Most of the time, polenta is a side dish, a buttery space on which to pile braised meat or golden roast chicken. It’s a supporting player, not the star.
But like its Italian compatriots risotto and pasta, fragrant, creamy polenta deserves its own spotlight. All the cook needs to do is add a few tidbits of something pungent or savory for complexity, and something crunchy or nubby to break up its unrelenting silkiness, for a warming, comforting meal that’s not at all hard to make.
In this version, I bake the polenta instead of simmering it on the stove. It’s more convenient that way, and it’s less hands-on: After popping it into oven, you won’t have to stir.
Then, while the polenta bakes, you’ll be able to use the stovetop to make the garnish. Here, I sauté leeks until they turn golden, sweet and crunchy at the edges. Then, I sprinkle them on the steaming polenta, along with some crumbles of Gorgonzola dolce, a gentle blue cheese that will melt on contact. If you can’t get leeks, use onions, but cook them a few minutes longer so they brown in spots. Any not-too-sharp blue cheese can stand in for the Gorgonzola. You can also try feta for something stronger and saltier, or cubes of fresh goat cheese for something creamy and relatively mild. Even grated good cheddar will work.
You’ll probably have several options to choose from when buying your polenta: coarse, fine, instant or those that aren’t labeled. The unlabeled kind is usually a medium grind, and that’s one I usually end up with. If you see coarse, though, grab it. It will generally have the corniest flavor and most interesting texture. Avoid the instant stuff, which is precooked and can become pasty when simmered. (Editor’s note: Polenta is cornmeal. You can buy a product labeled polenta, or you can buy cornmeal — they’re interchangeable in recipes. Polenta is typically more coarsely ground than cornmeal, and is closer to grits, but all three derive from dried, ground corn.)
Then serve it in soup plates with a green salad on the side. That’s all you’ll need for the coziest dinner on these chilly evenings of the first days of spring.