Polenta gratin with Pancetita and tomato sauce. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
In most cases, I'm a terribly traditional cook. If there is a longer, slower, more manual way to do something, almost invariably I will prefer it. But even I push tradition aside when I find an alternative that is not only easier but also tastes as good or better.
Which brings me to polenta, a dish that is about as traditional as Italian cooking gets (I know one terrific cook in the Piedmont who keeps a wood-burning stove in her very modern kitchen that is used only for its preparation). But 15 years ago, cookbook author Paula Wolfert called to say that she had found a terrific shortcut — in a cookbook by Michele Anna Jordan, who, it turns out, discovered it on the back of a bag of polenta.
As someone who was always exploring ways to avoid the constant stirring that polenta seems to require, I was skeptical. But there's no arguing with the results: Mix water, cornmeal and salt, and bake without disturbing, stir and then bake a little longer. The result? Perfect, deeply flavored polenta. Since then, what had been an occasional luxury has become a weekend staple.
Can there be anything better on a chilly night than a big bowl of polenta topped with a ragù with sausage and short ribs? Well, yes, actually. Lately I've been trying a new twist on polenta. Instead of making it in a pot, I use a gratin dish and then, once the polenta is cooked, I strew over some toppings and return it to the oven for one last bake.
The beauty of it is that you can make so many great toppings in the hour or so the polenta is baking. One of my favorites, inspired by an idea from Yotam Ottolenghi's "Plenty," is to sauté mushrooms and arrange them over the top along with shredded Fontina cheese. Or you can make a quick tomato sauce, studded with browned cubes of pancetta. I've made this the simple way — with just onions and garlic — but I find that adding diced carrots and celery gives a sweeter, more rounded flavor to the sauce.
One word of advice: Even stores that should know better will sometimes sell finely ground cornmeal as "polenta." It's not. The flavor is more bitter and the texture is stiffer. You want coarsely ground meal.
My favorite brand comes from the Bay Area producer Golden Pheasant (they're also the source for the baked polenta technique). It's available at Southern California Vons supermarkets as well as a few other places. Or try Bob's Red Mill product, which is labeled "corn grits: also known as polenta."
Considering how easy it is to make, and how delicious, it's an investment worth making.