You could say that polenta is just a glorified corn meal porridge perfected by the Italians, but oh, what a porridge it is! Add some butter and good Italian cheese, and you are in a whole different universe.
Back in the old days, a pot of sputtering polenta would have been stirred for a full forty-five minutes over a hot stove. This lengthy cooking brings out the full corn flavor of the grain, but it is definitely tedious.
Newsflash! You can make it in the oven! Without stirring! This is revolutionary to anyone who loves polenta but can't stand the labor involved. In fact, the only real work from you is stirring in the cheese partway through cooking.
A blend of Italian cheeses—Parmesan, Asiago, and Romano cheese—makes an especially tasty batch of polenta. The nutty, salty, and tangy flavors from the cheeses boost the polenta from ho-hum porridge to noteworthy dinner centerpiece.
This hands-free approach also puts polenta back on the menu if you're entertaining a few friends for dinner. No longer tied to the stove, you have plenty of time to pour drinks, grill up some sausages and summer vegetables, and catch up with your guests.
Cheesy Polenta with Grilled Sausages and Summer Vegetables
- For the polenta:
- Butter (for the baking dish)
- 5 cups water
- 1 1/4 cups polenta
- 3 tablespoons butter, cut into little cubes
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2/3 cup 3-Cheese Italian Blend
- For the sausages and vegetables:
- Oil, for the grill
- 8 Italian sausages
- 3 medium (about 1 pound) zucchini, cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch-thick slices
- 3 medium (about 1 pound) summer squash, cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch-thick slices
- 4 small tomatoes, halved
- Olive oil, for brushing the vegetables
- Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 350ºF:
Butter a shallow 3-quart baking dish.
Bake the polenta:
In the baking dish, stir the water, polenta, cubed butter, and salt together. Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
Remove from the oven and stir in the half of the cheese. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes longer, or until the polenta is thick and porridge-like.
Turn on the broiler and broil for 1 to 3 minutes, or just until the cheese bubbles and browns.
While the polenta is cooking, heat the grill:
For charcoal grills, fill a grill chimney with charcoal and light it. When the coals are hot (they should be covered with a layer of fine gray ash) empty the coals into the grill and push them to one side of the grill to make higher heat and lower heat cooking zones. Set the grate in place and cover the grill. Preheat the grate for 5 minutes.
For gas grills, heat one burner to high and one to low (225F).
Fold a small piece of paper towel to make a 2-inch square, and pour a few tablespoons of oil into a shallow bowl. With tongs, dip the square into the oil, and brush the grates.
When the grill is ready, cook the vegetables:
Place the sausages on the grill and cook, turning often, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they are browned and cooked through (150F is the ideal internal temperature.) Move them on the cooler side of the grill if they brown too quickly but are still raw inside. As soon as they reach the desired temperature, transfer them to a plate and cover loosely with foil to keep them warm.
Brush the zucchini slices, summer squash slices, and tomato halves with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill the zucchini and summer squash on each side until the slices are tender and there are grill marks on the sides. Grill the tomatoes, with the cut sides down, until they how grill marks and are warm but not falling apart. Use the cool side of the grill to moderate the heat if necessary.
Place a spoonful of polenta on each plate. Top with a sausage, a tomato half, and a few slices of zucchini and summer squash.