Creamy, cheesy Cheddar polenta with charred ramps (wild garlic) and grilled sausages: a dish made for Spring. The sweetness in the corn pairs beautifully with extra-sharp cheddar cheese, and a topping of garlicky grilled ramps is as delicious as it is simple. If ramps are not available, scallions make a great substitute. The addition of good quality sausages turns it into a meal.
There comes a time for most people when they experience a food in a totally different way from how they’ve been used to. For us, that revelation was stone-ground polenta. For the longest time, we’d stuck to the packaged tubes of pre-cooked polenta that you slice up and grill. Now, there’s nothing wrong with them, and we still cook with that variety from time to time, but can we tell you, the first time we had really good, slow-cooked traditional polenta, it was like night and day.
Of course we, along with the rest of the world, have been stuck inside our home so we’ve been craving something warm and comforting even more than usual. When we found a bag of really good polenta, we knew exactly what we wanted to do with it — combine it with our favorite extra-sharp cheddar cheese from our friends at Cabot Creamery.
This cheddar polenta is a sponsored recipe in partnership with Cabot Cheese.
It was at a now-gone, much-missed restaurant in our local city of Beacon, NY, called The Hop, that we had our Damascene conversion as far as polenta was concerned. The chef at this tiny spot was known for a dish of soft, creamy locally-ground polenta, topped with a poached egg, lamb sausage and kale pesto. We’ve made our own version of the dish ever since, mixing it up with whatever ingredients are available and in season.
Polenta (made from ground yellow corn) can take on different textures depending on both the method and how finely the corn is ground, but our favorite is the stone-ground variety. When cooked, this develops a creamy but coarse texture without turning into mushy porridge. Grinding the corn by stone also retains the hull and germ of the corn grain, helping to keep as much of its flavor as possible. That mellow corn sweetness is the perfect base flavor for a kick from Cabot’s excellent extra-sharp cheddar cheese.
We’ve been huge fans of Cabot cheeses for years, which is why we were so delighted to pair up with them for this recipe. Cabot is a co-operative owned by farm families throughout New England and New York and 100% of profits go back to the farmers. It’s also a certified B Corporation, meaning that its operations have been verified to meet high social and environmental standards, as well as promoting positive change in the industry.
They produce a range of Cheddar-style cheeses from mild all the way up to seriously sharp and vintage Cheddars, as well as flavored cheeses, like horseradish and habanero pepper. It’s sold in a variety of forms: pre-shredded (great for pizzas or gratins), slices (for snacking or serving on crackers) as well as the traditional cheese block. For this recipe, love the tangy, grassy flavor of the Seriously Sharp Cheddar. It’s hard to go wrong with Cabot cheeses, so pick your favorite and give it a try!
Unlike instant polenta, the stone ground variety takes a bit of time to prepare, but the flavor is worth it. To prevent it clumping, whisk constantly as you slowly pour the cornmeal into the hot liquid, but once it’s in and beginning to thicken, just stir it every so often with a wooden spoon. The coarse variety we prefer takes about 40 minutes to soften, but check yours as you go. Different varieties may cook quicker or more slowly. Once the grains are tender, the polenta is ready.
We use a little fresh thyme and a grated clove of garlic to add subtle flavor, but the real kick comes from the tangy cheese. Once the polenta is cooked, turn off the heat and stir in the butter, then the shredded cheese. The residual heat should be enough to melt them both, but you can turn the heat on low for a few minutes if necessary in order to incorporate them completely. If you make the polenta in advance, you can reheat it on low, adding a little more liquid to loosen it up, if needed.
We’ve paired the cheddar polenta with one of our favorite foraged spring delights — ramps (aka wild leeks or ramsons). We’ve proselytized about this wild, mildly-garlicky delicacy on the blog in the past — they’re just about the best part of Spring, and Emily looks forward every year to being able to get her hands on them. If ramps aren’t available, fresh scallions make a delicious substitute. Honestly, the combination of sweet corn, sharp cheddar and charred scallions is one of our all-time favorites.
A quick note about sustainability: increasing popularity has been taking a toll on ramp populations, so look for sources that practice sustainable harvesting. Ramps are difficult to cultivate, and grow very slowly, so avoid buying or foraging ramps with the bulb and roots attached. Ours were gifted by a friend with a large and mature ramp patch on their private property, so they were comfortable pulling some bulbs. If you forage on your own, harvest a single green leaf from fully mature plants in a big, healthy patch, taking only what you know you will actually use.
Grilling the Ramps
To prepare the ramps, drizzle them with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of kosher salt. Lay them flat on a hot grill and they’ll cook in seconds. Flip them and let a few of them get nice and charred, while others wilt and stay green. Grilling the ramps brings out their inherent sweetness and deep garlicky flavor. While the grill is hot, cook a few sausages to go along-side (if you’re not vegetarian). The combination of spring greens and cheddar polenta tastes like the best kind of cook-out. It’s a dish that we like to make on late Spring evenings, when the season’s new warmth encourages us to sit out on the deck with a glass of wine and make use of our grill.
Soon we hope we’ll be able to do this with good friends. From our little backyard farm (and from the farms of Cabot), happy eating!
Creamy Cheddar Polenta with Sausage and Charred Ramps
For the Polenta:
- 2 cups milk
- 2 cups water
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 large garlic clove minced or grated
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 cup coarse stone ground polenta
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 5 oz Cabot extra-sharp white cheddar shredded, plus more for garnish
For the Charred Ramps
- 12 -16 oz ramps or 2 big bunches scallions, trimmed of roots
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil divided
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
(optional) For the Sausage:
- 4 Italian or other sausage links
- Make the polenta: In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the milk, water, bay leaf, thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil and slowly pour in the polenta, whisking constantly. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until the polenta thickens and the grains turn soft, about 35 to 45 minutes, depending on the variety. Remove the bay leaf and thyme sprigs and discard them. Turn off the heat and stir in the butter until it’s melted, then stir in the cheddar. Adjust to taste with salt and pepper. Keep the polenta warm while you grill the sausages and ramps.
- Preheat a gas or charcoal grill, or place a cast iron grill pan over high heat. Cook the sausages on high heat at first, turning every 3 or 4 minutes, until all surfaces are browned. Move onto indirect heat (if grilling) or reduce stovetop heat to fully cook the sausages (around 10 to 15 minutes total). When done, move off the heat, and when they're cool enough, cut into diagonal slices.
- Toss the ramps with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season them lightly with salt and pepper. Grill the ramps in a single layer until the leaves are wilted and lightly charred, and if you have bulbs, until they are tender, about 2 to 5 minutes, turning once.
- Pour the polenta onto a serving platter and lay the grilled ramps and sausages on top. Drizzle with the last tablespoons of olive oil and serve hot with a little extra grated cheddar on top.