Thursday, February 21, 2013

Polenta Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup with a Twist

When I was growing up in Arkansas, I prayed for snowstorms. Snow was a novelty because we hardly got any winter weather. Sure, it would get cold, but it would only snow maybe once or twice, and it would be a half-hearted affair at that. If the weatherman predicted even an inch of snow, it would draw everyone to the grocery store in panicked, wild-eyed droves.

And now it is February in Massachusetts, and the Weather Channel predicts snow over the weekend, and all I can do is sigh and grumble, casting weary glances at the mountains of dirty snow, still piled up in my neighborhood, in Harvard Square, and all over Boston. When will it go away?! I want SPRING. I want the sun in all her golden glory, enrobing me in her rays of life-imbuing light. I want flowers, and trees with leaves on them, and to not have to wear fifty-million layers just to take out the trash.

"Be careful what you wish for" has never rung so annoyingly true.

At this point, the only thing winter is good for anymore is the excuse to indulge in comfort food. Remember that Campbell's Tomato Soup commercial with the little snowman who trudges home, wearing a woebegone expression because it's so damn cold? And then his mother (who is, curiously, not a snow-woman, but a human woman) gives him a bowl of piping-hot tomato soup and he melts into a human boy? This grilled cheese recipe works the same kind of magic.

Polenta, to me, is rather magical. What is basically finely-ground bits of corn transforms, right before your eyes, into a luxuriously thick concoction. And when you leave it be for a little while longer, it solidifies. Whoa.

It was because of this sorcery of solidification that I decided on grilled cheese with polenta slices acting as the "bread" component. I'd seen recipes for polenta fries and pretty much took a similar approach. What makes this sandwich the winter-blues-buster that it is, however, is the accompanying tomato sauce. Rich with chopped fresh herbs and a dash of red wine, you spoon this thick sauce over the sandwich and all your winter woes melt away. But only metaphorically, unlike in the commercial (the little snow-twerp drips melted snow all over the hardwood his mother didn't appreciate that).

Polenta Grilled Cheese with Chunky Herby Tomato Sauce
for the polenta "bread"
1+1/4 cup polenta, divided
2 cups water or stock
pinch of salt
1/3 cup + 2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 tbsp butter
sliced cheese of your choosing (I used Swiss and it was delightful)

for the sauce
3 vine-ripened tomatoes, quartered 
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp parsley, roughly chopped
2 tbsp oregano, roughly chopped
1/4 cup red wine
3 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp olive oil

Brush a cookie sheet with olive oil and set aside. In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Add salt, then slowly add polenta. Reduce the heat and cook until polenta thickens considerably, about ten minutes, stirring frequently to prevent from sticking. Stir in the Parmesan cheese until combined. Transfer to prepared cookie sheet and spread out into an even layer of about 1/2" thickness, and allow to cool.

In another saucepan over medium-low heat, drizzle the tomatoes with the olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, parsley, and oregano. While that simmers, sauté the garlic with olive oil until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Add to tomatoes. Stir in red wine and tomato paste and simmer for another 3-5 minutes, allowing the flavors to mingle. Remove from heat.

Cut the polenta into squares and then cut those squares into triangles. Melt the butter in a sauté pan. Combine the reserved 1/4 cup of polenta with the 2 tbsp of grated Parmesan, and coat the polenta triangles. Cook in sauté pan for 3 minutes on each side, until crisp and golden brown. Assemble with your chosen cheese and serve immediately with tomato sauce.

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