Creamy Parmesan Polenta! Top with some wilted spinach, crispy cubed pancetta, warm tomato-basil sauce, and sautéed tomatoes and you’ve got yourself a little homemade Italian dinner happening.
Yep. That means date night caliber food that you can eat in your sweatpants and maybe even that holey old concert tee. The one you eat all the pasta in because you know it can handle the meatball drop or saucy drip that lands just in the wrong place. Every. Time.
Simple, cheesy, comfort food to the rescue in under 30 minutes. I’m all about that kind of life. The kind where the craving hits and cooking answers back, “You want what? Oh yeah. No problem. I got you, girl”.
Hot polenta reminds me of having a big buttery bowl of mashed potatoes. Only way faster with zero peeling or dicing involved. Quick, easy, gluten-free and vegetarian-friendly. I love that polenta and corn grits cook up to be so soft with a mildly sweet and nutty flavor. And you can make it all stovetop with plenty of leftovers to spare and stretch out through even your most hectic weeks.
And the cheese situation. The glorious cheese. Sharp and salty parmesan blended together with milky low-fat cottage cheese makes for a seriously creamy and full-bodied texture.
What’s not to love?
They say that inspiration comes from all around you. And while I have definitely found this to be true, I have also found that invention tends to be the product of pure and simple desperation (or all out hunger). Especially when it comes to things in the kitchen.
That all too familiar “oh my GOD it’s so late and I haven’t made dinner yet” kind of panicky 10 pm on a Wednesday feeling. You know that feeling right? When you start wondering if cereal or a bag of popcorn might actually count as a real meal. Or if PB&J is an acceptable supper substitute, only to find that you are missing either the PB or the J…or the bread…or just all of it.
Most weeks, I meal prep. But sometimes, I forget or I can’t seem to make the time. Life // the unexpected // tiredness // laziness // failure to plan // four-letter-word-that-starts-with-an-“S”… happens. When it does and I find myself torso-deep clawing around in a very empty fridge, I turn to the pantry as my starting point and I treat it like a no-one-is-watching episode of “Chopped” where I am the only competitor.
Thankfully, my pantry is always well stocked with a plethora of random little bags of grains like oats, rice, pasta in all shapes, and assorted flours. As well as lots of canned beans and veggies and sauces.
This stockpiling situation happens for two reasons:
- These kind of foods have a LONG shelf life and tend to be quite affordable. So when I need one can or jar of something I end up buying two or three so I can have extras later (basically reason #1 can be summarized as – Lauren is a packrat)
- My mom loves to send me lots of surprise food via mail (Well, who do you think I learned my pantry packrat ways from?? Yep. Her. That one right there.)
Sometimes it’s just a box of my favorite tea but other times it’s something unfamiliar that I haven’t used before that makes me roll up my sleeves and learn something new, like how to make a little bag of uncooked polenta / corn grits into a dinner time favorite.
Lucky for me, the bag came with handy how-to instructions printed right there on the label for the liquid to polenta ratio and approximate cook time. Gotta love when something comes with directions. Makes it so much easier to get innovative and make something from scratch right there in the moment.
Today we are taking the basic boil in water approach and swapping it out with tastier tried-and-true ingredients. Namely, a combination of savory broth and creamy almond milk instead of just salted H2O. Then we add in some flavorful fresh ingredients like minced garlic, cracked black pepper, and the ultimate trump card that sets any dish over the top immediately – CHEESE.
This is a simple (but still decadent) cheesy polenta that you can whip up on the stovetop. Today’s combination is just one of many that you could whip up using the usual suspects in your own kitchen cabinets and fridge. It’s a great base for a meal or yummy side dish.
The formula for a filling polenta dinner bowl is simple:
- Chuck in some cheese (if you don’t have parmesan, sharp cheddar would be equally good and you could use another soft, creamy cheese like shredded mozzarella or fontina in place of cottage cheese)
- Top with whatever protein is available to you (fried eggs, leftover rotisserie chicken, canned beans, braised beef, meatballs, shrimp, scallops, sliced sausage, fried tofu to name a few)
- Sauce it with something (pasta sauces like tomato, pesto, or a white cream sauce)
- And last but not least…add any vegetables & greens lurking in your fridge // freezer // pantry shelf (steamed broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms, frozen peas, shredded carrots, Brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, canned marinated artichoke hearts, jarred roasted red peppers, etc.)
And bam. Just like that you have a totally well-rounded, cozy, comforting bowl that you can proudly call “dinner”!
- 1 c polenta (or corn grits)
- 1 ½ c broth*
- 1 ½ c unsweetened almond milk
- 1 tsp minced garlic (about 2-3 cloves)
- ¼ + ¼ tsp salt, divided
- ½ tsp fresh cracked black pepper
- ¾ c grated parmesan cheese
- ⅓ c low-fat cottage cheese
- 2 tbs extra virgin olive oil (optional)
POLENTA BOWL TOPPINGS
- 4 oz diced pancetta
- 4 c baby spinach
- ½ c grape tomatoes (halved)
- tomato sauce or pesto
- COOK THE POLENTA: Combine broth, almond milk, and garlic together in a medium sized pot. Bring to a boil. Add salt, pepper, and stir in the polenta, turn down to a simmer and cook uncovered for 10 minutes. Stir very frequently to avoid the polenta sticking to the bottom. Be aware that it will bubble up more in the beginning but the popping will lessen as it thickens up.
- MAKE IT CHEESY: Turn off heat but keep pot with polenta on stove top. Add parmesan, cottage cheese, and olive oil and stir until the cheeses have just melted. Add more salt to taste (I needed about an extra ¼ - ½ tsp).
- COOK PANCETTA, GREENS, & TOMATOES: In a separate pan over medium-low heat, cook the pancetta until crispy (remove the liquid from the pan as the fat renders off for quicker, less splashy cooking and for a less greasy final product). Once cooked remove pancetta from pan and toss in spinach and halved tomatoes until spinach is wilted and tomatoes are just warmed through. You shouldn’t need any extra oil if cooking it in the same pan as the pancetta. If you aren’t using pancetta, then use some olive oil to wilt the greens and tomatoes. Add all on top of polenta with warm pasta sauce like tomato or pesto.