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Polenta: where breakfast meets dinner

Submitted by on February 22, 2009 – 8:28 pm7 Comments
Polenta and Frittata: A gluten-free version of an authentic Italian breakfast-dinner

Polenta and Frittata: now THAT'S Italian!

In this past week’s Dining section, the NY Times’ Mark Bittman wrote an impassioned article arguing that breakfast was a perfectly good time to cook savory foods once reserved only for dinner. The photo accompanying the piece was a gorgeous close-up of a breakfast ‘polenta pizza’ topped with glistening spinach and cheese.

Since then, I’ve had polenta on the brain.

So when it came time to figure out what to make for dinner on this rainy, dreary Sunday, I knew my polenta train had pulled into the station. Its creamy, comforting texture and happy sunny-yellow color would liven up this day for sure. Plus, it would give me the chance to clear up some misunderstandings about this delicious, naturally-gluten-free grain.

While most polenta–which is Italian-style cornmeal–is not typically produced using whole grains, some brands will still have the grain’s fiberous hull intact (but are missing the vitamin-rich germ, whose presence will decrease the product’s shelf life). Most chefs and cookbook authors recommend one brand of polenta above all others: Anson Mills. Anson Mills is the only producer I’ve come across that actually does market a whole-grain Polenta product--and theirs is made from organic, non-GMO corn varieties as well. If you can find it, it’s worth the splurge. Otherwise, I like Bob’s Red Mill Corn Grits (Polenta), which is coarsely-ground and de-germinated, but still has the hull (bran) intact. And they have an organic variety as well. Most other brands of regular corn grits you come across will be fully refined (especially instant or quick-cooking ones), so read the label before buying. Regular polenta cooks super-fast as it is, so I never quite saw the need for instant varieties.

1 serving of Bob’s Red Mill polenta with the hull intact (1/4 cup dry, which cooks up to about 1 cup) has 130 calories and 2g of fiber. Admittedly, it’s not a fiber powerhouse as far as grains go, but we gluten-free girls need some variety from time to time, so it’s still part of my rotation.

How to cook and serve polenta

Generally speaking, the ratio of water to polenta is 3:1. Boil salted water, and then add polenta, stir, and reduce to a simmer (uncovered), stirring occasionally, until all of the water is absorbed. If you’re feeling indulgent, you can melt a pat of butter into the fully cooked grain before serving. And if you want your polenta to look fancy, pack soft, warm cooked polenta into a small ramekin or baking mold sprayed with non-stick spray and invert it onto serving plates.

I love polenta as a creamy base to soak up the juices of braised meats, like my mom’s brisket (even plant-eating nutritionists are known to sneak in some red meat once or twice a year…). Polenta also makes a great gluten-free pizza crust, but it needs to be cooked first, spread out onto a pizza pan and baked briefly so it hardens enough to hold the toppings. It’s also a featured ingredient in my favorite gluten-free muffin recipe. Tonight for dinner, we enjoyed it as a slightly sweet and simple accompaniment to a savory frittata, whose recipe follows below:

Recipe: Fritatta for Dinner (with polenta)

Serves 6

Coarsely-ground polenta

2 TBSP olive oil

1 red onion, sliced thin

1 red pepper, diced

2 cups spinach (chopped or baby leaves)

2 (nitrite-free) chicken or turkey sausages of your choice, fully cooked and diced* OR ~1/2 cup bite-sized pieces of lox/smoked salmon

8 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup (~4 oz) shredded cheese of your choice (gruyere, swiss, monterey jack, sharp cheddar all work well)

Freshly ground pepper

Rosemary leaves (fresh or dry) to garnish

Fresh arugula leaves (1 cup per person)


Before starting on frittata, get polenta cooking on stovetop per package instructions, using 1/4 cup dry polenta and 3/4 cup water per person you’ll be serving. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a 10″ oven-safe skillet, saute red onion in olive oil until it’s brown and starting to get crispy. Add diced red peppers (and any other veggie you’re including, except the spinach) and cook another few minutes until it starts to soften. Add the spinach leaves and stir until wilted. Add the diced sausages, mix until all ingredients are blended, and turn off heat.

In a separate bowl, combine eggs and cheese. Add pepper to taste. (If you’re using sausage or lox don’t add salt to the egg mixture or frittata will be too salty. If you’re only using vegetables, you may add some salt to eggs as well, or just wait until its all cooked and salt your portion to taste.)

Pour egg mixture into the skillet and shake/stir to allow egg mixture to fully blend with ingredients and reach the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle top of mixture with rosemary leaves. Bake in oven for ~15 minutes until frittata is set.

Cut into pieces and serve atop a bed of ~1 cup plain, undressed arugula, whose crisp texture and everso slightly bitter flavor will serve as the perfect compliment to the soft and savory frittata.  Serve alongside cooked polenta.

* To make this recipe vegetarian, replace the sausage with 1 cup of any other diced veggie of your choice. Literally, most anything green will work…try zucchini, green beans, or asparagus. If you are using chicken sausage, I quite like the Trader Joe’s brand. They’re 100% natural, preservative-free and gluten-free.

Approximate nutrition information: (analysis assumes you use Trader Joe’s chicken sausages with 100 calories and 6g fat per sausage)

1 piece frittata (1/6 of total): 260 calories, 6g carbohydrate, 8g protein, 19g fat. Serving with 1 cup cooked polenta adds an additional 130 calories, 27g carbohydrate and 3g protein. The bed of arugula adds a whopping 4 calories more. Which makes for a respectable 400-calorie, Sunday-night brunch-dinner if I do say so myself!

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  • The Bear Froo says:

    Man……that was sooo tasty. I was super impressed that a last minute dinner turned out so good. My wife rocks!!

  • lani says:

    yum! i will definitely try this. my last polenta attempt was a big disaster, but you’ve inspired me to try again!

  • Your frittata recipe looks great – I like the addition of the turkey sausage in there. I made one with sweet potato and that was tasty too 🙂

  • Elli Sacks says:

    Incidentally, I just bought some polenta this morning. Recipe sounds delicious (I’ll try the lox version!)

  • Gene Callahan says:

    OK, so you start the polenta on the stovetop… then what? Throw it out? It isn’t mentioned again!

  • Tamara says:

    Sorry, Gene! I forgot that not everyone can read my mind. Cook the polenta according to package instructions using a 1:3 ratio of polenta:water. Serve the cooked polenta alongside the frittata, naturally! To make it look fancy, spray a small ramekin with olive oil or cooking spray, pack with cooked polenta and invert onto the serving plate.

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