So, this recipe initially jumped out at me because bacon + cheese + polenta seemed like an obviously correct decision. But this summer I have been trying to eat a little healthier, which means at least thinking twice about recipes that include extra-salty, greasy, and delicious things like bacon. As I was adding the recipe to my list for the week, the little part of my brain that irritates me with reminders about responsible decisions I’ve made in the past popped up and reminded me of this. So, after arguing with it for a few minutes, I wondered if there was anything else I could add to replace the bacon. I had some roasted red peppers on hand, so I decided I’d substitute those and see how it went.
You might be able to see where this is going. Sadly, this recipe did not survive the vegetarian adaptation very well. The veggies were tasty enough – my scallions purchased on Sunday didn’t make it all the way to Thursday, so I sautéed some leftover red onions in butter along with garlic, chard, and roasted red peppers, and that came out pretty good. But I had forgotten that polenta is a big bland flavor sinkhole. Even with the cheese in there, it sort of absorbed all the other flavors into a creamy, tasteless mass. Not the fault of the recipe, I believe; it just needed the bacon.
I may give this another shot someday, including the all-important bacon. I think you could even throw a soft-boiled egg in there and have this for brunch. In any case, lesson learned: bacon isn’t optional.
But one neat side effect of making this recipe is that I learned a bit about polenta. I couldn’t find coarse-ground corn grits in my grocery store, so all I had to work with was regular corn meal. I wasn’t sure if that would work, so I did some research and came away with some great tips from Daniel Gritzer at Serious Eats:
Apparently there’s a whole mythology around polenta that I had no idea about. Stir it constantly, in only one direction, using only a wooden spoon? (Under the light of a full moon, while standing on one foot perhaps?) Gritzer dismisses these overly-detailed instructions as basically superstitions. The constant stirring does sound potentially reasonable, but I also found that it wasn’t strictly necessary – though I did end up stirring every 2-3 minutes, which is arguably the same thing. On the one hand, I usually don’t have patience for stuff like this on hectic weeknights. But on the other hand, once in a while, after a long day of writing code, my brain is a little fried, and it’s kind of pleasant to just stand in front of a stove and not have to think about anything more complicated than stirring for a while.
In any case, I found his notes on the liquid-to-cornmeal ratio helpful. He recommends at least 4 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal (or grits), and you can use whatever liquid you like – water, stock, and milk are all common choices. I struggled a bit to know exactly when my polenta was “done” – I took it off when it had reached a quite thick consistency, almost as thick as play dough, and it was starting to take some real upper body strength to stir the lumps back in. I wondered if I had left it a little too long, but since I was going to be adding a cup of cream to it, I figured I’d better err on the side of thickness. And in fact, when the cream was stirred in, it was a nice texture and not lumpy at all.
It wasn’t especially flavorful though, so, just keep that in mind and be sure to top it with things that really pack a punch.
Deliciousness score: 4
Easiness score: 5