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Ham it up with some traditionally mushy polenta

Here is a magnificent dinner for one, for any night when frost nips the air or when you have the air conditioner set on low. In under 15 minutes, less than the time it takes to order from a restaurant menu, you can pan-grill centercut ham (or boneless chicken breast) and make Madeira Mushroom Sauce in the same pan. With the ham goes a side order of polenta, Italian for old-fashioned Yankee cornmeal mush, that cooks in the microwave oven in 3 minutes. Add your best green salad, and who needs to go out to some fancy restaurant or pay inflated prices for gussied-up takeouts or settle for frozen TV dinners?

In the olden days, polenta required a strong arm and 30 minutes or more of determined stirring. New wave cooks have discovered how to cook polenta painlessly in the zapper, so it's very stylish right now, provided you have a microwave oven.

If you don't, forget about polenta, and instead, garnish your entree with fat white hominy, a Southern treat that tastes best beside ham or pork or chicken. Canned hominy needs only a brief heating in a little milk or cream, on stovetop or in the oven, because the outer husks have stripped away, leaving only the tender heart of each corn kernel.

Turn polenta into a low-cost, vegetarian main dish, with additions of cheese and/or toppings of marinara sauce. You can invent more polenta variations with pinches of herbs to complement other ingredients. A little crumbled sage is especially good with pork or poultry, while hot cayenne pepper underscores panned oysters or shrimp or crab, and chicken.

Double this recipe for polenta to have an extra serving for breakfast next day. Chill overnight, slice thickly and pan-grill in a teaspoon of butter. Serve with maple syrup and/or sausages or bacon. Or zap up a bowl of hot polenta and call it mush the way they do in Connecticut. Tastes best with molasses or cherry jam, stirred in.

Pan-Grilled Ham &

Madeira Mushroom Sauce

5-ounce slice of centercut ham, trimmed of all visible fat

1 teaspoon butter or margarine

6 small mushroom caps, sliced

1 teaspoon minced shallot (optional)

\ cup madeira or marsala wine

1 cube frozen glace de viande (optional)

Glace de viande is simply a reduction of brown stock, used to enhance sauces. The recipe appeared in an earlier column.

Trim fat from ham, score edges to prevent curling. Heat a small non-reactive saute pan over medium heat 1 minute, add butter and swirl pan to melt butter.

Cook ham, turning as necessary, until nicely browned on both sides, about 5 minutes. Remove to serving plate.

Add mushrooms and shallot to skillet and cook 1 minute, stirring often. Add wine and frozen glace de viande, continue cooking until wine is reduced by half and glace de viande is melted. Pour over ham and serve.

Chicken Breast in Mushroom Madeira Sauce: Substitute a boneless chicken breast for ham; pan-grill 7 or 8 minutes, or until no trace of pink remains in center; 275 calories, including 74 fat calories.

Hands on and cooking times: 10 minutes.

New Wave Polenta

1 cup water

\ cup yellow corn meal

1 teaspoon butter or margarine (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

In 2-cup glass measure or soup bowl, combine water and corn meal. Microwave, uncovered, on High 1 minute, stir well. Microwave on High 1 minute longer.

Stir well and Microwave on High another minute; stir in butter, salt and pepper. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. (All this stirring is necessary to prevent lumps.)

Makes 1 serving of 141 calories, including 44 fat calories.

Hands on and microwaving times: 5 minutes.

Cream-Style Hominy

1 can (16 ounces) hominy

\ cup milk or heavy cream

Salt and pepper to taste

Drain hominy, turn into small skillet, add milk, salt and pepper. Cover and heat over lowest setting, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until milk is

absorbed. Serve with ham, pork or chicken, or bacon and eggs.

Makes 2 servings of 233 calories each, including 11 fat calories made with 2 percent milk.

Hands on and cooking times: 10 minutes.

Address letters and questions to Frances Price, Cooking For One, c/o Food Section, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, Fla. 33731. Please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply.