My cooking students tell me repeatedly that when entertaining they look for dishes that can be prepared ahead and need only minimal last-minute attention. They don't want to be burdened with so much kitchen work that they miss socializing with their guests.
I certainly kept that thought in mind as I planned the menus for this fall's classes. For my first session, I chose a Provencal theme and selected simple racks of lamb that are seasoned with garlic and herbs, then roasted for 25 minutes. To go with the meat, I searched my files and came up with two make-ahead dishes -- a skillet ratatouille, which can be prepared early in the day and reheated, and polenta galettes, which also can be cooked in advance, then heated quickly in the oven at serving time.
The polenta galettes turned out to be my favorite dish on this menu. They are made simply by stirring a thin stream of cornmeal into simmering chicken stock until the mixture thickens. Next, grated Emmenthaler cheese and chopped fresh rosemary are added. The cooked polenta is spread in a layer on a baking sheet to cool, then cut into rounds about 3 inches in diameter and sprinkled with more of the cheese.
These polenta galettes can be made up to a day ahead and stored in the refrigerator. At serving time, all that is necessary is to warm them in the oven. As a garnish, I placed small sprigs of rosemary in the center of each of these little polenta rounds.
The galettes make an elegant and delicious accompaniment to serve with lamb, pork or chicken. Topped with grilled shrimp, they could even be presented as a first course. The following recipe yields eight individual polentas, but it can be doubled easily.
Golden Polenta Galettes
Makes 8 galettes to serve 4 generously or 8 in smaller portions
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for baking sheets
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
6 tablespoons grated Emmenthaler or Gruyere cheese
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary, plus small rosemary sprigs for garnish
salt, freshly ground black pepper
Butter 2 baking sheets generously with butter and set aside. In medium-heavy saucepan, combine 1 1/2 tablespoons butter and chicken stock. Bring to simmer over medium heat.
In thin stream, slowly pour in cornmeal while stirring constantly with whisk or wooden spoon. Continue in this manner, slowly adding cornmeal, until all cornmeal has been added. Stir and cook until mixture is quite thick, 3 minutes more or longer.
Remove from heat. Stir in half of cheese and the chopped rosemary. Taste and add salt as needed and several grinds of pepper. While still warm, spread polenta into large circle about 1/4 inch thick on one of buttered baking sheets and let cool to room temperature.
Using 3- to 3 1/2 -inch cookie cutter, cut polenta into 8 rounds. If necessary, gather scraps together and pat or roll into 1/4 -inch layer again and cut last rounds out.
Place rounds on second baking sheet. Sprinkle tops with remaining cheese. (Polenta galettes can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before reheating and remove plastic wrap.)
When ready to serve, heat rounds in oven at 400 degrees on center rack 10 minutes until hot and cheese has melted. Turn on broiler and heat galettes 1 to 2 minutes more until cheese has browned slightly. Watch carefully. Remove with spatula and arrange polenta galettes on serving plate. Garnish center of each with small sprig of rosemary.