Monday, February 22, 2010

Oven-Baked Polenta

Pouring Polenta
Polenta’s been in the food news recently.  Mark Bittman’s 'Taking the Fear out of Polenta” showed up on February 12.  A few days later, Russ Parsons’ ‘Easy, Fast Polenta that doesn’t Skimp on Flavor'’ was on the L.A. Times site.  I’m happy that so many readers will be keeping warm with polenta dinners.

Parson’s column grabbed me for two reasons.  The first was nostalgia.  He mentions a Cesare Pavese book, The Moon and the Bonfires, about a Piemontese man returning to Italy after living in California for twenty years.  The book’s been sitting on my shelf for a year or so—it’s time to take it down.
Polenta Nostalgia
My grandfather came from Chiomonte, a small village in Piemonte, a part of Italy that likes its polenta.  Perhaps because of this we often ate polenta while I was young (no one else I knew had polenta for dinner).  My mother cooked it in a battered copper pot, stirring until the polenta pulled away from the sides, leaving a papery film behind, which always fascinated me.

Polenta 02
We bought bags of Golden Pheasant polenta, with the picture of a red and yellow pheasant lifting off from a field.  It was good, local, (from San Francisco), and probably one of the only ways to get polenta then.  We didn’t have bulk aisles in many grocery stores, or today’s wide availability of products like those from Bob’s Red Mill, or imports from Mulino Marino and Moretti (no connection to Moretti beer, which I have a soft spot for, because the man on the bottle looks like my other—non-Italian—grandfather).

The second reason Parsons polenta article spoke to me?  Because he wrote about baking it in the oven, my favorite way to cook polenta.
 
Polenta 07
When polenta’s popularity began to grow here, so did people’s interest in an ‘easier’ cooking method.  Tubes of cooked polenta showed up in markets.  An Italian relative even showed us her ‘easy’ method of cooking polenta in the microwave (it was kind of lumpy and required nearly as much attention as the stove-top method).

[A note on the question of ease in making stove-top polenta: it was never difficult—it took time, but no particular skill]

Polenta 05
Baking Polenta
About ten years ago, a friend gave me Paula Wolfert’s book, Mediterranean Grains and Greens , and I found a new-to-me method of cooking polenta.  The surprise was that the recipe had been right on the Golden Pheasant polenta bag all along.

The method isn’t quick to the table; it takes 1-1/2 hours to bake enough for 6 people.  But it only takes about five minutes of active time: four to combine the ingredients, and one to stir the polenta ten minutes before it’s finished.  And I like the subtle toasted flavor the oven-baking imparts to the polenta.

Baked Polenta 10
Oven-baked polenta is a great way to get dinner on the table fast—you can use the spare time to make sauces and a salad.  Or read with your kid.  Or have a drink with your sweetheart.  Or fold laundry and go through the mail.

Baked Polenta 4a
Polenta Serving Ideas
If you’re really in a rush, skip the sauce.  Pick up a nice piece of Taleggio (or Fontina) cheese at the store.  While the polenta bakes, slowly caramelize some onions (they don’t need much attention either) and make a salad.  Once the polenta is done, lay cheese slices on top of the polenta along with the onions.  This is the kind of dinner that fills you in every way.

Follow this link for the Oven-Baked Polenta Recipe.

Baked Polenta 2

6 comments:

kab said...

We're sold on Ayers Creek Farm polenta that comes in a charming zip-lock bag with a sticker on the front! Aside from the packaging, though, farmer Anthony Boutard grinds it from either Roy's Calais Flint corn or Amish Butter corn, both of which impart a bright, corn-y flavor that beats any store-bought brand. And love that local Wapato Valley flavah!

Thérèse said...

Oven-baked polenta is a brilliant invention. Delicious, couldn't be easier - I never cook it any other way anymore.

Lynne said...

I live for oven-baked polenta, and love your fontina/onion idea! Gorgeous photos, too.

Giovanna said...

KAB, I have to admit it's such a staple here that we keep a big jar of whatever New Seasons is selling (I think their bulk polenta is from Giusto's, a family-run miller in San Francisco). I look forward to trying the Ayers Creek polenta (guess I'll have to get myself over to the Hillsdale Farmers market Sunday!).

It's true--oven-baked polenta is so delicious and easy I'm always surprised to see it not mentioned.

Thérèse and Lynne, what do you like serving with oven-baked polenta?

h. hart said...

Mmm polenta is hands down one of my favorite things in the whole world. When it was a bit more obscure, I used to order any main course at a restaurant if it came with polenta! This taleggio and carmelized onion combination looks fantastic, and a nice change from my "polenta lasagna" standby. Can't wait to try it!

lshere said...

This reminds me of the polenta that my Aunt Victoria used to make when Uncle Henry and Aunt Naila arrived from San Francisco on Friday nights to spend the weekend at the ranch. She layered the polenta with melted butter, cream and cheese (I don't remember what kind) and it was so rich that I could never eat it.

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