One of the challenges I hear most often about healthy cooking from whole foods is that cooking grains takes soooo long. And, it’s true. Most whole grains take 45+ minutes to cook, which is a long time to wait when you’re hungry at the end of the day. Enter polenta!
If you’ve never prepared or eaten polenta, you might have seen it cooked on TV or on the menu at a restaurant. At it’s roots, polenta is cornmeal that has been cooked in water or other liquids to create a delicious dish with porridge-like consistency. While not technically a whole grain, cornmeal is made by grinding corn kernels, which are a gluten-free whole grain option.
But, I promise polenta is much more delicious than all that!
Polenta can be served on its own with a little cheese as a hot pudding-like side dish. But that’s really just where the magic starts. Plenty of flavors can be combined into polenta – like the sundried tomatoes and basil used here. Once you’ve mastered this recipe, experiment with other flavors too – fresh herbs, onions, garlic, mushrooms, broccoli, and more.
When polenta is hot and fresh it is soft and creamy and the perfect base for stews and sauces. When it is allowed to cool, it becomes quite firm and holds its shape – even when heated again. So, it can be cooked, transferred to a casserole dish and later baked, or sliced and individual portions fried or grilled too. Once you’ve mastered making it, the possibilities of how polenta can be served are endless.
Purists will say that polenta is made from a specific type of corn – flint corn – while grits is made from another type of corn – dent. A fine cornmeal will result in a smooth and creamy polenta while a coarse cornmeal will create a firmer and coarser dish. I say, make polenta from whatever cornmeal you happen to have in the house .
Sundried Tomato and Basil Polenta
Active Prep Time: 15 minutes
Inactive Prep Time (optional): 15 minutes (or up to overnight)
Bake Time (optional): 15-20 minutes
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp finely chopped sundried tomatoes (I prefer those stored in olive oil, if using others, soften in a bit of hot water before using)
3 cups vegetable stock or water
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast
1/4 cup fresh basil, chiffonade
1 cup freshly grated mozzarella or your favorite vegan cheese shreds (optional)
- Heat a large pot over medium-low heat. When hot, add the olive oil and onions and saute until softened and translucent stirring frequently to prevent burning, about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic and sundried tomatoes and continue to saute for 1-2 minutes, until the garlic and tomatoes are softened and fragrant.
- Add the water or vegetable stock and salt. Increase the heat to high, cover and bring to a boil.
- When the liquid boils, remove the lid and turn the heat down to a simmer. Slowly pour the cornmeal into the boiling liquid, whisking constantly to avoid any lumps. Continue to cook and stir for 3-5 minutes, or until all of the liquid is absorbed and the polenta is quite thick.
- Stir in the basil and parmesan, whisking until they are well distributed.
- At this point, you’ve got a choice to make. Option A: Serve the polenta immediately, as is. Simply spoon onto a plate or into a bowl and enjoy. Option B: Complete steps 7 & 8 for a baked polenta side dish.
- Pour the polenta into a 11×7 baking dish that has been lightly oiled with olive oil, spreading into an even thickness. Let rest for 15-30 minutes (or up to overnight). As the polenta rests, it will continue to thicken and hold it’s shape.
- Preheat the oven to 375F. Sprinkle the mozzarella evenly over the polenta. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the polenta is hot and the cheese is melted. Turn on the broiler and broil the polenta briefly to brown the cheese. Serve hot.