Rewind time two years and some change ago and I’m sitting in a small cafe just across from La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. The cafe is actually an Italian cafe but it looked and felt like the right choice. So, I choose the polenta dish with sautéed mushrooms and a glass of red wine to enjoy it with. Granted, this is a heavier, more boozy lunch than I would typically eat but I was so hungry after a long morning of walking around and touring Barcelona. Travel tip: do not try to visit Park Güell and La Sagrada Familia in one morning/afternoon. You will not have enough time and be quite a bit stressed running through the streets of Barcelona getting poor directions with your sub-par Spanglish. Not going to lie though, getting directions from the most attractive of Spanish men doesn’t hurt the process.
I digress, so I’m starving and I get my meal and wine and it was the most heavenly meal I think I had ever enjoyed up until that point. There is a correlation between being completely starving and the enjoyment of the food you are eating, nonetheless, it was a stellar meal to say the least. The following recipe for polenta is nothing like the version I had that day but it was however the first time I had polenta (which is essentially “grits” in the American South) that I considered to be a gourmet meal, something to write home about. As a result, I love polenta now and I think of that memorable meal, staring at the awe-inspiring Sagrada Familia from across the way every time I eat it. That is the romantic story of how I came to love polenta.
Fast forward to “now-ish” and I am in South Africa and living with two other women in one flat. Naturally, I cook for them and occasionally, if I’m in an exceptionally good mood, I take requests. My roommate and good friend asks me to make polenta and I oblige. I made the polenta “creamy” the first time I made it for them, as I had it in Spain. Then I pressed the leftovers into a pan and fried them the next night and had crispy polenta squares. It was good but I needed to improve the texture of them on the outside a bit as they were tending to get stuck to the pan and not get an even golden-crisp on the outside I had envisioned. So, the recipe needed work but I left it alone for a while. Then, I get an awesome gig cooking for a pop-up dinner service called “Green & Vegan”, here in Cape Town. I decided on a latin-flavors inspired menu and wanted to make Arepas as a starter. Well, as it turns out they do not actually sell the correct maize flour needed to properly make Arepas. They do however sell….polenta! And that is when I thanked my lucky stars I had already been working to fix this crispy polenta cake recipe.
After a couple tests and my roommates and I consuming ample amounts of polenta, I got it just right. That sounds dramatic but it needed to be somewhat perfected before I served them at the event so, I put in the hard work of eating loads of delicious “un-perfected” polenta. Someones’ got to do it! That all being said I have had a few polenta posts up on my Instagram lately and now you know why. For the event I served the polenta cakes with an avocado-lime cream sauce on the bottom of the plate and a simple pico de gallo on top. I don’t have a recipe for these yet because they are so simple and straight forward. For the avocado cream, I simply blend it in a high speed blender with lime juice, water, a clove of garlic and salt. Then I thin it out a bit more if it needs it. Pico de gallo, is straight up chopped tomatoes, cilantro, red onion, salt and lime juice.
Other serving suggestions:
-Sauteed greens, mushrooms and/or onions. Stack the cakes on top and serve with cashew cream on top.
-Marinara sauce. Simple and delicious. Stack the cakes on top a ladle of marinara or spoon the sauce on top.
-Any ragu, like a lentil ragu, does fantastic with these.
-Simply served with a generous spoonful of pesto on top :)
Comment if you have questions about these!
Crispy polenta cakes
1 cup polenta
4 cups veggie broth
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1/4 chopped fresh herbs of choice (I like basil or cilantro depending on how I am serving them)
salt and pepper to taste
Approx. 3/4 cup flour of choice for dredging
Approx. 1/2 cup coconut oil or another high heat oil of choice for frying plus another tbsp. or so for greasing a baking dish
Boil the veggie broth, turn down the heat to medium-low then whisk in the polenta and continue to whisk until all is well combined without lumps. Allow to cook for about 10 min. on low, stirring occasionally. Whisk in nutritional yeast, herbs. Give it a taste before you add salt if you are using veggie broth and then adjust your salt and pepper to taste. Now, you could stop right here and serve this with sautéed greens (think kale, spinach or chard) and mushrooms and top with a sprinkle of nutritional yeast or if you’re a fancy vegan, vegan cheese or perhaps cashew cream. If I’m hungry I start eating it at this stage by itself. Pour the polenta into a slightly greased baking dish of choice (I use a heavy-handed tbsp. of oil and use a paper towel to distribute it in the pan evenly), you want to be able to spread the mixture out to being about 3/4 of an inch thick. Use a spatula or the back of a spoon to smooth out the polenta. Cover and stick in the refrigerator about an hour or until completely cooled and “set”. Using a round cookie cutter of your choosing, depending on how big you would like these to be, cut out the polenta. Now, for me I will end up forming these with my hands in addition to using the cookie cutter but the cutter will ensure your cakes are mostly uniform in size. I’ll use my hands to form a nice solid “Cake” around the edges. Heat the oil up in a medium-large skillet over medium-high heat. Make sure the oil is hot (but not burning) you can always (carefully) put a drop of water in the oil and if it’s not sizzling, it isn’t hot enough! Dredge the polenta in flour well on both sides and then gently place in oil, cooking about 3-4 min on each side or until golden brown. I always place mine on a couple paper towels to soak up any residual oil. Sprinkle with some salt, my preferred is pink himalayan or some good sea salt and then serve immediately with your favorite sauce/salsa.