What I have described in Polenta and how to cook it is a standard method of preparing polenta. When cooled in a tray and cut into squares the polenta provides a base for a large number of possible dishes, including the three sample recipes I have given. But such semi-formal supper dishes, attractive as they are, give little indication of the many other ways that polenta can be used, both formal and informal. These range from rather fancy starters and canapés, through unusual lunches and suppers, to quick snacks.
This is the quickest of all ways to use polenta. What you need to do is simply reverse the order of cooking I have given. That is, prepare your sauce or vegetables or stew or vegetarian sausages or whatever first. Keep warm while you have your short, hot struggle to cook the polenta. But instead of turning it into a tray to cool, serve it straight onto the plates. Then add the accompanying sauce or vegetables, either beside or on top of the polenta. Or, to be a little smarter, you can arrange the fresh polenta in a ring on a serving plate and spoon the sauce or vegetables in the middle.
Although, in my experience, this is not a method much used in Britain, it shows polenta to be a very attractive alternative to other staple foods, and should be regarded in exactly the same way as mashed potatoes, pasta, or rice. Probably best for a very informal, quick to prepare, warming supper, cooked specifically for one person or two, it's well worth trying.
It is also worth noting that any left-over polenta cooked in this way will keep well in the fridge for another meal later in the week. It fries and bakes well.
To return to the tray of cooled polenta. This can now be cut into whatever shapes or sizes you wish. Squares, oblongs, small-plate sized slices, or circles (I use an appropriately sized wine glass). These pieces of polenta are then ready to be fried or baked and used as the base for savoury toppings of your own devising.
The quickest way is to use a frying pan on top of the stove, but there are disadvantages. This method has to be last-minute and is rather difficult to control. Although fried polenta can be splendidly crispy, it achieves this condition only after a spell of rather hot, messy, and sometimes sparky cooking. To my mind, baking polenta shapes in the oven is in every way preferable.
Be careful not to use too much oil. Set the polenta on a very lightly oiled oven tray or dish and brush the shapes, also very lightly, with oil. Bake in a pre-heated oven Gas 6 (400F, 200C) for about 50 minutes (for crispy) or 60 minutes (for very crispy). The lower time is probably preferable if you are going to add a sauce, but the choice is entirely personal.
While the polenta is baking, you can prepare the topping. This can be pretty well anything you like. If you decide on a fairly thick sauce made with, for example, fennel or aubergines or tomatoes (like those used for the more formal polenta dishes), then set the baked polenta pieces onto the plates and spoon the sauce over them. Or, if you have gone to the trouble of baking polenta circles to act as a starter, then, perhaps some sautéed mushrooms or beans or lentils, or egg, or whatever, placed carefully on top of the polenta before serving.
Polenta, cut into appropriate sizes, thin or chunky as you wish, makes superlative chips, crispy on the outside, soft in the centre. It's quickest to cook polenta chips in a frying pan on the top of the stove, and the crispiness is certainly more pronounced when cooked in this way. But the warning already given about frying polenta on top of a stove also applies here. Fry the chips by all means, but be prepared for a bit of hassle.
I much prefer them to be oven-baked. Place the chips on a very lightly oiled oven tray, keeping them separate from each other to prevent them sticking together. Brush the chips, also very lightly, with oil. Bake in a pre-heated oven Gas 6 (400F, 200C) for up to 60 minutes, checking after about 50 minutes, to see that you are getting the kind of crispiness you prefer.
Polenta chips can be served to advantage with pretty well anything, or eaten as a snack by themselves.