Growing up, I was not a fan of grits. My mom, however, loved (and still loves) eating grits for breakfast. In fact, when my family first moved from Kentucky to Texas, my mom quickly sought out any breakfast-oriented restaurant that served grits the way she liked them. When I was little, I would eat grits, but I had to add tons of salt, pepper, and/or cheese to make them palatable. The older I got, though, the more I came to appreciate the simplicity and versatility of good grits. I never thought I’d say it, but actually love grits now!
Grits are, quite simply, a popular southern dish of ground corn cooked in water or milk and turned into “mush.” I know this doesn’t sound appetizing, but grits can be quite delicious.
While I haven’t eaten grits in a while, grits have a not-so-distant and popular cousin: polenta. Polenta and grits are extremely similar: both are made from ground corn and cooked until soft. It’s my understanding that the basic differences between grits and polenta are as follows: while grits are typically made using white corn, polenta is typically made using yellow corn; polenta is often ground much more finely than grits, which are coarsely ground; and while grits are usually considered a breakfast dish, polenta is more commonly served for dinner.
Even though I’ve eaten my fair share of grits in my time, I had somehow never tried polenta until recently. My first impression was, “Oh my gosh! This is just like grits!” It goes without saying, I was instantly smitten!
Since that first tasting, I’ve made polenta more times than I can count. Now that the season is changing and the weather is getting cooler, it’s the perfect time to begin making polenta again! Usually I just cook up some polenta, toss it in a bowl, top it with other goodies, and dig in. Although there’s definitely nothing wrong with this method, I decided I would try something different for a change.
Since the holidays are right around the corner, I thought I would make a polenta dish with clean flavors that could be eaten alone, served alongside meat or more veggies, or served (in mini form) as a party appetizer. Enter these Polenta Cakes topped with Tomato and Garlic Kale.
These polenta cakes were extremely easy to make! To make the larger versions (pictured), I used my 6-cup muffin tin. However, if you want to make a mini version for serving at parties, you can easily use a 12-cup muffin tin and smaller Roma tomatoes for topping.
The best part is, you can make and refrigerate the polenta cakes ahead of time and just pop them in the oven when you’re ready to eat! And while the polenta cakes are in the oven, it’s the perfect time to quickly sauté the garlic and kale. Because I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat this entire recipe by myself, I kept three of the cakes in the fridge and cooked them up the next day for dinner. So easy! And the perfect dish to warm my southern heart
- 3 cups filtered water
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- ¾ cup polenta
- 1-2 tsp. coconut oil (or butter) (optional)
- pinch of pepper (optional)
- 6-12 thin slices of tomato
- ½ Tbs. olive oil (or additional coconut oil, or grapeseed oil)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- ½ bunch of curly kale, rinsed, de-stemmed, and torn into bite-sized pieces
- additional salt and pepper, to taste
- Bring the water to a boil in a sauce pan. Add the salt and stir well.
- Lower the heat to Medium-Low or Low and add the polenta in a slow, steady stream, stirring as you go.
- Cook the polenta for approx. 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until fully cooked and the polenta begins to pull away from the sides of the pan when you stir.
- Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the coconut oil and pepper. (This step is optional)
- Using a greased or lined muffin tin (either a larger 6-cup tin or a mini 12-cup tin), pour the polenta into the muffin cups and spread out evenly. You’ll want to do this step quickly because the polenta begins to thicken and become less spreadable once it has been removed from the heat!
- Place the polenta in the fridge for at least a couple of hours to help it thicken and hold its shape.
- When the polenta cakes have had time to set, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Remove the polenta from the fridge and loosen the polenta cakes from the muffin tin–I did this by running a knife around the edges of the polenta cakes, placing a cutting board over the muffin tin, quickly flipping the pan and cutting board upside-down, and tapping to ensure that all of the polenta cakes were removed.
- Place the cakes on a parchment-lined pan and bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes.
- While the polenta cakes are baking, heat the remaining oil in a skillet over Medium-Low heat. Cook the garlic, stirring often, until it begins to brown. Add the kale, a pinch of salt and pepper, and stir. Briefly sauté, just until the kale has turned a brighter shade of green.
- When the polenta cakes are done cooking, assemble all of the ingredients: plate the cakes, top with a slice of tomato, and then spoon some of the garlic and kale on top.
- Serve and enjoy!