Some think that using canned tomatoes to make tomato sauce in the dead of summer is insane, but I think not. Grabbing a can or two from the pantry to make the slightly sweet, tangy and brightly-flavored tomato sauce you’re craving seems like a laudably expedient way to get the job done. And once you have it on hand, you can use it to accent fast and flavorful dishes such as these crispy polenta medallions.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve often been disappointed by the flavor and texture of perfect looking, “fresh” tomatoes so many times that, unless their aroma absolutely snake charms me, I generally bypass the produce section for the canned food isle.
Besides, as American actor Jake Gyllenhaal pointed out, crazy people don’t sit around wondering if they’re nuts.
Grabbing those cans, in fact, can solve a slew of other challenges you may be having, such as feeling:
- Lazy: Undesirous of peeling and chopping your way through small or large quantities of juicy, drippy, seedy, messy tomatoes, you reach for the trusty can opener instead.
- Frugal: Your piggy bank is more amenable to spending a little over $3 for one 24-oz can of whole, peeled tomatoes than to shelling out over $10 in fresh tomatoes to make four servings of tomato sauce.
- Desperate: For a variety of reasons in the “life happens” category, you don’t have the time to go food shopping and start raiding the food pantry – yes, even way, WAY in the back – for dinner solutions. Should you find yourself in this predicament, and have NO canned tomatoes in the pantry, you catch yourself thinking: “Hmmm. Curried mango chutney. I can work with this.”
- Harried: Completely absorbed by the latest of a string of time-sensitive projects, you neglect your thirsty tomato plants and are left with desiccated fossil-like remains. You hang your head in shame, sigh, and head for the pantry. This reason is more conceptual given this wet monsoon of a summer.
- Victimized: Straight weeks of rain upon rain upon more rain kills the local tomato crop. Your coveted backyard plot, if you have one, looks as bloated as your tummy after eating 27 fried Oreos. We definitely fall in this category given this wet monsoon of a summer. Wait…have I mentioned the wet monsoon of a summer we’ve been having already?
- Pragmatic: Desiring a good tomato sauce, you want to make it then and there, without any additional tasks that cause delay – like procuring fresh tomatoes, for instance. You reach for the trusty can and within 30 minutes you proudly say: “Pronto!”
As you can see, canned tomatoes make a more than suitable alternative to their fresh but unreliable kin. In the process, they also solve so many challenged states of being that they really should be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize. Or at the very least a James Beard award.
If truth be told, and this is especially true when I’m feeling either harried or lazy and can’t fathom running whole canned tomatoes through a food mill, I have taken to bypassing the cans altogether for something much more expedient. I reach for a carton of strained tomatoes. Essentially tomato puree that has already been conveniently passed through the food mill for you, strained tomatoes give you exactly what you need to make a delicious, fresh-tasting sauce – minus the hassle and clean up. While I unfortunately am not a paid brand ambassador, I have found the brand Pomì to be excellent, wholesome, reasonably priced and easy to find in most well-stocked supermarkets. A snip from one of its carton’s corners will instantly unleash dash of ruby red summer in your pot.
Now add three more ingredients and you can make a fantastic tomato sauce that tastily accents a myriad of fast dinner foods such polenta, pasta, rice and chicken. And as you sit down to enjoy the bounty of a quickly-prepared yet tasty meal, you can muse over the fine line between genius and insanity.
making crispy polenta medallions
While I would prefer to make most of the things my family and I consume from scratch, I find that “real life,” with all of its pesky little details, often gets in the way. When time is of the essence, I don’t hesitate to grab for a quality “cheat” to give me a substantial staple on which to build a tasty, wholesome meal. Premade polenta rolls are one of my tricks. While they can’t compete with the flavor and texture of polenta that’s been lovingly stirred for 45 minutes, these golden rolls produce medallions that get nicely crispy once pan-fried and turn a simple side into something to get excited about when combined with a savory sauce.
Slice 2 18-ounce rolls of pre-made traditional Italian polenta into 12 medallions of even thickness (easiest way to do this is to begin by cutting each roll in half and then cutting each subsequent half in half until you reach 12 pieces). Lay each round on a paper-towel lined baking sheet and blot the tops of the medallions with paper towels as well to absorb any excess moisture on surface. (Doing this allows them to brown better in the skillet.) Sprinkle them with salt.
Adjust oven shelf to its top position and preheat oven to 525°F.
Pan-fry the polenta (you will need to work in batches, making sure there is enough space between each medallion since they tend to stick together if they touch). Heat a large skillet on medium heat for a couple of minutes. Once heated, add 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil and turn the heat up to medium-high. Once the surface of the oil begins to swirl but is not yet smoking, add 1/3 of the medallions to the pan. You should hear a gentle sizzle when they touch they skillet. If the sizzle is faint or too harsh, adjust the heat accordingly.
Cook the medallions without moving them until they become golden throughout and caramel-ly in certain spots, about 3 minutes. Flip them and repeat the process on the other side.
Transfer them to a large parchment paper-lined baking sheet, arranging them so that they are not touching. Repeat with the remaining polenta medallions.
Now that the oven is nice and hot, turn on the broiler on high.
Add cheese to each slice (about 6 slices or 1 cup shredded whole milk mozzarella) so that most of the top surface area is covered (I used a small glass to cut out rounds from mozzarella slices to make them look extra pretty). Place the baking sheet directly under the broiler’s heat source and broil until the top of the cheese becomes slightly browned, about 3 minutes. Immediately remove from the oven.
To serve, add a few tablespoons of very hot tomato sauce on each plate (you will need about 1 1/4 cup) and then top with 3 to 4 polenta medallions. If desired, add optional slivered basil leaves. I happened to have some leftover sautéed kale and red pepper from the night before and it ended up being a lovely (and delicious!) garnish. Makes 6 servings.