I noticed something funny the other week. We’ve been cooking for friends all winter — don’t mistake this for me characterizing myself as big-hearted or generous: During long stretches of single-digit days, these meals are acts of self-preservation as much as anything else. We’ve busted out The Ragu, of course. We’ve experimented with short rib tacos and lettuce wraps. We smothered more than one leg of lamb in mustard. There were beautiful burrata starters and warm chickpea dips and Marcella’s milk-braised pork, because I don’t know what would become of us if we went more than a month or two without serving that to someone…anyone.
In spite of all our culinary high-wiring, though, it just occurred to me that we’ve only gotten a morning-after recipe request (highest praise possible in my mind) for one dish all season — a dish that requires only a few boring ingredients and, in total, costs probably under five bucks to execute: Baked Polenta.
I’ve had polenta in the rotation for years — versions of it are in both my cookbooks — but I’ve only recently found myself going back to it again and again when I’m entertaining. No matter what I’m cooking or who I’m cooking for, it always seems to be the right answer when I ask myself “What should we have with the lamb?” or “What should we serve with the short ribs?” or “What’s missing from this menu?”
One key reason for this is because the dish is make-ahead. So at any point during the day, I can prepare my polenta the normal way — whisking corn meal into broth gradually and mixing constantly for 10 to 12 minutes — then pour it into a pie dish or a cast iron pan like the one shown in the photo, and let it set in the fridge. All I have to do when the party starts is top with cheese and throw it in the oven for 25 minutes. Another great thing: It’s completely flexible. So when I’m having lamb, I can heap on the feta before I bake. If I’m having an adobo-style pulled pork, I can reach for some good sharp cheddar. I’d go so far as to say it’s the Bill Clinton of my dinner party circuit: as down-home or uptown as it has to be depending on its surroundings. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it’s perfect with roasted vegetables for family dinner any old night of the week.
Make-Ahead Baked Polenta
As usual, the fewer the ingredients, the more you want to pay attention to the quality of those ingredients. Using homemade stock here takes the dish from good to great. Not surprisingly, so does the butter and cream. Also: The photo above shows a version of the polenta without the cheese baked into it. That works, too.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (bonus points for homemade)
1 cup cornmeal (finely ground)
1/2 teaspoon salt
drizzle of heavy cream (optional)
1/4 cup freshly grated or crumbled cheese (plus more for garnish), such as Parmesan, cheddar, or feta
Grease a pie dish or an ovenproof cast iron pan with 1 tablespoon butter. In a medium saucepan, bring stock to a boil and turn down heat to a simmer. Gradually pour in cornmeal and salt, whisking as you go. Continue whisking for about 10 to 12 minutes until polenta is thick. Remove from heat and stir in remaining butter, cream (if using), and cheese. Pour the polenta into your prepared baking dish and allow to cool slightly. Cover loosely and place in the refrigerator for at least an hour and up to overnight.
When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 425° and top chilled polenta with more cheese. (You can be generous here.) Bake for 25 minutes until warmed through, top is slightly golden, and cheese is melted or bubbly. Sometimes if I’m using feta and it doesn’t look “melty” enough, I smush it a little, then top with a drizzle of olive oil and some fresh parsley.