This is a really beautiful, simple dish, ideal for the summer months. For those unfamiliar with polenta, it is basically cornmeal cooked like porridge. I have to hold my hands up here, I’m not a big fan of polenta. Well not the of the wet variety anyway. However, let that polenta cool and set, then slice and grill it and it becomes so much more. The outside becomes all caramalised and crispy and the inside stays soft and creamy. It’s quite a simple food which makes it the perfect vehicle for showcasing other flavours. It is great with salads and sauces to make a more substantial meal and a great substitute for bread if you are trying to avoid wheat.
I absolutely love the simple caprese salad. It couldn’t be easier really, just basil, mozzarella and tomatoes dressed with olive oil. It is apparently meant to represent the Italian tricolour. I could live on this salad when I go on holidays to the Med where the tomatoes are just beautiful. The balsamic glaze is not traditional but I can’t resist adding it.
I have about 6 different recipes for making polenta and all of them vary wildly. I worked mainly from the recipes in Denis Cotter’s Café Paradiso Cookbook and Rose Gray and Ruth Roger’s The River Café Cookbook. The cooking times depend on the type of corn you use and vary from 5 minutes for instant polenta to 50 minutes! I used coarse cornmeal. Denis Cotter says to boil then simmer for 12 minutes. I went for a happy medium and simmered it for 25 minutes which seemed to do the trick. You can prepare the polenta and set it and leave it in the fridge if you want to do some of the work in advance. It will keep well wrapped for a few days.
Serves 2 as a lunch, more as a light bite or starter. You could also make smaller portions as canapés.
- 600ml boiling stock or water
- 150g polenta
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp dried chilli flakes
- 25g freshly grated parmesan (optional, leave out or substitute if you want to make this vegetarian friendly)
- A knob of butter
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- 250g mozzarella
- 2 tomatoes
- Basil leaves
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Balsamic glaze (optional)
- Start by making your polenta. Bring your hot stock or water up to a boil in a large pot.
- Thoroughly mix together the cornmeal or polenta with the salt, chilli flakes and oregano. Take care with the salt if you are using stock, just make sure it is not too salty.
- Slowly pour the polenta mixture into the boiling pot but whisk very quickly as you do. As soon as the mixture starts to boil, turn it down to the lowest heat possible and start stirring with a wooden spoon rather than a whisk. Be very careful, the mixture will splutter like mad at this stage.
- Simmer the polenta for the desired cooking time (see comments above) stirring regularly. The River Café Cookbook says that the polenta is cooked when it becomes thick and unyielding and starts to come away from the sides of the pot.
- Remove from the heat and add the butter and parmesan if you are using it. Mix well and taste for seasoning and add more salt and some black pepper if needed.
- Pour the mixture into a tray or pan lined with baking paper. I used an 8″ square cake tin. The amount of mixture here produced a layer of polenta that was about 2cm thick. Use a larger tray if you want it thinner or a smaller tray if you want thicker slices. Make the top as even as you can with a spatula.
- Allow the polenta to cool and set, this can take about 30-40 minutes.
- When you ready to assemble, heat a frying pan or grill pan over a high heat. Brush on some sunflower or vegetable oil, I find olive oil smokes too much here.
- Remove the polenta from the tray and cut into wedges or squares. You won’t need it all, wrap what is left over in clingfilm and store in the fridge.
- Place into the pan and cook for 3-4 minutes on each side until it starts to brown.
- While the polenta is cooking, prepare the caprese ingredients. Slice the tomatoes and tear off a few basil leaves, I like to leave them whole.
- Tear the mozzarella: it may not look as neat as slices but the increased surface area catches more of the oil and glaze. (I learned this tip in the Tannery, see I didn’t go all that way* for nothing!)
- Place the polenta onto a warmed plate and layer the basil leaves, tomatoes and mozzarella.
- Drizzle over a nice amount of the extra virgin olive oil and the balsamic glaze.
- Serve immediately.
If you would like further inspiration on new ways to use polenta have a look at this post by Nollaig on Fascination Food.
* 20 minute drive 😉