I used to love – love, love love – couscous. It was the perfect side dish to so many things, especially when a break from potatoes or noodles was called for. That was the starchy side dish of goodness trifecta – potatoes, noodles and couscous. But all that has changed – it’s not you, it’s me, couscous. It’s over. It’s definitely on the verboten list for celiac, so couscous had made a swift departure from our lives. And it was greatly missed, until I remembered polenta. No, not even remotely the same thing, and not even really similar from a taste or even texture standpoint. But in terms of what it pairs with – that’s where it hits the mark. And it surpasses the mark when it comes to versatility.
While couscous could really only shine in side dish world, polenta also shines, but it’s also great because polenta can be made into a stunning main dish as well. I also like that you can choose to eat polenta in two basic forms – as either a creamy porridge-like consistency (reminiscent of farina, which is also verboten) or as a firm wedge that you can easily slice into with a fork. Polenta is also easy to make either savory or sweet, meaning it’s welcome at the breakfast table, and maybe even dessert if you lean that way. Who knew humble corn (as that is what polenta is, after all) could do so much?
For breakfast, a little pat of butter and brown sugar (or maple syrup) makes a fantastically warm and filling dish (known as grits in some parts of the American South). You can mix in dried or fresh fruit if you want. You can let the polenta firm up overnight in the fridge, slice it and fry some up with your bacon and eggs. Or you can top a wedge of it with pulled pork, a poached egg and a spoonful of hollandaise (a riff on an old brunch favorite called a Ned Beatty – which is usually served with roasted potatoes and jalapeno corn bread). And that’s just breakfast.
For your lunches and dinners, the options abound. Probably my favorite way to eat polenta is to pan fry firmed up wedges in a little olive oil and top them with a generous helping of bolognese. It’s great as fried “croutons” on an herb salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing. A creamy version is nice with sauteed mushrooms, scallions and sun dried tomatoes mixed in. You can thread firm squares of it onto a skewer with sausage and onions and grill it. You can bake it as a top layer over chili for a riff on pot pie. Polenta is fantastic cut into thick fries and served with a marinara dipping sauce. Or you can make mini pizzas with it – use a firm round of polenta as the base, and top with pizza sauce, sausage, basil, cheese – whatever your favorite toppings are – and run it under the broiler for a few minutes. Ah, polenta. So many good things can happen when polenta graces the table. And really, couscous had it’s day in the sun anyway.