With the advent of a new job and the proportionate decrease of free time that accompanies a steep learning curve, weeknight dinners have taken a blow. I wouldn’t say they are bad, exactly, just hurried, harried, and uninspired. I’m down for some good cooking shortcuts and quick meals, but where to look?
Certainly not towards Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade. Not because semi-homemade is bad – far from it. Any cooking is better than no cooking (I consider assembling a sandwich “cooking”), and sometimes boxed mac & cheese is what makes my world continue its orbit. But her shortcuts are sometimes bizarre and often unhealthy, and with all her white teeth, unblinking alien gaze, and nary a hair out of place, that Sandra Lee gives me the creeps. Sorry, Governor Cuomo. She also makes specialized cocktails for most meals. As appealing as that is, if I followed her recipes I’d be half in the bag most of the time and way over-sugared.
So forget Sandra Lee and her wasteful table decorations, and make some polenta. It’s warm, it’s filling, it’s cheap, and if you take the time to make some, you can sup on the leftovers all week long. This particular recipe results in a firmer polenta, intended for chilling on sheet pan, slicing in to squares, and then giving a quick sear to make a crispy exterior. Then just pile whatever you have on-hand on top. Fresh herbs make it pretty.
Polenta for Slicing*
1 cup non-instant polenta
1 cup whole milk
2 cups water, plus some
Pinch of baking soda**
Teaspoon of salt
Knob of butter
Fresh rosemary, if desired
Heat the water and milk in a pot that has a lid. When they’ve reached a boil, whisk in the salt and the baking soda, then whisk in the polenta. Continue to whisk until combined.
Turn the heat to low (the polenta should stay at a very low simmer), and cover the pot. Check on the pot every 5 minutes or so, giving a vigorous whisk. If it seems like the mixture is getting too thick, stir in a few tablespoons of water or milk. Taste after 20 minutes, and add more salt if needed.
After 30 minutes, remove from heat. Stir in a knob of butter and the chopped rosemary, if desired. Pour the polenta onto a sheet pan and even out the top with a spatula. Let cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and pop in the fridge. The polenta will harden a bit more as it cools, and then you’ll be able to slice it into squares. Freeze some for later in the week (wrap tightly in plastic wrap, then foil), or heat up a spill of olive oil in a saute pan and give the polenta squares a crispy edge.
*Note: This recipe uses a 3 to 1 liquid to polenta ratio, which means it’s going to turn out pretty thick. If you want a creamier polenta (not intended for slicing), use a ratio of 4 to 1 by adding another cup of milk or water. Finish with a shower of grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese after cooking, and enjoy immediately.
**Note: I was once told that baking soda helps prevent lumps from forming in the polenta. Internet research supports this theory. Another way to prevent lumps is constant stirring. It’s a really good arm workout.