Until recently, it was hard to find pre-cooked, packaged polenta at grocery stores in my area. If I wanted to make a dish with polenta, I usually made it from scratch because most grocery stores just didn’t sell it prepared. Then Trader Joe’s came to town. I’ve loved Trader Joe’s from afar for many years and visited their stores on vacation like I was on a pilgrimage. I would sometimes bring an extra bag along just to bring home treasures from Trader Joe’s. We finally got a Trader Joe’s here in Colorado Springs last year. It happens to be just down the road from our neighborhood, so I now spend way too much money there on a regular basis. The novelty has not worn off. One of my favorite things to buy there are the prepackaged tubes of polenta. It’s organic, tastes great, is super convenient and, best of all, costs only $1.99! So when I make our favorite One-Skillet Sausage and Polenta Parmesan, it’s easier than ever.
But the last time I used one of these golden tubes of polenta goodness, I actually wasn’t sure I loved it as much as the homemade. It wasn’t horrible, just lacking some of the texture and flavor of polenta made from scratch. To make sure I wasn’t imagining this inferiority, I decided to make polenta my next ingredient comparison. Along with the comparison, there’s a recipe for Sautéed Balsamic White Beans that I like to serve over browned, crispy rounds of polenta for an easy, fast dinner. This dish literally takes about 15 minutes to throw together and is a delicious, light, vegetarian dinner.
- 3 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 14 ounce can white beans or about 2 cups cooked white beans (I used cannellini beans)
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
- 2 cups fresh arugula
- 4 1/2 inch slices prepared polenta, either homemade or store bought
- If using canned beans, drain and rinse them thoroughly and set aside. Heat 2 Tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and celery and sauté until vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic to the skillet and sauté, stirring frequently, just until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add the drained white beans to the pan along with the salt and pepper and cook, stirring constantly to prevent sticking, until beans are warmed through. Add the vinegar to the pan and continue to cook, stirring, until the vinegar reduces a little and coats the beans, about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and add more salt, if needed. Stir in the fresh basil leaves. Transfer the beans to a bowl and keep warm by covering with foil.
- Wipe out the pan used to cook the beans and heat the remaining 1 Tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Once oil is hot, add the polenta slices and fry them until browned on both sides, about 2 minutes per side.
- To serve: Place 2 polenta slices on each plate and top with half of the arugula and half of the sautéed white beans. Serve warm.
For the homemade polenta, I pretty much followed the instructions on a bag of Bob’s Red Mill Polenta (sometimes labeled as corn grits). Bring 6 cups of water with 2 teaspoons salt to a boil, turn down to a simmer, slowly stir in 2 cups of grits and cook for 30 minutes, stirring frequently, until thickened. Stir in 2 Tablespoons of butter and 1/4 cup shredded parmesan. Pour into a buttered plastic bowl or mold and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before unmolding and slicing. If not using right away, cover with plastic wrap or an airtight lid to prevent drying.
As you can see from the picture above, the texture of the 2 types of polenta were pretty different from each other. The homemade definitely had a more rustic, rough texture while the store bought was denser and smoother. When tasted next to each other, the flavor of the homemade had a richer corn flavor and the texture was creamy; the store bought tasted a little too stiff and rubbery in comparison and had little flavor. The homemade polenta was just stiff enough to slice nicely, but not too dense.
The price of the two polentas were pretty comparable. The Trader Joe’s version costs $1.99 a tube, while a bag of Bob’s Red Mill corn grits cost $3.99 a bag, with enough to make a little more than 2 batches of polenta. Adding butter and parmesan to the recipe ups the cost of the homemade a little, but not significantly.
Of course, the real draw of the prepared polenta is convenience and I can’t argue with the simplicity of just opening a package and slicing. Homemade polenta takes at least 45 minutes to prepare including the cooking, stirring, and cooling time before it’s stiff enough to slice.
Bottom Line: Homemade polenta was significantly tastier than the store bought, with a creamier texture and more flavor. However, the store bought, prepared polenta requires no preparation time at all and sometimes convenience just outweighs flavor.