When I traveled through my no-gluten phase (which ended abruptly when my food sensitivity test suggested I can handle gluten perfectly well), I was in constant search for starch substitutes. I believe we need some, and unless you are dieting to lose weight, there’s no reason not to eat them. They’re filling and satisfying in so many ways.
Rice seems to be the number one choice for gluten-free eaters, but there’s so little nutritional value, that it’s usually my choice of last resort–unless, of course, I’m cooking an Indian dish which is nearly always best over rice. So that leaves potatoes and corn. I have a natural aversion to potatoes because I feel you need to use a lot of fat (e.g., butter, ghee, olive oil, etc.) and salt to make them tasty and give them a desirable texture (e.g., roasted, fried, etc.). Corn, on the other hand, has a natural sweetness and a unique texture and can be used in countless ways.
Polenta is perhaps the best and easiest base for any number of meats and/or vegetables. It whips up in about 20 minutes and can be molded or served soft and creamy. And you can make it soft and creamy without adding any “cream” (milk or cheese, that is). Grilled or pan-roasted fish or meats go perfectly with polenta. If you’re vegetarian, any combination of grilled or roasted vegetables make a great companion to polenta. You can also serve marinara sauce over polenta if you’re avoiding pasta.
And corn is surprisingly nutritious! Just one cup provides an impressive 16 grams of protein. Corn is also an excellent source of iron, magnesium and Vitamin B-6. (Note: 1 cup of corn also has 600 calories, so don’t indulge too often if you’re calorie counting.)
When I haven’t been able to make it to the store, I can grill or saute whatever bits are left in my fridge and serve it over polenta for a perfectly satisfying dish.
You can make this dish with prawns, mushrooms and spinach in less than 30 minutes. The only real skill required is the ability to multi-task, as you will need to monitor three burners simultaneously. It’s really not hard (I’m speaking mainly to some men here), since the polenta just does its thing with only a little stirring, and the mushrooms are pretty self sufficient, too.
6 cups filtered water or 4 cups water and 2 cups milk (regular or coconut)
1 1/2 cups polenta
1 lb crimini or other mushroom
1/4 cup dry white wine*
3/4 lb prawns, shelled with tails left on and deveined
1 lb baby spinach
2-3 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
pinch of parmesan cheese (optional)
In a large saucepan, bring 6 cups of water (or water/milk combination) and 1/2 tsp salt to simmer over high heat.
In the meantime, heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a cast-iron or other saute pan over medium heat. Add in the garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes taking care not to let the garlic burn. Add in the mushrooms, white wine*, and 1/4 tsp free-ground pepper (and red pepper if you’re using it), and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms soften and slightly brown, about 15 minutes.
Once the water simmers, reduce the heat to low and slowly pour in the polenta, stirring constantly. Allow the mixture to cook on a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes. Your polenta should be very thick and creamy and take effort to stir.
When the mushrooms are close to done, heat another cast-iron or saute pan over medium-high heat. Pour in 1 tbsp olive oil and swirl to coat the entire bottom of the pan. Add the prawns to the pan in a single layer. Sprinkle with 1/4 tsp salt, and cook for approximately 2-3 minutes on each side or until opaque.
When the mushrooms are done, put them in a bowl and keep warm. Using the same pan, toss in the spinach and cook until just wilted, about 5-7 minutes depending on the size of your pan.
On plates or in wide pasta bowls, serve up a good-sized dollop of polenta. Top with spinach, mushrooms and prawns. Top with fresh-grated parmesan if you’d like.
*Omit if you’re using coconut milk in the polenta.
Vegetarian? Skip the prawns. The dish still gives you a hefty amount of protein.
Vegan? Skip the parmesan and use coconut milk in place of half the water to make the polenta creamier.