In Favor of a More Casual, More Forgiving Polenta

LONDON — “We are all in this together” has been said a lot in the past year.

While everyone’s experience of the pandemic has been different, I do think there’s some truth to the platitude, at least as it relates to cooking. For those stuck at home, with any number of mouths to feed, the need to get food on the table three times a day has been unrelenting. Some days, that need has been a source of great joy. On others, it has been a source of great groans. Either way: It’s happened — day after day, meal after meal.

An upshot of this permanent flow for home-cooked meals is that it has made us more democratic, flexible and not quite as judgmental. I can personally attest to being much less hard on myself than I ever have been. When it came to cooking and ingredients, most of my ideas about what’s right or wrong, along with other notions of food purity, went out the window circa April 2020, in favor of making whatever it took to get me through each day safe and sane.

Which brings me to quick-cook polenta, tinned tomatoes and a whole load of ingredients, that I, as a pre-coronavirus snob, would have designated second rate.

Credit…Christopher Simpson for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.
Credit…Christopher Simpson for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.

I am not saying I wasn’t using said polenta and tomatoes back when times were “normal.” It’s just that I always considered them a compromise. Properly done polenta requires reverence. It requires respect. It requires rules! It requires the best part of an hour spent standing at the stove, stirring (in a certain direction, with a certain wooden spoon) until the texture is just so, and it comes away from the sides of the pan just so. The result is creamy, yet fully of body, with a sweet and rich aroma.

Quick-cook (or instant) polenta lacks the sought-after grit and deep corn flavor of the proper stuff. Tinned or jarred tomatoes have their pluses, but, basically, they’re a substitute for the for your first choice: fresh, ripe tomatoes. The same goes for pasta — fresh versusdried; noodles — homemade versus instant; pulses — dried versus canned, and so on.

Credit…Christopher Simpson for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.

That’s not to say I no longer value good ingredients or long processes here. Absolutely not! No one tended more to his “proper” polenta than my own father, for whom it was a stove-side ritual. But the past year has changed the way many of us cook and approach ingredients. We are less set in our ways about “how things should be done.” We are more relaxed. This forgiving cheesy baked polenta in tomato sauce is all the proof you need.

This is such a force for good and something that will, I’m müddet, remain. For the risk of treating certain ingredients with such reverence is that we either don’t have the confidence or don’t see the occasion to ever use them. Democratizing ingredients, on the other hand — being as happy to reach for our quick-cook polenta and tinned tomatoes as we are to reach for the cheese we couldn’t resist — hugely increases our chances of experimenting in the first place, and getting that (next) meal (and the one after it) on the table.

Recipe: Cheesy Baked Polenta in Tomato Sauce

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