These easy to make polenta cakes served with spring vegetables and pea & mint pesto are delicious served as an appetizer, main course or a side dish.
Creamy polenta is one of my favourite garnishes, especially if paired with something braised like this fork tender lamb shank dish. But cooking your polenta, setting it in a form and then pan frying it afterwards, is a wonderful way of preparing ahead, especially if you have guests over.
Pan fried polenta cakes if done right, are a restaurant worthy dish that I have no hesitation serving as a vegetarian appetizer or main course. There is nothing more comforting than serving polenta, that's crispy on the outside and creamy inside, with freshly cooked seasonal vegetables and my tasty pea and mint pesto!!
Honestly, who needs meat with a dish like this!! Polenta cakes can be pan fried, grilled or oven baked.
What is polenta?
You might be surprised to learn, that polenta is actually one of the oldest dishes in the human history. The Romans used a softer type of polenta, similar to spelt called Pultem.
Nowadays, Polenta is actually made from cornmeal and served like a porridge or poured into a pan or cake form and fried afterwards.
What you need
Polenta flour (cornmeal) Polenta is vegan and gluten-free so it is suitable for many diets. There are different types of polenta - a regular one can take a long time to cook whereas the quick cooking polenta is easy to use but might have slightly less flavour.
Milk to cook the polenta, can be replaced with water or vegetable/chicken stock.
Butter to add creaminess to the polenta, though it can be left out if you want to make it dairy free.
Rosemary & Bay leaf to add flavour to the milk. You can also replace these with other herbs and spices.
Garlic for flavour, use fresh garlic and not powder.
Parmesan cheese or any other hard cheese like pecorino or asiago.
Spring Vegetables because it feels like a spring dish but any vegetable will work if it is in season,
Pea & Mint Pesto is a great sauce to make ahead and serve the polenta with. Jump onto our pea pesto recipe and just follow the simple steps.
How to cook polenta
The key to this recipe is to make a tasty polenta. In fact many people dislike polenta because they haven't had a well cooked one before. Following a recipe is the first step to a good polenta rather than measuring ingredients by your gut feel!
types of polenta
The traditional Italian polenta is hard work. Yes, stirring a pot of polenta for an hour is not fun and can spoil anyone's appetite.
Whereas, Quick cooking polenta, the one I recommend, will take 15-20 minutes to cook as the cornmeal has already been slightly steamed hence will cook faster - Woohoo!!
And Instant polenta is even faster, takes about 5 minutes to cook but you will find it hard to add enough flavour since 5 minutes is just not enough, so that's a no-no for me!
For 1 part polenta, I use 5 parts liquid in form of milk and water. If you bought fine polenta, I would measure a ratio of 1:4 however I recommend using medium fine cornmeal.
In a wide, heavy bottom pot, combine the polenta, milk, water, rosemary, bay leaf and garlic.
Turn the heat to high and while stirring bring the liquid to a boil.
Reduce the heat, season with salt (careful as we add parmesan in the end) and simmer for about 15 minutes until the polenta has thickened and then add some pepper!
Switch off the heat and remove the bay leaf, rosemary sprig and garlic clove. Finally, add the butter, parmesan and then combine well.
setting the polenta
The polenta now needs to be set in a form. Depending on how thick you want the cakes to be, use the right size of the form and line it with cling film.
Pour the polenta inside and cover with the overlapping cling film. Chill for at least 2 hours in the fridge.
Pan frying polenta
Once the polenta has chilled and feels firm, transfer to a cutting board and cut into a rectangular shape.
To pan fry the polenta cakes - Place a pan on medium heat and add olive oil. Sear the polenta cakes for about 5 minutes on one side, until brown and crispy.
Flip the cake over and cook the other side the same way. Repeat with the remaining cakes and serve immediately or re-heat in the oven when needed.
Preparing the spring vegetables
The vegetables I chose for this dish are asparagus, sugar snap peas, white baby carrots, cherry tomatoes on the vine and pea shoots for garnish. They all look beautiful on the plate and compliment the polenta cakes so well.
I seasoned the carrots with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted them in the oven.
When they were almost finished, I added the tomatoes to the oven and roasted them for about 5-7 minutes.
The green asparagus and sugar snap peas were blanched in salted water.
Then they were finished in a pan with olive oil along with the baby carrots.
When you have all your ingredients ready, it is time to plate up!
Start with arranging the vegetables on top of the polenta cake.
Then grate some parmesan on top.
Spread the pea and mint pesto in the the plate you will be serving the dish in and place the polenta cake in the middle.
Place a trio of the oven roasted cherry tomatoes, next to the arranged polenta on the plate.
Add the pea shoot salad on top of the vegetables and serve!
If you have left over pan fried polenta, you can store it in the fridge for upto 3 days in an airtight container.
Unfortunately Polenta is not suitable for freezing as it retains too much water.
More vegetarian dishes
If you like vegetarian dishes like this, that can be served as an appetizer, main course or a side dish, then here are some more dishes for you to try:
- baked red cabbage filo pie looking like a spanakopita spiral
- easy to make zuchini, pea and ricotta fritters
- baked sweet potatoes with lentils and swiss chard
- this oven baked green asparagus crostata
- Roasted pumpkin with miso and nori dukkah
Make these crispy polenta cakes for your next Lunch or Dinner party, your guests will surely be impressed! It is a beautiful, delicious vegetarian meal that anyone will enjoy!
Pan fried Polenta Cakes
- large wide pan
- 22x22cm (8.5x8.5 inch) pan form
- small pot
- non stick pan
for the polenta cakes
- 200 gram dry polenta
- 750 ml full fat milk
- 250 ml water
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- 30 gram butter
- 40 gram parmesan
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
for the garnish
- 340 gram cherry tomatoes on vine
- 8 white baby carrots
- 6 green asparagus spears
- 85 gram sugar snap peas
- 1 bunch pea shoots
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- 100 gram pea and mint pesto
for the polenta cakes
- In a wide, heavy bottom pot combine the polenta, milk, water, rosemary, bay leaf and garlic. Turn the heat to high and while stirring bring the liquid to a boil.
- Reduce the heat, season with salt (careful as we add parmesan in the end) and simmer for about 15 minutes until the polenta has thickened and then add some pepper.
- Switch off the heat and remove the bay leaf, rosemary sprig and garlic clove. Now add the butter and then parmesan and combine well.
- Pour the polenta inside the prepared form with overlapping cling film. Cover THE polenta completely with the overlapping cling film and chill for at least 2 hours in the fridge.
- Once the polenta has chilled and feels firm, transfer to a cutting board and cut into a rectangular shape.
- To pan fry the polenta, place a pan on medium heat and add olive oil. Sear the polenta cakes for about 5 minutes on one side until brown and crispy.
- Flip the cake over and cook the other side the same way. Repeat with the remaining cakes and serve immediately or re-heat in the oven when needed.
for the garnish
- While the polenta is chilling prepare your vegetables. Place the carrots on an oven tray and season with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in a pre-heated oven at 180°C (350°F) for 15 minutes or until cooked.
- Place the cherry tomatoes on the vine on an oven tray and add olive oil, salt and pepper. Add the tomatoes to the oven when the carrots are almost cooked and leave for about 5 minutes.
- Cut the asparagus into three even pieces. Bring a small pot with salted water to a boil and add the asparagus. Cook for 30 seconds and refresh in ice water. Repeat the same with the sugar snaps.
- When all vegetables have been prepared and the polenta is ready to be pan fried, heat up a seperate pan on medium heat and add olive oil.
- Add the asparagus, sugar snaps and carrots and cook for about 5 minutes.
- Arrange the vegetables on top of the polenta cake and grate some parmesan. Spread the pea and mint pesto around on the plate, place the polenta cake in the middle. Arrange a trio of the roasted tomatoes on the side of the polenta cake, add the pea shoot salad on top of the vegetables and it's ready to serve.