A few years ago, I wrote about the baked polenta dish I make at dinner parties that regularly prompted my guests to demand the recipe in their thank-you texts the next morning. I always thought it would be the bo ssam that sat all shiny and dramatic in the center of the table. Or the labor-of-love mole negro that called for twenty-five ingredients including three different kinds of dried chiles. Or the Pok Pok’s Pad Thai that required an impressive last-minute hustle while guests downed their Negronis. No, it was a dish that required four, maybe five ingredients, all of which I’m guessing you have in your pantry right now.
A certain type of cook might say: You mean you’re in the kitchen continuously stirring cornmeal into chicken broth for twenty minutes while your guests are in the next room wondering why you are MIA?
Another type of cook, might say: I’ve always wanted a good recipe for that slice-and-bake rubbery stuff that comes in a tube.
To both cooks I say: Nope. Neither one. I’m talking about baked polenta here, which calls for a little stovetop babysitting, yes, but babysitting that can be done well in advance of your guests’ arrival. At least an hour, and up to a day before you’re having people over, you do your cornmeal-and-chicken-stock stirring for 10 to 12 minutes, mix in butter and cheese, pour the creamy finished product into a baking dish, then cover and chill in the refrigerator. You don’t have to think about it again until 25 (hands-free) minutes before everyone sits down, at which point you add more cheese and finish the whole thing in in a hot oven.
That’s what people are getting all excited about, you wonder? Well, yes. (You wouldn’t have believed how many angry emails I got when a book contract issue had me temporarily remove the recipe from my blog last year.) The baking firms up the top so you can almost slice it like cake, but the middle remains all soft and creamy, the perfect accompaniment to everything from braised short ribs to lamb shanks to even just basic roasted vegetables. You can even switch up the cheese based on what you’re serving, i.e. feta for the lamb, Parm for the short ribs, sharp cheddar for the vegetables. I’m guessing its versatility is one of the main reasons why the dish is so popular.
I will also add that using homemade stock instead of store-bought, while not required, elevates the dish to something you’d gladly pay good money for in a restaurant.