When Jewish people come together, there is food. Even on Yom Kippur, one of the annual fasts, there’s food. Because after a day of fasting, we’ll celebrate with bagels, herring, and kugel. That may sound like an odd mix of foods, but man, I do love me some bagels, herring, and kugel. Although, I might even be happier to swap out the kugel for blintz casserole
Speaking of odd mixes of food, once a month my congregation holds a potluck dinner. And I have to say that I do enjoy these events. The building is equipped with a commercial kitchen, which cranks out enough baked chicken, potatoes, and a vegetable for all attending. Most attendees bring supplementary side dishes.
Choosing what to bring for a potluck dinner can be tricky for a variety of reasons. One of the hardest parts for me is that my shul is about a thirty minute drive from home. Then, once we get there, after getting seated and reciting the blessings, it could be another fifteen minutes until we eat. All of which means that it can be hard to keep hot dishes hot.
In the past I’ve used the slow cooker to not just help retain the heat of dishes, but to also reheat them a bit once they’ve arrived on site. Recently, I realized another way to solve the problem, with a dish that was pretty popular.
For the last potluck I made a baked polenta, stuffed with seasoned ricotta from Cappiello Dairy in Schenectady, and topped with a simple mixture of chopped plum tomatoes with dried oregano.
Polenta sounds so much fancier than cornmeal mush. But thanks to Marcella Hazan’s “no stir” method for making this dish, it can be relegated to a background activity. In truth, there’s plenty of stirring, just not the constant stirring that a crazy person would do to make this dish in the traditional manner.
The secret to making this well is using good Italian polenta, and seasoning it adequately with salt. Food without salt is like music without the bassline. I wish I could take credit for that comparison, but the idea is attributed to Robert Farrar Capon in Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything.
Cappiello’s whole milk ricotta is excellent, but plain ricotta is begging for seasoning too. Unless, of course it’s serving as the counterpoint for some other strong flavor. But in this case, some garlic, salt, and black pepper really help it to come alive. This mixture punctuates the polenta with flavor, instead of just providing some contrasting creaminess.
If you’ve ever made polenta, or cornmeal mush, you know that the final product is blisteringly hot. That’s one of the reasons it’s such a good dish for winter. Polenta will warm your body and your soul.
So I’m careful when I pour it out into a casserole dish, and smooth out the top layer. Spoonfuls of the ricotta mixture get pushed into the cornmeal, and the tomatoes get scattered on top. Then this already hot dish gets thrown in the oven to try and cook a bit more moisture out of everything, and help the parts come together as a whole.
The great thing is that this dish can stay in a low oven for a while. Should it look like it’s drying out too much, the dish can be covered with foil.
When it’s time to jump in the car, the casserole gets pulled from the oven, wrapped in foil, placed on a towel lined tray, and thrown in the trunk. What’s amazing is that even on those days when the temperature is hovering around freezing, the cornmeal arrives at the potluck still hot.
Granted, by the time we’re done with the blessings and getting everyone through the potluck line, it’s probably closer to warm. However, it’s decidedly not cold. Cold polenta would be tragic.
This baked polenta is such a delicious, easy, and comforting dish, I’m bringing it again. Usually, I like to mix it up a bit, and bring a different dish each month. But this was a hit last time, and it turns out I bought much more polenta than I needed.
Maybe I’ll just make polenta all winter. I wonder how long it would take for me to get sick of it. Perhaps, with enough culinary creativity, I could find a ways of topping or stuffing the polenta to keep it exciting.
If you have any ideas, I’m all ears.