Chilli, Cheese & Rosemary Polenta with Tomato Sauce


Due to hubby’s request to eat more vegetarian meals this year, I saw no reason to not buy the latest book from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of the River Cottage fame, Veg Everyday. The book is dedicated to eating vegetarian meals, though it is not written by a vegetarian – an important distinction in my mind because it means there are no spooky and holistic ingredients which would otherwise make vegetarian cooking too much of an effort for a carnivore like me.

One recipe which instantly called out to me was the Chilli, Cheese and Rosemary Polenta with Tomato Sauce. There was something very nursery about this recipe. Plus I had some polenta in the pantry which had just passed its expiry date …

My first introduction to polenta was at the canteen at work. And before you recoil in shock, I should mention that Swiss canteens happen to be quite highly regarded in the culinary world. In fact, the canteens at several companies here even compete with one another in the same way that high-end restaurants do. One of my colleagues regularly uses the quality of the canteen meals as the bar for comparisons when he is dining out at restaurants. The canteen at our rival company has even published a cookbook – on fine dining. Pretty top notch.

If you are not familiar with polenta, think of it as the Italian equivalent for mashed potato, a creamy and filling dish made from yellow cornmeal and which is typically served as a side to accompany stews and braises, or served as a main in itself.

Unless you have the time and patience to stand by the stove for lengthy periods to stir over a steaming hot pot, quick-cook polenta is the way to go for an almost instant meal. When making fried polenta, you are essentially cooking the polenta first in a liquid and then leaving it to set in a dish before cutting it into pieces to fry in some oil.

And when it comes to frying, for this recipe, I tried frying long strips of polenta in an attempt to copy the accompanying photo in the book. However, I quickly discovered that the polenta started to soften once it hit the pan, thereby making it somewhat tricky to turn the polenta without breaking it. So short strips or wedges would be my recommendation.

The cheese adds a lot of flavour to the polenta and I used a mild Gruyère in place of Hugh’s suggested cheddar. In Zurich, only a few supermarkets sell cheddar cheese and usually only at the cheese counter alongside the other “special” cheeses. I would never have imagined that a block of cheddar could be sold next to delicacies like Pont-l’Évêque or Munster, but it seems the humble cheddar has an elevated status in this country. Well, only because it is the expats who buy cheddar and it makes more sense to sell it by weight over the counter than to stock it alongside the more popular local cheeses on the shelves. So whilst it is not impossible to find cheddar in Zurich, it’s good to know that Gruyère works quite well in this recipe.

A homemade tomato sauce pairs beautifully with fried polenta, but I found Hugh’s recipe somewhat bland and in need of a bit of tinkering; a spoonful of sugar and some salt and pepper did the trick.

Overall, I found it to be a lovely and simple dish for during the week. The frying takes a bit of time, but as a healthy alternative to this recipe, you could simply skip the frying and serve the wet polenta with the tomato sauce.

I have to confess that, fearing that this dish would not be substantial enough to qualify as a “meal”, I snuck in a few grilled lamb cutlets which I had sprinkled with a dry spice rub. My mum likes to send me catering-sized bottles of dried herbs and spices (long story), and while I am not always a fan of pre-made spice mixes, they happen to be quite handy when time is tight. The lamb cutlets were a welcome addition to this dish, but I recently made it again and served it as originally intended; it was just as wonderful as a vegetarian dish.

Chilli, Cheese & Rosemary Polenta with Tomato Sauce
Recipe adapted from Veg Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

For the polenta:
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped (or 1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
150 g quick-cook polenta
100 g Gruyère or cheddar cheese, grated

For the tomato sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2 x 400 g tins of tomatoes, whole or diced (whole tomatoes will take a little longer to cook)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste

To make the polenta, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a pan over low-medium heat. Add the garlic and chilli and cook for a few minutes until it is fragrant but not browned. Stir through the rosemary and remove the mixture to a small bowl.

Bring 800 ml of water to the boil in a medium saucepan. Slowly pour in the polenta, stirring as you do with a wooden spoon. Turn the heat down to low-medium and cook for a few minutes until the mixture has thickened. Stir in the garlic, chilli and rosemary mixture, together with the grated cheese. Taste for seasoning.

Lightly oil a large dish with deep sides, whether a glass dish or a baking dish. Pour in the polenta mixture and smooth it out evenly, about 2 cm thick. Leave the polenta to cool completely.

To make the tomato sauce, gently cook the garlic in the olive oil for a few minutes and then add the tinned tomatoes and bay leaf. Let the mixture simmer for about 20-30 minutes until the sauce has thickened somewhat. Add the sugar and taste for seasoning.

Once the polenta is cool and firm, cut it into slices or wedges. Heat some olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat and fry the pieces of polenta until each side is lightly golden.

Serve the polenta with the tomato sauce.

Serves 4 as a light meal.


Chilli, Cheese & Rosemary Polenta with Tomato Sauce

5 from 1 review


coming soon!

Kitchen Notes

To convert from cups to grams, and vice-versa, please see this handy Conversion Chart for Basic Ingredients.

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  1. Liz Headon 17 February 2012

    I like polenta done like this but somehow cannot take to the wet, porridge-y version. It looks lovely with the deep red tomato sauce alongside.

    • eat, little bird 17 February 2012

      Hi Liz! I think most things taste better when they are fried 😉 I also much prefer fried polenta, but wet polenta can be quite nice depending on what it is served with, like a nice saucy stew. But as with most things, I always seem to go for the unhealthy alternative!

  2. Julia Levy 18 February 2012

    When i saw this on tv i was genuinely surprised that this was served as a full meal to ‘compete’ along side a full lamb Sunday lunch. This looks more like a simple snack or starter to me, i couldn’t imagine having it for dinner on it’s own so I think the lamb cutlet accompaniment was a great idea.

    I loved his show but i often thought his meals didn’t look complete to me. I’m all for vegetarian food, love it in fact but his meals seemed to be entirely or at least 95% vegetable with very little carb or protein to make the meals balance or satisfying. I look forward to following your progress through this book.

    • eat, little bird 19 February 2012

      Oh I wish I had seen the episode! I completely disagree that this dish could compete alongside a full Sunday roast! Polenta can be filling if you make this whole recipe just for one person, but you are right to describe it as a snack or light meal.

      I guess the “problem” with most vegetarian meals is the concern about whether the meal will be filling enough. I should try to stop sneaking in meat but I justify it on the basis that we don’t eat a lot of meat anyway … obviously there is room for improvement!

      • Julia Levy 19 February 2012

        One chef made this and the other chef made a monster rolled saddle (or some other joint) of lamb that was stuffed full of goodies and was probably served along side the usual sunday roast goodies. No wonder the lamb stomped all over the polenta chips!

        • eat, little bird 19 February 2012

          LOL!! I would be inclined to serve the polenta chips alongside the lamb roast as opposed to forgoing the lamb roast! This reminds me of a famous TV add in Australia where a girl wins a dinner with Tom Cruise but turns it down because her mum is making a lamb roast!! This ad was back in the days when Tom Cruise was still a hottie and before Naomi Watts became super famous … Enjoy!

  3. Heather 18 February 2012

    Veg Everyday sounds like a great cookbook. I will have to check it out. I’m always looking for new polenta/grits recipe. I will try this one next week. I have some leftover chili in the fridge to go with.

    • eat, little bird 19 February 2012

      Hi Heather! I’ve seen the photos of someone cooking her way through this book and the dishes look fabulous!

      I’ve heard that polenta and grits is the same thing, but I tried grits a few times when I was in New Orleans and it didn’t taste anything like polenta … I suppose the grains are slightly different?

      I hope these polenta sticks will go well with your chilli!

  4. Reem | Simply Reem 19 February 2012

    I love polenta done this way…. My mom steams it and then fry it…
    This is good…
    That sauce looks luscious…

    • eat, little bird 19 February 2012

      LOL, it seems most of us prefer fried polenta to wet polenta. If anything, frying the polenta is a great way of using up leftover wet polenta. And this tomato sauce was quite nice. I find you always need to add some sugar to tinned tomatoes which are usually not as sweet as fresh tomatoes.

  5. Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella 19 February 2012

    Delicious! I first tried these at a restaurant and just had to make them at home and was surprised to see that it wasn’t so hard at all! I like the idea of adding chilli to this!

    • eat, little bird 19 February 2012

      Hi Lorraine! Lovely to see you here 🙂 I agree – making polenta is about as easy as making couscous! And indeed, I think chillies can improve almost any dish 😉

  6. Caroline 19 February 2012

    Of course chillies can improve any dish! Whole heartedly agree there 😀 . I have never made polenta yet, and am curious to try it. However, I haven’t found the instant variety and standing stirring a huge pot, that progressively gives the arms a good workout, is not quite the way I want to earn my dinner!

    By the way, I’ve been the recipient of a lovely, wee award and happily, the terms say I must share it (and post a comment on it on the blog of those I have chosen) with other blogs I love and admire. And of course, yours, I do. Pass it on :-))

    • eat, little bird 19 February 2012

      Oh how lovely of you! Thank you so much, Carrie! Which reminds me … Reem from Simply Reem passed this same award on to me a wee while back. I’d better get cracking on passing the award on!

  7. Anita Menon 20 February 2012

    I haven’t ever tried polenta. The dish sounds fascinating. I wish the other canteens of the world emulate Swiss canteens and improve their food quality. We always associate canteen food with dour looking and sad tasting food.

    • eat, little bird 21 February 2012

      Ooh you must try polenta soon, Anita! It’s really delicious. I didn’t know what to expect at first but it was love at first bite 🙂 And then I tried fried polenta and I was really hooked!

      I’m really impressed by the Swiss canteens. The canteens back in Australia were certainly what you described, and worse! Here in Switzerland, most people have their main meal at lunch, which tends to be a hot meal and can often comprise of three courses – salad, main and dessert. I know a few single guys who are happy to be well-fed at work because they don’t cook in the evening. It took a little getting used to for me in the beginning, especially since I always felt so sleepy after such a big lunch! But I’ve since learnt how to ask for small portions 😉 I’m just disappointed that my colleagues never take dessert because I then feel like a pig if I take one! Today they had apple fritters with custard for dessert and it took a lot of restraint for me to decline 🙁

  8. Jennifer (Delicieux) 21 February 2012

    I’m new to your lovely blog, and firstly wanted to say how gorgeous it is! I especially love the beautiful illustrations.

    I’m a huge fan of Hugh’s book, but despite being a vegetarian I wouldn’t see this is a complete meal either. As a side to something else perhaps, but not a complete meal. I completely agree with you that it’s more of a snack. The polenta does look wonderful though, and I love your addition of gruyere. How funny that cheddar is in the specialty cheese section in Switzerland.

    • eat, little bird 21 February 2012

      Hi Jennifer! Lovely to see you here 🙂

      I’m happy to hear a vegetarian proclaim that this wouldn’t be a complete meal! I don’t feel so bad now about adding the lamb cutlets, though that probably doesn’t impress you, LOL!

      I wasn’t sure about adding the Gruyère at first because it has a much stronger smell and taste than cheddar, but because no other big flavourings are added to the polenta (like a broth), the cheese flavoured the polenta really nicely.

      It is a bit weird to see cheddar next to the specialty cheeses, but when you live in a foreign country, it’s feels oddly special to see a bit of home at the supermarket 🙂

  9. Anneke 28 June 2013

    I have river cottage veg and love most of his stuff but I really could not get on with this recipe. What did I do wrong? I followed it closely but perhaps my technique was off, as I ended up with slightly gritty oily chips. I used american cheddar (the strongest (extra mature!) I could get equates to a British medium cheddar). Other than that, it might just be I do not like the texture of Polenta. Any thoughts greatly appreciated.

    • eat, little bird 29 June 2013

      I’m wondering if it might be the type of polenta that you used, whether you cooked it enough or if perhaps polenta itself is just too gritty for you? Polenta should taste a bit grainy but it shouldn’t be unpleasantly so. Once you have cooked it in the stock, it should taste quite soft. If it is too grainy, I would add a bit more stock or water until it is cooked to your liking. Instant polenta shouldn’t require too long to cook, though. Frying the polenta can make it a bit greasy, which is why I use a non-stick pan so I can use as little oil as possible.

      I tried a cake recipe some time ago which contained polenta instead of flour, and I found the polenta tasted of sand! But polenta cooked in stock or water should definitely not be so gritty. If you do try this recipe again, I hope you will find more success because this is one of my favourite ways of serving polenta 🙂

  10. bluebirdsunshine 12 August 2013

    I’ve made this polenta recipe before and it was an absolute disaster, was more like bubble and squeak because the polenta broke down. You’ve inspired me to give it another go but use smaller strips as the sauce was delicious. Thanks for the tips!

    • eat, little bird 15 August 2013

      Oh dear! I hope you will give this recipe another try as it is one of my favourite pantry dishes. Good luck!

  11. Julia 12 April 2018

    What an AMAZING idea! Sounds perfect. I definitely want to try this! Thank you for sharing this great recipe!