Cook On: Peppered Corn Meal

By Mary Ann Ebner

Preparing the perfect polenta sounds easy enough, but around my kitchen it takes added patience to work with the grainy flour ground from white or yellow corn.

When simmering the flour in water to transform the fine grain into the consistency of porridge, I’ve stirred up thin batches and a few lumpy variations. Lately, a pre-cooked version makes a convenient heat-and-eat substitute. The packaged polenta is firm and ready to slice, as if a pan of my wishfully smooth porridge had cooled and set.

Mix pre-cooked polenta with your favorite ingredients for a hearty stovetop meal. (Photo by M.A. Ebner)

Adding fresh ingredients to the packaged product diminishes a bit of the guilt of not preparing the basic polenta from scratch. For this stovetop take on skillet polenta, shishito peppers make up for any shortfall with the grainy foundation. They boost the flavor and complement the dense cornmeal texture. Any mild peppers will do, but if you see these beauties at the farmers’ market, scoop up a few dozen. (I purchased mine from a farmer who guaranteed their great taste.)

A 24-ounce tube of the starchy ground corn costs under $3 at some local markets and can be sliced, grilled, baked, fried or crumbled and mixed into a skillet. This easy working starch offers a change from the trite potatoes-rice-pasta routine. Polenta lovers in Italy have known for generations that the finely ground corn serves as a hearty filler, eaten alone as a creamy dish or enhanced with everything from tomatoes to cheese.

Blistered shishito peppers (Photo by M.A. Ebner)

Shishito peppers blistered on high heat add a taste of sweet char without overpowering the cornmeal base. A cousin to Spanish Padrón peppers, Japanese shishitos taste sweet with a mild heat unit on the pepper measurement scale, nowhere near the fire of peppers like the habanero or serrano.

Resisting the temptation to devour the slender green shishito pods may pose the primary challenge in reserving the blistered peppers for the medley. Combine sundried tomatoes or fresh mushrooms with shishitos and polenta to further satiate hungry dining partners. If eggs agree with you and your guests, make room for their protein-rich addition.

Peppered polenta(Photos by M.A. Ebner

Once ingredients warm through, crack eggs into the skillet and let them cook for a few minutes. Our family prefers cooking the egg to a soft-boiled consistency. With eggs, peppers and mushrooms mixed in, the polenta almost carries enough weight to stand alone as the meal. Finish the dish with a layer of grated Parmesan or your favorite cheese. To get the most from these grains, eat peppered polenta while it’s still hot.

Peppered Polenta

12 shishito peppers
1 small shallot, diced
1 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced
extra virgin olive oil
24 ounces pre-cooked polenta, crumbled
5 eggs
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
sea salt and fresh ground pepper

In dry cast-iron skillet, cook peppers over high heat until skins blister and brown. Drizzle with olive oil and season with course salt. Remove from pan. Cool and cut into small pieces. Set aside.

Add shallots and mushrooms to pan and sauté in olive oil. Mix in crumbled polenta and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Cook 10 minutes on high heat, stirring. Mix in peppers. Lower heat and make five wells in the polenta mixture. Crack eggs into wells. Cover and cook 3 to 5 minutes. Check eggs for doneness.

Finish with shredded or grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.

Pepper note: For a mild peppery snack platter aside from the polenta, prepare shishito peppers following the blistering directions but leave the peppers whole with stems intact. Pass the platter and hope that it comes back with a taste for the host.