Growing up in the south, we always had grits–eggs and grits, bacon and grits, shrimp and grits, and good ol’ cheese grits. Grits will always warm my heart as a favorite childhood comfort, and I’m excited to share some of my favorite grits recipes soon. But here we have polenta–a creamy Italian side dish served with steak and chicken and fish, or a fried appetizer with mushrooms and crumbly cheeses.
Spoiler: They’re basically the same thing. The type of corn used, cooking time and method, and serving styles vary, but they both consist of the yellow or white specks from dried ground corn. Here I call it polenta only because the meal is Italian-inspired, and it sounds more sophisticated in the name…right?
The big question: Is it a whole grain? The answer: It depends. Nutritionally speaking, whether you call it polenta or grits, not every kind of either is created equal. Whole grain grits can be produced in stone-ground mills, where the milling process leaves the fibrous, nutrient-rich germ and bran intact (plus the endosperm, the starchy part and majority of the grain, to equal a whole grain). However, many commercial varieties undergo more processing, which removes the hull and germ and strips the corn of its whole grain status. Yes, this includes those packets you add water to and pop in the microwave for two minutes. Maybe disappointing if you’ve never tried grits/polenta a different way, but make this and you will never look back at those little pouches of refined carbs again. Promise. Unfortunately, some brands, like Bob’s Red Mill, are still not very clear about just how “whole” their corn grits are, but Bob’s Red Mill is the best I can find at grocery stores. If you are dead set on finding unquestionable 100% whole grain grits/polenta, try online or a local farmer’s market. But Bob’s Red Mill Southern-Style White Corn Grits is awesome. This polenta is creamy, fluffy, and divine covered with juicy, perfectly seasoned meatballs and a beautiful tomato sauce. For those absolutely transfixed by the corn milling process and whole grains, you can read more here or here.
Tips for the recipe:
– I have tried store-bought ground turkey breast in this recipe, grinding turkey tenderloin, and grinding chicken breast tenders, and the home-ground chicken has consistently come out the best. Don’t fear the white meat–these are incredibly satisfying, moist, and tender! But, if you must, any other ground meat should work fine.
– My favorite jarred pasta sauce is without question Dave’s Red Heirloom. It’s not always available in most grocery stores, but I’ve had some luck with The Fresh Market, World Market, and sometimes Earth Fare or Publix. You can sub in your favorite (try an organic brand; they usually taste better) or make your own from scratch!
– Freshly shredded parmesan is a must (either hand-shredded or bought freshly shredded in the deli/cheese section of your grocery store). Instead of parmesan, you can also sub a finely shredded Italian blend cheese or shred another Italian-inspired type of cheese, like Sargento’s Bruschetta Jack (a must-try in general!)
– I make my own breadcrumbs in big batches and freeze them, so they’re ready to use in recipes for the next couple months. Just toast several slices of whole grain bread (I like Rudi’s 100% whole wheat, nothing artificial), throw them into a food processor, and pulse into fine crumbles. Cool, seal in a plastic baggy, and pop into the freezer. Done!
– Because this recipe only makes 8 meatballs, I can easily fit them in my 10″ or 12″ skillet and let them cook in the sauce (perfect way to keep them succulent and juicy), but if you decide to double or triple the recipe, they probably won’t all fit, and smashing them together is definitely a no. In this case, you can bake the meatballs by themselves instead. To bake, heat EVOO in your skillet and first sear the meatballs in batches just until browned on the outside; then transfer to a foil-lined baking sheet and bake at 400º about 10 minutes.
*Note: recipe updated 10/13/16 to account for my newfound obsession with artichokes. 😉
Pomodoro Meatballs over Parmesan Polenta
For the meatballs:
- 8 oz raw chicken breast (tenders, or cut into strips)
- 1 egg white
- 1 Tbsp whole wheat breadcrumbs*
- 1/2 – 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil (I use tuscan herb infused)
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste or sauce (can use the same jarred sauce)
- 1/2 tsp minced garlic
- 1/16 tsp salt
- black pepper to taste
- 1/4 tsp each dried basil, parsley, oregano (or ~1 tsp Italian seasoning)
- 1/4 tsp fennel seed
- 1-2 Tbsp freshly shredded Parmesan
- Add chicken to food processor and pulse several times, until no large chunks remain; transfer to a large mixing bowl.
- Meanwhile, heat a saucepan or skillet over medium heat, add the fennel seeds, and gently toss until toasty and fragrant. Remove.
- Add egg white through Parmesan (including toasted fennel) to the meat. Use your hands to mix thoroughly, then shape into 8 meatballs. If the mixture feels too moist, just keep mixing and it should thicken up some.
*To make a big batch of breadcrumbs: Simply toast whole grain bread, cool, then pulse in food processor until fine crumbs form. Store in air-tight baggy in freezer, and use from frozen as needed.
For the Sauce:
- 1/2 tsp EVOO
- 4-6 oz sliced cremini mushrooms
- ~1/4 cup sliced yellow onion
- ~1/2 small red bell pepper, sliced
- dried Italian seasoning and black pepper to taste
- 1/2 tsp minced garlic
- 2 jarred artichoke hearts, chopped (opt.)
- 2/3 cup tomato-based pasta sauce (Dave’s Red Heirloom)
- Heat EVOO in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms, onion, bell pepper, a sprinkle dried herbs and black pepper, then garlic. Sauté a couple minutes, until veggies are just seared but still somewhat crisp.
- Lower heat, and stir in sauce and artichokes. Nestle meatballs in the mixture, then bring sauce to a simmer.
- Cover, reduce heat to low, and lightly simmer for 15 minutes, turning meatballs halfway through. .
Meanwhile, make the polenta:
- 1 cup + 1 Tbsp water
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 70 g (scant 1/2 cup) Bob’s Red Mill white corn grits/polenta
- 1/2 cup 1% or 2% milk
- 2-3 Tbsp shredded parmesan
- Bring water and salt to a boil in a small saucepan. Right when it reaches a boil, stir in polenta, then milk.
- Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid lumps.
- Cover, remove from heat, and rest 5 minutes longer.
- Stir in parmesan.
Divide polenta between 2 shallow bowls. Top each with 4 meatballs and mushroom sauce, and extra cheese if desired.