I was sitting on the beach the other day savoring a one ounce bag of one of my favorite indulgences…Fritos corn chips, (it’s o.k., I’m on vacation 🙂 ). I portioned out three chips at a time, determined to make them last. About every five minutes, I would extricate three more chips from the tiny bag, then wrap the bag up tight, and bury it in my extra towel so no sand or dampness would affect my little treasure. I’d crunch on two, then hold the last one in my mouth to slooowly disintegrate, challenging myself not to chew…thus extending the luxury of the salt and coarse texture while sucking in the flavor of toasted corn. Deelicious! It was a focused, determined, and completely satisfying consumption, as good as anything I’ve ever eaten anywhere. In between crunching, I’d distract myself for the next few minutes by continuing my reading…this time from a compilation of food essays I’d been meaning to get to for awhile called Eat, Memory…Great Writers At The Table, edited by Amanda Hesser.
Coincidentally, one of the essays I read while under my umbrella, listening to waves crash, and luxuriously letting my last corn chip dissipate into bits of soggy corn made me think about a strong memory of eating Fritos in my youth. (My friend H. would say, “Are there really any coincidences? Really?”) The essay, Dining Room Wars by R.W. Apple Jr., reflects upon Apple’s culinary experiences as he wandered the world for the New York Times. He writes that, “when it comes to food, I am neither High Church nor Low–or rather that I am both at the same time. I get as big a kick out of a good Chicago hot dog as I do out of a first-rate …Maine lobster.” That’s how I felt about my 18 Frito chips this day.
You probably have a few low brow, or “low church,” food moments of your own. Consuming them may bring back an important point in time in your life. For me, eating Fritos conjured up happy family times through my late teen years during the last years of my father’s life. As a family, we gathered around one of our few t.v. viewing experiences, excited to be together watching our favorite college football team, either UCLA or USC, in the Rose Bowl where they often annihilated some midwest team. Mom (Betty) would put out a large dish of Fritos corn chips and Lay’s potato chips with Lipton’s onion dip. This combination of chips and dip became a New Year’s Day tradition for us for decades.
This time, relishing in the corniness of my Fritos chips got me thinking about how much I love ground corn. Polenta (which is ground corn) is one of my “go to” ingredients for a side dish or part of a main course or a small bite item for an afternoon tea or appetizer with a bit of wine.
Polenta takes on the flavors of whatever you put with it (kind of like tofu does only you can make polenta decadently flavorful with butter, cheese, and other delights). A perfect combo is polenta with grilled sausage or polenta with sauteed wild mushrooms, or roasted peppers, or spicy sausage and tomato sauce with parmesan cheese … I could go on and on…I love a fine grind for soft polenta and a coarser grind for making a firm polenta, one that can be grilled after chilling.
Often I get requests to make my polenta bites, topped with a full-flavored item such as roasted peppers soaked in good olive oil and a bit of garlic, or a scintillating olive tapenade, or prosciutto. Below is the recipe for this dish. It’s quick to make and can be made ahead of time…at least a day ahead. Top with your favorite topping just prior to serving.
These tasty holders absorb the flavors of whatever you put in or on them. They’re best with the polenta served warm. If using a cold topping, warm the polenta cutouts in the oven for a few minutes at 350º F, then immediately top and serve.
Makes approximately 36 1 ½” rounds (or whatever shape you choose to cut them into).
PREP TIME: 15 minutes TOTAL TIME: 1 hour 30 minutes (includes chilling and topping time)
1 cup fine polenta (ground corn) – get the best quality you can find (I get mine from an Italian store – usually Claro’s Italian Market)
4 cups water
½ teaspoon kosher salt (optional)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional) (but butter really makes this smooth out and taste luscious)
Variations depending on which topping you plan on using:
add ½ cup grated parmesan – if topping with bleu cheese, prosciutto, olive tapenade, tomato, or roasted peppers or…
add zest of one lemon – for a lighter taste if topping with Boursin cheese or pequillo pepper topping.
Bring 4 cups of good, fresh water to a boil and add kosher salt.
Slowly pour 1 cup of fine polenta into the boiling water, whisking as streaming the polenta into the boiling water.
Switch to a wooden spoon and stir mixture continuously for approximate 8 minutes.
Add butter, parmesan, lemon zest (whichever ingredients you choose) during the last minute of cooking.
Immediately pour mixture into a 9” x 12” Pyrex dish or baking sheet, spread out evenly, cover with plastic wrap, and chill in refrigerator 1 hour or more. Cut into shapes and top with your favorite topping.
Serve at room temperature if you like. For the most flavor, grill, fry, or warm your cutout polenta shapes prior to serving, then top with your topping of choice.
Use any shape cutter you prefer; I use a 1 ½” cutter (pictured). Cut each piece, then use a small spoon (a grapefruit spoon works well) to dig out a bit of the center of the polenta and put it aside for some other use. You now have a nice little well that will hold your topping in place. If you don’t dig out a bit of the center, your topping can slide off.