It’s Melissa here from The Sweet Escape with a totally drool-worthy dinner party idea for you. There’s lots of fun (ok, and maybe not as fun) things about hosting a dinner party but the best part by far is when everyone sits down around the table to enjoy the food, wine and good company. Am I right?
Well if you’re looking to host a dinner party that will make you look like a rockstar host & chef and have your guests talking about it for weeks (or months) to come then I suggest doing as the Italians do and hosting a big polenta dinner.
Polenta is a popular rustic dish that originates from Northern Italy (with similar variations popular in other countries). It’s a very humble dish made from boiling ground cornmeal and can be served up a few different ways. My family background is more Mid/Southern Italian so we didn’t have a lot of Polenta growing up but I do have one particular memory of an event where we had a polenta feast. I decided that I wanted to bring that memory alive all these years later with some good friends in my own home.
I decided to go full Italian which meant really simple but delicious food and lots of wine. The night started with some antipasto, which is Italian for “before the meal” and includes fresh cheeses, cured meats, bread, olives, etc. I served both red and white wines with Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay and Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
A traditional way to serve polenta is very casual, family-style. That doesn’t just mean passing the dishes around, it means just one dish for everyone! What better way is there to get up close and personal with your guests?! Ok, so you don’t really have to eat out of the same dish but it’s all served up on one big board for everyone to enjoy. It’s really a sight to behold when it’s on the table. If you don’t have a huge board, no worries. I just picked up this piece of pine at the hardware store and covered it with a layer of parchment paper.
Now although this meal is very humble, it does take a little bit of planning and prep ahead of time. Polenta can be prepared a few different ways but I prefer the more traditional way of leaving it as a porridge and topping it with some delicious flavor-packed sauce. It’s very common to top with a slow cooked tomato or bolognese sauce but there’s endless possibilities of what you can top it with. I advise prepping both the polenta and the toppings in advance so that you get the best flavor and so you can enjoy your guests.
For my polenta feast I decided to have 3 toppings – Braised Beef in Red Wine, Spicy Sautéed Sausage and Peppers, and Mushrooms in White Wine Sauce. You can throw in a green option for some more colors and for the vegetarians on your guest list with some roasted vegetables or steamed rapini with garlic.
First up, if you’re going to make any kind of slow cooked sauce, like the Braised Beef in Red Wine you need to start it way ahead. I did mine in the slow cooker and started it 8 hours before I wanted to serve it. I know it doesn’t look pretty but trust me, the flavor was unreal.
Slow Cooked Braised Beef in Red Wine
4 pounds chuck roast
1 vegetable or olive oil
2 large yellow onions, diced
5-8 garlic cloves, minced
2 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes, drained
2 cups Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
fresh ground salt & pepper to taste
1. Heat oil in large pan over med-high heat. Cut roast into large slices then braise for a few minutes on each side until brown, place in slow cooker.
2. Add onions and garlic to same pan used for beef with some extra oil and cook on medium until clear.
3. Add wine, bring to boil then turn on low and simmer for 2-4 minutes.
4. Add drained tomatoes and simmer for another 5 minutes.
5. Remove from heat, add balsamic vinegar then add all contents (along with salt & pepper) to slow cooker with beef.
6. Cook on low for 8 hours, stirring occasionally.
Next, the order depends on what kind host/chef you like to be. I prepared the polenta about 2 hours before I wanted to serve and had a second slow cooker on stand by to keep it warm then prepared my other two toppings in the meantime with my table & antipasto already set. But you can alternatively prepare everything but the polenta the day before then warm up the toppings in the oven on low for an hour before you want to serve while making the polenta while your guests are there.
* note I added some cheesy goodness to the recipe found on a package of Bob’s Red Mill Corn Grits/Polenta. I used the whole package which made the amount you see in photos above. The ratio for cornmeal to water is roughly 1 cup cornmeal to 4 cups liquid if you would like to adjust your serving.
1 package (3 cups) ground corn meal
12 cups of water
1 tbsp. salt
1/4 c. butter
1 c. grated parmesan
1/2 c. mascarpone cheese
1. Bring salted water to a boil.
2. Add cornmeal, bring to boil again then turn down and simmer on low. Stir constantly for about 10 minutes. It will quickly begin to thicken.
3. Place the lid on pot and leave to simmer on low for about 30-40 minutes, stirring every 8-10 minutes until desired consistency is reached.
4. Remove from heat, stir in cheeses and butter then serve or place in slow cooker on ‘keep warm’ setting until ready to serve.
Next I made a delicious sasauge topping. I added a bunch of chili for some good heat.
Spicy Sausage and Peppers
4 large peppers in colors of your choice
2 white onions, slices
2 tbsp. olive oil
4 Italian sausage
1 tbsp. chili flakes (or to taste)
salt & pepper to taste
* note – you can use spicy Italian sausage and omit chili flakes
1. Chop up peppers in long slices and onions in similar thickness and set aside.
2. Cut sausages into .5″ slices. Cook on med-high heat on both sides until cooked and brown on each side. Remove from pan and set aside.
3. Heat oil in pan over med-high and add onions. Cook until clear.
4. Turn heat to medium and add peppers. Slowly cook and stir until peppers are almost cooked through.
5. Add back in sausage and cook together for 2-4 minutes.
Mushrooms in White Wine Sauce
2 lbs. of fresh mushrooms, diced
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. soy sauce
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 c. Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay
1 tbsp. dry thyme
fresh ground pepper to taste
1. Heat oil & butter in pan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute.
2. Add mushrooms and toss to coat in oil/butter. Cook, tossing occasionally until 1/2 cooked then add soy sauce and thyme and toss.
3. Cook for another 2-4 minutes then add wine and cook until wine is almost all absorbed.
4. Remove from heat, add fresh pepper & serve.
So then came the big show, assembling and serving the polenta board! This is definitely a two person job. I had some help pouring and spreading the polenta on the board. Then I topped it with the delicious toppings, alternating so everyone could easily reach.
Then came the moment of truth and the big spectacle of serving the board. This is the part where you feel a bit like a chef rockstar with lots of “ohhh”‘s, “ahhh”‘s and “wow”‘s and cameras going off from every direction. It’s quite something but can you blame them, look at this thing of culinary beauty?!
Once the main hoopla was over and foodie pics were posted on social media (but of course) we sat down, topped up our wine glasses and enjoyed! And yes, everything was as delicious as you can imagine.
I love the concept of everyone gathered around the same dish serving themselves. It makes for a really casual but extremely social meal. There’s no awkward passing around of dishes or serving of courses. Everyone, including the host, is sitting back and enjoying themselves. The best part depending on how ambitous you are with your feast (I went for BIG) is you’ll likely have lots of leftovers, which even taste better!
We all saved just a tiny bit of space for some ice-cream with Maple Cinnamon Candied Nuts (I used pecans) for dessert, which was the perfect little sweet something after a delicious meal.
Overall you could say that I was more than happy with the results of my polenta dinner party. I’m giving myself an A+ for my first attempt at making polenta and all these recipes. So don’t be overwhelmed by the size of this meal – it’s all really simple recipes and ingredients. My friends are still talking about it and just waiting for me to plan the next one. What are you waiting for, dinner-host-rockstar?