It’s been cold up here in Wisconsin the last week or so. I thought I was ready for winter, but this cold snap has taken me by surprise and I’ve found myself taking more time than usual to acclimate to the weather. I hate to think that it is because I am getting older. Whatever the reason, I find myself lying in bed, in the morning, not wanting to get up. Not because I don’t want to go to work, I don’t mind that, but because I am not looking forward to getting into my icy cold car and waiting for it to warm up as I drive to work. I’ve tried to convince the wife to go out and warm up my car for me, but she is being awfully selfish, in my opinion, and not complying with my requests.
When the weather gets like this I search for hearty, soul-warming dishes to dine on. There’s just something warming about a big pot of stew, soup or ragu sitting on the stove top, simmering away. I love the way the whole house fills with the aromas of a slow cooked dish, and the way all the windows, in the kitchen, steam up as the heavy, moisture laden air meets the coolness of the glass panes. The weather can rage outside, but while I’m cooking I feel safe and warm.
The other day, I picked up some Italian sausage thinking that I would sear them off and simmer in red sauce to put over pasta. Today, as I looked at them, the whole concept seemed bland, uninspired, and not what I was craving. I was craving something a little more homey and comforting and pasta just didn’t seem to fit the bill tonight, but I had this Italian sausage so my mind kept reeling around that theme, when it dawned on me that I hadn’t made polenta in quite some time.
For those of you not familiar with it, polenta is a cornmeal mush served all over Northern Italy. Don’t worry, it tastes a whole lot better than it sounds. I like it because it is heartier and more earthy than pasta, just the perfect thing for a cold winter’s night. It is a wonderfully versatile product that when served soft can be topped in about as many ways as you can top pasta. It can also be chilled, cut into shapes and baked, grilled or fried and then topped with a variety of sauces and garnishes.
If you come across polenta in American supermarkets (at least in areas without a large American-Italian neighborhood) chances are it will be either the precooked stuff that comes in tubes or the Instant variety. Stay way from both of these products. I have yet to taste either type that I can say anything good about. Instead look for cornmeal, in the baking section. If you can, purchase a coarse ground cornmeal or better yet a stone ground cornmeal, but if all they have is the standard fine ground stuff, still use that instead of the instant polenta. Your taste buds will thank you.
Polenta is a time consuming process, taking usually about 45 minutes to cook, sometimes longer. If all you have is the fine ground cornmeal it will probably be done in about 30 minutes. Don’t rush the process. If you do, you’ll end up with a gritty texture instead of a smooth and creamy texture.
We’ll start with the ragu recipe as it simmers quite a while, and the polenta can then be made while the ragu is cooking. The key to this ragu is a long slow cooking process. That will develop it’s deep, rich flavor.
2 Tbsp. Olive oil
2 each Carrots, peeled, small dice
1 rib Celery, small dice
2 medium Onion, small dice
3 cloves Garlic, minced
1 pound Italian sausage, bulk, or with casings removed (hot or mild-your choice)
1 can (6oz) Tomato paste
1 1/2 cups Red wine
1 cup Water
1/2 cup Half and Half
Heat pot over medium high heat. Add the oil and allow to heat up. Add the carrots, celery and onion, lower heat to medium and cook, slowly until a golden brown (about 20 minutes). Add the garlic and cook 3 minutes longer. Add the sausage and break up, but still leave in bite sized chunks. You don’t want this looking like ground beef. Cook until well browned then add the tomato paste and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly so that the tomato paste doesn’t burn. Add the wine and water. Bring to a hard simmer, reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 1 1/2 hours, adding more water if necessary to keep it like a thick sauce. In the last 1/2 hour of cooking add the half and half. When done check seasoning and adjust with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
Creamy Sage Polenta
4 cups Water
1 1/3 cups Corn meal, medium or coarse grind if possible
2 Tbsp. Sage, fresh, chopped
1/2 cup Mascarpone
In a sauce pot, bring water, seasoned with salt and pepper, to a boil. Add cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, whisking the whole while so that the cornmeal doesn’t clump together. Once the polenta has thickened switch to a wooden spoon for stirring. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for 40-45 minutes or until done. You don’t need to stir constantly, but you do need to stir it every few minutes to that it doesn’t burn on the bottom. Polenta is done when it starts to pull away from the sides of the pot when you stir it. With about 5 minutes left, add the sage. When done, stir in the mascarpone and remove from heat.
To serve, place a mound of polenta in the middle of a plate and top with Sausage Ragu.