Polenta, comfort foods a good pair

Mitch Mariani

Although we are experiencing some unseasonably warm temperatures, I still like serving comfort foods. My favorite comfort foods are braised meats where the braising liquid has been slightly thickened. The sauce—or gravy—is best accompanied by a starch. But what do you do when you start to get tired of potatoes, pasta and rice? This week, I feature one of my favorite side starches that not only pairs well with comfort foods, but becomes an entrée when topped by an Italian marinara-style sauce.
In October 2013, I featured a recipe for Braised Country Style Pork Ribs with Onions and Sauced Apples. I mentioned serving the pork with polenta. If you are unfamiliar with polenta, it is basically a cornmeal mush. A precooked polenta can be found in the produce section of many supermarkets. It is sold in plastic cylindrical plastic package and though I’m sure it is a quality product, I have never purchased it because polenta is very easy to make.
When looking for the correct coarse corn meal for polenta, it may be called grits. Polenta can generally be found at supermarkets in two different locations. The brand ‘Bob’s Red Mill,’ which sells many grain products, is usually found in the natural foods section. Polenta can also be found in a well-stocked bulk foods section.
Polenta can be served two ways: loose or firm. Loose polenta is made with more liquid and is easy to spoon onto a plate. In my opinion, this is the best way to accompany braised comfort foods. Firm polenta uses less liquid and is poured into a rimed baking sheet or loaf pan and allowed to cool. Once cooled, the polenta is unmolded, sliced and heated, usually by pan frying in olive oil and served.
The recipe this week is for a basic loose polenta. For a firmer polenta, reduce the water by 1/2 cup. The basic recipe can be changed with a few additions. For instance, sauté 8 ounces of diced mushrooms in two tablespoons of butter before adding the water and proceeding with the rest of the recipe. I especially like two different options when the polenta has finished cooking; Stir in 1/3 cup heavy cream and the polenta will take on a velvety richness. If you choose to serve the polenta with marinara, stir in about 1/3 cup shredded parmesan cheese.
Basic Polenta
Serves 4
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup coarse corn meal
Step 1: Bring the water to a boil, reduce to a medium heat and add the salt. While stirring, slowly pour the corn meal into the water. Continue stirring until the polenta begins to thicken; about 15 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cover, stirring occasionally. Total cooking time is 20 to 30 minutes, depending upon the coarseness of the corn meal. The color becomes more pale when done.

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