Are you a Polenta Snob? No judgment here. I inquire only to save you the chore of gourmand-splaining about how this quick recipe is nothing like the real deal you once had, or spent hours stirring and stirring to an ultra-creaminess.
Yet, we are both referring to cornmeal mush, and that description fits a cornmeal-based polenta at its essence. Stone-ground or coarsely ground yellow cornmeal will work here; it will thicken in the pot faster than the 20 minutes called for, but keep at it, stirring-wise, because you will be preventing lumps while you build flavor with tomato paste and butter.
After the simple, savory toppings of scallion greens, tomatoes and balsamic vinegar have been sauteed, seasoned and warmed through, you will do one more bit of polenta stirring: Add a few tablespoons of rich dairy. The color will lighten from coral to the palest peach, and some creaminess will occur — not to rival the artful polenta served in northeastern Italy but good enough for your table on a weeknight.
RECIPE NOTES: You may have leftover polenta, which is a good thing! It can be refrigerated for up to 5 days, and reconstituted with milk or broth when reheated. It solidifies when chilled; this also means you can spread the leftovers in a pan to a thickness of 1/2 to 1 inch. Then cut it into squares and pan-fry it or grill it to use as a base for all kinds of savory toppings.
You can cook 3 strips of regular or turkey bacon, or prosciutto, until crisped, then crumbled the bits on top of each portion before serving.
4 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
1 cup cornmeal or dried polenta (quick-cooking polenta; see OVERVIEW)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Spanish smoked paprika (may substitute sweet paprika)
2 to 3 tablespoons good-quality balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons heavy cream or half-and-half (optional)
Freshly shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for garnish
Boil the water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the salt; once it has dissolved, gradually whisk in the cornmeal or polenta. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir in the butter and tomato paste; cook for about 20 minutes, stirring often; the mixture will thicken quickly but keep stirring, so the mixture is evenly cooked and does not scorch on the bottom. Remove from the heat; taste, and season lightly with black pepper and/or more salt, as needed. Cover partially to keep warm.
Meanwhile, cut half of the tomatoes in half and season them lightly with salt. Trim/discard the root ends from the scallions; reserve the white parts for another use, if desired. Cut the remaining scallion greens into 2-inch lengths.
Heat the oil in medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Stir in the scallions; cook for a few minutes, just until they are beginning to soften, then add all the tomatoes. Increase the heat to medium-high; cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the tomatoes are just warmed through and starting to soften. Season lightly with the smoked paprika, then turn off the heat. Drizzle with the balsamic vinegar (to taste) and toss lightly to incorporate. Taste, and season with more of the smoked paprika, as needed.
Uncover the polenta and stir in the cream or half-and-half, if using. Divide among warmed bowls, then immediately top with equal portions of the warm tomato-scallion mixture. Drizzle with a little more oil and scatter the cheese on top.
From deputy Food/recipe editor, and tested by, Bonnie S. Benwick; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The nutritional analysis is based on 3 servings.
Calories: 310; Total Fat: 18 g; Saturated Fat: 7 g; Cholesterol: 20 mg; Sodium: 500 mg; Carbohydrates: 37 g; Dietary Fiber: 6 g; Sugars: 4 g; Protein: 5 g.