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Polenta, or ‘Italian grits,’ a summer star in Utah restaurants

The Log Haven Restaurant serves this grilled polenta fontina gratin dish with a sunny side egg, house pancetta and spicy fried tomato sauce as an appetizer for $11.50. Courtesy | Log Haven Restaurant

By heather may

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jun 25 2013 07:52AM
Updated Dec 7, 2013 11:34PM

When Joseph Davis was developing the menu for the new Bonneville Brewery in Tooele, he included the usual hamburgers, wings and nachos.

The chef also left room for polenta, the cornmeal porridge known as "Italian grits." They’re similar to the southern staple, but with a smoother texture.

For a summer side, the brewery serves a white, coarse polenta topped with a local goat cheese and grilled vegetables.

"It’s just so basic and it’s so comforting," says Davis, who believes polenta’s newfound popularity is due to a return to the classics — and away from food trends such as micro-gastronomy where chefs are "blowing things up and freezing them and turning things black and they taste like flowers."

"Polenta, at its roots, is one of those dishes the entire world serves in one form or another," he says.

Utah diners are getting many more chances to taste the grain since it’s sprouting on menus for breakfast to dinner.

And while some may think it’s best for winter, it’s becoming a summer staple.

"It’s good for summer because it is corn-based, which makes it a little lighter than, say, a mashed potato," says Jen Gilroy, chef/owner of Meditrina, which serves polenta in a "shrimp and grits" small plate.

Polenta is associated with northern Italy and has been eaten since Roman times, though it was made with other grains. But similar corn dishes can be found from South Africa where its called "mealie pop" and Turkey where they ask for kuymak.

It is polenta’s versatility that makes it so popular —along with it being gluten-free. As a side, polenta and grits rank in the top 12 hot dishes by the National Restaurant Association’s "What Hot 2013 Chef Survey."

It has no season, says Dave Jones, chef at Log Haven in Millcreek Canyon. "It’s more what you serve with the polenta that reflects the season."

It can act as a side to meat dishes. The cooled porridge can be cut and grilled to be topped with sauces. It can replace bread, served with butter and cheese. It’s an alternative to pasta, served with ragouts. It can even star as a dessert.

And it can be as plain or rich as you like. The basics call for pouring the grain into liquid, whether it’s water, broth or milk.

At Oasis Cafe, the polenta is made with whole milk, heavy cream, mascarpone, Parmesan and lavender honey. The chefs at its Salt Lake City sister restaurant Faustina flavor their dish with Asiago cheese and a range of herbs, from thyme to tarragon.

"It’s soft and rich. I can create anything with polenta," said Oasis chef Efren Benitez.

Avenues Bistro on Third in Salt Lake City serves the porridge mixed with cheese, as a creamy base for tomato sauce and vegetables. It also serves it crisp — after cooling the porridge and slicing it into cakes that are then fried. The cakes can also be grilled or baked.

"Polenta is a soulful way of serving corn," said bistro owner Kathie Chadbourne, who learned to cook in New Orleans.

"There’s a little bit of fussiness about the way polenta is prepared. People think you throw it in a sauce pan, [add] salt and boil. But that’s not true," she said.

Every chef who uses polenta advised patience: The grains must be slowly poured into the boiling water and slowly cooked.

Eric May, chef at the Blue Boar Inn in Midway, said the popularity of polenta can be chalked up to chefs, who want to introduce it to their customers. He said some guests don’t know what it is until their servers explain it’s like grits.

"You just have to break people out of their comfort zone to try it and normally they love it," he said.

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