A Polenta Bar: Holiday Entertaining Made Easy

You may not want to serve polenta for Thanksgiving, Hanukah, or Christmas Dinner but that's not the only time we entertain in November and December. A polenta bar makes having guests easy, inexpensive, and delicious, no matter which meal you are offering. From an early breakfast to a midnight feast, polenta in a slow cooker is a delight.

Polenta is so easy to prepare in a slow cooker; you’ll find the basic recipe here. For breakfast, it can be started before you go to bed and finished in the morning. For lunch or dinner, start it early in the day. It is quite forgiving and needs only to be stirred every now and then and thinned with a bit of water if it becomes too thick. It is also very easy to make for a large crowd, as no adjustment needs to be made for quantities. You’ll simply use more slow-cookers and the same recipe for each. This year, I have fed about 200 people using seven slow-cookers on two occasions. The math is simple: 7 pounds of polenta, 5 to 7 pounds of grated cheese, 2 pounds of butter, and enough kosher salt to make the flavors blossom.

At the recent First Annual West Sonoma Book Faire, which took place on November 10 at the Sebastopol Grange, I made the polenta and five local restaurants contributed toppings: Chicken Mole and Stewed Sweet Peppers from the new Handline; Beef Sugo from Peter Lowell’s; Toasted Sweet Chilies from Vignette; Eggplant Caponata from Rocker Oysterfellers; Turkey Meatballs with Maitake Mushrooms from Three Leaves Heritage Foods; and the best Lamb Birria with Pickled Onions I have ever tasted from K & L Bistro.

If you’re feeling ambitious or simply like doing everything yourself, make all the toppings. But if time and money are a consideration, consider asking friends to bring a topping. I have found that six to seven toppings work well for a group of 20 or more. I always have at least two vegetarian options, two meat options, good olive oil, and whatever else appeals to me. I’m particularly fond of Italian-Style Salsa Verde but, that said, I’ve never had a polenta topping I didn’t enjoy. For breakfast, I offer both sweet and savory toppings and for lunch and dinner, just savory ones.

Savory Winter Toppings

•Olio Nuovo, with or without a blue-veined cheese, such as Gorgonzola, & toasted walnuts (pictured above)

•Creme Fraiche, lemon zest, snipped chives or minced Italian parsley

•Fresh goat cheese, such as chablis, pomegranate arils, black pepper

•Italian-style Salsa Verde

•Wilted spinach with garlic, lemon, & olive oil

•Sautéd broccoli with sliced garlic & red pepper flakes

•Grilled or fried sausages, sliced; minced fresh sage

•Steamed clams or steamed mussels in their broth

•Wild or specialty mushrooms sautéed in butter and a splash of Madeira

•Marinara, Bolognese, Ragu, or Sugo

•Eggs poached in marinara

•Braised short ribs

•Fried and crumbled bacon

Sweet Winter Toppings

•Butter and maple syrup

•Butter and warm honey

•Organic cream and cinnamon sugar

•Applesauce and cinnamon

•Poached, sweetened cranberries & plain whole milk yogurt

•Winter fruit compote

•Fruit chutney

•Creme Fraiche & homemade jam

•Apple butter or pear butter

•Sliced pears or apples sautéed in butter


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