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Polenta Festa Redux

  • January 7, 2014
Once a year, the Italian cultural organization I’m involved with holds a polenta festa. It’s always one of the most well-attended events of the year, with lots of polenta dishes to enjoy – from appetizers and main courses to dessert. This year, the nasty New Jersey weather kept some people away, but that just meant there was more for those who did show up, carrying their warm platters of the humble cornmeal dish.
Here’s a sampling of the various offerings: polenta with sausages and sauerkraut from Mary Sue and Al:
Eleanor’s polenta with broccoli rabe
 Polenta with sausages and melted cheeses from Ciao Chow Linda:
We had entertainment too – two students from Princeton University who played everything from “O Sole Mio” to the intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Bravi studenti.
 Then it was on to dessert, including Gilda’s cornmeal almond cake. I’ve posted the recipe for this before and you can find it here.
 Cornmeal chocolate chip cookies
 Polenta lemon cake (almost identical to a recipe I posted here)
 The next night back at home, as the Polar “Vortex” made its way to Princeton, I warmed up with some polenta and wild greens, again crowned with a mixture of grated fontina and parmesan, the same topping I used on the sausage dish I took to the festa.
My dishes, the first picture with the sausage and the one above with wild greens, were assembled by making a pot of polenta (instructions for making polenta from scratch here), cooking – then slicing some Italian sausage (or cooking the wild greens in water, draining and sautéing in olive oil with garlic, salt and red pepper flakes)  and scattering it over the polenta. Top with some grated fontina cheese and a sprinkling of parmesan. Heat in a 425 degree oven for a half hour or until cheese is melted and begins to turn slightly golden.
If you’re a neophyte when it comes to making polenta, fear not — take the plunge. The best polenta comes from constant stirring over a stove for 40 to 45 minutes, but I’ve been known to use the five-minute polenta too, and it’s not bad. Cookbook author Michele Scicolone even writes of a method using a slow cooker to make polenta, in her cookbook, “The Italian Slow Cooker.” And click here to learn about America’s Test Kitchen  “almost no-stir polenta” recipe.  Just don’t use that stuff that comes in a tube or you’ll be shut out in the polar vortex.
Polenta with Sausages (or wild greens) and Cheeses
Make polenta using one of the methods described and pour into an oven-proof dish.
Saute sausages in a pan until cooked through (or alternately do as I did and remove casings from sausage, then simmer in some water until cooked).
Slice and arrange sausages over polenta, poking some down into it. Cover with grated fontina and parmesan cheese. Bake at 425 degrees for 1/2 hour or until melted and slightly golden on top.
For the wild greens, boil them in some water, drain. Then add a bit of olive oil to a pan, some minced garlic and let it soften. Put the drained greens back in, adding a bit of salt and red pepper flakes. Spread the mixture on the polenta, adding grated fontina and parmesan. Bake for 425 degrees for 1/2 hour or until melted and slightly golden on top.
Basic Polenta – – Michele Scicolone, “The Italian Slow Cooker” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010)
Serves 6
1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
1½ teaspoons salt
5 cups water (or half water and half broth)
Additional water, milk, broth or cream, optional
In a large slow cooker, stir together the cornmeal, salt and water. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours. Stir the polenta. If it seems too thick, add a little extra liquid. Cook for 30-60 minutes more, until thick and creamy. Serve hot.

Almost “No-Stir” Polenta and Mushroom Ragù

  • January 22, 2013

 With daytime temperatures dipping to below freezing here in the Northeast U.S., it’s time for heartier foods. Yea, I know, you’re all sated from rich holiday foods, but if there’s one thing I can’t resist during cold weather, it’s a heaping plate of polenta – with cheese, with sausages or in this case, with mushroom ragù. It’s featured on many of the menus along the mountain huts in Italy where skiers pop in mid-day for a bit of sustenance for the rest of their run. It was truly needed last week while I was skiing in the Val Gardena, a valley of three villages in the northeastern region called Alto Adige. The snow fell practically non-stop and is continuing this week.

This is what the area looked like last week, when you couldn’t even see the mountains in the distance.
Here’s the same scene taken during a different ski trip, when the sun revealed the grandiose peaks.
[Jan-Feb 2010 Italy 702[3].jpg]
With such low visibility, the skiing was cautious and the stops were frequent, including one for a plate of this soft polenta topped with cheese and served with mushrooms on the side:
But you don’t need to take a trip to the Val Gardena to enjoy this dish. In fact, I made a similar version, but with tomatoes, before I left for Italy, using dried porcini mushrooms and baby portabella mushrooms. If you can’t find the porcini, use any combo of mushrooms that suit your fancy.
After the mushrooms simmer in the sauce for a good hour, you end up with a rich and flavorful ragù perfect for slathering over the polenta.
I own a sturdy copper pot with an electric motor that stirs the polenta all by itself – called a “paiolo.” Click the button at the lower left to get a demonstration.
 It is pretty nifty but not really necessary to making polenta. Last month I watched a TV segment of “America’s Test Kitchen” featuring a way to make polenta without stirring (well, almost, except at the very beginning.) During Christmas week, I served both versions — from the paiolo and the “no stir” method —  to some Italian friends, and they declared them equally good.
Most people use water in their polenta, but sometimes I add milk, especially if I’m having company. If you want to be really decadent, try using some cream too. In that case, just make sure you take an extra run or two down the mountain.

Mushroom Ragù
printable recipe here

1 oz. dried porcini
8 oz. baby bella mushrooms (or another variety you prefer)
2 T. olive oil
1/2 carrot, minced
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 of a 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup red wine
1 T. tomato paste
about 1 cup of the liquid from soaking the porcini mushrooms
1 bay leaf
1 sprig rosemary

Rehydrate the dried porcini in two cups of warm water for about a half hour. Drain and chop the mushrooms, and strain the liquid to filter out any dirt or sand particles. Saute the mushrooms in the olive oil, and add the carrot, onion and garlic until softened. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer gently for about an hour until thick and rich. If it gets a little too thick, add more of the liquid from the porcini. Serve over steaming polenta.

Almost no-stir Polenta
From America’s Test Kitchen

Why this recipe works:

If you don’t stir polenta almost constantly, it forms intractable lumps. We wanted creamy, smooth polenta with rich corn flavor, but we wanted to find a way around the fussy process.
The prospect of stirring continuously for an hour made our arms ache, so we set out to find a way to give the water a head start on penetrating the cornmeal (we prefer the soft texture and nutty flavor of degerminated cornmeal in polenta). Our research led us to consider the similarities between cooking dried beans and dried corn. With beans, water has to penetrate the hard outer skin to gelatinize the starch within. In a corn kernel, the water has to penetrate the endosperm. To soften bean skins and speed up cooking, baking soda is sometimes added to the cooking liquid. Sure enough, a pinch was all it took to cut the cooking time in half without affecting the texture or flavor. Baking soda also helped the granules break down and release their starch in a uniform way, so we could virtually eliminate the stirring if we covered the pot and adjusted the heat to low. Parmesan cheese and butter stirred in at the last minute finishes our polenta, which is satisfying and rich.

Coarse-ground degerminated cornmeal such as yellow grits (with grains the size of couscous) works best in this recipe. Avoid instant and quick-cooking products, as well as whole-grain, stone-ground, and  regular cornmeal. Do not omit the baking soda—it reduces the cooking time and makes for a creamier polenta. The polenta should do little more than release wisps of steam. If it bubbles or sputters even slightly after the first 10 minutes, the heat is too high and you may need a flame tamer, available at most kitchen supply stores. Alternatively, fashion your own from a ring of foil. For a main course, serve the polenta with a topping or with a wedge of rich cheese or a meat sauce. Served plain, the polenta makes a great accompaniment to stews and braises.

7 1/2 cups water 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt pinch baking soda (I like to use a combination of milk and water – proportions are up to you.)
1 1/2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter 4 ounces good-quality Parmesan cheese , grated (about 2 cups), plus extra for serving
ground black pepper

1. Bring water to boil in heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mixture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.
2. After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15 seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan.) Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25 minutes longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to thicken as it cools.)
3. Remove from heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste
with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Serve, passing
Parmesan separately.