August 31, 2012

Stellar Side Dish- Polenta with Pecorino Romano and Oven Roasted Tomatoes

Polenta with Pecorino Romano and Oven Roasted Tomatoes
Polenta is a wonderful blank canvas, that can be infused with flavor in three ways- first, the cooking liquid you use, second, the addition of cheese and third, a sauce or topping can bring this simple side dish to great new heights!  I think it might be even better than mashed potatoes, in terms of being able to take on flavors.  While we usually have polenta as a tasty side dish, there is nothing anywhere that says it can't be the star of your meal- a terrific lunch or vegetarian option could be to serve this polenta dish with a salad.

Polenta- what is it?  Well, it can take on many forms.  To start, it is made from ground corn and in dried form, it looks like cornmeal.  It can be cooked, as we are doing it here, to make a semi-solid, and, depending on how much liquid it is mixed with, it can be very loose, or very firm.  When it is on the firm side, and cooled, it can be transformed further, either cutting it into slices, squares, or smaller pieces (like french fry shapes) and fried or pan fried, or, you can even make it into a napoleon like structure with layers of sauce and cheese and bake it.  Polenta, as you can see, truly is a blank canvas!

The origins of polenta are fascinating to me- as corn is a 'New World' food- originating from North and South America.  So, it was only introduced to Europe after discovery of the New World.  Same thing with tomatoes- it's amazing to me, since we associate tomatoes especially with Italian food.  It's my understanding that polenta is eaten more in the North of Italy.

How is polenta different from grits?  Grits, as you may know, are part of America's Southern cuisine, and let me tell you, grits can be AMAZING.  I once went to a dinner party where we were served Chilean sea bass provencale and a four cheese grits casserole and I am still thinking about those grits...  If you've ever had shrimp and grits, you know what I mean!  Anyhow, according to some packages at the super market, polenta and grits are the same thing.  Nope, not true.  Grits are processed differently, and, there are three varieties of grits, and the way they differ is by cooking time.  There's instant, then there is coarse ground and stone ground.  These last two have longer cooking times.  Well, now I live up North and I can't really get grits too easily, when I ask for them at the supermarket I get kind of a blank stare...  But, I love polenta, too, so it's ok!  I noticed, actually, that polenta is appearing on more menus in the South as kind of a grits alternative- both of them work beautifully as side dishes that can be infused with delicious flavors.

Let's cook!

Polenta with Pecorino Romano
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup whole milk
1 cup polenta
freshly ground white pepper
1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano (using a microplane grater)
as needed: additional amounts of 1/2 water 1/2 whole milk, will depend on your polenta and desired thickness

Oven Roasted Grape Tomatoes
2 1/2 cups grape tomatoes (or cherry, or just really small)
2 Tbsp olive oil
pinch sea salt
freshly ground white pepper

Oven Roasting Grape Tomatoes
To make this dish, you'll need to oven roast your tomatoes ahead of time.  I did this in the afternoon while both my toddler and infant were napping at the same time, hooray!  Preheat your oven to 250.  Rinse your tomatoes and dry them- you'll want to dry them so the olive oil will coat them nicely, the same concept as to why we use salad spinners- dressing adheres better to dry salad greens.  In a small bowl, combine the tomatoes, oil, salt and grind some fresh pepper- white or black- a general rule of thumb I use is I try to include about 1/2 the amount of pepper as salt.  It's hard to give you direct guidance on that since every one's pepper mill is a little different.  I find that I can be pretty liberal with the pepper.  Mix well to combine and coat.  Spread the tomatoes evenly in a single layer on a jelly roll pan or a shallow casserole dish- what is a jelly roll pan?  It's just a baking sheet that has very low sides.  I use these instead of flat, side less baking sheets, because I find they are just better athletes in the kitchen.  Roast these beauties at 1 hour.  Remove from the oven and refrigerate until you are ready to pull the polenta together.

Adding polenta to simmering milk and stock
When you're very close to eating, because polenta like this is best when it is just made, heat the chicken broth and milk together in a medium to large sized pot on the stove.  At this time, you may also slowly reheat your tomatoes in a small pan over low heat.  When the chicken stock and milk is at a low simmer, add the polenta in a slow stream, stirring constantly.  This stuff cooks fast, so you'll need to have your cheese already grated and ready.  Continue to stir the polenta, and you'll see it quickly absorbs the liquid.  Now, I like my polenta not too firm, but this is where your personal preference comes into play- I add an additional 1 cup of liquid, half water and half milk, but, if you like it a littler firmer, don't worry about it.  Also, different brands and origins of polenta will behave differently, as some corn does not have the same protein / starch ratio as others.  Anyhow, once it's come together nicely and absorbed the liquid, turn off the heat and stir in the cheese.  It will melt very quickly.  Add pepper to taste.  You won't want to add salt here because this cheese is on the salty side.  But, taste it to make sure it is salty enough for your liking.  

Adding cheese to polenta
You're ready to serve it!  Just mound some polenta onto a plate, either with your main course or by itself, and top with some of your juicy, beautiful roasted grape tomatoes that are bursting and a little caramelized.  I think you'll be delighted with this and hope you enjoy it!


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