Polenta: When potatoes and rice are so passé

As a picky eater, I love a good side of roasted potatoes, brown rice, or crusty bread. But COVID-19 has meant that I’ve been cooking more meals than usual, and I’m tired of the same sides over and over again! In search of a new accompaniment for steak bites and roasted red peppers, I decided to give polenta a try.

Yes, side dish = carb in my book. Fight me.

I had a feeling that polenta wouldn’t have a strong flavor on its own (spoiler alert: I was right), so I knew I’d need to rely on some fortifying seasonings and a juicy main dish to bring life to the meal.

g.o.o.p.y.

What I wasn’t quite so prepared for was polenta’s straight-up goopiness. Stirring the pot on the stove felt like a science experiment. Even with my burner on its lowest setting, the thick cornmeal pudding sputtered and bubbled sporadically, threatening to explode at any moment.

Knowing that polenta could be cooked into either a thick, cake-like consistency or a looser mixture, I cooked mine with the hopes of eating the latter. I ended up with the former. That goopiness probably should’ve been a tell. Whoops.

Oh well. I was hungry for some juicy steak and sweet, roasted red peppers, so I sat down to eat my dinner, complete with inadvertently cakey polenta.

The verdict

As aforementioned, the polenta itself didn’t have a ton of flavor. I did spike it with some red pepper flakes, garlic, and parmesan so that the most discernible flavors were all delicious. And the soft creaminess of the polenta did pair well with the heat from the pepper flakes.

I wasn’t wild about the texture, though, particularly since I was expecting it to be so much thinner. The “cake” formed in the time it took me to scoop the polenta on my plate and sit down at the table, so it wasn’t until I picked up my first fork-ful that I realized I should’ve added more stock (damn you, goop).

Not a deal breaker, but anyone who knows a picky eater knows that texture and preconceived notions are everything! I don’t care if they taste the same—if you hand me a patty when I’m expecting a pudding, something has already gone very wrong.

My boyfriend’s comment summed this side dish up pretty well, though: “I don’t get it. It’s the consistency of mashed potatoes without the potato flavor.”

What can I say? Potato is king around here.

We did end up with some leftovers, and the Internet is rife with surplus-polenta ideas. So I decided to use the extras the next morning to make bacon, egg, and cheese polenta breakfast cakes—a pretty indulgent breakfast for a Thursday morning, but I really didn’t want to throw anything out.

Besides, this time, I could claim that the cakey consistency was by design!

Well, about that. Since the polenta wasn’t originally cooked with the intention of being formed into a solid mass, the polenta patty, as I’ve taken to calling it, fell apart in my skillet. So it was basically chunks of pan-fried polenta with the most delicious toppings (this whole “cake” thing really threw off my polenta game before it ever started.)

Those toppings made it a delightful breakfast, but again, the polenta didn’t really bring anything to the table that toast couldn’t bring. It definitely wasn’t bad, but toast is so much easier to make, and laziness always wins out for me.

Perhaps if I was trying to impress brunch guests with minimal extra effort, I’d whip up polenta to go with other brunch accoutrements. My read on this dish is that it’s best enjoyed with other flavorful, juicy components, of which there are plenty in the brunch world.

The one thing I can say about polenta is that there seems to be a plethora of ways to riff on it. So if and when I do try it again, I’ll definitely make enough to experiment with the leftovers. Surely, there’s some rendition of this cornmeal slop that will change my polenta game forever.

Sell me on polenta: how do you like it best? Let me know in the comments below or on Instagram @thepickyeaterchronicles. Until then, I’m back on the potato and rice train.

Published by Bethy St. John

Lifelong picky eater with a love for all things cooking. I'm a complicated woman.

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