Minimalist Polenta, Three Ways

Polenta, Three Ways | Big Girls Small Kitchen

When you’re on the road, how quickly do you get sick of take-out and packaged snacks? For me, it’s about 30 seconds and/or four bites into my first mediocre buffet. That’s why I came up with three variations on one awesome recipe that you can make even in a basic on-the-go kitchen. Watch the video to see what I made.

WATCH NOW: 3 Polenta Recipes So Easy You Can Make ‘Em in a Hotel Kitchen!

At Extended Stay America, every room has a kitchen (not a mini kitchen, not a hot plate, but the real thing–equipped with a pot, a pan, bowls, utensils, a cutting board, and a knife–among other essentials). Inspired by the recipes guests were whipping up in their rooms, the hotel chain created the Cooking Away from Home Recipe Contest to let traveling cooks submit their best recipes for meals you can make on the road, without access to your stocked at-home pantry. You can vote for a recipe here.

So, what makes a recipe good for cooking when you’re not at home? Most importantly for me, the recipe has to require just a few ingredients, all of which are available at regular grocery stores, preferably in single serving sizes or at the self-serve antipasti bar or bulk section. If you plan ahead, you can pack olive oil, salt, nuts, and grains–like polenta. (Milk, sardines, almonds, butter, and beer each make an appearance here in part because of their single-serving packaging.)

Since polenta is kind of a blank canvas, I thought I’d encourage you to vote in the ESA contest by cooking on camera, showing off this cinch of a recipe for soft polenta and three great toppings, all easy to make on the road and enticing after a day of travel, meetings, or sight-seeing. Read on for the full recipes!

This post is sponsored by Extended Stay America. Read more about Away from Home Cooking, vote for a contest winner here, and share using #cookwithESA. If you’re excited to have a full-size kitchen next time you travel, book your stay at Extended Stay America. Thanks for supporting the sponsors that keep Big Girls, Small Kitchen delicious!


All the topping recipes are written to make 1 to 2 servings–I left them pretty loose because they are so simple and can be scaled up or down to your appetite. The base recipe for polenta, however, makes 5 to 6 servings. You can store the leftover polenta right in the pot (in the fridge), then reheat on the stove with more milk or water to thin it out. Alternatively, pour the polenta onto a plate, then cut out squares and re-crisp the next day in a frying pan as in this recipe. As you’ll see in the video, timing works best if you start the polenta, then cover and set aside before adding the milk. When you’re nearly done with your topping, add the milk and finish the dish.

Polenta with Tomatoes, Bocconcini & Basil

About 1 cup cooked polenta (recipe follows)
Handful fresh bocconcini, halved
1 small tomato
Small handful fresh basil, leaves torn
Olive oil
Juice of half a lemon

Combine the bocconcini, tomato, basil, 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, a big pinch of salt, and some lemon juice in a bowl. If you have time, leave this to marinate for 30 minutes or so at room temperature. Either way, pile the mixture on top of a generous bowl full of polenta.

Polenta with Caramelized Onions, Green Olives & Sardines

About 1 cup cooked polenta (recipe follows)
1 can boneless sardines in olive oil
1 small or 1/2 medium onion, sliced
Small handful pitted green olives (from the antipasti bar)
About 1/4 cup beer (drink the rest!)
Small handful toasted almonds, coarsely chopped

Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat. Partially open the sardine can and let the oil drain out into the pan. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Add the sardines, and stir to break them up. Add the olives and the beer, then let the beer simmer off, about 5 minutes. Taste for salt, adding a little if you need, then scoop over a big portion of polenta. Top with toasted almonds.

Polenta with Brown Butter Radicchio & Cherries

1 cup cooked polenta (recipe follows)
3 tablespoons butter
1 small head radicchio, cut into wedges, core removed
Handful fresh cherries, halved and pitted
Grated Parmesan

Heat a frying pan over medium-low heat. Add the butter and let it melt, then bubble, then slowly turn golden, about 5 minutes. (Watch carefully to prevent burning!) Turn the heat up to medium, then add the radicchio wedges and the cherries (cut side down). Cook for about 3 minutes, until the edges of the radicchio turn brown, then stir, breaking up the wedges and incorporating the cherries, cooking for another 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle with salt. Pile on top of a fresh bowl of polenta, then top with a generous sprinkle of polenta.

Easy Polenta

1 1/2 cups polenta (medium-grain cornmeal)
4 1/2 cups water
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

Put cornmeal in a medium saucepan along with 1 1/2 cups water and salt and whisk well to make a slurry.

Place pan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring frequently and adding water in 1/2 cup amounts as needed to keep mixture loose and free of lumps. If mixture becomes too thick, simply add more stock. The consistency should be similar to yogurt. Keep whisking and adding liquid until the water is used up and the polenta is done, about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the coarseness of the grain.

You can place the lid on the pot until you’re ready to serve and take it off the heat. A few minutes before you eat, return the flame to medium-low, add the milk to loosen the polenta and whisk until creamy. Add the cheese and mix to incorporate. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or cheese if you like.

  • caitlin

    All three look delicious! I don’t know how I’d choose.

    • BGSK

      The brown butter one REALLY gets me.

  • Millie l Add A Little

    I’ve never tried making polenta but this looks great! And I love the videos!!

    • BGSK

      Thank you, Millie!

  • Elle

    I have a ton of ground cornmeal, could I grind that and make a polenta lookalike? Or should I specifically buy polenta?

    • BGSK

      You know, I find the labeling on this stuff truly confusing. i would aim to find polenta: it’s a much coarser grind than the yellow cornmeal you’d use in cornbread.

      • Elle

        Update: my fine-ground yellow cornmeal worked AMAZING. I compared it to “official” polenta, and there seems to have been no difference in taste, texture, or consistency when using the same ingredients/recipe. Awesome!

  • Flavia

    Bravissima, Cara! As much as I love trying new restaurants and foods when traveling, a home cooked meal is always the best. I love staying places that have an equipped kitchen and shopping at the local markets. Your recipes sound wonderful! Polenta is one of my favorite things to eat.

  • Kate Ramos

    Your video was awesome and they all so look good! We tend to stay in places with kitchens because they are sooooo much easier with kids. These all look like great options!

Buy Now - In The Small Kitchen