Polenta's Potential

Precooked cornmeal comes in handy for cooks in a hurry


Move over, pasta. There's a new ingredient for quick-fix, Italian-inspired meals. Now polenta also solves the what's-for-dinner quandary when time is short. Not polenta made from scratch, of course -- that would require laborious stove-top cooking. It's precooked polenta that woos weeknight cooks with "heat-and-serve" convenience.

You may have noticed ready-made polenta at the supermarket. In its clear plastic packaging, it resembles a fat, golden sausage -- not exactly something that screams dinner. But topping this polenta with just a few other ingredients -- such as bottled marinara sauce, Italian cheese and defrosted spinach -- is among the easiest routes to a luscious hot meal.

At its most basic, polenta is a creamy blend of coarse-grained cornmeal cooked in salted water or broth. In rustic Northern Italian cooking, it is often served hot off the stove with butter and cheese as a first course or as a side dish to meats -- an alternative to pasta or rice. Leftover polenta, which firms up as it cools, gets sliced and fried, grilled, broiled or baked with any number of toppings or sauces.

The ready-made polenta sold in grocery stores is best suited for recipes calling for cooled and sliced polenta. It also can be reconstituted into creamy polenta by stirring in water, broth or milk.

Although polenta has been humble daily sustenance in parts of Italy for centuries, it has only recently made inroads to the American home kitchen. Its popularity as a gourmet food soared in the early '90s.

"Trendy restaurants began putting polenta on their menus as an appetizer and side dish," says Robert Schuller, vice president of marketing for Melissa's, a specialty foods and produce distributor that markets a line of polentas.

"When a person goes out to eat in a restaurant and has an enjoyable experience, they want to come home and do the same thing," he says.

But because cooking polenta the old-fashioned way can be tedious (it demands at least 20 minutes of constant stirring), some specialty-food makers recognized a niche and launched the precooked product.

Among the first was Gennaro Maschio, the Italian-born president of Gennaro Foods, a Seattle-based producer of ready-to-serve polenta. Originally, his precooked polenta was available only in natural-foods stores.

"That's what put us on the map," Maschio says.

Now his polenta (as well as Melissa's) is found in select supermarkets nationwide. Locally, San Gennaro can be found at both Eddie's of Roland Park locations, Graul's in Timonium and Sutton Place Gourmet in Pikesville. Other polenta makers market their products regionally.

"People are looking for low-fat items that are easy to prepare," says Maschio. "This is one that you can substitute for pasta."

And because most cooks are comfortable turning pasta into dinner, it's an easy leap to cooking with polenta. Virtually any sauce you would put on pasta can be ladled over polenta as well.

Casseroles like lasagna can be made with polenta instead of pasta and cooked in a microwave or conventional oven.

Although the packaged polenta is sold in a variety of flavors, ranging from basil-garlic to sun-dried tomato, plain polenta works best in recipes. Like pasta and rice, it's a good, neutral palate for absorbing other flavors, making it a versatile accompaniment to many different sauces, cheeses, toppings or meat entrees. At about 80 calories per 4 ounces, plain polenta is fat-free. Most of the calories come from carbohydrates, 2 grams are protein.

The culinary possibilities don't end with dinner. When sliced and toasted, fried or grilled, polenta makes a good base for interesting appetizers such as crostini, the Italian toast that invites a wide range of toppings. Or it can be sweetened for dessert, as a polenta pudding. It can even be served at breakfast, fried and topped with maple syrup.

Polenta Casserole

Serves 4

1 (1-pound) package ready-made polenta

1 (10-ounce) package frozen spinach, thawed or cooked lightly in the microwave, drained

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (divided use)

3/4 cup low-fat ricotta cheese

1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

1 1/2 cups bottled marinara sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice polenta into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Spray the bottom of an 8-by-8-inch oven-proof baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Arrange rounds in bottom of dish to cover evenly.

Top with drained spinach. Sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of Parmesan. Dot with ricotta. Sprinkle mozzarella on top. Pour marinara sauce evenly over entire casserole. Finish with remaining Parmesan.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until heated through. Or cook in the microwave on high (100 percent power) for 5 minutes, rotating a quarter turn once during cooking. If not heated through, continue cooking for another 2 minutes.

Mexican variation: Use Monterey Jack cheese instead of mozzarella; also substitute Jack cheese for the finishing Parmesan. Top the ricotta layer with 1 (7-ounce) can green chilies, drained. If desired, use salsa verde instead of marinara sauce.

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