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Polenta proves upper crust when it comes to pizza

Polenta Pizza with Sausage, Spinach and Mushrooms can be adapted to fit any palate. (Lorie Hutson)
Polenta Pizza with Sausage, Spinach and Mushrooms can be adapted to fit any palate. (Lorie Hutson)

Everybody loves pizza.

Shake things up a little with this hearty and endlessly versatile recipe for a polenta “crust.” Top it with your favorite pizza toppings or sauté your favorite seasonal vegetables and spoon them on top before baking.

We made ours with hot Italian chicken sausage, sautéed sweet onion, mushrooms, spinach and a blend of mozzarella, parmesan and fontina cheeses. Once it came out of the oven, we added fresh basil and cherry tomatoes just before serving.

Expect to use a knife and fork for this pizza. Although the edges of the polenta get golden brown and crusty in the oven, it’s not a slice of pie you can expect to hold in your hand without risking collapse and a mess.

The best part about this recipe is that it is so easily adaptable. Top it with whatever vegetables are ripening in the garden or languishing in your vegetable drawer. Make the crust as thick or as thin as you like.

Polenta pizza is perfect for gluten-free eaters. For vegetarian diners, omit the meat. To make it vegan, leave the milk out of the crust and substitute an equal amount of water or vegetable broth instead, and then forgo the cheese in the topping or substitute soy cheese.

We made things even faster by using instant polenta.

Pizza toppings are familiar and work perfectly, but here are a few other ideas for topping the polenta base:

• Make a Margherita-style polenta pizza by topping the crust with garlic, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes (roasted or fresh) and basil.

• The original New York Times recipe called for sautéed onion, pancetta, spinach and Gorgonzola cheese. Sauté 1 small onion and 1/2 cup chopped pancetta. Remove from the pan and add spinach. Sauté spinach until it releases its water and the pan becomes dry. Spread onion, pancetta and spinach over polenta. Top with Gorgonzola and bake.

• Make Wild Mushroom and Rosemary topping from Cook’s Illustrated’s “The Science of Good Cooking.” Sauté 1 small chopped onion in olive oil until the onion softens and begins to brown. Stir in 2 minced garlic cloves and 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1 pound sliced wild mushrooms and cook until juices release, about 6 minutes. Add 1/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer until most of the liquid is gone and then spoon over polenta.

Polenta Pizza with Sausage, Spinach and Mushrooms

Adapted from the New York Times and

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, more for pan

1/2 cup milk

2 1/2 cups water


1 cup coarse cornmeal

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 to 1 cup pizza sauce

3 hot Italian sausage links, casings removed

10 ounces cremini mushrooms, chopped

2 cups baby spinach

1 cup shredded mozzarella, parmesan and fontina cheese blend

Desired toppings, such as fresh tomato slices, basil, parmesan cheese and crushed red pepper flakes

Brush olive oil on a pizza pan or cookie sheet. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine milk, water and a large pinch of salt. Bring just about to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and add cornmeal in a steady stream, whisking to prevent lumps from forming. Turn heat to low and simmer, whisking frequently, until thick, 10 to 15 minutes. If mixture becomes too thick, whisk in a bit more water ; you want a consistency approaching thick oatmeal.

Stir 1 tablespoon oil into cooked cornmeal (polenta). Spoon it onto prepared pan, working quickly so polenta does not stiffen; spread it evenly to a thickness of about 1/2 inch. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, cover baking sheet with plastic wrap and put it in refrigerator until firm. Polenta can be refrigerated overnight if you want to get a head start the day before.

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Put polenta in oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it begins to brown and crisp on edges. Meanwhile, put one tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until they have released all of their moisture, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to take the mushrooms out of pan; set aside. Add spinach to skillet and sauté until it releases its water and pan becomes dry; sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Take polenta out of oven, sprinkle with cheese blend, then spread spinach evenly on top of cheese and top with mushrooms and sausage. Put pizza back in oven for 2 minutes, or until cheese begins to melt and the toppings are warmed through. Cut into slices and serve hot or at room temperature. Top with fresh tomatoes, basil, grated Parmesan cheese and crushed red pepper flakes, if desired.

Yield: Makes 4 generous main dishes or 36 appetizer servings