Parmesan Black Pepper Grilled Polenta
I took these photos a week or two before Thanksgiving, but I’m craving this dish again as I write this, and hatching a plan to make it again sometime soon.
I don’t think I’d ever eaten polenta up until a few years ago, but it’s become one of my favorite staples to whip up as a weeknight dinner back-up plan. When everything else seems like it would require too much energy, or — even worse — another trip to the grocery store, I know I’ll at least have some polenta and a can of tomatoes around to turn into a meal. And since I always have at least a little butter and an onion in the fridge, I just have to hope to find a little Parmesan in there too, to turn it into a decadent feast.
I swear, those ingredients combined are even more appealing to me than pasta. (Not counting gnocchi, though, because I LOVE gnocchi.) But I know nearly everyone loves pasta and maybe can’t see the appeal of polenta in comparison, so just hear me out…
First of all, it’s not true that you need to stand there over the stove, stirring polenta for ages as if you’re making risotto — at least not if you bypass the stovetop method altogether and bake it!
Thanks to Joy the Baker for introducing me to this method, and to one of my all-time favorite meals: Baked Polenta with Tomato and Basil. It might take just over an hour in baking time (mine has always taken at least 10 minutes longer than what’s described in her recipe), but it’s basically a completely hands-off way to prepare a meal.
You end up with a perfectly smooth and creamy, yet hearty and satisfying, polenta base to top with just about anything your heart desires. And you can’t go wrong with Joy the Baker’s choice of Marcella Hazan’s famous butter-and-onion tomato sauce (+ fresh basil).
As Joy says, “it’s a big bowl of love and comfort.” So comforting, in fact, that not only do I love that dish more than pasta in general, I also love it more than mac & cheese. (I hope you’re taking my love of polenta seriously now, if you weren’t before…)
So if I love the soft and creamy version of polenta so much, then why let it solidify into a ‘loaf’ overnight before grilling it? Grilled (homemade) polenta gives you the best of all worlds: a crispy crunchy (& intentionally-a-little-burnt-tasting) exterior, which is soft, peppery, and cheesy in the middle.
With all the cookbooks I own and the food blogs I follow, the inspiration for this recipe actually came from an old cooking show on Hulu — The Frugal Gourmet. I’ve been watching that along with a bunch of others, including The Naked Chef and Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home. The Frugal Gourmet seems by far the most dated of the retro cooking shows on Hulu, but it’s given me some of the most useful recipe ideas, from the few episodes I’ve watched so far.
In one episode the host references the “tubes” of pre-cooked polenta, which I guess were just starting to appear in mainstream grocery stores when the show aired in the 80s, but he says it’s much nicer to make your own, and suggests pouring stovetop-cooked polenta into a loaf pan to cool and solidify into a rectangular block. To me, this seemed like the perfect solution for an easy dinner of grilled (rectangular) slices of polenta, without leaning on the storebought stuff. (The rectangular slices would also let you line a casserole dish for polenta ‘lasagna’ better than the circular slices would, although that’s something I still haven’t tried.)
Plus, I like that you cook it, or rather bake it in this case, ahead of time — like a day or two ahead of time — so it seems like you’ve already done half the work on the night of. Not that it’s very much work in the first place: you can simply bake the polenta directly in a loaf pan, let it cool a bit, and then stick it in the fridge.
And most importantly, compared to grilled storebought polenta, you can customize your homemade polenta loaf with whatever flavors (and as much butter as) you want: in this case a very generous amount of freshly ground black pepper and grated Parmesan cheese. So you’re seasoning the dish from the inside out, and making sure you’ll enjoy it no matter what sauce you serve it with.
Other than adding the ingredients to the loaf pan and stirring in the butter and cheese, it’s pretty much hands-off on Day 1. And other than slicing it and brushing each side with olive oil before grilling, Day 2 is also a breeze. (All you have to do is make the tomato sauce at some point: add the tomatoes, some butter, and a halved onion to a pot, and simmer away.)
In other words, this dish is deceptively simple. Have you heard it said that cooking should ideally involve either lots of work or lots of time, but not both? I might not always agree with that sentiment on the weekends, but it seems sensible enough for weeknight cooking. Luckily although this dish might be leaning toward the lots-of-time category, it’s barely any work for a lot of reward.
Print both recipes. (PDF)
Parmesan and Black Pepper Grilled Polenta
(Adapted from Joy the Baker’s Baked Polenta.)
Day 1 (baking): Active time: 5 minutes; Total time: 90 minutes.
Day 2 (grilling): Active time: 10 minutes; Total time: 45 minutes.
~ 1 cup polenta (medium or coarsely ground cornmeal)
~ 4 cups water
~ 1 tsp. salt
~ 2-4 Tbsp. butter
~ 1/2 – 3/4 cup grated Parmesan (plus more to serve)
~ freshly ground black pepper, to taste
~ freshly grated nutmeg, when serving (optional)
Special equipment needed:
~ loaf pan (1.5 – 2 quart)
~ grill or cast iron grill pan
How to make it:
1. Day 1 (baking): Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. In a loaf pan, combine polenta, water, and salt. Give it a stir, then place in the pre-heated oven for 45 minutes.
2. Remove from the oven and stir the butter into the polenta until it melts completely. Then return to the oven for another 20-25 minutes, or until the top looks dry and the center seems pretty firm when you tap the side of the pan.
3. Remove from the oven and stir in the Parmesan and black pepper, then smooth the top and let cool to room temperature before covering and placing in the fridge until it firms up completely — for at least a few hours if not overnight.
4. Day 2 (grilling): Heat a grill or cast iron grill pan over medium-high heat. Cut around the polenta loaf to loosen the edges, then turn it out onto a cutting board. Evenly slice it, about 3/4 inch thick.
5. Lightly brush one side of each polenta slice with olive oil, then place it (olive oil side-down) on the grill. Grill 18-22 minutes per side; brush the tops with olive oil before flipping to the second side.
NOTE: Polenta takes a while to grill perfectly. You may need to adjust the timing a little, depending on your grill, the heat, the thickness of the polenta, etc., however keep in mind that when it’s ready to be turned, the polenta should have nice dark grill marks and should not stick or crumble, but should lift away from the grill pan easily; if it sticks, it’s probably not ready to be flipped yet).
6. Serve immediately on a bed of tomato sauce, or with sauce on the side. Top with freshly grated Parmesan and freshly grated nutmeg.
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce
(Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.)
Active time: 10 minutes; Total time: 45 minutes.
~ 1 28-oz. can of whole peeled tomatoes, diced tomatoes, or crushed tomatoes
~ 2-4 Tbsp. butter
~ 1 onion, peeled and halved
~ sea salt and black pepper, to taste
~ crushed red chili flakes, to taste
~ freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
How to make it:
1. In a deep saucepan, combine the tomatoes, butter, and onion (leaving the onion halves intact so you can easily remove them later). Season with salt, pepper, and chili flakes, and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 35-45 minutes (be careful of splattering).
2. Remove and discard the onion halves, then optionally blend the sauce until smooth using an immersion blender. Taste and adjust seasonings, add a little grated nutmeg if desired, then serve warm with polenta and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
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