Giving cornmeal its due: Bacon Sage Polenta

by Terry B on March 18, 2009

Once considered peasant food, versatile polenta becomes a delicious, satisfying side dish with the addition of fresh sage, bacon and corn. Recipe below.

Even current descriptions of polenta reflect its humble beginnings: “Mush.” “Boiled cornmeal.” But despite this apparent image problem, it has been a popular staple throughout Italy just about forever—in fact, in Northern Italy, it outshines pasta. And in recent years, it’s gotten the star treatment makeover, going from humble to haute on numerous high-end restaurant menus.

Traditional polenta is generally slow cooked to a creamy consistency and usually includes some kind of cheese. It sets up pretty firmly as it cools and can be cut into squares or sticks or shaped into balls and fried for a completely different approach. Beyond these basics, there seem to be countless variations on the theme; just a search on Epicurious.com turns up nearly 150 polenta recipes. On its own, “boiled cornmeal” tastes about as bland as it sounds—it’s one of those ingredients, though, that takes on other flavors beautifully. When I came across a recipe in Bon Appétit that called for bacon and sage, I knew I was on to something.

Sage has been around even longer than polenta, going back at least to the ancient Egyptians. This Mediterranean herb has been popular both as a food flavoring and for medicinal uses. In fact, according to Epicurious [don't you just love the Internet?], its name “comes from a derivative of the Latin salvus, meaning ‘safe,’ a reference to the herb’s believed healing powers.”

The flavor of sage has been described as pungent, peppery, minty, woodsy… the last couple of times I’ve been chopping up fresh sage, I’ve also picked up more than a hint of licorice. Its big, aromatic flavor is why you find it called for in sausages, poultry and game stuffings and rich meats like pork, goose and duck.

Sage is also directly responsible for me making polenta this week. We haven’t had a garden for a couple of years now—and even if we had one, it would be dormant right now. So fresh herbs come from farmers markets and—more often—supermarkets, where small clamshell containers typically set you back a couple clams or so. And all too often, I buy these precious commodities for a specific dish and then promptly forget that I have them around for other possible uses until I find their shriveled remains weeks later. So this weekend when I made some rosemary sage chops for a relaxed family lunch, I was determined to make use of my leftover fresh herbs. I’m always finding uses for fresh rosemary; I used the sage to make this easy polenta dish. The hardest part was actually finding the polenta. You can also substitute yellow cornmeal—I’ll explain in the Kitchen Notes.

Bacon Sage Polenta
Serves 4 to 5
Adapted from a recipe in Bon Appétit

4 slices bacon, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
4 cups water, plus extra as needed
1 cup polenta, traditional or quick cook, but not precooked tubes [see Kitchen Notes—seriously]
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
slat and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Cook bacon in heavy, large nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp [I used a 5-quart sauté pan, which was perfect]. Using slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from skillet. Add sage and corn; sauté 1 minute. Add 4 cups water and increase heat to medium-high and bring to boil. Gradually whisk in polenta.

Reduce heat to low; cook until polenta begins to thicken, stirring frequently, about 20 minutes, if you’re using traditional polenta. For quick cooking polenta, total cooking time will be about 5 minutes. Also, as you “gradually” stir it in, it will thicken quickly—alarmingly even. If needed, add more water 1/2 cup at a time. Being stuck with the quick-cooking variety, I ended up adding a little more than a cup of extra water. Stir in Parmesan cheese and bacon. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Kitchen Notes

First, how was it? Quite good, in some surprising ways. First, the bacon didn’t take over, as I feared it might, especially since I used bacon grease in addition to the bacon itself. But I really only tasted bacon when I encountered bits of actual cooked bacon in the polenta. Second, the sage made itself known in the dish without overpowering—I feared it might disappear altogether. And the corn kernels added a nice bit of textural interest. With the cheese, err on the generous side—it really does add to the character. And I know this goes without saying, but please, please, please don’t use the canned stuff. Even a modest freshly grated Parmesan cheese blows right past the canned stuff.

Desperately seeking polenta. I obsess about the most random things, especially given the things that don’t cause me to obsess. We cook quick oats for breakfast instead of the mythic steel cut, for instance. When we’re in the mood for grits [a relative of polenta from the American South], quick grits are just fine. But I really wanted old-fashioned ground polenta for this dish, the stuff that takes 20 or more minutes to cook. I went to four different stores on my polenta quest. All I could find were the quick cook or worse, the tubes of precooked polenta. The latter is primarily meant to be sliced and fried. There are directions for reconstituting it into a creamy version, but there’s now way you’ll incorporate the bacon, sage and corn into it. Eventually I settled for the quick cook variety.

But the quest isn’t over for me, not by a long shot. I know there are Italian grocers in this town who stock the real deal. I intend to seek them out, because I haven’t even scratched the surface on this humble but oh, so intriguing dish.

In a pinch, use yellow cornmeal. Use the same amount as polenta and cook it for about 10 minutes. If I hadn’t been obsessing, I might have done this.

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Ronnie Ann March 18, 2009 at 5:15 am

Oh Terry! This sounds soooo wonderful. I love polenta. And this recipe seems like something even I could make! I might have to leave out the bacon for tummy reasons – not that I don’t enjoy the taste. Any thoughts on how to compensate or will it be fine anyway?

Ronnie Ann

Ashley March 18, 2009 at 5:45 am

WOW! This looks wonderful!

mark March 18, 2009 at 6:07 am

This looks great, everything is better with bacon.

ciaochowlinda March 18, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Anything tastes better with bacon! Not that I need an excuse to eat polenta – one of my favorites. I also have made with prosciutto that I fried up and made crispy. very similar to the bacon treatment. yum.

Laura March 18, 2009 at 3:01 pm

I love the idea of adding the corn! I like polenta (although not as much as my mom does…the woman makes it for Thanksgiving for god’s sake) but sometimes find that it falls a bit flat…I can’t eat too much of it because I get bored. I have a hunch though that I could eat a whole pot ot this stuff!

Terry B March 18, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Ronnie Ann—You might try a little prosciutto, as ciaochowlinda suggests, or even a little good quality diced ham. If you want to forgo the meat altogether, start with a tablespoon or two of butter to sauté the sage and the corn.

Thanks, Ashley!

mark—There’s a bar here in Chicago that offers a bacon happy hour—all the bacon you can eat, plus booze. Just the idea of that makes me pretty darned happy.

ciaochowlinda—And the prosciutto would make it even more Italian!

Laura—I agree. Even with my limited experience with polenta, I see it more as a blank canvas than something in its own right.

Jennifer Hess March 18, 2009 at 4:41 pm

This looks and sounds divine – grits and polenta are a couple of my favorite things, and you can dress them up in so many fun ways.

Cherie March 19, 2009 at 2:06 am

I’m glad I’m not in arm’s length for a lashing – having vegetarians in the family — (present company excluded) what’s your take on using the soy bacon. I want to make this, but I would be eating it all by myself

dick March 19, 2009 at 2:59 am

How is polenta any different from yellow coarse ground corn meal? Seems to me it is just about the same except one gets a different name and a higher price.

Terry B March 19, 2009 at 4:34 am

Hi, Jennifer! I’m looking forward to exploring other versions myself.

Cherie—No lashings here. If you and your family find soy bacon acceptable, by all means use it with this dish. Just cook it according to package directions, but use olive oil or butter in place of the bacon fat to sauté the sage and corn.

Dick—Apparently polenta comes in a variety of grinds, from fine to coarse. I’d say go ahead and use cornmeal, if you like.

evi March 19, 2009 at 12:14 pm

This combo sounds delish! I’m going to give it a shot. I don’t cook with sage enough. Every ingredient sounds great.

Melissa March 19, 2009 at 3:20 pm

First of all, the picture is AMAZING. Straight out of Gourmet magazine. Love the historical info on sage, also. Second, I LOVE polenta. Add bacon & I’ll eat the whole pot. Love that you use some of the bacon fat to saute the corn & sage in. Yum, fat equals flavor, especially bacon fat! Question: How do you get it so creamy? I prefer the creamy type polenta dish over the ones that are cooled & cut into squares. Is is just the addition of more liquid? Also, I am suprised that polenta was so hard to find. I would think Bob’s Red Mill would have a version. And you can find that at Whole Foods.

altadenahiker March 19, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Speaking of cookbooks … no wait, that was me. Ok, speaking of pig products and polenta, have you read Honey From a Weed? I’m about to spend my incentive package on the book from Amazon, but will wait just in case you (or any of your guest chefs) have a yea or nay.

Terry B March 19, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Hi, evi! Hope you enjoy it.

Awwww, thanks, Melissa! Regarding the creaminess factor, the polenta started firming up right in the pan as it cooked—while I was still stirring in the ground polenta! So I adjusted the recipe down from what it originally called for and indeed added more water. The end result was creamyish, but not runny. The leftovers were firm, but not little blocks. Interestingly, I looked at Whole Foods too. They had the tubes and two quick varieties, one from Argentina. Did you know that polenta is huge in South America? I didn’t.

altadenahiker—Haven’t read it. Sorry. Boy, you are making me feel like a cookbook illiterate these days. Howver, I did just pick up Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare at the library. Can’t wait to dig in—thanks for suggesting it!

Carol March 19, 2009 at 7:33 pm

Terry
I first had polenta at a Russian friend’s Easter feast. I was incredulous when I figured out what it was, in the parlance of the peasantry: corn meal!

She gave me encouragingly quick instructions–water, polenta, poof! Needless to say mine didn’t taste like hers did. Now I have more substantial info. And a far more substantial recipe. Many thanks! Maybe Balducci’s has the real deal?

Ulla March 19, 2009 at 11:20 pm

What a gorgeous photo! It looks so tasty too!

Kevin March 20, 2009 at 2:20 am

That would make a tasty breakfast!

diva March 20, 2009 at 6:48 pm

oooh this looks so creamy and good, i must have some!

dani@little fists March 21, 2009 at 7:55 pm

That picture just drew me in and made me want a big spoon full. I just found your site. Yummy!

recipes lover March 23, 2009 at 4:15 pm

picture is looking great, i believe the taste too, corn are my favorites

Chef Chip March 24, 2009 at 8:17 am

Nevermind, Terry. I misunderstood you in one of the comments. : )

Easy Recipes March 24, 2009 at 9:32 pm

Picture looks great, this is my second recipe today that I came uses cornmeal. Must be a sign for me to get into the kitchen and make something easy related to these recipes!

Thanks!

ginger March 25, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Is it possible to use dried sage, can’t find fresh?

Terry B March 25, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Carol—Methinks your Russian friend was using the old trick of not giving you the complete recipe so her polenta will always be better than yours.

Thanks, Ulla, Kevin, diva, dani, recipes lover and Easy Recipes!

Chef Chip—Um, okay.

ginger—dried sage would be fine; just use 1 teaspoon instead of 1 tablespoon, since dried herbs are more intense than fresh.

Chef Chip March 26, 2009 at 6:08 am

Prepared this at home for the fam as quick as I could. Awesome stuff!! Used some milk to cook the polenta but kept everything else the same. Deboned some chicken breasts, leaving the skin on and seasoned with S&P. Then sauteed in the bacon fat. Deglazed with vermouth. Sliced and fanned the chicken over the polenta and poured the sauce over. The whole family (ages 3.5 to 39) gave it many thumbs up! Thanks!!!

Terry B March 26, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Wow, Chef Chip—This sounds like a beautiful meal! Vermouth is great for deglazing, adding just a subtle taste of its own.

Paul McCormack March 31, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Hey all first time ever here I googled polenta and found many sites of course but this one stands out “I’ll be back”

Big Mike April 1, 2009 at 10:56 pm

Terry,

Plenty of grocery stores here in Chicago have real Polenta on the shelves. You have to dig for it sometimes, but it’s there.

Try Bari Foods on Grand ave at May st, a little italian grocery with it’s own butcher shop in back. Also the best sub sandwiches in the city

Terry B April 1, 2009 at 11:15 pm

Welcome to Blue Kitchen, Paul, and thanks!

Thanks, Big Mike! I knew there were Italian grocers that weren’t along Taylor [I don't think there are any along Taylor anymore, are there?], but couldn’t remember where. We’ll definitely check out Bari Foods soon.

Nishta April 5, 2009 at 12:12 am

hi Terry–I’m commenting for the first time to thank you for this–my bacon is spluttering away now–I’ve been wanting to do more with polenta than just eat it for breakfast with butter, salt, & pepper (not that this is a bad thing!) Our homegrown sage is feeling the love tonight!

As I see some others have mentioned, I use Bob’s Red Mill polenta, which I can get in the “Natural Foods” section of my grocery store…don’t know how authentic it is, but it’s delicious!

Terry B April 5, 2009 at 11:19 pm

Thanks so much, Nishta, and welcome to Blue Kitchen. Good to know about the Bob’s Red Mill polenta.

Sophie April 6, 2009 at 5:11 pm

I am loving this recipe! I am a huge polenta fan, but my husband isn’t. He does love bacon, though, so I think this recipe might change his mind about it :D.

Ana May 10, 2009 at 1:11 am

I’ve never tasted polenta before, so should be a real treat when I give it a go. Thank you! :)

Patti March 23, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Did anybody actually try the recipe?

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