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.



Day three and a promise

Day 3 of the cleanse brings a promise from me.

I promise to post about something else as soon as:

1) This cleanse thing is over; OR

2) I have a day where I forget to take photos; OR

3) I have a day in which I eat all stuff I’ve already posted about.

But in the meanwhile, here’s the food for day 3 of the cleanse.

Breakfast: Fried O’Brien potatoes, homemade ketchup, watermelon, and V-8


Lunch: Big salad with homemade sesame dressing (mixed up sesame oil, rice vinegar, agave nectar, grated fresh ginger, wheat-free tamari, and grated garlic to taste), topped with sesame salt; fresh cherries

Salad and cherries

Snacks: Nuts, seasoned seaweed, and Oh, so much fruit. More than I can show you here, but among the bounty was more watermelon. Also, white peaches so ripe it’s making my mouth water to tell you about them. And more cherries. And so on. Plus a latte made with decaf espresso and homemade soymilk. (The soymilk maker is still in the testing phase. I’m working on it.)

peaches, watermelon, and soy latte

Dinner: Tamale pie. The plan was for chili, but I was waffling on finding a good vegan, gluten-free cornbread, and James suggested I just make some more polenta, add olives to the chili, and make tamale pie. Those of you who’ve been around a while know that James is big on suggesting yummy and time-consuming things for me to make, so I was happy to oblige with this relatively quick and easy dish.

Tamale pie

I also added some olive oil and a fair bit of garlic and nutritional yeast to the polenta before pouring it over the chili (which I dished into the baking dish with a slotted spoon so it wouldn’t be too soupy). The chili is based on the Moosewood recipe that Susan V. adapts here, but I left out the bulgur and used some olive oil in the preparation.

So there it is. There’ll be more Mom Food when this is over. I promise!

“Cleanse” day 2

When you hear “vegan and gluten-free,” do you feel a pall of dullness wash over you? Let me show you it doesn’t have to be that way!

When I’m doing one of these fun/silly diet challenges (not “diet” in the sense of weight-loss, which I’m not into, but “diet” as in “what I eat”), the best time to do them is a time like this month, when I’m working at home and have all the time in the world to cook. You can expect to see lots of posts this month; brace yourselves.

Today’s menu:

Breakfast: Tofu scramble; fried O’Brien potatoes; agave ketchup (recipe below)

tofu scramble and O'Brien potatoes

Morning snack: Figs and raspberries

figs and raspberries

Lunch: Salad with vinaigrette (olive oil, cider vinegar, a touch of agave nectar)

salad plates

Afternoon snack: guacamole and chips (James made the guacamole with onions, jalapenos, and garlic. He asked me if I wanted him to clean it up for photos, but I said Nah, we’re just gonna sit and watch movies with it; this is how it looks.)

guacamole and chips

Dinner: Polenta with wild mushrooms. The morels didn’t look good, so I got porcini, chanterelles, and baby buttons. Cooked down with onion, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper. Served over fried polenta sticks. I used this method, but left out the animal products and added olive oil and a little bit of nutritional yeast for “cheesiness.”

polenta and mushrooms with broccoli on the side

These photos are by way of saying that even if there’s a food you don’t or can’t eat, you don’t have to sacrifice abundance. I don’t believe in deprivation, and there’s no reason a vegan, gluten-free life has to be dull and drab.

Oh, and here’s the recipe for the ketchup. Let me know if you improve on it. I love ketchup!

Agave Ketchup
Recipe type: Condiment
The texture isn't the same as bottled ketchup, but this version is free of white/refined sugar, and uses gluten-free apple cider vinegar. You can actually leave the agave out, but then the ketchup will be (obviously) less sweet.
  • 1 small can (6 oz.) tomato paste (I used organic, because the only ingredient is tomatoes)
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon amber agave nectar, optional
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • 2-4 tablespoons water
  1. Mix everything but the water, then add the water a tablespoon at a time until the ketchup is the consistency you want. Makes about a cup of ketchup.


Orange-glazed tofu

Orange-glazed tofu is the first in a 21-day series of vegan dinners. Come along, if you like. I don’t promise they’ll all be great, but you’ll get to see the variety of things available!

Super-easy, tasty dinner to start the cleanse thingy. I’ve been at my mom’s for a week, and we ate out almost every day. I’m home now, and it was actually kind of nice to make this simple, healthful meal for our first dinner of the cleanse.

orange tofu

5.0 from 1 reviews
Orange-glazed tofu
Recipe type: Main dish
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 2
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 6-7 oz. (1/2 package) firm tofu, cut into bite-sized pieces (no need to press)
  • juice of 1 orange
  • 2-4 tablespoons agave nectar or honey
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • ½ red onion, sliced thinly on the vertical
  • 1 cup chopped fresh broccoli
  1. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a skillet.
  2. Add tofu, orange juice, agave nectar, salt, and rice vinegar. Stir gently to coat tofu with glaze, then cook on medium, stirring occasionally, until tofu begins to brown, about 20 minutes. Set tofu aside and rinse out the skillet.
  3. In the same skillet, heat remaining oil. Add onions and broccoli and cook until onion is browned and broccoli is crisp-tender. Add tofu back in; cook and stir until heated through.
  4. Serve over rice.


21-day “Cleanse” menus

21 days of menus without gluten, animal products, alcohol, caffeine, or refined sugar

I’m doing a “cleanse” with some friends — really, just a few weeks of vegan (and gluten-free, in this case) eating, which is not unusual for me, but it usually makes me feel better, and I’ve been feeling a little puny lately. Anyway, I thought I’d write down the menus I’m using, for my reference, and others’. On this particular challenge, there are no animal products, gluten, alcohol (which I don’t drink), caffeine (which I rarely drink), or refined ugar. Not too tough for me, but it’ll be fun to be in a group with people new to this way of eating, so here goes:

The menus


Breakfasts will be one of the following, with lots of repeats. I’m boring at breakfast.

  • O’Brien potatoes, fried in olive oil or “fried” in water
  • Oatmeal with raisins, with or without agave syrup (I know not everyone counts honey as an animal product, but I do)
  • Cold cereal with homemade (unsweetened) soymilk or rice milk or nut milk (for rice/nut milk: 1 cup cooked brown rice or raw nuts or soaked nuts, 4 cups water; blend and strain if desired. Vanilla and sweeteners and salt are all optional; I skip them. Mom just gave me a soymilk maker, so I will see how that goes and let you know.)
  • Leftovers from another meal


Lunch will be a huge salad every day. Easiest for me to just plan it that way. I have tons of good salad dressing recipes that I will try to collect if anyone’s interested.


Dinners will come from this list, or from improvisation. I’m unlikely to do them in this order. I’m on furlough for the month of July, so I have all the time in the world to cook and shop for fresh produce. I may shoot from the hip more often than this, but I like being prepared. I also always add some kind of cooked or raw non-starchy vegetable with each meal, but I decide that based on what’s good at the market, so I mostly didn’t specify.

  1. Stir-fried tofu and veggies over brown rice
  2. Polenta with wild mushroom sauce
  3. Red, Gold, Black and Green chili (with TVP instead of bulgur)
  4. Curried chickpeas and kale with brown rice
  5. Thai black pepper and garlic tofu
  6. Vegan taco salad
  7. Split pea soup
  8. Black bean burgers with homemade salsa and guacamole
  9. Falafel, hummus, baba ganouj, and quinoa tabbouli (sub quinoa for bulgur wheat). I confess I always fry my falafel, not bake them.
  10. Stuffed grape leaves (no recipe here; I just stuff them with brown rice, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, onions, salt, and whatever else strikes my fancy, then cook them in a pot)
  11. Roasted ratatouille over polenta
  12. Farmer’s pie (vegan shepherd’s pie), using chickpea gravy thickened with cornstarch instead of flour
  13. Thai red curry rice noodles with veggies and either tofu or chickpeas
  14. Red beans and rice
  15. Black bean tostadas
  16. Mashed potatoes and chickpea gravy thickened with cornstarch instead of flour
  17. What we call ‘summer feast’ around here: Good tomatoes with olive oil, fresh garlic, fresh basil, and salt; whatever fruit is in season (watermelon, peaches, whatever), and corn on the cob.
  18. Veggie and/or TVP tacos
  19. Corn and potato chowder (using homemade non-dairy milk)
  20. Barbecued tofu (homemade no-sugar barbecue sauce — tomato paste, a little mustard, onion sweated in a little oil, some water, some smoked paprika, and optional natural sweetener — frozen apple juice concentrate works well); poppyseed cole slaw; corn on the cob and/or baked potatoes
  21. Fried rice