Pantry cooking month: Polenta

Fried polenta with warm tomato sauce. Comfort food that’s a tiny bit fancy.

Two things you may or may not know about me:

  1. When I have money, I tend to buy groceries. Not clothes, not gadgets, not iPads. Food. That’s my luxury spending, my crisis spending, my comfort spending, my impulse spending.  Thing is, we’re only two people here, though we often share our food with the three who live next door (mom, uncle, kid). We cannot possibly eat everything in the house before some of it goes bad unless I’m super-good about keeping my shopping to a minimum. Since my debt-elimination project began, though, I’ve been a little indulgent buying groceries, because they’re on the needs list, and therefore okay to buy. Theoretically. I gotta work on that.
  2. I am a supertaster. This means I can taste some flavors strongly even when they’re faint. A tinytiny amount of almond extract makes a dish inedible for me. I can taste minute amounts of artificial sweetener. An eighth of a teaspoon of five-spice powder (which is evil to my tastebuds. Evil!) makes the whole dish horrifying. And I can tell when food has gone rancid wayyyyyy before anyone else in my family notices it.

What I am about to say next will gross out some of you, and I don’t blame you.

So in cooking down the pantry, I’m going to need to use up a LOT of grains. Because there are so many, though, some of them tend to go off before I use them. I tossed the brown rice –whoof! it was clearly rancid. But the cornmeal? It’s only almost off. So, um, don’t hate me. I made some polenta from some of it anyway, because I knew my family wouldn’t even notice, and they like fried polenta.

I can’t believe I’m telling you this.

Anyway, use good, fresh cornmeal for this, not months-old cornmeal that’s about a week away from turning. Unless, you know, you’re into that.

white plate of polenta slices with tomato sauce on them, fork is on the plate

I did throw out the rest of the cornmeal, partly from guilt and partly because I know that the next time I open it up, it won’t be fit to use, not even for regular people with normal tastebuds.

And I promise that even though my mother loved this polenta SO MUCH, I will love my family enough not to serve them food I think is not really fit to eat, ever again.

Garlic-pepper Fried Polenta with warm tomato sauce
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4-6 servings
This polenta is good as a porridge or fried, but my family likes it fried best
For the polenta
  • 1 cup cornmeal, any kind
  • 3 to 4 cups water (3 cups makes the process faster; 4 cups makes the mixture a bit softer, but takes longer)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3-4 tbsp butter
  • ½ to 1 tsp white peppercorns, to taste (or ¼ to ½ tsp ground white pepper, to taste)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • a little olive oil if you're going to fry it later
For the sauce
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ small onion, diced finely
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 can diced tomatoes (I used tomatoes with oregano and basil already in them; if you use plain, add ½ tsp each dried basil and oregano, if you want)
  • water as needed
  1. In a mortar and pestle, pound peppercorns and garlic together until you get a thick but pretty finely crushed paste. Set aside. Alternatively, you can just use ground pepper and add a crushed garlic clove.
  2. Bring water and salt to boil in small saucepan
  3. Slowly pour in cornmeal while stirring constantly
  4. Once corn mixture returns to a boil, turn heat down to medium-low and stir almost constantly until it's very thick and bubbly
  5. Remove from heat and stir in butter and pepper-garlic paste. Check seasoning and add salt if necessary.
  6. At this point, the polenta is ready to eat by itself, or you can fry it up later. If you're going to do that, put it into a container in the fridge for at least a couple of hours, until it's set enough to slice.
  1. In a small skillet or saucepan, fry the onions in olive oil on medium heat until translucent. Add the garlic and saute another minute.
  2. Add tomatoes and herbs if using.
  3. Cook, stirring often, 20-30 minutes, until tomatoes are very soft. You will probably have to add water from time to time to keep the mixture from completely drying out and burning, but you don't want the sauce too wet in the end. It should be chunky and only barely moist.
  4. I prefer this sauce warm, but not hot, so I usually put it in the fridge until the fried polenta is ready, and then just warm it up for a second off the heat in the hot pan after the polenta is done.
For the fried polenta
  1. Slice the polenta into ½-inch slices and fry in a teaspoon of olive oil in a nonstick skillet. Fry for a few minutes on each side, until it starts to get brown and crisp. Serve hot with tomato sauce poured over it.



Weird Pantry Food: Rice Salad

Strange, but good

If you’re in the U.S., you’ve probably had mayo-based potato salad and macaroni salad. These (usually summer) dishes are potluck staples, and most Americans have eaten plenty of them.  If you’re not from around here, how it usually goes is you cook pasta or potatoes until they’re just done, toss them with some diced vegetables and a mayo-based dressing, and serve at a cookout or something.

Me, I eat them during any season. And I have a weird variation that I make when I have leftover rice. Basically, I make rice salad, but not in the tabouli-ish grain-salad kind of way. Just rice with veggies and mayo, kind of like pasta salad. But not.

plate of rice salad

Anyway, that’s what I did today. In this one, I have red onion, roasted red pepper, and sliced black olives, but really anything that can go into potato salad can go into rice salad. I like it, but I’ve never fed it to anyone because the few times I’ve mentioned it to anyone, they got that squinched-up look on their face that one usually only gets when someone talks about eating bugs or something.

Anyway, I like it a lot, and I do recommend it if you think you might like this sort of thing.

Pantry Cooking Month: the inventory

Sometimes, a cooking geek just has to inventory the canned goods.

For some reason, I got it in my head to inventory the pantry contents before and after this pantry cooking month. Silly/nerdy, I know, but hey.

IF you are a similar nerd and want to see what’s in my cupboards, the full list (minus a gazillion spices — I started to list them and gave up) is in this shared Google doc.

The short take, however, is that I have pounds and pounds of pasta, loads of other grains, and so many condiments I can’t even. Also many, many, many cans of beans, along with some other canned items.

Here we go! Yesterday, I made a big batch of pork fried rice from some jasmine rice and leftover kalua pig. Haven’t decided yet what to have today; since I’m back to work after the holiday break, I may let James take care of it.

Pantry Cooking Month, January 2017

One way to save money on food? Stop buying food! (Not forever, of course.)

canned food
Stock image purchased from

The good news: We’re getting out of debt!

The bad news: We’re still spending too much money on food.

Thanks to a plan I discovered in Anna Newell Jones‘s The Spender’s Guide to Debt-free Living, we are practicing needs-only spending for a year while we try to pay off some of the debt we incurred during our move down to San Diego. We’ve never had credit-card debt before, and I hate it, so I am taking a very drastic measure. If we don’t need it, I’m not buying it.

That means no eating out, no new clothes, no junk food, etc. However, groceries are an obvious need, so I’ve been buying all the groceries I want, and when I looked at my grocery bill for December 2016, I was floored. It was a LOT.

Pantry Cooking Month to the rescue! I have a ton of food in the house. I’ll take some photos so you can see, but basically, I’m pretty sure we can get through the month with almost no influx of food. We’ll buy anything we really need that we run out of (bread or flour for making bread, for instance), but I plan to see how empty I can get my pantry by the end of the month.

I will, of course, post any fun/weird/creative recipes I come up with.

Today, I’m cooking for the kid’s birthday. I already made the mango pudding, and the kalua pig is in the oven. Next, I’ll throw together her favorite salad.

What are you cooking lately?

Sloppy Joes

Sloppy joes you can make with meat or without, with equal success.

When I first started this blog, I was telling my co-worker and friend Haydee about it, and the first thing she asked me after I described it was something like, “Oh, and then you’ll give the healthier versions of the foods, right?”

I looked at her like she had two heads.

If my mom’s food were made healthier, it wouldn’t be mom food.  I mean, make clam chowder with low-fat milk and less butter and you just change the whole nature of the thing.

But sometimes. SOMEtimes, it really doesn’t matter.

One example is food that’s already very good when it’s unadorned. The glory of a tomato salad made with tomatoes at peak season shines, whether you use a lot of olive oil or just a little. If it’s an exceptionally good tomato, olive oil is gilding the lily. Not that I don’t like a good gilded lily from time to time.

Another example is a certain class of food that I tend to call “trashy,” but I should probably find another term. Help me out here — casual? I don’t know. Fast food, I guess.

Anyway, sloppy joes fall into this category for me. Their essence is in the textures, the sweet-and-sour-and-a-little-smoky sauce, and the fun of trying to eat it without getting it everywhere. I found out when I was a vegetarian that sloppy joes can be made with anything from tofu to lentils to commercial veggie crumbles, and the experience is roughly the same.

Growing up, I had NO idea you could make sloppy joes yourself. It was a can of Manwich in our house, and never anything else. When I was a kid, that sauce had lots of chunks of green pepper and onion in it. Those are smaller and less plentiful, but the sauce is still passable, if sweeter than I like. As it turns out, though, you don’t need the can, because you probably have most or all of the ingredients you need at home, and when you make it yourself, you get to tweak it to be just how you like it.

What you need:

Something tomatoey: Ketchup, barbecue sauce, tomato paste/sauce/puree, whatever — I’ve even used V8 juice.

Something smokey: I’ve used smoked paprika, liquid smoke, chipotle peppers, and smoky barbecue sauce.

Something sweet/sour: Ketchup is already sweet/sour, and so is barbecue sauce, but if you use another tomato product, you’ll want to add some kind of sweet thing (sugar, honey, apple juice concentrate, etc.) and some kind of sour thing (usually vinegar, but lemon juice, citric acid, and tamarind paste all work). Also, if you like things tangy rather than sweet, you can cut down or eliminate the sugar, and you can add some mustard (powder and/or prepared).

Something crumbly: browned ground beef, veggie crumbles, crumbled extra-firm (drained/pressed) tofu, ground turkey, firm cooked lentils, smoked mushrooms, crumbled tempeh, even brown rice. When I could eat soy, tempeh was probably my favorite of these. Nowadays, I mostly use Quorn crumbles.

Onions and bell peppers, any color.

Below is a recipe of sorts, or click on the thumbnails in the gallery for step-by-step photos. The slaw you see is James’s adaptation of Bakesale Betty’s — we were customers at her shop on its first day, and we continued to go there a lot until we left Oakland. If you have a chance to go, you really should. The line is always long, but it moves fast, and you should get there early, because when she sells out of chicken, it’s all over. Our location was on the corner of 51st and Telegraph in Temescal, but there are other locations, or there were last time I checked.

Eventually, I’ll make a post about the slaw, because we eat it all the time.

Do you make your own versions of fast foods you had as a child? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Sloppy Joes
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4 servings
This recipe is just a rough guide. Use what you have. Be flexible. These are sloppy, after all.
  • 1 lb of meat or veggie substitute (see post for ideas)
  • ½ onion, chopped finely
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped finely
  • 1 clove garlic, minced, or to taste
  • 1 to 1.5 cups ketchup or other tomato product (see post for ideas)
  • Something smoky (see post for ideas)
  • Something sweet/sour (see post for ideas)
  • Something spicy (optional -- I use either sriracha, chipotle, chili powder, hot sauce, or hot peppers)
  • 4 sandwich rolls
  1. Saute onion, pepper, and garlic in about ½ cup water on medium-high heat until translucent, around 5-8 minutes.
  2. Add remaining ingredients except for rolls, along with about a cup of water.
  3. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened.
  4. Spoon ¼ of the meat onto each roll and serve.