Hunting for Dinner: Attempting the perfect polenta


Nobody is ever going to mistake me for a vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like vegetables. I just don’t think I could live off them alone. After all, meat is a central part of most everything I do. I hunt, fish and trap a lot of meat. There really isn’t anything out there that I won’t eat. 


But that said, it is probably time I started making more vegetable-themed meals. I don’t even know what is considered vegetarian.  I have a few friends and family members that are vegetarians but they still eat fish and eggs and cheese. I’m not sure that counts as being vegetarian but what do I know. 


 My interest in vegetables has grown ever since planting my first garden a few years ago. I do a fair amount of canning and freezing and enjoy vegetables from my garden year-round. I enjoy them next to some kind of meat, as a side dish. I have never really considered them anything other than a side dish until recently. 


About a month ago I went out to dinner for my sister’s birthday at Wise Acre Eatery. Everything on the menu looked fantastic but it was the vegetarian option that stood out the most to me. That night they were serving a charred-onion grit cake with ratatouille and a parmesan broth and it caught my attention. 


I love grits, somewhere in a past life I must have been from the South because grits make me happy. Even instant grits in the morning for breakfast with eggs and bacon bring a smile to my face. After eating that grit cake I had an epiphany of sorts, and decided that I needed to figure out how to make vegetables more of a focus in my cooking. 


One of the big obstacles for me in making a vegetarian meal is that I need something to be the center of the meal, like a steak or a piece of fish. A bunch of different vegetables just doesn’t seem like a meal to me. That grit cake changed all that. It had a heavier filling quality that made it stand out as the center of the dish, with the ratatouille and parmesan broth serving as perfect companions. What I needed to do was find something similar and start there. What I found was polenta.


Polenta is a finer grind of corn, cooked very similar to grits and used a lot in Italian cooking. One of the ways they use it is to make a polenta cake and then topping it with a ragu. It is a remarkably simple dish but is very flavorful and filling, and also vegetarian. 


One of the things I liked the most about the polenta cake was that after making the cake, it holds its form really well. That allows the polenta cake to be cooked it multiple ways. You can grill it or fry it or serve it as is, depending on how you like it. Then it is just a matter of making a simple sauce to top the cake. If you’re not looking for a vegetarian meal you could easily use a duck ragu or any other type of meat sauce. Here's my take on it:


Polenta Cake 

2 1/2 cups of vegetable stock

2 bay leaves

1 cup polenta

1/4 cup grated asiago cheese

1/4 cup grated parmesan

2 tablespoons of butter

Salt and pepper to taste


Bring the stock to a boil then add the bay leaves and polenta. Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 15 to 20 minutes until the polenta is thick and creamy, then remove the bay leaves. 


Add the cheese and the butter and stir to combine. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. 


Then pour the polenta into a loaf pan and let stand at room temperature until it is firm. When you turn the loaf pan over onto a cutting board, the polenta should come out in one large cake. 


Vegetable Ragu 

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 of a red onion, diced

2-3 medium sized carrots, diced

1 clove garlic (minced)

1 pint of diced tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary

1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste


Heat olive oil in a pan and then add the onion and the carrots. Sauté until the onions are soft, then add the garlic and cook for about a minute. Pour in the tomatoes, herb and vinegar and cook on a low simmer for 8-10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.


To assemble 

Cut a piece of the polenta cake, then sear it in a pan with a little bit of olive oil over medium heat for about a minute on each side, just to give it a crust. Place the polenta in a bowl and top with the sauce. Grate some fresh parmesan on top and serve. 


Jamie Carlson lives in Burnsville, MN with his wife, Amanda, and their two kids Eleanor and Charlie. He works as an RN at the Minneapolis VA hospital. He enjoys hunting, fishing, foraging, and, of course, cooking. He believes that all food can be tasty if it is prepared with care, and he writes about his adventures on his food blog, You Have to Cook it Right. Follow him on Twitter at @youcookitright.