I’ve decided to rename the Friday Frugal Crafts department “Cheap Eats,” since it’s more likely to include recipes and cooking crafts than paint-and-fabric projects.
Here’s a kind of comfort food that’s fast, easy, and cheap. You can top it with sauces, tomatoes, or cheeses (or all of the above) and have it for lunch or dinner, or you can pour some cream over it (hey!!) and eat it like hot breakfast cereal.
Polenta is really nothing but cornmeal. Instead of buying the pricier boxes labeled polenta, just get yourself a box of plain yellow cornmeal. Keep it in the refrigerator to discourage any little six-legged critters from moving in.
Memorize this: the proportion is one to five. One part cornmeal to five parts liquid, give or take. The classic recipe is just cornmeal and water, but you get a lovely creamy effect-and add nutrients-if you combine some milk with the water, in any proportion you like.
Pour about five cups of water into a large pan. Bring the water to a boil over fairly fast heat. Sprinkle one cup of cornmeal into the boiling water, a little at a time, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, large kitchen spoon, or wire whip. When the cornmeal is fully mixed in to the liquid, turn the heat down and allow the polenta to simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes. Cover with the lid slightly ajar, so steam can escape but bubbling cornmeal doesn’t splatter on the stove. Stir several times during the simmering process.
When the polenta is cooked, you can do any of several things with it. I serve up enough for the meal at hand, and then pour the leftover onto a plate so that it spreads out like a flat pancake. Allow this to cool, then cover it and put it in the refrigerator for later use (see below).
To serve hot polenta, try one of these:
- Top a serving of polenta with a generous pat of butter and shredded or grated parmesan cheese. Sprinkle a little chopped parsley over the top. Season with salt and pepper.
- Top polenta with hot spaghetti sauce.
- Chop up a tomato. Add a little minced garlic, some fresh or dried herbs, and a bit of salt. Mix well and use this to top the polenta; then drizzle a few drops of olive oil over the top and add a generous sprinkle of parmesan.
- Stir-fry some fresh chard with a little chopped garlic in olive oil. Serve over the top of a mound of polenta with plenty of parmesan cheese.
- (This is very bad for you!) Place a serving of hot polenta in a small bowl. Pour heavy cream over it and sprinkle on some fresh or dried tarragon. Oh, what the heck-add a little butter, too! Season with salt and pepper.
Now, what to do with the polenta pancake?
Slice the refrigerated pancake, which should set up very much like a cooked pancake, into quarters or eighths or even into strips, depending on your purposes.
Melt some butter in a frying pan (you can use olive oil if you feel virtuous). When the butter or oil is hot, gently slide a piece or two of the polenta into the pan. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Cook the polenta over medium-high heat until it’s browned and starting to get kind of crisp on the outside; turn and brown the other side.
You can top this with any of the above (or anything else you feel like putting on it). Or you can cut it into 1/2-inch-square pieces and add it to a Caesar-type salad in place of croutons.
Some of the cooked polenta will stick to the bottom of the pan, especially if you added milk. Fill the pan with cold water and let it soak for a couple of hours; the stuck-on stuff will lift right off.