"It's just so basic and it's so comforting," says Davis, who believes polenta's newfound popularity is due to a return to the classics and away from food trends such as micro-gastronomy where chefs are "blowing things up and freezing them and turning things black and they taste like flowers."
"Polenta, at its roots, is one of those dishes the entire world serves in one form or another," he says.
Utah diners are getting many more chances to taste the grain since it's sprouting on menus for breakfast to dinner.
And while some may think it's best for winter, it's becoming a summer staple.
"It's good for summer because it is corn-based, which makes it a little lighter than, say, a mashed potato," says Jen Gilroy, chef/owner of Meditrina, which serves polenta in a "shrimp and grits" small plate.
Polenta is associated with northern Italy and has been eaten since Roman times, though it was made with other grains. But similar corn dishes can be found from South Africa where its called "mealie pop" and Turkey where they ask for kuymak.
It is polenta's versatility that makes it so popular along with it being gluten-free. As a side, polenta and grits rank in the top 12 hot dishes by the National Restaurant Association's "What Hot 2013 Chef Survey."
It has no season, says Dave Jones, chef at Log Haven in Millcreek Canyon. "It's more what you serve with the polenta that reflects the season."
It can act as a side to meat dishes. The cooled porridge can be cut and grilled to be topped with sauces. It can replace bread, served with butter and cheese. It's an alternative to pasta, served with ragouts. It can even star as a dessert.
And it can be as plain or rich as you like. The basics call for pouring the grain into liquid, whether it's water, broth or milk.
At Oasis Cafe, the polenta is made with whole milk, heavy cream, mascarpone, Parmesan and lavender honey. The chefs at its Salt Lake City sister restaurant Faustina flavor their dish with Asiago cheese and a range of herbs, from thyme to tarragon.
"It's soft and rich. I can create anything with polenta," said Oasis chef Efren Benitez.
Avenues Bistro on Third in Salt Lake City serves the porridge mixed with cheese, as a creamy base for tomato sauce and vegetables. It also serves it crisp after cooling the porridge and slicing it into cakes that are then fried. The cakes can also be grilled or baked.
"Polenta is a soulful way of serving corn," said bistro owner Kathie Chadbourne, who learned to cook in New Orleans.
"There's a little bit of fussiness about the way polenta is prepared. People think you throw it in a sauce pan, [add] salt and boil. But that's not true," she said.
Every chef who uses polenta advised patience: The grains must be slowly poured into the boiling water and slowly cooked.
Eric May, chef at the Blue Boar Inn in Midway, said the popularity of polenta can be chalked up to chefs, who want to introduce it to their customers. He said some guests don't know what it is until their servers explain it's like grits.
"You just have to break people out of their comfort zone to try it and normally they love it," he said.
Pinon Market's roasted poblano peppers with cheddar polenta & pico de gallo
6 poblano or red bell peppers
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups water
1 cup 2 percent milk
2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup coarse grind cornmeal
3/4 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 tablespoons scallion, minced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
pico de gallo, for serving
queso fresco, for serving
chopped cilantro for serving
To prepare peppers: heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and set aside. Place peppers and olive oil in mixing bowl and toss gently to evenly coat. Turn onto baking sheet and place in oven. Roast 16-18 minutes or until peppers are blackened and blistered. Remove from oven and return to mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to cool completely.
When peppers are cool, carefully remove blistered skin. Using your thumb, carefully split the pepper open lengthwise and remove seeds and any excess membrane. Set aside.
For the polenta, bring water, milk and salt to a boil in a large saucepan. Pour cornmeal into the boiling water in a slow stream while whisking constantly. Reduce heat to low and cover. Remove top and stir every few minutes to prevent sticking. When polenta is thick but still pourable, about 10-12 minutes, remove from heat. Add cheese, scallions and unsalted butter. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste. Cool slightly.
Carefully stuff polenta mixture into roasted peppers taking care to shape polenta to the original form of the pepper. If the polenta is too soft, allow to cool a few minutes longer. Peppers may be prepared to this point and refrigerated. When ready to serve, place peppers in a 350 degree oven for 10-12 minutes or until heated through. Top with pico de gallo, queso fresco and chopped cilantro.
Serves • 6
Source: Chef Victoria Topham, Pinon Market
Log Haven's polenta with fontina gratin and tomato coulis
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 3 chopped garlic cloves
3 cups whole milk
1 cup coarse polenta
3 tablespoons grated Grana Padano (or Parmesan)
3 tablespoons fresh ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Salt and chile flakes to taste
3 to 4 ounces grated or sliced Fontina cheese
Heirloom tomato coulis
1 (12 ounce) heirloom tomato peeled, seeded and finely chopped
1 finely diced shallot
2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley
3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and chile flakes to taste
In a heavy sauce pan sweat the garlic in the olive oil. Add the milk and heat to a simmer. Once the milk comes to a simmer slowly stir in the polenta and continue stirring for 15-20 minutes until the polenta has "cooked out." Stir in the rest of the ingredients until incorporated. Pour the polenta batter into individual molds or a small casserole dish. It should be about 1 to 1⁄12 inches thick. Place in the refrigerator for a few hours or until the polenta has cooled and set up. Either unmold or cut out squares, brush with olive oil and grill for 3-5 minutes, carefully turn the cakes and finish with the Fontina until melted and golden. Serve with tomato coulis.
To make coulis, combine all ingredients in non-reactive bowl. Let stand for 30 minutes. Serve at room temperature.
Serving • 4-6
Source: Chef Dave Jones
Coconut-crusted polenta cakes with triple berry sauce
2 cups sliced strawberries
1 cup blueberries
1 cup raspberries
1⁄3 cup sugar
2⁄3 cup sweetened flaked coconut, plus 1/2 cup for topping
3 3/4 cups milk
1 1/2 cups uncooked stone-ground white polenta
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon rind (zest)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup sweetened flaked coconut
Coat 8 (6 to 8-ounce) ramekins with non-stick cooking spray.
For the triple berry sauce, combine berries and sugar in a bowl. Cover and chill.
While sauce is chilling, heat oven to 350 degrees. Place the 2⁄3 cup coconut in a shallow pan and toast 5 to 7 minutes, stirring after 3 minutes. Remove from oven.
Heat milk in a heavy saucepan over medium heat until it almost comes to a boil. Watch closely, as it can boil out of the pan quickly. Gradually whisk in polenta and salt. Reduce heat, and simmer, stirring constantly, 10 to 12 minutes, or until very thick. Remove from heat, and stir in sugar, butter, vanilla, lemon rind, and toasted coconut. Stir in eggs. Divide polenta mixture among prepared ramekins. Sprinkle each with 1 tablespoon of remaining coconut.
Place ramekins on a baking sheet, and bake 20 to 23 minutes or until set. Remove from oven and serve warm or at room temperature.
Polenta cakes may be removed from ramekins to serve, if desired. Place polenta cakes, coconut side up, on dish, topped with triple berry sauce.
Serves • 8
Source: "Glorious Grits" by Susan McEwen McIntosh
Where to find polenta
Avenues Bistro on Third • 564 E. 3rd Ave., Salt Lake City; 801-831-5409. Open daily 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Menu changes frequently but polenta figures prominently: The breakfast polenta diablo is made with cheesy polenta topped with tomato sauce, roasted vegetables and fried eggs for $9. For lunch or dinner there's polenta and mushrooms for $10 and "veggies and more" made with seasonal vegetables and tomato sauce for $13.
The Blue Boar Inn • 1235 Warm Springs Rd., Midway; 1-888-650-1400. Open Monday-Saturday 8:30-10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-9 p.m. Open Sunday 9 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30-9:30 p.m. Serves shrimp and creamy polenta with soft-boiled egg for dinner for $29.
Bonneville Brewery • 1641 N. Main Street, Tooele; 435-248-0652. Open Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-1 a.m. and Sunday 10 a.m.-midnight. The starter/small plates menu includes grilled vegetables and Shepherd's farm goat cheese polenta for $7.49.
Caffe Molise • 55 W. 100 South, Salt Lake City; 801-364-8833. Open Sunday for brunch at 10 a.m.; for lunches Monday-Saturday at 11:30 a.m.; for dinner Sunday-Thursday from 4-9 p.m. and Friday-Saturday from 4-10 p.m. Lunch menu includes a polenta cake antipasti for $6.95, polenta con salsiccia with sausage and roasted pepper entree for $9.95; and polenta con fungi with wild mushrooms and Gorgonzola for $10.95.
Communal • 102 N. University Ave., Provo; 801-373-8000. Open for lunch Tuesday-Saturday from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and from 5-10 p.m. Open for Saturday brunch from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. A dinner side of fried polenta with creme fraiche is $6.
Cucina-Toscana • 300 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City; 801-328-3463. Open Monday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m. New menu offers roasted octopus with polenta for $17, along with wild mushrooms with polenta for $13.
Faustina • 454 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City; 801-746-4441. Open for lunch on weekdays and daily for dinner. Brunch served Saturday-Sunday from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. The brunch menu offers the Faustina Benedict, made with polenta, sausage and poached eggs for $12.
La Caille • 9565 S. Wasatch Blvd., Sandy; 801-942-1751. Open Tuesday-Saturday 4-9 p.m. Open Sunday for brunch from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and 3-8 p.m. for dinner. Polenta is in the poached egg with corn cake, a $12 first course; and in the filet mignon with lobster medallions entree, $60.
Log Haven • 6451 E. Millcreek Canyon Rd., Salt Lake City; 801-272-8255. Serves dinner nightly starting at 5:30 p.m. Small plate menu includes polenta-fontina gratin served with an egg, tomato sauce and pancetta for $11.50.
Meditrina • 1394 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City; 801-485-2055. Open Monday-Thursday 5:30-9 p.m. and Friday-Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m. Offers a shrimp and grits using polenta made with cheddar cheese for $9.50.
Oasis Cafe • 151 S. 500 East, Salt Lake City; 801-322-0404. Open Sunday-Thursday from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. and Friday-Saturday until 10 p.m. Serves grilled salmon on a honey/lavender polenta cake for $20.
Pago • 878 S. 900 East, Salt Lake City; 801-532-0777. Open Monday-Friday for lunch from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and Monday-Sunday for dinner from 5-10 p.m. For dinner, the lamb rack is served with a crispy polenta for $32.
Pallet • 237 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City; 801-935-4431. Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday from 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and for dinner Tuesday-Saturday from 5 p.m. to close. For dinner, it serves Mary's game hen with polenta, kale and carrot for $21.
Sage's Cafe • 473 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City; 801-322-3790. Open Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Offers baked polenta as alternative to pasta.
Zoom • 660 Main St., Park City; 435-649-9108. Open daily for lunch from 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and for lunch from 5 p.m. to close. The grilled salmon salad on the lunch menu comes with polenta croutons for $15. The banquet menu ($60 a person) includes a crispy polenta crostini for an additional $5 and entrees of a crispy polenta spinach parsnip puree and free-range chicken fricassee served with creamy polenta.