It’s still winter. It’s cold and the holidays are long gone—even Valentine’s Day is in the rearview mirror—and though that self-confident groundhog has made his predictions, there are still weeks left of freezing grayness, at least for us here in the east coast. And so, we must have indoor dinner parties, and distract and console ourselves with friends, wine and polenta.
I throw lots of dinner parties, ranging in size, all throughout the year and with one significant thing in common: they are all casual. Not one is fancy, not even close to fancy. I can’t remember the last time I put food on individual plates (unless you count ladling out soup), rather than lay out family-style platters. I’ve done dozens of chilis, a hefty number of lasagnas, a lot of grilled pizzas (more in the summer, of course), platters of fried chicken, and taco parties, but now I’m on to a new thought, and its going to be a keeper. I’m talking about a Top-It-Yourself Polenta Party.
Set up the table the day before the party, so you don’t have to worry about it when you’re in the kitchen. You can and should make the Bolognese sauce and the sautéed broccoli rabe and the sautéed mushrooms a day ahead of time, and simply warm them, covered, over low heat (or covered in a heatproof container at 300°F in the oven) before serving, so you can focus all of your attention on the polenta, which–while very easy to make–needs a bit of notice.
You should also think about a quick, easy and healthy salad to go with the polenta; it can include anything from a mix of peppery greens, arugula, crunchy romaine, soft bib lettuces—anything will go well with this hearty meal. Make the vinaigrette up to four days ahead of time to get that out of the way.
Back to the polenta.
If you’ve got the kind of kitchen where people gather and you’ve got the kinds of friends who like to pitch in while you’re cooking, then by all means make the polenta right before serving, giving everyone a turn with the whisk. And put out some nibbley appetizers in both the kitchen and the living room so people can come and go as they please.
If you happen to have a slow cooker, then you are in luck, as you can cook the polenta until it is just about ready, right before you add the Parmesan and butter, then transfer to a preheated slow cooker, set on low, and give it a stir every now and again until you are ready to serve. It can sit happily like this for up to three hours, then stir in the cheese and butter and pour it out to serve. The polenta can also sit on the stove, covered, over very low heat (give it a stir every once in a while). When you are ready to serve, turn up the heat, and have an additional cup of warm water to add as needed to loosen up the polenta as it gets hot again. Serve it on a large serving platter or shallow serving plate.
Serve each of the topping options on a platter or bowl of its own, and think about supplementing the polenta with other pairings (or swapping them out), whether they be storebought or homemade. Here are a few cold-weather pairing ideas:
– Healthy roasted or grilled vegetables, such as onions, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes
– Other sautéed greens
– Meatless tomato sauce
– Various cheeses, from ricotta salata to blue cheese
– A fried or poached egg
– Various stews
Let the party-goers scoop some polenta and the toppings of their choice into small bowls, such as these rustic handled cream-colored pots. And have an assortment of red and white wines to pour with the meal, Italian in origin if you want to stick to a theme. Finally, check out this assortment of Italian dessert recipes to inspire thoughts about your post-meal sweet.
Great polenta requires one real skill—the ability to stir frequently. If you can switch off with a friend, even better. You can think about adding some other cheeses at the end, like Pecorino or Fontina, or even goat cheese for a different flavor. The following recipes are great polenta toppings to pass around, along with an extra bowl of Parmesan.
Photography credit: Evi Abeler Photography