The Italian way with polenta, topped with saucy vegetables and/or meat, might have been the original grain bowl. So when you tire of rice, barley, wheat berries or the like, polenta is a delicious way to get your whole-grain fix.
What's important is how you make it. I tried a pretty basic recipe I found in "Plant-Protein Recipes That You'll Love," using polenta from Bob's Red Mill that's not stone-ground, and although it cooked quickly, I found the result disappointingly bland. On top went two vegetable sautes, done consecutively in the same pan: rainbow chard with its thinly sliced stems included for texture and color, and a mixture of mushrooms and cannellini beans. They added life to the dish, but the base was still a little boring.
When I tried it again using stone-ground cornmeal and a Serious Eats technique that involved soaking it overnight before cooking, I remembered all the beautiful corn flavor and fluffy texture I appreciate from well-made polenta.
It takes planning ahead and a little more time, but it's worth it. And just in case you're wondering: Yes, you can use grits instead. They're not exactly the same thing (sometimes made from a different variety of corn), but if they're stone-ground, they're pretty close, and the Southern-born boy in me would have to approve.
Mushroom Polenta Bowl With Greens and Beans
Adapted from "Plant-Protein Recipes That You'll Love: Enjoy the Goodness and Deliciousness of 150+ Healthy Plant-Protein Recipes!" by Carina Wolff (Adams Media, 2017). Polenta technique is adapted from a Daniel Gritzer recipe on SeriousEats.com. Look for medium or coarse, stone-ground polenta or cornmeal (even if it's not labeled polenta). Avoid instant polenta. Stone-ground grits may be substituted, but the cooking times and texture may be different.
5 cups water
1 cup dried polenta, preferably stone-ground
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound rainbow chard
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced (1 cup)
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 teaspoon sweet or hot smoked paprika
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, trimmed and sliced (about 3 cups)
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 (15-ounce) can no-salt-added cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
Combine the water and polenta, cover, and soak overnight at room temperature.
Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, and stir in 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Bring to a boil. Boil until it starts to spit, then reduce the heat and cook, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom to prevent sticking, until the polenta thickens and starts to pull away from the sides, about 30 minutes. (If you start with unsoaked cornmeal, this will take up to 50 minutes.) Stir in the black pepper. Taste, and add more salt as needed. Remove from the heat, but cover to keep warm.
While the polenta is cooking, prepare the chard: Strip the leaves from the stems. Thinly slice the stems, keeping them separate from the leaves, and coarsely chop the leaves.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the chard stems, onion, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and cook, stirring, until they soften, 4 to 6 minutes. Sprinkle in the smoked paprika and cook just until it becomes fragrant, 30 seconds. Add the chard leaves and cook just until wilted, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste, and add more salt, as needed. Scoop the mixture into a bowl, cover to keep warm, and rinse out the skillet.
Return the skillet to medium heat. Pour in another 1 tablespoon of the oil; once it shimmers, add the mushrooms and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms soften, exude moisture and most of it evaporates, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the thyme and beans and cook just until the beans warm through, 1 to 2 minutes. Taste, and add more salt, as needed.
To serve, divide the polenta among serving bowls. (If it has set up too much or gotten too firm, whisk in a little more water to loosen.) Top each portion with the equal helpings of the mushrooms and beans and then the chard mixture. Drizzle with a little oil and serve warm.
Per serving: 230 calories, 8 g protein, 38 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 370 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar
Yield: 6 servings.