It was the best of times; it was the busiest of times.
This Monday, I cheered a little (okay, a lot) when the kids went back to school. We’ve been needing a return to normalcy around here. But on that very same day, I was scheduled to do a cooking demonstration at our local Gluten Intolerance Group of Central Arkansas.
Craziness prevailed all day — because, of course — so I felt a little spazzy during the demo. But, we ended up having a good conversation and a few bites of this amazing dish, which can be prepared as a main dish or an appetizer.
Yeah, it’s a little fussy. You could cut down on the fussiness with a prepared tomato sauce and/or a prepared package of vegetables, I guess. You could also skip the whole step of cooling and shaping the polenta…it’s delicious right out of the pot; just serve the other stuff right on top. Either way, if you want to wow your family or guests with a delicious meal that NOBODY will notice is gluten-free, this is it!
By the way, this is my favorite, simple method for making an everyday tomato sauce, seen similarly here. Sure, there are times that I use real onions (I’m slightly allergic so they have to be cooked WAY down, and the dried ones are easier), add red wine, and other upgrades. But this is the one you can throw in a pot (if you’ll be home) or in a slow cooker (I like my new pressure cooker/slow cooker, because it can vent and thicken the sauce) for hours and hours. Yummm. I’ve made it on the stove in 30 minutes, and I’ve left it for 4 hours or more. Longer is better, but however you can get it done is best. 🙂
For the veggies, you can use absolutely anything you want, especially what’s in season. You can just do mushrooms (my husband would die of gag), or go all out with summer squashes, root vegetables, whatever you like. Just chop it up, toss with olive oil and roast. If you have some kale or spinach laying around, you can add that, too; you’d just have to cook it separately.
I promised the recipe, so here you go!
Crispy Polenta Cakes with Red Sauce and Roasted Vegetables
For the Polenta:
- Olive oil
- 6 cups water
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 cups Corn Grits/Dry Polenta (Rec: Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free)
- 3 T. butter
- 1/4 c. fresh parsley and/or basil, chopped
- 1/2 c. grated parmesan
- Ghee or clarified butter (optional)
For the Red Sauce:
- One 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
- One 28 oz. can tomato sauce
- 2 T. tomato paste
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
- 1 T. dried onions
- 1/2 tsp. dried basil
- 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
OR: Use 1 T. each of fresh herbs of your choice, chopped
- Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
For the Roasted Vegetables:
- 1 lb. whole white button mushrooms
- 2 bell peppers (any color), medium dice
- 2 medium eggplant, peeled and medium dice
- Olive oil
- Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
- Fresh parsley (Italian or curly), chopped or torn
- Grated parmesan cheese
Note: Ingredients and method for polenta are adapted from Bob’s Red Mill Corn Grits package.
Prepare a sheet pan (a half-sheet jelly roll style with raised sides) with a generous coating of olive oil, including the sides.
Bring the 6 cups of water and the salt to a boil in a large pot. Pour in the grits while whisking. It will seem very watery at first, but keep whisking. It will thicken up a LOT.
Once the grits are all in the pot, turn the heat down to medium-low and keep whisking, off and on, for up to 30 minutes, or until the mixture is VERY thick. The longer you can stretch this process, the creamier the end product will be.
When the mixture is thickened, add the butter and mix it completely in. Look for pockets of butter and make sure they’re all mixed in. Then, add the fresh herbs and grated cheese and fold it all together. Pour the polenta (isn’t it pretty?) into the sheet pan, smooth it out, and let it sit out to cool a bit. Wrap with plastic wrap and put in the fridge for at least a couple hours.
If cooking on the stovetop, cook the tomato paste in the bottom of a large pot over medium-high heat for just a few minutes, until the paste starts to develop a bit of color. If using a slow cooker with a sauté function, do so in the cooker. If using a slow cooker without this function, you can brown the paste, covered, in the microwave (yeah, really!) or just use the paste raw.
In your cooking vessel, combine all the tomato products along with your paste. Add the bay leaf, garlic, dried onions, and dried herbs if you’re using them. (If using fresh herbs, it’s better to add them a bit closer to the end, about 15 minutes before serving.) If using the stovetop, bring to a simmer, turn down to low, and cover with a spatter shield or a lid slightly askew to allow moisture to escape. For slow cookers, just start it up on low for up to four hours. If yours has a vent, set it to open. Before serving, taste and season as needed with salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Wash the mushrooms (no, water won’t kill them) and pop out the stems, saving them for veggie stock in your freezer. Cut into quarters.
In a large bowl, toss the mushrooms, along with the diced bell pepper and eggplant, with a generous amount of olive oil, probably a 1/4 cup or so. The mushrooms will absorb quite a bit, and you need them to be oily to roast properly. Spread onto a sheet pan and roast in the oven for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until they have a bit of color. The mushrooms will steam quite a bit and shrink for most of the cooking time, only roasting when they have released most of their liquid.
Remove from oven and sprinkle with a couple pinches of kosher salt and pepper.
Heat 2 T. of ghee, clarified butter or olive oil in a large nonstick skillet. Using a biscuit or cookie cutter, cut out large rounds of the polenta from the chilled sheet and place as many in the skillet as will fit without crowding. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cover the pan to prevent spattering. Check on it in 10 minutes for a browned, crispy bottom. When you’ve got it, turn them carefully over to crisp the other side. When finished, you can hold these in a warm oven while cooking the next batch, if necessary. (Your oven’s still warm from roasting, right?)
On each plate, place one or more rounds on each plate, depending on if this is an appetizer or entree. Top with tomato sauce and roasted vegetables, then garnish with chopped parsley and grated parmesan cheese.