I'm guilty of always reaching for the same appetizers when having friends or family over: good olives, flatbreads, interesting cheeses, and rosemary nuts. If you've been to our house for drinks or dinner, this likely sounds pretty familiar. The reason for the repetition is ease, but what if there were a creamy, lightly fried bite of polenta that was just as simple? An appetizer that would trump olives and nuts any day of the week?
I prepare polenta a number of ways at home, usually preferring a simple creamy version made with part milk and part water and cooked slowly on the stovetop. We serve it with saucy tomatoes or meat ragu, or alongside a substantial green salad for a lighter dinner.
These little appetizers add another option: they begin in much the same way that stovetop polenta does, but you then layer them into a small pan and allow to cool. When the polenta has cooled completely, this once-creamy dish is firm and sliceable, and you quickly coat the small squares in panko bread crumbs and pan-fry them.
While fresh herbs would be wonderful in these, I use dried herbs because we always have them on hand regardless of the season. You'll see flecks of them in the polenta itself, and I fold in additional chives into the panko to give them an extra pop of color on the plate. In terms of serving, these don't need much for accompaniment. I have had them with a dollop of romesco sauce (see below), but truthfully, I prefer them plain. Anything too complex simply detracts from the creamy goat cheese, thyme, and chive-flecked polenta. Sometimes simple is the very best option. And now I have a new reason to leave the crackers and cheese plate behind for good. Or at least for a little while.
Herbed Goat Cheese Polenta Bites
Makes 16 Bites
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, for pan
1 3/4 cups water, plus more if necessary
1 cup milk
3/4 cup stone-ground coarse cornmeal (not quick-cooking or instant)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
Generous pinch freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup soft goat cheese
2 tablespoon dried chives
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1-2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
Butter an 8x8-inch pan and set aside.
In a medium saucepan, bring water and milk to a slow boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and gradually whisk in the cornmeal, salt, and pepper. Cook uncovered until the polenta is thick and creamy, about 25 to 30 minutes. Stir often to prevent sticking or clumping. If it starts sticking to the bottom of the pan, add more water, 2 teaspoons at a time.
Once the polenta is very thick and creamy, fold in goat cheese, 1 tablespoon of the chives, and thyme. Stir a few times until the goat cheese has melted into the polenta. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired. Scoop the hot polenta into the prepared baking dish, and spread into an even layer. Refrigerate until firm, for at least one hour or overnight. Slice into 16 small squares. Spread the panko and remaining 1 tablespoon chives on a large plate and press each side of the polenta squares gently into the panko to coat completely.
In a nonstick pan over medium heat, warm 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Pan-fry the polenta squares for about 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until golden-brown and crispy. As the polenta soaks up some of the oil, you’ll likely need to add 1 additional tablespoon to keep it from sticking. Once finished cooking, set on top of a paper towel-covered plate to soak up excess oil, and plate immediately. Serve warm.
(Image credits: Megan Gordon)