A crispy, oniony version of oven-baked polenta, the dish that Heidi Swanson calls “cornmeal crunch” is highly flavorful, versatile and portable. The fact that it’s gluten-free and can be dairy-free is a plus for my family. I’ve taken it to tailgate picnics, large family buffet lunches, and most recently, to supper following a film shoot where it accompanied a delicious chicken chili with butternut squash and black beans. My typical version is made in a 9×12-inch glass pan lined with parchment paper, which allows it to slip out in one piece when cooled into a reusable plastic pan with a lid, for safe transport. It can be served at room temperature, cut into squares, or at your destination, warmed in the oven by slipping the pre-baked slab of polenta, parchment paper and all, onto a baking sheet and warming and crisping it in a 350-degree oven for a few minutes. Alternatively, I’ve made it in an 11×15-inch jelly roll pan, which is thinner, crisper and more cracker-like.
Heidi’s version features abundant chopped onions cooked in a splash of olive oil until they’ve browned and collapsed. She adds Parmesan cheese, which I sometimes omit. I diminish the olive oil added to the top, but that’s a matter of taste. One of my favorite variations is to add chopped rosemary, especially in winter when the piney herb feels seasonal and festive. Serve this as a “bar” as is, or top it with mushrooms or spinach or any other way you would use polenta. Croutons?
Cornmeal Crunch with Rosemary, adapted from Heidi Swanson, 101 Cookbooks
1½ c medium grind cornmeal
3 c water (or vegetable broth), in two1½ c portions
1 tsp salt
4 c chopped onions (about 3 medium)
3 tbsp olive, divided
Optional: 1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves
Optional: ½ c freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a 9×12-inch glass baking dish with parchment paper, letting the ends hand over the sides, at in one direction. (You can lightly spray or brush a little olive oil on the pan to get the parchment paper to adhere.)
Combine the cornmeal with 1½ cup of the water or vegetable broth (I use water) seasoned with salt and set aside.
Cook the chopped onions and a splash of olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions have browned and collapsed in texture, about 7-10 minutes. Reduce the heat slightly if the onions start to burn. Add the rosemary, if using, in the last minute or so of cooking. Set aside.
Bring the remaining 1½ cups of water to boil in a large and add the cornmeal mixture, stirring to combine. Reduce the heat to medium or medium–low and cook the mixture, stirring, until it resembles thick frosting, about 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat, add 2/3 of the reserved onions and the Parmesan cheese, if using, and spread in an even layer in the prepared baking dish. Brush the reserved olive oil (about 1 tbsp) over the top and sprinkle on the reserved onions. You can also add a little coarse salt at this point.
Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the bottom is bubbly and crisp and the top is firm and lightly browned.
Serve warm, cold, reheated, cut into squares. The leftovers make great croutons.