At some point during my senior year of college, my friend Sarah introduced me to polenta. She bought a premade package of it, fried it in slices, and served it to me with marinara sauce. It was delicious, but completely unfamiliar to me. The only thing it reminded me of was Pennsylvania Dutch cornmeal mush, which is also served fried by the slice, but then slathered with syrup and eaten for breakfast. It was aptly named, and I hated the "mush." Polenta was much more to my liking. The grits were coarser, and the corn flavor was enhanced, rather than drowned, by the savory cheese and tomato sauce.
I recently picked up a bag of corn grits with which to make polenta, and I have decided for sure: I freakin' love polenta.
Polenta is stupidly simple to make: boil water and salt it, add grits gradually, and simmer while stirring for five minutes. This is the soft cereal version, which I really like, but you can also cook it until the mixture is thicker, pour it into a pan, let sit, cut into slices, and fry or bake.
The most common recipes I've seen include herbs and parmesan, and a good marinara sauce is a classic topper. I shook in some pre-grated parmesan and romano, added some dried basil and minced onion, and used Belletieri's tomato pasta sauce, which is made locally.
The result is pure comfort food. It's pasta without being pasta and hot cereal without being breakfast. You can make it as salty, savory, buttery, or cheesy as you like; the grits are a sturdy and mild base for many flavors.
And it's cheap! I bought a bag of good quality Bob's Red Mill organic corn grits in the Giant natural and organic aisle. A half cup of grits makes 2 portions or an extra large single portion, and this is a 24 oz. bag, for which I paid somewhere around $3.50. A filling and economical meal.