Polenta and grits are not exactly the same. But they are close cousins, both made from medium- to coarsely ground corn that cooks into a creamy, satisfying bed for a saucy entree.
One of the pairings for the cornmeal porridge is as iconic as “milk and cookies” and “peanut butter and jelly” — namely, shrimp and grits. Once I get that duo on my mind, I can’t seem to think of anything else.
This time, while dreaming of a dinner of comforting cornmeal topped with shrimp in a creamy bacon-flecked sauce, I started imagining it through a Mediterranean lens. Approaching the flavors and textures from that direction — with olive oil, tomatoes and herbs instead of cheese and cream — lends itself naturally to a more healthful yet still profoundly satisfying dinner. It’s easy to make as well.
First, you cook the polenta in a pot according to the package directions. A quick version can be done in just a few minutes, while regular polenta can take about 40 minutes to cook. Then it is treated to a light touch of butter and kept covered, off the heat, while the shrimp is prepared. The polenta will thicken as it sits, but it will quickly become creamy and smooth again with some hot water stirred in just before serving.
The shrimp and sauce that gets ladled over it is an easy, one-pan situation. It starts with a bit of diced pancetta (Italian bacon) — just enough to imbue the dish with that craveable, smoky-pork essence that complements shellfish so well. Then the shrimp are cooked nearly though, and transferred to a plate. The sauce, made in the same skillet, starts with onion, garlic and thyme and is finished with a sprinkle of cornstarch, a can of tomatoes, water (or fish stock) and whole milk.
After simmering a bit, the mixture thickens into a lightly creamy tomato sauce, and the shrimp and pancetta are returned to heat through and finish cooking. Served over the fragrant, smooth polenta, it makes for an Italian-style shrimp and grits dish that hits the spot.
Polenta and shrimp with creamy tomato sauce
1 cup dried polenta
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 ounces chopped/diced pancetta
1¼ pounds large, peeled and deveined shrimp
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced (1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1½ teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
A pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1½ to 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 can (14.5-ounces) no-salt-added diced tomatoes, plus their juices
1 cup water (may substitute fish stock)
½ cup whole milk
Cook the polenta according to the package directions, using ¼ teaspoon of the salt in the cooking water. Once that’s done, stir in the butter until it has melted, and cover to keep the polenta warm as you prepare the shrimp. (The yield is about 4 cups.) Bring about a cup of water to a boil in a kettle to add to the polenta later, as needed.
Scatter the pancetta in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat; cook for about 2 minutes, or until browned and crisped. Add the shrimp and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until it has just turned pink on the outside but is not quite cooked through. Transfer the shrimp and pancetta to a plate.
Heat the oil in the same pan (medium heat). Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and cook for 3 minutes, stirring, until translucent, then stir in the garlic, thyme, the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, the black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes; cook for 30 seconds.
Sprinkle the cornstarch (as needed) over the onion mixture and stir until incorporated. Add the tomatoes with their juices, the water and milk. Increase the heat to medium-high; cook for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, to form a slightly thickened sauce.
Return the shrimp and pancetta to the pan; cook for about a minute, or until warmed through and the shrimp is cooked through.
If the polenta has thickened/firmed up too much in the interim, stir in the reserved boiling water, a few tablespoons at a time, to make it smooth and soft again.
Makes 4 to 5 servings. Divide among individual plates and top each portion with the shrimp mixture. Serve warm.
Nutrition per serving (based on 5): 350 calories, 29 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 200 milligrams cholesterol, 470 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 5 grams sugar.