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.

A little more kitchen sink, please!


Oh, my. James made SUCH  a delicious dinner tonight. I wish I had gotten a photo. And no way is there a recipe. He told me to watch out while eating because there still might be bits of the kitchen sink in there.

To my knowledge, the stew contained the following:

  • Leftover kalua pig
  • Okra
  • Tomatoes
  • Salsa
  • Black olives
  • Olive oil
  • Onions

And who knows what else.

Anyway, it was DELICIOUS, both plain and on tortilla chips.

I am a lucky woman.

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, July 2020

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?