Polenta's comfort is as good as it gets

The other night, in need of a fast but tasty dinner concept, I remembered my frozen cache of homemade polenta. I grabbed a couple of the frosty squares from the zippered bag, plopped them onto a baking sheet and shoved them into the toaster oven where they would change from solid chunks of cornmeal mush to something quite alluring and soul-satisfying.

During the transformation, I produced a simple, little, tomato-based sauce with a couple of cans of diced tomatoes, some chopped onion and garlic, a splash of chicken broth and a generous glug of balsamic vinegar.

By the time I was pulling the polenta from the oven, the sauce had simmered itself into a rich and complex-tasting sidekick. Perfecto! My freezer to the rescue once again.

Italy's answer to grits caught on decades ago as a trendy sort of side dish, paired up with designer mushrooms, imported cheese and new-style salsas or corn relishes. Still, polenta's humble, less pretentious roots are unshakeable. As comfort foods go, it's as good as it gets. In old-country Italy, a simmering pot of polenta, set over a red-hot wood fire, was at the center of every household. The resulting disk of sunny, yellow, cooked cornmeal was said to soften the hard edges of life. Not unlike a healthy dollop of perfect mashed potatoes or fresh-from-the-oven bread.

My first experience with polenta came at age 12 or so. Mom's favorite potluck casserole was Tamale Pie, and one of the main ingredients in it was a cornmeal topping we now know as polenta. It was always my job to stand by the stove and stir the cornmeal until it boiled and thickened. As much as I loved to cook, this was not my favorite task, because the boiling, lava-thick bubbles had a tendency to erupt right out of the pan. The only way to avoid a painful scorching was to wrap a kitchen towel around my stirring arm and place the rest of my body out of line from the flying globs of lethal mush.

These days, as in centuries past, polenta is enjoyed in two basic ways: soft, with the texture of Cream of Wheat, served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon; or firm, cooked until stiff and then sliced and eaten warm, or chilled and then sliced and roasted until a crisp crust forms around its creamy innards.

I learned from Michael Chiarello, renowned Napa Valley celebrity chef that the secret to a smooth and creamy polenta is semolina. Semolina, in combination with the traditional cornmeal, provides the velvet touch. Since then, I keep a premixed batch of equal parts cornmeal and semolina in a plastic container, so when I have a polenta attack, I'm ready to go. Also, I prefer to use chicken or vegetable broth instead of water, which gives a richer flavor (Chiarello's version even uses equal parts heavy cream and broth).

The marvelous thing about polenta is that you can prepare it to the "soft-and-mushy" stage in a pot on your stovetop and then consider three different options: 1) take it right to the roasting phase to serve immediately; 2) refrigerate for up to 24 hours ahead and roast for about 40 minutes before serving; or 3) refrigerate until firm, cut into desired-size pieces, freeze the pieces individually on a baking sheet just until firm and then pack into a freezer bag to roast at a later date.

So I'm letting you in on my frozen-polenta maneuver. The basic Roasted Polenta recipe makes enough polenta for several meals. Just cook until firm, cut into serving-sized pieces and freeze. For those harried evenings ahead, simply roast a batch of those frozen chunks of polenta and, while that's happening, make one of the simple sauces below (or one of your own favorites).

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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