Creamy Polenta

Starting around when I was half way through high school, my mom started subscribing to Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. Being a drama club nerd and a bit celebrity crazed, I loved our quarterly outings into the city to go see a play. Over the course of my getting to share in the subscription, we were lucky enough to see John Malkovich in The Libertine, John Mahoney in The Man Who Came to Dinner, and the first ever production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, written by Steve Martin.

My mom’s subscription was for the Sunday afternoon matinée which meant that after the play, there would be the additional treat of dinner somewhere special downtown. For awhile, the regular post-play dinner was at an Italian restaurant just a couple of storefronts down from the Steppenwolf Theater on Halsted. This restaurant had a special gimmick: they had this delicious, crispy fried polenta cake with a mushroom sauce and the lucky orderer of every 5000th polenta sold would win a free trip to Venice. So each order of polenta would come out with a little place card letting you know how close or how far you had missed the boat… or gondola? Anyway, you could always drown your disappointment in that delicious polenta.

As you can see, this is not going to be a post about crispy polenta, but whenever I make polenta I think about that restaurant. I’ve come to love polenta mostly because it’s comforting in any form. In this case, I opted for keeping polenta in its creamy, porridge like form as an alternative to mashed potatoes. This polenta was lightly simmered in chicken stock until soft bubbles popped in its thick, rich state. I then folded in two giant spoonfuls of marscarpone cheese. I had some leftover pancetta in the refrigerator which I crisped up and was about to crumble on top of the whole bowl but realized that the pancetta might lose some of its light crunch as it sat in the pot, so I opted instead to keep the pieces whole as a little decorative chip on each plate. This left the eater free to decide whether to crumble it up or devour it like some amazing chip and dip. Gimmicky I suppose, and not nearly as thrilling as a chance to win a trip to Venice, but it’s bacon, and creamy, nutty polenta, and that’s delicious enough for me to settle for. Hope it is for you too.

  • 4 thin slices pancetta
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1.5 cups medium ground polenta or corn grits. (I use Bob’s Red Mill.)
  • 2 tsps fresh thyme
  • 2 heaping tablespoons marscarpone cheese
  • salt and pepper

Carefully lay out each round slice of pancetta on the bottom of a small skillet. Cook over medium heat until crisp. Remove to paper towel lined plate to drain and set aside.

Bring chicken stock to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Reduce heat to a simmer and add the tablespoon of butter. When the butter has melted, whisk in the polenta and reduce heat to medium low. Add the thyme and switch to a wooden spoon. Stir the polenta every few minutes until polenta has thickened, keeping it softly bubbling but not boiling for about 20 minutes. Stir in the marscarpone and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove the thyme stems and plate, carefully sitting a pancetta chip on top of each serving.


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