A Taste of Italy: Grilled Polenta and Caprese Stacks

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The perfect trinity of summer, I would have to say, is the basil, mozzarella and tomato combination which comprise insalata caprese or the salad of Capri. So delicious and yet so simple which is why using fresh, quality ingredients is essential. Summer is really the only time I eat tomatoes other than what comes canned. You can’t fake a good tomato in December. You just can’t. They’re mealy and tasteless. Bleh!

But tomatoes in summer? With that perfect balance of sweetness and acid? HEAVEN! And basil is the perfect accompaniment especially when you make pesto with it. I’ve grown basil for a while now and chronically had problems with the plants going to seed early in the season. The basil is always ready before the tomatoes are! Conundrum! But I’ve finally got my system down. I harvest the basil early, make a boat-load of pesto and freeze it individually in ice cube trays. It typically lasts me the cold weather months.

I’ll admit it; making pesto is an expensive endeavor. Olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano and pignoli nuts (aka pine nuts) don’t come cheap. You could always cut costs by using Parmesan cheese (only cheese made in certain regions of Italy can lay claim to the title of Parmigiano Reggiano) and walnuts. Different, but just as good. Unless you use that stuff in the green canister found in the pasta aisle. Never ever ever ever ever use that for pesto. Here’s a good go-to recipe to get the proportion of ingredients right:

 

Photo courtesy of motherearthliving.com
Photo courtesy of motherearthliving.com

Pesto Alla Genovese:
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup pignoli (pine nuts)
1 large garlic clove, chopped
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

(Recipe adapted from Marie Simmons’ 365 Ways to Cook Pasta, 1996)

I was trying to think of a meatless main dish with the summer trinity that didn’t involve pasta. Quite the challenge. But then I had the thought: what about grilled polenta? I’ve been trying to incorporate polenta into my diet more (it is a whole grain, after all) and have found grilling it to be the best especially when it comes to texture. I’ve used polenta under vegetable and meat ragus, as a crust for a savory custard pie, as a substitute for noodles in lasagna, cut into fries and served with marinara sauce and as a side dish similar to how they serve their grits in the South (lots of butter, y’all). Not gonna lie. Polenta is excessively labor-intensive. I mean, I love to cook and all, but standing in front of the stove and stirring the polenta with a wooden spoon constantly for at least 40 minutes while it spatters up and burns my arms isn’t my idea of a good time. (I’m really selling you on this recipe, aren’t I?). It’s a time commitment just like risotto, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make! So I boil water (ratio is 3:1), add salt, slowly whisk in the polenta and have my work cut out for me for the next 30-40 minutes or so. Following that, I add a handful of a hard aged Italian cheese and salt and pepper to taste before I spread it into an 8×8 greased casserole dish, cover it with plastic wrap and let it set in the refrigerator. As a time saver, I prepared this the night before I planned on serving it so all I had to do was grill, slice and assemble come mealtime. Of course, you can certainly save yourself all this trouble and pick up this at your local grocery store.

My husband Paul is the grill master at our house. He’s like my dear brother in that regards- he’d grill 365 days a year, if he could. Me? I don’t have much experience with it. My father once asked me to grill some burgers and I experienced anxiety over the responsibility of that task. Miraculously, they were cooked medium and I didn’t even have a thermometer. I think that was beginner’s luck. Paul offered to grill my polenta triangles, but I figured it was a good time to spread my culinary wings!

I brushed both sides liberally with olive oil so they wouldn’t stick and put them on the grill on medium for several minutes on one side until I had, eh, fairly good grill marks (Paul would have done better). Once I flipped them, I spread my pesto and then layered a slice of mozzarella on top, closed the grill and melted the cheese. After that, I sliced some tomato and then it was time to assemble and eat!

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I wish I could claim these tomatoes as my own, but unfortunately, I cannot. I’ve got some really large and impressive clusters of Park’s Whopper tomatoes on my two plants, but they are nowhere near ready to harvest. I’ll keep you posted!