On a cold night, a warm bowl of creamy polenta fills every inch of my body with comfort. The sweet corn pairs so perfectly with the flavor of smoked ham hocks, parmesan cheese, crispy bacon, and tomato sauce that my mouth begs for more. I made the first batch on a chilly Wednesday night, but the dish tasted so good I had to make another batch when our friends Ken and Janice came over on Saturday to help us rearrange the nursery for our boys.
Polenta was the first really different and interesting dish I learned to make in college. I didn’t have any cookbooks, but I bought a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle at the newsstand every Wednesday to read their food section. One day, I decided to try out polenta with my roommate Dan Vuletich. He got his mom on the telephone to ask what chevre was since the recipe called for it. After explaining that it was goat cheese, she advised us to buy feta because it was cheaper.
Dan and I shopped at Berkeley Bowl together and picked out the ingredients making sure to include fresh tomatoes, basil and feta cheese. I had never had goat cheese before, let alone heard of feta cheese. The creaminess of the polenta, the sweetness of the tomatoes, and the tartness of the feta cheese captured my imagination. It was the beginning of my love for cooking. Trying out polenta with Dan also helped me understand how good food builds community.
All these years later, I’m still making polenta–though with many different variations. This variation may be the best though I’m a big fan of the vegetarian version. I skipped adding the feta cheese on top, but added parmesean-reggiano cheese to the polenta itself with a dash on top for good looks. Never use canned parmesan cheese. Freshly grated parmesan cheese actually costs less than the green cans of Kraft parmesan and tastes much better. You might like it with feta cheese.
I cooked the polenta in a broth left over from ham hocks. The broth tasted of chicken, leeks, shallots, garlic, and smoked ham hocks. I didn’t want to overpower the polenta so I only used 2 cups (or 40% of the liquid) of broth. Add the polenta slowly to nearly boiling water and stir it often. Otherwise, it ends up lumpy. Lower the heat and slowly simmer for 45 minutes or so. The polenta should feel heavy on the spoon like a really creamy oatmeal.
The LLano Seco bacon which I bought at El Cerrito Natural made the polenta perfect. Their nitrate-free smoked uncured bacon not only tastes insanely great, but it’s also humanely raised. Many pigs spent their lives in miserable conditions before they ended up on your plate, but LLano Seco raises humanely certified swine assuring that they live in healthy conditions for them, you, and the environment. And it’s the best tasting bacon I’ve ever had.
To get wonderfully crisp bacon, cook it slowly over a low heat. I’m not sure why–perhaps because it fries in the rendered fat–but slowly cooked bacon feels better in the mouth and looks more throughly cooked.
With the exception of 5:1 liquid to polenta, the recipe is actually just an approximation. I usually cook to taste rather than sharply defined measurements. In particular, tomato sauce needs to be adjusted according to the ripeness of the tomatoes and their liquid content.
3 cups water
1 cup dried polenta
3 rashers bacon
2 – 3 large Chanterelle mushrooms
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesean-reggiano cheese
Fresh ground pepper
Mix broth and water in a large pot. Heat water to boiling, then turn down heat. Slowly add the polenta, stirring constantly as you add it to prevent lumps. Add parmesan cheese in last 10 minutes. The cheese will considerably thicken the polenta. Fry the bacon while stirring polenta. Drain the bacon well. Wipe the frying pan mostly clean with a paper towel. Gently saute the mushrooms in the bacon grease over a low heat. Add the bacon and mushrooms in the last 5 minutes of cooking.
It’s possible to make vegetarian or vegan polenta. Omit the cheese and bacon, then substitute vegetable broth for chicken broth. Add about 1/4 teaspoon of salt to kick it up a notch.
1/4 cup red wine like Lava Cap’s Syrah
1 – 2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves of garlic
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Fresh basil to garnish
Roughly chop the tomatoes. Toss into a pan like a saucier. Splash wine over the tomatoes. Add olive oil. Cook tomatoes at a high heat. Finely mince or press garlic. Garlic benefits from being cooked in a little oil by itself so if you feel up to it, lightly saute the garlic first. Add a dash of cayenne. The tomato sauce should reduce almost by half. Maybe one third.