Here is our last installment of this week's series on throwing a winter dinner party with a big, lavish board of polenta. It's the first in our new Gatherings from The Kitchn columns. We'd love to be a resource for you in gatherings large and small, from intimate dinner parties to fabulous fetes — and we have plenty more planned for this year. (Tell us if there's anything in particular you'd like to see! Any requests for gatherings inspiration?)
Today, let me cap off my big polenta party story by sharing a few practical tips for doing this yourself, including 10 more topping ideas, and a few ways to make this dinner even simpler and more casual.
Here's what I love about this dinner party concept: it may have looked dramatic and lavish, but it was actually very inexpensive and laid-back. Isn't that a great combination? Coarse-ground cornmeal is cheap (don't get fancy "polenta" in little bags — just buy cornmeal from the bulk bin), and you can use economical cuts of meat too, or forgo meat altogether.
This meal also suits almost any dietary preference or need. It's easy to go vegan, vegetarian, or dairy-free, and this whole meal is naturally gluten-free. It's really the perfect winter meal for a mixed crowd of eaters.
Here are a few practical tips for making this kind of party a no-stress affair for you. I feel like this is most fun with a big group of people (we had 10, including the photographers). It just feels very communal and warm to have a gaggle of people around the table.
- Use the biggest platter or cutting board you have (or use two or three). While I loved the chance to use a huge, gorgeous board to serve the polenta, you certainly don't have to have one. Just use a cutting board (or two), or a platter. A carving board is perfect, because it has a channel to catch any juices. Bowls are fine, but I think you get a better ratio of polenta to toppings when spread flat. The polenta stays surprisingly warm, by the way. Just make sure the toppings are very hot when served, and everything stays a good temperature for longer than you might think.
Another tip: Spread a big ring of polenta a couple inches from the edge of the board. Let it cool and harden a bit before pouring on the rest of the polenta; this creates a dammed-up lip to keep the warmer stuff from running right off the board.
- Make all the toppings the day before. When serving a big crowd, it's so much easier to make the food ahead of time. The shredded beef I served is a good example, but you could also do chili, pulled chicken, saucy beans, butternut squash, or so many other things (see 10 more ideas below). Warm them up in the oven while you're getting everything else ready.
- Keep the polenta warm in a slow cooker. The best tip for this party! Make the polenta ahead of time and keep it warm and creamy in a slow cooker set on LOW.
- Have everyone help put the toppings on! One of the most fun parts of this party was how everyone wanted to be involved with putting the polenta board together. I ladled out the polenta and other people grabbed spoons and spread on the toppings. There was lots of giggling (it's such a different kind of dinner!) and iPhone photo snapping.
- Serve something light or cold for dessert. This is a big, heavy winter meal, and I think it's best followed by something refreshing. If you want to get fancy, a coffee granita would be nice, or stay simple with some fresh citrus fruit and dates on a platter. Go easy on yourself, too; store-bought ice cream is a really great dessert for this meal.
10 More Polenta Toppings
- Borlotti Beans in Tomato Sauce with Creamy Polenta
- Spring Vegetable Ragout
- Mélange of Winter Squash Braised in Cream
- Crispy Pan-Fried Beans and Wilted Greens
- Winter Greens Pesto
- Braised Escarole with Apples and Bacon
- African Beef and Peanut Stew
- Mediterranean Chicken Stew
- Collard Greens Stew with Chorizo & Garlic
- Florida Butter Beans with Caramelized Onions and Bacon