Move over, pasta – it’s polenta’s time to shine!
As far as Italian food goes, polenta is pretty underrated. This is probably because it is not as common in North America as other Italian-inspired mains like pasta, pizza or risotto. But as rustic peasant food continues to gain popularity (think beef stew, baked beans, chunky soups, nose-to-tail cooking), polenta seems just right at the moment.
If you’re new to polenta, here’s a quick overview…
Polenta is a savoury Italian porridge-like food made from cornmeal that can be served either soft or firm. The soft kind, which resembles the American favourite grits, is commonly topped with sauce, cheese and other ingredients such as sausage to form a pasta-esque main.
If you let soft polenta sit and cool, such as by pouring it onto a large wooden board or in a loaf pan or casserole dish, it firms up, allowing you to slice it into squares or wedges. Firm polenta can then be grilled or baked and flavoured with different sauces and toppings.
In larger grocery stores you can even find pre-cooked polenta (sold as long round logs wrapped in plastic) near the pasta and rice or in the Italian section if there is one. I like to buy this kind for convenience, but making polenta from scratch is as easy as boiling water and stirring (here’s a quick guide on how to cook polenta).
Not only is it tasty and filling, polenta also happens to serve as the perfect vehicle for nutritious vegetables, sauces and lean proteins. It is minimally processed, and because it’s made from corn it is naturally gluten-free (good news for those with celiac disease). Like all carbs, however, polenta is energy-dense, so it’s important to keep portion sizes in mind when loading up your bowl or plate.
This baked polenta, chicken and black bean casserole is a great weeknight recipe because it doesn’t take much time to put together. This is thanks to these three shortcuts: 1) store-bought tomato sauce, 2) leftover cooked chicken, and 3) pre-cooked polenta. To assemble it all, you just need to form layers (polenta + chicken + beans + sauce – repeat) until the casserole dish is filled and top the final layer with cheese. It’s kind of like a lasagna but much less finicky!
- 1 500-g package cooked firm polenta, sliced crosswise into 1/2" thick rounds
- 2 cups leftover shredded cooked chicken
- 1 cup black beans
- 2 cups tomato sauce (store-bought or homemade)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 sliced red chile, or 1 tbsp chili flakes (optional)
- 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- Pre-heat oven to 375ºF. Grease the bottom of a medium (I used a 1.4 L) baking dish and arrange the polenta rounds in a single layer in the bottom of the dish (you'll use about half). Top with half the chicken, black beans and tomato sauce; season with salt and pepper. Repeat to form another layer. Nestle any remaining pieces of polenta down the sides of the baking dish. Top with the mozzarella and transfer to the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, or until warmed through and the cheese has melted.