Most people consider polenta a restaurant food. That's because as good as this creamy, cheesy Italian staple is, few of us have the hour needed to crank it out.
But hidden on the grocer's shelves is a shortcut that can help get polenta on your dinner table any day of the week in minutes: prepared polenta. This is different -- and far better -- than a related product known as instant polenta. But first, some polenta basics.
Polenta is a traditional starch in Italian cooking, an alternative to pasta, rice and potatoes that pairs deliciously well with robust sauces and meats. Polenta is made by slowly simmering and stirring cornmeal with chicken broth or water. It usually also is seasoned with Parmesan cheese and butter.
Freshly made, polenta resembles a thick porridge. This variety often is topped with thick sauces, especially meaty ones. But if you let the polenta set up or chill a bit, it becomes firm enough to cut into grillworthy slabs or wedges. The trouble is the slowly-simmering-and-stirring part of making it.
While there is a dry product called instant polenta (just add water!) that promises results in 5 minutes or less, it tends to be grainy and flavorless. The better choice is tube-style precooked polenta, usually sold in the grocer's natural-foods section. This product is ready to be sliced and tossed on the grill, under the broiler or into a skillet to pan-fry.
It also can be reconstituted to its soft (porridgelike) form by being heated with a bit of liquid, such as milk or broth.
Here, a recipe for spicy pork with polenta that uses jarred crushed red pepper sauce.
Spicy pork with polenta
For the crushed pepper sauce, I used Pastene Crushed Peppers. You'll find jars of it alongside other Italian ingredients or next to the jarred peppers. If you can't find that, substitute any jarred crushed pepper sauce, such as sambal.
1/2 cup mirin (Japanese condiment)
1/4 cup crushed pepper sauce
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 pound thinly sliced pork cutlets
18-ounce tube prepared polenta, cut into chunks
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
4 ounces crumbled feta cheese
Salt and ground black pepper
1. In a large glass or stainless-steel bowl, stir together mirin, pepper sauce, vinegar and soy sauce. Add pork, toss, then refrigerate for 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine polenta and milk. Stir until soft and heated through, 6 to 7 minutes. Cover and set aside.
3. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high. Remove pork from marinade (reserve the marinade) and add to the pan. Brown cutlets on each side for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the marinade from the bowl to the skillet and bring to a boil.
4. Stir feta into polenta, then season with salt and pepper. To serve, spoon polenta onto each plate, then top with pork cutlets and sauce from the pan.
Nutritional information per serving: 750 calories, 18 grams fat, 103 grams carbohydrates, 41 grams protein, 101 milligrams cholesterol, 1,042 milligrams sodium, 12 grams dietary fiber, 22 percent of calories from fat.