Polenta Pizza

I have been thinking lately of how some foods come back into fashion only when they have been given more “presentable” names. In earlier posts, I mentioned my mother’s simple “fried apples” were virtually identical to “Tarte Tatin.” I discovered some time ago that the onions, celery, and carrots that I have often browned lightly for so many dishes can actually be called by the much more sophisticated sounding term, miripoix.

In the same way, I find it a little amusing that polenta has become a featured menu item for many high-priced restaurants. When I was growing up, my mother would occasionally make “corn meal mush” as a light supper or hearty breakfast. Sometimes she would serve it just like many polenta recipes, slowly cooking corn meal in water, but more often, she would cook it, put it into a bread loaf pan and chill it overnight. Next day, it could be sliced, browned lightly in butter, and served with generous amounts of maple syrup poured over it.

Mom was no longer in the kitchen by the time the polenta craze started, so I wonder what she might have made of the elevation of a very simple (and cheap!) dish to the heights of “cuisine”–I think I can hear her chuckling about it now.

I was never very taken by “corn meal mush,” so had resisted making polenta for a long time. For some reason, however, I got the idea this week that it might be fun to see if polenta had ever been used as a pizza crust. A friend and her kids were coming for lunch, and it just seemed like this variation on that popular lunch dish might be fun to try. Searching for “polenta pizza” uncovered dozens (hundreds?) of entries, most of them quite similar. However, as I read through the recipes, I realized that the crusts all seemed quite bland. There were lots of ideas for toppings that were full of seasonings, but the crusts were pretty uniformly, well, toasted corn meal mush.

With a little tweaking, here is a crust that turned out to be delightful and really very easy. It does take a little pre-planning, as the crust needs to be cooked, patted onto the pan, and refrigerated at least an hour or so. It’s so easy to make, however, that you could cook the mush (oops, polenta) while cleaning up from one night’s meal and then have the crust ready when you get home from work the next night. My version is a plain cheese pizza, but you could easily add other toppings as desired.

Polenta Pizza–Basic Cheese Version

3 c water
1 t salt
1 t garlic powder
1 t dried oregano
2 to 3 t fresh basil, chopped (or 1 t dried basil)
1 c coarse cornmeal
1 T olive or canola oil PLUS another tablespoon or so for oiling the pan

1/4 to 1/2 c prepared spaghetti sauce
6 oz shredded or grated mozzarella cheese
grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

1. Bring the salted water to boil in a heavy pan.

2. When the water reaches a rolling boil, gradually stir in the cornmeal with a whisk or large fork. Stir briskly and add the cornmeal very slowly to avoid lumps. When the cornmeal has been completely incorporated, add the garlic, oregano and basil.

3. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often. It should reach the consistency of thick oatmeal.

4. Meanwhile prepare your pizza pan–this recipe is sized for a 12 inch pan. Generously oil the pan, making sure every area up to the edges is covered well.

5. Remove the cornmeal mixture from heat and stir in the oil. Quickly pat onto the pan, using a spatula to make it as even as possible. Sprinkle with a little salt and freshly ground pepper if desired. Cool briefly and then refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.

6. When ready to make the pizza, bake the crust in an oven preheated to 450 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. The crust should become golden and crispy looking around the edges.

7. Remove the crust from the oven and spread lightly with the spaghetti sauce. Sprinkle the mozzarella evenly over the top.

8. Return the pizza to the oven and bake until the cheese is melted and bubbly, about 5 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan if desired before serving.

A few things to keep in mind:

This is really not a finger food. The crust does not have the gluten of a kneaded wheat crust to hold it together. As long as everybody knows this, you should have no problems.

You probably will want less sauce than with a “regular” pizza, as it could more easily get a little soggy. I used only a few tablespoons of sauce for my version and that worked well.

My guess is that this is best when served right away, but the several batches I made were never around long enough to test how they might be reheated.

Most importantly–be sure to oil your pan VERY well, right up to the edges. Even with my nonstick pan, the crust was a little hard to get out of the pan until I made sure that I used a tablespoon or so of oil to coat it.

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