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Parmesan Black Pepper Grilled Polenta

December 4, 2014

Parmesan Black Pepper Grilled PolentaPin it!

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.

Parmesan Black Pepper Baked Polenta, ready to be grilledPin it!

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!

Making Parmesan Black Pepper Polenta (Baked, then Grilled)

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.

Parmesan Black Pepper Baked PolentaPin it!

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).

Parmesan Black Pepper Grilled PolentaPin it!

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…)

Parmesan Black Pepper Baked Polenta, ready to be grilled Pin it!

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.

Parmesan Black Pepper Grilled Polenta

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.

Parmesan Black Pepper Grilled PolentaPin it!

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.)

Parmesan Black Pepper Baked Polenta, ready to be grilledPin it!

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.

Making Parmesan Black Pepper Polenta (Baked, then Grilled)

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.

Making Parmesan Black Pepper Polenta (Baked, then Grilled)

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.)

Butter and Onion Tomato Sauce for Grilled Polenta

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.

Parmesan Black Pepper Grilled PolentaPin it!

Print both recipes. (PDF)


Parmesan and Black Pepper Grilled Polenta
(Adapted from Joy the Baker’s Baked Polenta.)

(Serves 4)

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.

Making Parmesan Black Pepper Polenta (Baked then Grilled)Making Parmesan Black Pepper Polenta (Baked then Grilled)

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.

Parmesan Black Pepper Grilled PolentaButter and Onion Tomato Sauce for Grilled Polenta

Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce
(Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.)

(Serves 4)

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.

Print these recipes! (PDF)

Parmesan Black Pepper Grilled PolentaPin it!

Related recipe posts:

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Sweet Potato Gnocchi in Rosemary Butter Homemade Tomato Sauce Tuscan Kale Salad Spicy Tomato Soup (with Red Lentils)
36 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2014 9:46 am

    looks amazingly tasty. I love polenta …one of my favourites.

  2. December 4, 2014 11:02 am

    I love polenta. I have to try this. Thank you

  3. December 4, 2014 11:35 am

    This looks so good and I love that you use your grill pan. I can actually do that in my apartment. I like that there isn’t too much butter in this. Looks so delicious. I’m so doing this!

    • December 5, 2014 2:25 pm

      Thanks, Amanda! Yes, there aren’t many things we actually use our grill pan for, but this is one of them — I think we’ve made this six or seven times recently. (We also use the grill pan for grilling bread for pan catalán and lengthwise zucchini slices for pizza, and the reverse side is a flat griddle that we use even more often, for fried eggs and sometimes pancakes.)

      It’s funny you mentioned that there’s not much butter in it, because I actually think of this dinner as having quite a bit of butter (especially since the sauce has some too), but I have reduced the amount of butter in both the polenta and the sauce (compared to Joy the Baker’s recipe), and they’re both still so good! Also the polenta loaf makes enough for 8 servings, so I guess that’s not that much butter *per serving* after all :)

      Anyway, yes it’s great to be able to actually grill things indoors! (Our 2nd floor apartment — with a very flammable balcony — gives us no chance to own an actual grill, although Paula especially would love one.) I hope you enjoy it!!

  4. December 4, 2014 12:32 pm

    This looks fab, thanks for sharing. I’ve never cooked polenta and I’ve fancied doing so for a while, this looks like the perfect recipe to try! Like you I enjoy making something where you do prep in stages so by the end it practically makes itself. :)

    • December 5, 2014 2:26 pm

      Thanks for commenting :) And yep, that’s a really good way of putting it — it might be a 2-day process, but when it comes down to it, this is totally a dinner that practically makes itself!

  5. Jessica permalink
    December 4, 2014 1:52 pm

    what a lovely loaf pan! :)

  6. December 4, 2014 4:06 pm

    Oh this looks divine!! Polenta is basically one of my favorite things in life, but I’ve never tried grilling it – looking forward to trying this!

    • December 5, 2014 2:28 pm

      Yay, I’m glad you’re planning on trying it! Let me know how you like it. And I’m with you on that — as of the last few years, polenta is also one of my favorite things in life :)

  7. December 4, 2014 5:50 pm

    I see the appeal of polenta! Love the stuff. I really like that brand of canned tomatoes. It’s one of the better ones isn’t it? And I adore Marcella’s tomato sauce. This really is a perfect meal.

    • December 5, 2014 2:31 pm

      Glad you’re with me on the joys of polenta! :) And yep, that brand of tomatoes is Cento, and that brand also sells San Marzano tomatoes, which are supposed to be the best kind to use for Marcella’s tomato sauce recipe, although to be honest I usually just buy whatever (doesn’t have tons of extra salt/citric acid/ingredients-other-than-tomatoes and) is on sale.

  8. December 5, 2014 2:04 am

    This looks delicious! I’ve never tried polenta but this gives me another excuse to use my new loaf pan! I think the hard part will be waiting to let it cool before digging in!

    • December 5, 2014 2:34 pm

      Thanks! Yes, it’s totally a great non-bread use for a loaf pan! Also, I know what you mean about the hardest part being letting it solidify without just digging in, but the nice part is that you don’t *really* have to wait — if I needed a weeknight dinner THAT night, then I would just eat it straight out of the oven, topped with sauce, as in Joy the Baker’s original recipe.

      (Or if you really want to bake it a day in advance and grill it the next day, you could still sneak a spoonful or two of it once it’s out of the oven and before you stick it in the fridge :)

  9. December 5, 2014 5:40 am

    I’ve never thought or heard of baking polenta, but after seeing how you’re cutting it so easily, this seems brilliant. I bet it holds up to grilling well this way too!

    • December 5, 2014 2:39 pm

      Yes, it’s an awesome technique. I had never heard of baking polenta either, before I saw it on Joy the Baker, but I think it works just as well as the stirred stovetop version and is much much easier. Her version is made to be eaten while it’s still soft that first day, though. So it was definitely an experiment the first time I tried to let it cool completely in a loaf pan and then slice it for grilling.

      And yep, it holds up very well to grilling! (Although, like I put in the recipe “NOTE,” if it’s at all under-done, then it might stick to the grill, and therefore there’s a risk it might crumble when you try to lift it away from the grill to flip it, but the secret is just letting it grill even longer, until it comes away cleanly, and it will stay quite sturdy that way.)

  10. afracooking permalink
    December 5, 2014 6:44 am

    Polenta is something I really warmed to, but seeing it prepared this way is making want to try it again. So pretty!

    • December 5, 2014 2:41 pm

      Thanks! I really love it both ways — straight out of the oven while it’s still soft, or grilled like this, but I could imagine that people who don’t find its smooth mash/porridge-like texture very appealing might still really like this crispy grilled version.

  11. totemsunrise permalink
    December 6, 2014 5:36 pm

    That looks delicious!

  12. December 7, 2014 11:39 am

    There’s a lot of beauty in the simplicity of this. I’d love to give it a go! Yum. Dinner envy!

    • February 12, 2015 10:34 am

      Thank you! I appreciate your comment, because I was worried about how it’s not all that simple to make… but it’s definitely a simple idea + simple ingredients, and of course it’s delicious! :)

  13. December 7, 2014 6:39 pm

    Yesss! Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce is THE BEST. I just love it. Polenta is also one of my favorite things. Whenever I’m at an Italian restaurant and I order something that comes with, say, potatoes–but I see polenta elsewhere on the menu–I always beg them to swap it for me.

    I love the photo of the polenta in the loaf pan with the butter and cheese and pepper on top before you’ve stirred it in all the way. It really pulls the viewer in– we just want to take that spoon and start stirring!

    • February 12, 2015 10:38 am

      Thank you, Katherine! A photo-related compliment from you is high praise indeed :)

      Also I’m glad you share my love for Marcella Hazan’s sauce and polenta! That is super smart to have polenta swapped for potatoes; I am totally going to try that. (Although I rarely go to Italian restaurants — unless I’m visiting relatives in New Jersey — and I rarely see potatoes on the menu at Italian restaurants, or at least not next to the menu items I tend to order, which are already 95-100% pasta, and maybe even potato gnocchi.)

      Btw, hope all is going well with you and your (future?/new?) little one!

  14. December 8, 2014 2:14 am

    I have to admit I’ve never really got the point of polenta, but I’m obviously in a minority from these comments! This inspires me to give it another go. The addition of parmesan sounds like a winner. Thanks

    • February 12, 2015 10:38 am

      Nice — I’m glad that we (me + other commenters) could inspire you to give polenta another try. I’d say that making it nice and cheesy is key, and has a lot to do with its appeal. :)

  15. December 10, 2014 4:53 am

    That looks so tasty! I have only had polenta a couple of times, but never like that. I will have to try it!

  16. walgenbe permalink
    December 20, 2014 7:28 am

    Making this for the fam here in chilly Wisconsin! I can’t wait to try it out, especially after reading other folks raving about the tomato sauce recipe. I always forget about this kind of polenta, because I love it so much soft and creamy with eggs on top. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • February 12, 2015 10:41 am

      Thanks, Em! It was fun to see your photo of your grilled polenta — and sorry I took 2 whole months to reply… Anyway, needless to say, when people try my recipes & report back, it makes me very happy!

      Soft and creamy polenta with eggs is amazing, too! Although even more often than that, I make soft and creamy polenta with this exact tomato sauce + a little fresh basil.

  17. December 28, 2014 7:34 am

    Thanks for this great post. I’ve only recently discovered polenta and am hooked! Especially grilled ‘steaks’ like you’ve made above. Topped with that tasty sauce it’s like getting the substantial biteable main ingredient but perhaps that bit healthier than meat. Great photos you take too.

    • February 12, 2015 10:43 am

      Thanks so much for your comment! Yeah I guess I could have called these polenta ‘steaks’ — they definitely make for a substantial, hearty meal. (And I was going to say one that’s maybe more texturally appealing than just a bowl of creamy polenta, but that texture has its own comfort-food-style appeal, too.)

  18. January 27, 2015 2:29 pm

    Yum!! I love polenta. Added to my menu plan for the week :) thanks for the inspiration

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