oven polenta

Oven polenta – and breaking bread

22 September 2014

I’m all about breaking bread these days. Not necessarily in a literal sense, since no one but me seems to eat wheat anymore. But in a figurative sense, breaking bread is increasingly how I like to think of eating with loved ones in my home.

It’s the antithesis of entertaining. No elaborate preparation, stress or fuss – breaking bread is instead a modest sharing of what we have with others. An outstretched hand, an invitation to join, breaking bread is more about the time shared than the actual food offered.

Maybe I’m getting lazier with age, or protesting against heightened expectations from having food blog. But I think I’m just getting wiser about what it is that actually matters.

If I waited to have friends over until I could prepare a really special meal, it would never happen. We’re all busy. More than food, we crave relaxed time to visit. Goodness knows no one is underfed these days, or at this age. What we’re often running low on is meaningful social connection.

A home is a more relaxed environment than a restaurant, without crowds, loud music, or pressure to vacate the table for the next diners. At home, the kids eat in five seconds and bolt off to play, leaving adults to linger gladly at a quiet table.

Yesterday I heard Shauna Ahern, the warm and generous Gluten-Free Girl, speak at a great food blogging conference. In her early years with husband Danny, a restaurant chef, Shauna was energized to develop elaborate gluten-free creations. But in her more recent years as a time-constrained parent with young palates to placate, Shauna celebrates simple food as much as the complex.

Shauna recalled catching her friend on a chaotic day, with house in disarray, kids running around, no time for food preparation. But her friend didn’t sweat it. She made polenta and sauteed mushrooms, and they sat down, shared food and spent time together.

I’ve been waiting until fall to tell you about cooking polenta in the oven, a technique Russ Parsons at the Los Angeles Times wrote about last year. You know I have a soft spot for old-school methods, but after making polenta in the oven – or, more accurately, polenta cooked itself in the oven – I don’t know why anyone would ever go back to the classic stir-intensive stovetop way.

Polenta – made simply with cornmeal, water and salt – is an excellent way to break bread without bread. Corn is naturally gluten-free, and although polenta makes an excellent side dish to meat, it can also be topped with anything that would be good over pasta – grated cheese, a chunky sauce, sauteed greens, roasted vegetables, a fried egg – and eaten as a warm, filling meal on its own.

Best of all, there’s practically no cooking involved, and you can make as much as you need with the same minimal effort.

Start with medium-ground cornmeal in a buttered baking dish.

dry polenta (medium grind corn meal)

Add water and salt. Stir and bake.

water salt polenta

After 45 restful minutes, stir it up.

stir oven polenta

Add some butter.

add butter

And that’s all there is to it! No splatters, no burns. It’s the greatest thing to happen to me since overnight oatmeal.

oven polenta

Russ Parsons serves his polenta with melted fontina and sauteed mushrooms. I cooked mushrooms in a skillet with garlic and fresh thyme. Rosemary is also wonderful.

sliced mushrooms thyme

But you can use whatever you have. Polenta falls into the same comfort category as mashed potatoes for me, but it’s as adaptable as pasta for any sauce, cheese or vegetables you want to put on top.

oven polenta sauteed mushrooms

It’s a pretty exciting idea – a just-add-water dinner that can happen in the oven without any active cooking effort on my part. I could dice up a tray of vegetables, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, to roast at the same time – and it would be a meal I wouldn’t hesitate to offer to the queen of England.

As the saying goes, treat your friends like family and family like friends. Break bread. Partake in polenta. And be with those you love.

Oven Polenta
I’m so excited to have discovered this stunningly easy, hands-off method for making polenta in the oven (from Golden Pheasant polenta via Russ Parsons at the Los Angeles Times). Polenta falls into the same comfort category as mashed potatoes for me, but it’s as adaptable as pasta (and gluten-free too) for any sauce, cheese or vegetables you want to put on top.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup polenta (medium-grind yellow cornmeal)
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt (if using table salt, start with 1/2 teaspoon)
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 8-inch square pan (or some other 2-quart/8-cup equivalent).
  2. Add polenta, water and salt to baking pan. Stir with fork, breaking up lumps.
  3. Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir in butter and bake for another 15 minutes.
  4. Serve with butter, cheese, pasta sauce, or cooked vegetables with a drizzle of olive oil.

Note

  • This amount of water makes a nice soft polenta you would eat with a spoon. If you prefer a firmer polenta, use less water.

Here’s the link to a printable version.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie 24 September 2014 at 5:58 pm

I am super excited to try this oven method! I love polenta but hate the spluttering and trying to navigate around the pot without getting burned! Loved the post too – sad how our busy lives get in the way of getting together with friends. Glad to know it’s not just me and my poor time management!

Reply

Carol at Wild Goose Tea 24 September 2014 at 7:25 pm

Your post resonated with me. I love your term—breaking bread and what it means. I am stepping into those same footsteps. I love eating and sharing food with other people like my friends and family. But in the past I have made it too much of a production. So I did it less. When I go to someone’s house, I don’t expect the production. I am just pleased to be there. We are too busy with all the other aspects of our life to ‘do it the old way’ anymore. This Polenta recipe so makes your point.

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Brooke 25 September 2014 at 10:27 am

This was a heart warming post. Thanks for keeping things in perspective CG. I will be giving the polenta a try. xo

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mm 29 September 2014 at 11:11 am

I’m a lazy cook, and love the passivity of oven cooking. Thanks for the recipe!

Reply

Lynda L 2 April 2015 at 10:49 pm

I love the idea of sticking it in the oven and forgetting about it for a while when everything else is being prepared. Thanks so much!!!!

Reply

cg 10 April 2015 at 10:59 am

hi lynda – yes, i love autopilot food! so freeing. 🙂

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