Food From Fiction 12: Spenser’s Paper Doll Polenta and Chicken

I stood at my stove pouring a thin stream of cornmeal into simmering milk. As it went in, I stirred with a whisk.
“Corn meal mush?” Susan said.
“We gourmets prefer to call it polenta,” I said.
I put the whisk down and picked up a wooden spoon and stirred the cornmeal more slowly as it thickened.
“What are those crumbly things on the platter?” Susan said.
She was sitting at my counter going through a glass of Gewurtztraminer at the speed of erosion. She was wearing a pair of fitted tan slacks, a lemon sweater, and a matching tan coat that was part of the outfit and reached to her knees. She looked like Hollywood’s vision of the successful female executive.
“Those are chicken breasts pounded flat and coated with cornbread crumbs,” I said. “And flavored with rosemary.”
“Will you fry them in lard?” Susan said.
“I will coat a fry pan with corn oil and then pour it out, leaving a thin film in the pan, then I will gently saute the breast cutlets until golden brown,” I said.
“Exactly,” Susan said.
– from Paper Doll by Robert B. Parker

Although Grant and I have different tastes in literature, they do intersect. In the particular case relevant to this article, it was Paper Doll, one of Robert B. Parker’s lengthy series of Spenser novels. I used to love the Spenser novels. This big tough guy who takes no shit from anyone and is utterly self-contained is nevertheless so gentle and loving when he is describing how he cooks. The contrast is marvelous.

Also, I love the contrast between Spenser, the confident cook, and Susan, who eats only things she has purchased premade. Another book in the series has her attempting to cook and making a complete hash of it; the restraint with which the character balances his love for the woman and his distaste for the food she cooks is quite memorable.

I have been both these people – the confident, competent cook, and the bullheaded food wrangler who is unaware of the depths of her ignorance. Sometimes I am both people in the same week, as I try new things that are unfamiliar. Also, since Grant is determined that he is utterly unable to cook, I sometimes picture him in Susan’s place and me in Spenser’s, and that amuses me in a deeply Spenserly way.

The recipe is quite simple, and could almost be made up just from the directions above. However, in the interest of not being cruel, here is a recipe, and a link, below, with much nicer photos than mine:

4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta or yellow cornmeal
1 cup cheese (optional)
1-3 tablespoons butter (optional)

2- to 3-quart pot with lid
Long handled spoon or sturdy spatula

Bring the water to a boil. Bring the water to a brisk boil over medium-high heat. Add the salt.
Pour the polenta into the boiling water. While whisking gently, pour the polenta into the boiling water in a steady stream.
Continue whisking until polenta is thickened. Turn down the heat to low and continue whisking until the polenta has thickened enough that it doesn’t settle back on the bottom of the pan when you stop stirring.
Cook the polenta 30-40 minutes. Cover the polenta and continue cooking. Stir vigorously every 10 minutes or so, making sure to scrape the sides, bottom, and corners of the pan. Cook 30 minutes for softer porridge-like polenta or 40 minutes for thicker polenta.
Stir in cheese and butter, if using. Stir the cheese and butter into the polenta, if using. Serve immediately, or cover the pan and let it sit at the back of the stove for up to 15 minutes before serving.

The chicken is quite free-form. I just beat the breasts between two layers of plastic wrap and dredged them in crumbs. Make sure the crumbs are dry if you are using crumbled While I did use rosemary, I also added a sprinkling of Italian herbs just because it felt like the right think to do. I didn’t choose to use egg because I wanted a light coat of crumbs, it if you wish to have a thicker one than pictured, definitely use a scrambled egg before the crumbs. I then fried the chicken at medium heat to a nice brown on both sides, covered the pan, and moved it to the back of the stove to very gently come to full doneness at 165 degrees (if you don’t have a cooking thermometer it is done when juices run clear, about 10-12 minutes depending on the thickness of the chicken). This keeps it juicy and tender, but if you aren’t comfortable with this or want the crust to keep its crispness, just flip the meat once more on each side.

The recipe mentioned using the leftover polenta to make fried cakes. You can ball up the polenta and shape it like hamburgers, with enough oil to keep them from sticking. You can read more at

This is a recipe that is simple and tasty and not very much work. Enjoy!

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