I’ve Got Polenta of Nothing, and Nothing’s Polenta for Me

Wow! These topics: meal planning and pantry inventory have been occupying me for a few years now.

First, meal planning:

Back when my husband and I were raising kids instead of lawn, I had a routine. I had maybe 15 to 20 supper entrees that appeared on the menu regularly, and I shopped for the items I would need to produce those meals within 45 minutes after getting home from work. It was boring, and I occasionally broke the tedium by experimenting with a new recipe, to inevitable complaints from one or more of my guinea pigs, but in that way I was able to cycle in a few new recipes now and then. Despite the boredom, I was inordinately proud when my son grew to be over 6’6” tall, as if my superior fertilizer had somehow grown the biggest tomato in the garden!

Once the empty-nest syndrome set in, my routine fell apart, I became spontaneous, and my husband and I both gained weight. Eventually we strategized and found ways to lose some of that weight, but I’m still strategizing by taking this class and thinking more about what I will cook so that we can be as healthy as possible.

I’ve also been taking some retirement seminars, and the theme there has been to consider whether “retirement,” even if it includes work, will provide opportunities to do more of what I enjoy and less of what I don’t. Given enough time and opportunity for experimentation, I enjoy cooking, so that’s something I want to do more of.

 Second, pantry inventory:

In general, I have pantry inventory. When I compare what I have in my kitchen with the recommendations handed out in class, I find items from almost every category.

Current flaws/solutions for problems in my pantry are:

  • In order to get some use out of hidden storage in one corner of my kitchen cupboard, I have put my dry herbs/spices/salts/peppers on turntables in that corner. Since I can’t actually see into the corner, I try to keep them grouped together:

salts and peppers on the bottom shelf

a-l on the middle shelf

m-z on the top shelf

Then I just swing the turntables around to find what I need.  This might work better if I were the only cook in the house. Over the holidays, things got jumbled as multiple cooks put things away. Also, I’ve recently inherited some overstock from my mother’s house, which puts a strain on the system.

  • Most of the rest of our non-perishable foods are stored in a 23-inch deep “pantry” cupboard, with no slide-out shelves or drawers. This makes it impossible to see anything at the back. When we moved into this house three years ago, I bought a big plastic bin as a substitute “drawer” for each shelf, so I can find out what’s hiding in there.  This month, I’ve added a cardboard can organizer for the top shelf, because the bin with the cans in it was just too heavy to deal with. The organizer holds up to 16 cans and I can easily flip through them with one hand to find out what’s in there by pulling cans one at a time from the bottom and loading them back in the top.
  • The third flaw is simply planning. When I saw the first assignment, “using only what you have on hand . . .” I felt so thankful that I’d just been grocery shopping. But even though I’d been to the grocery store, I’d only made sure to buy ingredients for one single meal. I may be able to make a second “recipe,” but I’m not certain that I will be able to make a second meal (that my husband will enjoy) using “only what I have on hand.”

I would like to do a better job of planning in the future. This would also allow me to be better prepared to entertain unexpected guests.

Polenta with Sausages and Mushrooms

For my first recipe, I chose “Polenta with Sausages and Mushrooms” from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Fast.  I worked last weekend, so had Monday and Tuesday off, and was thinking about this upcoming class, and of what I had seen of previous classes’ blogs when I signed up for WordPress. That got me thinking about whole grains, which I tend to like more than my husband does. That reminded me that when I was a kid in New England, I ate lots of cornmeal. I never thought about it being a healthy whole grain back then. So I started looking online for cornmeal recipes, and quickly came up with a couple I used to love: cornmeal pancakes and Indian Pudding. Then I started looking for supper recipes with cornmeal and instantly hit upon polenta, which I’ve never made. So I picked up some Bob’s Red Mill Coarse Grind Corn Meal at the grocery store, along with the remaining ingredients for this recipe.

When I got home from work on Wednesday, I began cooking.  In How to Cook Everything Fast, author Mark Bittman argues against the “mise en place” way cooking in favor of putting the pan on to heat, for example, while you chop the vegetables. For the most part, I stuck to the “mise en place” plan though, because I’d never made this recipe before, and I’m not as quick as Bittman. It helps me a lot to have everything measured and laid out before I turn the heat on.

The recipe involved simmering cornmeal in a saucepan on one burner for polenta, while sautéing sausage, onions and mushrooms on another burner as a stew to go on top. Luckily for me, Bittman’s recipe mentioned that it would be O.K. to add more milk or water to the cornmeal if it got too thick, because it kept turning into sludge every other minute (maybe because I bought the coarse grind?). Bittman’s suggestion of continuing to slice mushrooms and add them to the pan during sautéing worked well here, because I couldn’t possible have fit all one and a half pounds of mushrooms into my frying pan at once without waiting for some of them to cook down.

I was tense, watching both pots without knowing how this would turn out, but in the end it all worked out and made a quick and easy dinner.

My husband’s comment was, “Wow, that’s spicy.” (That was good, because he likes the hot sausage and I like the sweet sausage. I made this with the hot in the hope that he would like it.) Toward the end of cooking, I was surprised to realize how few ingredients were going into the stew. (When I’m sauteeing sausage, I’m usually making spaghetti sauce, so I thought there ought to be some tomato or something.) I was also surprised how MUCH it made. All those mushrooms really expanded the volume of stew, so there were plenty of leftovers. I felt good about serving a whole grain, and about using enough mushrooms so that each of us ate a smaller serving of meat for dinner.

In my opinion, the end result tasted terrific. It did lack color, though. It made me wish we had some carrot sticks or sliced peppers or something to serve with it. Here’s a picture of our grey but delicious dinner:


Epicurious Corn Pancakes

For my second recipe, I searched online for something I could make with the can of salmon I found in my pantry. I really felt I should be able to make another “supper” with the bounty stored in my pantry and fridge, but keeping in mind that my husband would want an animal protein as the centerpiece of his evening meal, I ran into difficulty. Usually, I would make a salmon loaf, but I had no crackers or bread crumbs to add to the salmon. Then I found an intriguing recipe for a Russian/Alaskan pie, “Salmon Perok.”  It started with a layer of cooked brown rice in the bottom of the pie plate, followed by a layer of caramelized onions (something my husband loves!), topped by the salmon, and then covered with a pie crust, and I had one premade pie crust still in my fridge from the holidays. However, once I searched my cupboard, I discovered no brown or white rice. I had lots of wild rice, which seemed to me would make this Alaskan dish even more delicious and Native American, but after 35 years or marriage I know for a fact that my husband’s not going to eat wild rice. I also had some black rice: ditto. I found some variations on the recipe online, using potato or cabbage, but I didn’t have either ingredient.  Finally I returned to the bag of cornmeal I purchased before the first class, and decided to make cornmeal pancakes for breakfast over the long, cold weekend.

I used to make cornmeal pancakes when I was 9 or 10 years old from a recipe in my mother’s Betty Crocker cookbook, which I believe was the 1956 edition. I searched online for that recipe, with no luck, and then chose a more elaborate recipe I found on Epicurious. The Epicurious recipe starts with mixing up the dry ingredients, the wet ingredients (including egg yolks), and whipping the egg whites in a third bowl.

Wet and dry ingredients are combined and then egg whites are folded in, half at a time.

2016-01-16 09.08.18.jpg

This resulted in a fluffy batter, and it was easy to fry it up into pancakes.

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These made a very filling breakfast, and I kept the leftover batter in the fridge overnight for a repeat the following morning.

Compared to my memory of the Betty Crocker cornmeal pancakes from my childhood, these were less sweet, even though the batter included some honey. In childhood, I was at first using the same type of de-germed cornmeal (non-whole grain) that is easy to find in grocery stores in 2016, although by my early teens we were buying stone ground cornmeal that had a better texture and was better tasting. The extra-course cornmeal I used for these pancakes was not the best choice. It didn’t have time to soak or cook, and was a little too crunchy on the first morning. I was curious to see whether these would improve on the second morning (or whether the cornmeal would soak up all the liquid from the ingredients and make the batter too thick to cook with). In fact, the batter was just as light and fluffy to use on the second day, but the pancakes were better because the crunchiness had softened.

Looking ahead, I’ve got the day off today, and will go grocery shopping again. I’m going to try to do a better job of buying the few items I need to combine with my pantry ingredients to serve supper every day without running to the store.



One thought on “I’ve Got Polenta of Nothing, and Nothing’s Polenta for Me

  1. RobinS says:

    I enjoy hearing how people organize their pantries, and it appears that you have a good system that works well for you.
    The recipes you chose to make sound good, and as you discovered, coarse-ground cornmeal is different than fine or medium coarse cornmeal (often used in baking). Bob’s Red Mill coarse ground cornmeal is stone ground, so it has more irregular and less uniformly ground pieces of cornmeal than their polenta; thus, you’ll find that cooking it takes a little longer, and you need a ratio of 4-5 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal to make a creamy polenta. If you make this again, you can combine all the liquid and cornmeal together (at one time) and occasionally stir the mixture as it simmers. Bob’s polenta is not stoneground, and has a more uniform texture – it takes a little less time for the grains to be cooked thoroughly.
    You also found that coarse-cornmeal doesn’t work so well in a pancake recipe that doesn’t include a soaking of the cornmeal first, in order to hydrate the cornmeal. The photos look like they cooked up well with a nice brown edges.
    I hope you continue to be exploratory in your cooking – it’s a fine retirement goal to spend more time cooking good food. Does your husband have an interest in trying new foods?
    Thanks for sharing your pantry and recipes!


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