Polenta with Sauteed Peppers and Tomato Sauce.

Meredith Deeds, Special to the Star Tribune

Pleasing meals from pantry staples

  • February 29, 2012 - 3:04 PM

The only thing predictable about family life is its unpredictability. Even the most organized among us can't say with certainty what adventure any given night will bring. Last-minute school projects, unexpected work obligations, or an emergency trip to the vet when Snuffy manages to eat your child's entire science fair project (not just the lava, but the cardboard volcano, too) can all prevent a planned trip to the grocery store. That's why it's so important to keep a well-stocked pantry that you can turn to for an impromptu meal, no matter what kind of chaos is currently reigning at your house.

Canned beans and tomatoes, low-sodium broths, pastas, whole grains such as barley, brown rice, nuts and lentils can all be go-to ingredients when dinner has to happen on the fly. Not only will they make your life easier, but they will keep your family eating healthier. Without a few pantry-based options on hand, the drive-through window starts to look like a pretty good option.

One of my family's favorite pantry-inspired dishes is polenta, a porridge or mush made from cornmeal, the Italian version of Southern grits. Flavored with Parmesan cheese and a touch of butter, polenta makes a wonderful base or hearty side for any number of other dishes, from the simplest tomato sauce to a juicy roast chicken.

I typically make more than I need and refrigerate any leftovers, which then become firm enough for me to slice and pan-fry or grill the next day. You have to love those double-duty dishes.

When I first started making polenta, back when my kids were little and yellow cornmeal came in one variety on the grocery store shelves, I wasn't too picky about the ingredients. After all, there aren't that many in the recipe.

As I've become more of a porridge connoisseur, and different cornmeal options have become commonly available, I've determined that the way I like polenta best is made from a medium- or coarse-ground cornmeal. Sounds a little esoteric, I know, but you can almost always find it in the baking goods aisle. The coarser grind gives the polenta a little more texture, which is a good thing to have in mush.

I also make sure to use real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. I admit that it's expensive enough to feel like a luxury, but it's also packed with enough flavor that you don't have to use much to make an impact. A little goes a long way, which is good for your wallet and waistline.

So the next time you're drying the tears of a child who now has to re-create an erupting volcano, because the dog really did eat the homework, you can focus on the lava instead of worrying about how you're going to get to the grocery store. Dinner's in the pantry.

Meredith Deeds of Edina is the author of "Everyday to Entertaining" and "The Big Book of Appetizers." Reach at and on Twitter @meredithdeeds.

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