Creamy Polenta topped with a robust tomato herb salad makes a fabulous lunch or side. Summer comfort food!
I love this dish in the summer. You can, of course, serve it all year round using high quality canned tomatoes like San Marzano as pictured above. In peak tomato season, I use fresh ripe beefsteak or heirloom tomatoes.
If you’ve never made polenta, don’t be intimidated. With the tips below, it’s pretty simple and straightforward.
Polenta is essentially cornmeal porridge, originating from Northern Italy. It is really a blank slate for saucy toppings like stews, mushroom or vegetable ragouts and tomato salad.
Boost the flavor of the polenta itself with Parmesan cheese, fresh herbs, pesto, etc. I love the soft, moist, creamy texture which is even maintained when cooled and hardened, then sliced, grilled or fried.
Serve this creamy polenta recipe with tomato herb salad for brunch, lunch or dinner as either a main or a side dish. Try it as a vegetarian main dish with Green Beans with Lemon-Garlic Panko Crumbs or as a side with lemon butter herb baked trout or Easy Maple Lime Salmon.
Tips for how to make Polenta
Here’s a brief summary of tips from Serious Eats.
- Serious Eats believes you need 45-60 minutes to cook polenta, but I find 30-35 minutes works very well. The longer cooking apparently deepens the flavors and makes it even creamier. The goal is for the cornmeal to absorb as much water as possible. You can add some extra water if needed to increase the cooking time. I don’t bother.
- The texture of cooked polenta should resemble soft scrambled eggs.
- Which polenta/cornmeal should you use? Consistent grind or stoneground are both fine.
- Although most recipes start with boiling water, it’s not really necessary. After the initial boil, keep the heat low enough so that the cornmeal doesn’t pucker or splatter while cooking.
- You can reduce the cooking time by soaking the cornmeal/polenta in the water for a few hours ahead of time. Then bring to a boil and go from there.
- For a step by step visual, check out this video by Chef John from allrecipes on how to make polenta.
Tailor To Your Taste
Vary the recipe with a few of these suggestions.
- For the polenta
- Omit the Parmesan cheese.
- Add olive oil instead of butter in the last stage.
- Add a couple of tablespoons of pesto.
- For the tomato salad
- Use any herbs of your choice. I use what I have in the garden such as basil, oregano, chives, parsley, thyme.
- Add a teaspoon of Balsamic vinegar and a pinch of sugar,
- Other good additions are minced garlic, chopped olives or capers.
Instead of a tomato herb salad, you can top your polenta with:
- classic basil pesto
- vegetarian bolognese
- San Marzano tomato sauce
- Instant Pot veal stew
- 5 Minute fresh herb sauce
- mushroom ragout
- drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper
- roasted or grilled vegetables
- Cover your eyes, Purists. You will NOT like this suggestion. But I’m not a polenta snob so here here it is. When I want to get a quick meal on the table in less than 10 minutes, I use instant (or 1 minute) polenta. Directions are on the package. It’s a very decent substitute if you add lots of parmesan cheese and butter!
- Polenta will harden as it cools. Restore to its creamy smooth texture by warming it in the microwave or on the stove with some extra water, stirring until smooth.
Creamy Polenta with Tomato Herb Salad
- 1 cup Polenta or Cornmeal (I use Bob's Red Mill Cornmeal)
- 4 1/2 cups water
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoon butter
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (plus extra for garnish)
- 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes NOTE 1 (San Marzano preferred)
- 1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 tablespoon finely chopped herbs (any combination of chives, thyme, oregano, parsley, basil, etc)
- 1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes (or more to taste) - optional
- squeeze of lemon
- salt and pepper to taste
- pinch of sugar
- MAKE POLENTA: Boil water with salt in saucepan. Slowly whisk in polenta/cornmeal, whisking constantly to avoid lumps for 1-2 minutes. Lower heat to a simmer. Keep whisking until polenta starts to thicken, about 4-5 minutes. Cover and cook, whisking every 4-5 minutes to avoid sticking on bottom of pan. (When polenta gets thicker, switch to wooden or other spoon to stir. ) Polenta is done when it's creamy, thick and not grainy. Total time for cooking should take about 30-40 minutes. Turn off heat. Stir in butter and Parmesan. Taste and add salt if needed.
- MAKE TOMATO TOPPING: While polenta is cooking (and between stirs), drain tomatoes and squeeze them a bit to eliminate most of juices. Roughly chop and place in bowl. Add oil, herbs, salt, pepper, lemon and chili flakes (if using). Combine well. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- SERVE: To serve family style, scoop Polenta onto a platter and top with tomatoes. Drizzle with additional olive oil if desired. Garnish with additional Parmesan cheese.
- To use fresh tomatoes instead of canned: You can substitute the canned tomatoes with fresh tomatoes if they are at their summer best in peak season. Use about 2 1/2 pounds (4-5 medium tomatoes), drained, squeezed and chopped to yield about 3 cups.
- Make Ahead: If Polenta is made ahead, it will begin to harden. To restore to looser creaminess, add some water and rewarm on stove or in microwave, stirring as needed.