smooth cornmeal dish--this isn't it. Forget creamy except in ice cream. My version is rustic and smooth.

Every cup of raw cornmeal produces 3 cups cooked. Add that to the other ingredients you plan to use and you can figure how many people you can serve with the finished dish.

This polenta with vegetables is surprisingly good, and the vegetables and other ingredients can be altered depending on taste and what you've got on hand: mushrooms, lots of chopped onion and Fontina cheese are very good; herbs such as sage or rosemary give a sparkle to the dish; and the ingredients you enjoy on a pizza work well when added to cornmeal.

A small green salad or sliced cucumbers and red onion go well with the polenta. Dessert can be ice cream or a berry sorbet, but since you've got the oven on, try baked bananas. They take only 15 to 20 minutes to bake, so you can assemble them and put them in the oven while you and your guests enjoy the polenta or, as we say, cornmeal mush.



1 cup yellow cornmeal or polenta

3 1/2 cups lukewarm water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 cup olive oil

1 large tomato, finely chopped

1/2 green bell pepper, finely chopped

2 cups chopped spinach or 1/2 (9- or 10-ounce) box frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed almost dry

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

I use Golden Pheasant brand polenta.

Pour cornmeal into ungreased 8-inch-square baking dish. Stir in lukewarm water, salt and olive oil. Add tomato, bell pepper and spinach and stir to mix. Bake at 350 degrees until edges are set and top begins to brown, about 50 minutes. Sprinkle evenly with Parmesan cheese and bake 2 to 3 more minutes. Serve hot.

4 to 5 servings. Each of 4 servings:

297 calories; 1,059 mg sodium; 6 mg cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.71 gram fiber.



3 1/2 cups cold water

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup cornmeal

The name polenta comes from a porridge made in Piedmont, Italy. Polenta means coarsely ground cornmeal. It's a great ingredient and makes many richly filling dishes, from the Italian versions to our New England spoonbread, pancakes and mush. This is a good, quick version. Serve it hot or spread it out, cool and refrigerate to fry later in olive oil.

Pour 3 cups water into heavy-bottomed saucepan, add salt and bring to boil. While waiting for water to boil, add remaining 1/2 cup cold water to cornmeal, stirring to dampen all cornmeal; this prevents it from lumping while cooking.

As soon as water boils, stir in dampened cornmeal, whisking briskly to smooth mixture and get rid of any lumps. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to whisk briskly for 2 or 3 minutes. Mixture will get stiff quickly. Remove from heat when it is thick and smooth.

Stir in any cheese or cooked vegetables you wish and serve hot.

Makes 3 cups. Each 1/2-cup serving without cheese or vegetables:

84 calories; 394 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.14 gram fiber.



1/3 cup butter, melted

3 tablespoons lemon juice

6 firm bananas, peeled

1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed

1/2 teaspoon ginger, optional

1 cup grated coconut

Whipping cream, optional

Spread melted butter and lemon juice over bottom of shallow baking dish large enough to hold 6 bananas and stir until blended. Put bananas in dish and turn until they are well coated with butter mixture.

Put brown sugar and ginger into small bowl and stir with fork to blend thoroughly. Sprinkle sugar mixture evenly over bananas.

Bake at 350 degrees until butter bubbles a little, about 20 minutes. Turn bananas once after 10 minutes and sprinkle with coconut after 5 minutes. Serve warm with a little cream if desired.

6 servings. Each serving:

273 calories; 109 mg sodium; 27 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 37 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.14 grams fiber.

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