Chicken Dinners: Creamy Polenta with Chicken, Caramelized Shallots, and Arugula


[Photograph: Yvonne Ruperti]

My mom remembers polenta as a flavorless cornmeal "mush" that she had to endure as a child for breakfast. Fortunately, my experience has been more positive. Soothing, creamy, and always better with cheese, polenta—a porridge made from boiling cornmeal until the starches soften, swell, gelatinize, and thicken—is a comfort food like no other.

Polenta refers to the dish, not the type of grain in the package (the labeling is a marketing tool), and it's cooked up in all shapes and textures depending on the size of the grain and how you cook it. Polenta can be supple, smooth, or grainy. It can be served almost runny or, if allowed to cool, cut into slabs and then fried crisp. Though I'm content to eat it completely on its own (seriously, who wouldn't be?), polenta's mild flavor is the perfect foundation for toppings that can match the season. For warmer weather, I paired polenta with a light and brothy chicken and shallot topping.

Whatever topping you choose, always prepare it first, before the polenta. Polenta thickens quickly as it cools—it's a heck of a lot easier to re-warm the topping than to try to bring back a solidified pot of polenta. Here, gently simmer the chicken breasts in chicken broth, tear into shreds, and then cover with broth to keep moist. Next, sauté the shallots until caramelized and then add with the chicken.

When cooking polenta, the amount of liquid (I used chicken stock) used and how long to cook it depends on the size of the grind. It could take as little as a few minutes (instant polenta), to close to an hour. Thankfully, polenta is pretty forgiving, so if you need to, just stir in extra liquid and keep cooking until it's the texture and consistency that you want it to be. I like mine like a soft pudding. To finish, ladle on the moist chicken, sprinkle with crunchy pine nuts, and top with a handful of fresh, nutty arugula.