Fancy Grits - Cornmeal by Any Other Name
Here is another old column being recycled. I wrote it at about this time of year, so it fits. This time it's a trio of corn meal dishes to prepare ahead, if desired, and bake when needed:
- Polenta Florentine
- Pepperoni Pizza Polenta
- Tamale Pie.
The holidays are behind us, but winter is still here and colder than ever. This is a good time for hearty, satisfying meals. Cornmeal, in this case in the guise of polenta, makes a variety of stick-to-your ribs dishes which can serve as elegant or hearty entrees and side dishes.
As you might expect, I have my own approach to the Italian classic dish. I’ve served Polenta Florentine at a lot of buffets. The first time I did, it was dubbed “fancy grits” by a southern friend. Polenta, grits and plain old cornmeal or masa are all the same food, just ground and prepared a little bit differently.
I, personally, like spinach in Italian dishes, the Florentine style, with cream sauces. I also like the Italian way of combining tomato and cream sauces in the same dish. So it was that I came up with my version of polenta, Polenta Florentine. Serve this as either an entrée with salad or veggies, or as a side dish with a simple grilled or roasted meat or fish.
I’ll leave it up to you as to which form your “polenta” base will take: the true, from scratch polenta, a cornmeal cereal, or an “instant” grits product. If you’re a purist and have the time and patience, by all means buy the true polenta. Otherwise get one of the packaged cereal products. The differences will be in the coarseness or fineness of the grinding of the cornmeal, the color and, of course, in the ease of preparation.
I use the same liquid ingredients for my polenta dishes, no matter which cornmeal product I'm using, a mixture of broth and milk (evaporated milk, milk, even half and half). This gives the polenta a bit of flavor and creaminess it doesn’t have when prepared with water; however, if you are watching fats or calories, you can use water or all broth.
You’ll want to make enough to have 6-8 cups of the cooked polenta to fit your casserole dish. You can add grated cheeses while it’s still hot on the stove - I use a mixture of cheddar and Monterrey Jack, stirring them in as they melt. If you quit here, you’ve got Cheese Grits or Polenta, but this makes the basis for these three polenta dishes.
- 1/2-3/4 cup Tomato sauce, straight from the can
- Pinch Basil or summer savory
- 6-8 cups Cooked polenta, still warm
- Baby spinach, rinsed and patted dry (stems chopped off) or frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained and squeezed dry
- 4 cups Generic White Sauce*
- 2 cups Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated or shredded
- Optional: A sprinkling of paprika for added color
Preparation (instructions for layered dish):
- Pour tomato sauce to thinly cover the bottom of a casserole dish (9-inch square to small lasagne size). Sprinkle on herbs.
- Pour on half the polenta and spread it evenly over the bottom. Sprinkle with half the cheese.
- Mix the spinach with half the white sauce, spreading over the cheese and polenta.
- Pour the remainder of the polenta over the creamed spinach, carefully, so as to maintain the layers.
- Spread the remaining white sauce over the polenta and top with the rest of the cheese (and paprika, if used).
- Bake at 350 degrees until heated through and the top has turned golden, about 30-40 minutes, if you started with warm polenta.
- Let set for a 10-15 minutes before serving - it will hold its layers better and not be so likely to run all over the plate. However, you could serve this in a cream soup bowl without offending me.
- Make your salad and garlic bread while you wait.
Alternatively, you can prepare this in individual au gratin dishes, using only one layer of polenta and topping with creamed spinach and cheese.
* Generic White Sauce
This sauce and can be used as a base for a variety of dishes requiring a white sauce.
Makes about 4 cups
- 2 Tbsp. Butter
- 1 clove garlic, crushed or chopped fine
- 1/2 cup white flour
- dash white pepper
- dash nutmeg
- Optional: splash of dry sherry
- 1 can broth** (about 14 oz.)
- 1 cup milk
- Optional: 2 tbsp. grated parmesan or romano cheese
- Salt to taste
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, cook and stir until the garlic is coated in butter.
- Add the flour and white pepper. Stir continuously until the flour is beginning to turn barely off-white and has lost its raw smell. This is a roux.
- Combine the broth and milk. If you're using the sherry, whisk it in now. Then, whisk and stir vigorously as you add the other liquids to the roux. Continue whisking gently until the sauce has thickened.
- Add the cheese, if used, and stir well.
**anything but beef