Polenta is one of those ingredients that I keep in the cupboard but never think to use it, even though I usually end up loving it whenever I do make it.
So when Courtney posted a recipe for these gorgeous polenta napoleons with tomato vegetable ragout last month, I was inspired to dig out my polenta and make my own version of a summery polenta appetizer. I had also been eyeing a recipe for Mexican zucchini-corn filling from one of my Vegetarian Times magazines, so I used that recipe as an inspiration for the topping for my polenta.
I ended up creating my own dish using a mixture of summer vegetables that I thought would work well together, both on its own and with the polenta. I combined fresh corn with zucchini, tomatoes and yellow pepper, and added some extra flavoring ingredients like onion, garlic, jalapeno, cilantro, lime juice and spices. The filling is cooked in a skillet until the vegetables are softened and the tomato starts to break down to create a bit of a sauce.
The warm filling is then scooped on top of polenta squares that can be made ahead of time and baked just before serving. You can use storebought polenta rounds if you're short on time, but personally I love the taste and texture of this homemade polenta and if you use the instant kind like I did, it really doesn't take too much time or effort to put together!
Here's how the polenta looks without the topping - baking it in the oven makes it lightly crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, with a nice golden colour:
I absolutely loved the way this dish came together! I could eat the polenta on its own, but slicing off a piece of polenta piled high with the fresh summer vegetables was a much more fun and tasty way to enjoy it! It does get a bit messy once you start to cut into the squares though, so make sure you serve them on a plate to catch any vegetables that fall off!
I think this recipe would be a hit at any backyard get-together this summer, either as an appetizer or a light main course.
Feel free to double the polenta recipe or the topping if you are serving a larger group - if you have leftover topping, it will save in the fridge for a day or two and can be eaten on its own or as a filling for something else (I'm thinking it would go really well with quesadillas!)
Baked Polenta Squares with Summer Vegetable Topping
Inspired by The Fig Tree
For the polenta:
2 cups water
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup instant polenta
~1/2 tsp dried oregano (or another herb like basil, parsley, or italian seasoning)
For the topping:
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 small yellow onion, diced into small pieces
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 small jalapeno, minced
1 zucchini, chopped into 1/2” pieces
1 yellow pepper, chopped into 1/2” pieces
1 cob of corn, kernels removed (you can slice them off with a knife)
2 medium tomatoes (about 1/2 lb), chopped
2-3 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
Dash of chili powder or smoked paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
To make polenta:
Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. When it starts to simmer, add the salt. Once the water is boiling, remove pot from the heat and slowly pour in the polenta, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.
Reduce heat to medium and return pot to the burner. Continue stirring the polenta until it gets thick and pulls away from the sides of the pot (mine took about 2 minutes). Remove from heat and stir in the oregano and pepper.
Grease an 8x8 square pan by spraying with cooking spray. Pour the polenta into the pan and spread evenly with a spatula.
Cool in the fridge for at least 1 hour to firm up.
Once it is firm, remove from the pan and cut into squares (I made nine large squares).
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 450°F. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Place polenta squares on the baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, until they are lightly browned and crisp.
To make topping:
While the squares are baking, prepare the vegetable topping. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the diced onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until onion is softened and starting to turn brown.
Add the minced garlic and jalapeno to the pan and sauté for another 2 minutes, stirring often. Add the zucchini, yellow pepper, and corn and sauté for another 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 2 minutes.
Remove the pan from heat and stir in the cilantro and lime juice. Season with a dash of chili powder or smoked paprika and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve by spooning portions of the topping onto each polenta square. Serve warm.
Makes 9 squares, or about 3-4 appetizer servings. (Note: you may have leftover topping).