One of the cheapest and simplest imaginable foods to make, and a surprisingly versatile food, too, is polenta. It's basically boiled cornmeal, and is often enjoyed as a comfort food. People often compare polenta to grits, and it's true that both come from corn, but polenta is so much more than a breakfast meal. You can eat it straight from the pot as a hot delicious mush, or you can press it into a dish to cool and eat it as solid cakes, and you can also take those and fry them up or cut them into strips and bake them. Polenta can be eaten alone, can be mixed or topped with things like vegetables, beans, tomato sauce, or your favorite non-dairy cheese, or can be served as a side to a full dinner meal, or with salad or pasta. It's quick to make, and it's hard to think of anything cheaper than cornmeal! This is an easy one to experiment with, too, for anyone who's just starting out learning to cook. Try substituting different vegetables or legumes, or enjoy it with spaghetti.
Polenta with spinach and mushrooms
* Large pot with four Cups water, lightly salted
* 1 1/2 Cups cornmeal (coarsely ground meal is the usual)
* 1/2 packet frozen spinach
* (optional) non-dairy cheese of your choice
* 1 can mushrooms (or fresh mushrooms)
* 1 Tablespoon vegan margarine
Bring the pot of water to a boil. While the water heats, thaw the frozen spinach in a microwave or pot and drain. In the large pot of boiling water, while stirring, add the cornmeal slowly to avoid clumps. (This is the most difficult part for me - it will take some practice to be able to pour in the cornmeal without it clumping. It will still taste fine, just looks a little funky.) Boil the mixture, stirring, for about 8 minutes, or until it's thick and smooth. Add any spices or seasonings you desire. Rosemary, oregano, or basil are popular choices. Shortly before it's finished cooking add the spinach, and cook until the extra water has evaporated. At this point you can add your vegan cheese if you wish, just stir it around until it's melted and evenly mixed.
If you want to eat the polenta hot, leave it in the pot on low while you heat up a skillet with the margarine. Drain the can of mushrooms (or wash your fresh mushrooms), and sauté them. You can either leave the mushrooms plain, or season them. A friend of mine highly recommends salt, pepper, and onion powder. Serve a scoop of sauteed mushrooms on top of a bowl of warm or cold polenta (vegan Parmesan or other cheese optional).
To store polenta for eating later or for grilling/baking, spoon it into any shallow container to cool. A glass pie dish works well, or you can grease or line a metal pan with wax paper. Use a spatula to press down on the cooling polenta and squeeze out any air. Let it sit for about 20 minutes at room temperature, then transfer it to whatever tupperware or storage container you want and refrigerate it.
And for something a little different, cut the solid polenta into squares or wedges, brush them with oil or margarine and and grill them or fry them in a skillet until they're golden and crispy.
Unfortunately, joining a cooking blog didn't infuse me with any sort of photography skill, and all the pictures I tried to take looked like they were shot during an earthquake, but polenta images and recipes are easy to find on the web. (Next time I make polenta I'll pop a picture into this post.) So have fun, and enjoy!