If somehow you accidentally end up with a five-pound bag of cornmeal, dust off an old recipe or two!
A few years ago, I clipped Mark Bittman’s recipe for polenta pizza from the New York Times. His version used pancetta and spinach and involved making the polenta, letting it set in the refrigerator until firm. He then baked it off to crisp it up a bit, topped it, and put it back in the oven to finish. I stuffed the recipe in a folder, never made it, but the idea stuck in my mind because the picture was really inviting.
My mother’s polenta squares
My mother used to make cornmeal cakes. She would make a large pot of “corn meal mush” for breakfast. If our family had been Italian, we would have called it polenta. The extra she would put in a baking dish and refrigerate overnight. That evening or the next morning, she would cut this into squares and fry it up, usually in bacon grease since she had a coffee can of it sitting next to the stove, ever ready. It was served as a side or in place of a starch. Inexpensive, and delicious, I often made it for my own family, usually topping it with something flavorful such as sautéed mushrooms.
A year ago, if you asked me if I ever ordered groceries on-line, I would have laughed. With a fairly good range of local farmsteads, markets, co-ops, and grocery stores, I can usually find what I need and often what I want. What a difference a year makes.
My favorite Vermont-grown cornmeal was something I would pick up when I found it as supplies tend to wax and wane. In this time of careful and restricted shopping, I can’t justify traveling to four or five places to find that one special ingredient. I had run out of my cornmeal, and kept my eyes open for it, but it remained elusive, along with a few other ingredients. I knew where I could absolutely find it, but that meant a two-hour trip. Not in the cards.
It’s a long story, but in essence I found the items on-line, free shipping too, but when I got my order instead of the small bag of cornmeal I was used to, I had a big five-pound bag! The photo looked just like the small bag, I swear.
It’s a cornmeal kind of week!
I’m cooking with cornmeal this week, starting with this “pizza” in the loosest of definitions. I’ll also make some corn muffins, perhaps Spider Cake, and definitely some Anadama Bread.
I decided to mash-up Bittman’s recipe for polenta pizza with m mother’s for her squares. I added my own twists, of course. Bittman’s recipe used water and milk for the liquid in the polenta; my mom’s used just water, and over the years, I’ve added a bouillon cube or two or veggie stock for more flavor. I had a bulb of fennel in the refrigerator and a couple of plump leeks, so I decided on a sautéed medley of these as my topping. (I made a quick veggie stock out of the leek and fennel trimmings).
The dish came out delicious. The “crust” was thinner than the squares my mom made, and so I made a second batch and adjusted, just for memory sake. I loved her thick little slices! I used some left-over pasta sauce, but you can use a jarred if you have one you love. You can top this with just about anything you’d put on a pizza, and if you like, you can use mozzarella or other favorite cheese, or just omit it altogether.
I prefer the thicker base, really more a polenta square than anything I’d call pizza, but my husband liked the thinner version. My sister liked the thick, her daughter the thin. It’s always all about what you like the best, so make it your own way and make it your own! I have instructions for both below.
Polenta “Pizza” with Sautéed Fennel and Leeks
- 3-3 ½ cups of water, or so
- 2 bouillon cubes, or use homemade veggie stock, optional
- ½ tsp. salt
- 1 cup coarse corn meal
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 2 large leeks, the white and light green, sliced
- 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
- 4 garlic cloves
- The fronds from a head of fennel
- 1 tsp. crushed fennel seeds
- Large pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
- ½ tsp. dried oregano
- 1 ½ cups tomato sauce or pasta sauce
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese or vegan alternative
- Few leaves of fresh basil
Grease a rimmed baking sheet or a pizza pan and set aside. You can make this any size you like and decide on the thickness. There’s no right or wrong.
Bring the water, bouillon cubes, and salt to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer, and whisk in the cornmeal. Keep whisking for 10 to 15 minutes. If the mixture thickens too quickly, add a bit more water or stock. I used about 1 1/3 cup in total.
Once the cornmeal is thickened, add a little fruity olive oil if you like. Spread out on the cookie sheet to your desired consistency. Smooth the top and refrigerate for a couple of hours, or overnight.
Heat the oven to 450 degrees and place the rack in the middle of the oven. Remove the polenta from the refrigerator and brush with a little olive oil. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or so. The edges will just start to crisp.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and butter. Once melted add the fennel and leeks. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and sauté until the vegetables are soft but not browned. Add the garlic, fennel fronds and seeds, red pepper flakes, and oregano. Continue cooking for another minute or two and remove from the heat.
Once the polenta crust is ready, top with the tomato sauce, then evenly distribute the vegetables over the surface. Sprinkle with Parmesan, as little or much as you want, or omit it altogether. Pop back in the oven for 10 minutes, until the cheese is melted and everything is heated through.
Top with torn basil leaves, cut, and serve!
More Like Mom’s Polenta Squares
For this version, I put the above recipe in an 8X8 baking dish, well oiled, and let it chill overnight. I did not bake it off the next day before topping, so I skipped this whole step. I didn’t need to crisp it up, knowing I was looking for a softer, more traditional square. Having no more fennel in the house, I topped it with some sautéed leeks and sweet peppers with a few minced black olives, then popped it in a 450 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Creamy, delicious, and my favorite!
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