Mother Nature is taunting us. Last weekend was warm with lots of sunshine, and it looked like the weather had turned a corner into spring. Then, it turned cloudy, cold, and very rainy. Fortunately, this winter I got on a kick to try to perfect my polenta-making skills. I've always loved eating polenta, but the few times I had tried to make it, I didn't get very good results. It was always sort of o.k. tasting. What I wanted was what I've eaten in several restaurants: silky smooth with a hint of body, full corn flavor wrapping itself creamily around your tongue. Good polenta can be very seductive.
It seems like others had the same idea. Mark Bittman's Minimalist column in the NY Times had a recipe for making polenta several weeks ago: "Taking the Fear out of Polenta." Like risotto, polenta is one of those dishes that scares people off from trying to make it, when, in reality, it is quite simple to do once one learns the technique and appreciates that this is a dish in which the ingredients really do matter.
I bought the basic grain at my local gourmet grocery store: Bob's Red Mill Coarse Ground Cornmeal. I also tested out another version that I found at the Greenmarket. This last version is a fruit-and-veg take on nose-to-tail eating. I bought the cornmeal from the folks from whom I usually buy corn in the summertime. From there, it was a matter of following the instructions.
After 15-20 minutes or so, I was left with a a loose, creamy dish. I'm not sure if the Greenmarket cornmeal was ground less coarsely than the version I bought in the store, but I did feel it could use more liquid or more time on the stove. I wasn't entirely happy with the results, but I was getting closer to what I wanted.
When I was in Virginia over the Christmas holidays, a friend of mine had made Tuscan Chicken with Polenta, which he had gotten from his stand-by cookbook, and one of my old favorites, The New Basics. Some of the recipes are too heavy for me, and my friends and I have a running thing about how much butter and cream are used in some of the books that these two ladies put together. That said, however, I wondered if that was just what the polenta recipe for which I was looking required.
Their basic polenta recipe calls for using milk and butter instead of just water. To hold back on the fat and calories a bit, I used one cup of whole milk and two cups of low-fat milk and skipped the addition of the melted butter at the end. The result was just what I wanted. It was luxurious without being heavy. I think that this is the version of this recipe that I'll keep in my files.
As you can see, I got a bit too excited about trying the dish with the sauce I'd cooked for it and almost missed getting a photo. I'd eaten something similar when I lived in Italy. It was a polenta with a Ragu Bolognese. Not that I mind making that sauce, but I sort of wanted a different set of flavors. Mark Bittman had made a simple cooked sausages and added sliced basil to his version.
At the Greenmarket, I found these Italian sausages, which I thought would be perfect for building my sauce. I opted for the sweet style so that I could better control the flavorings I wanted to put with this dish. What I had in mind was a rich tomato base with meat as a secondary component and some herbs also playing a key supporting role.
I still feel like I'm working on getting the sauce just right, so I haven't written up an exact recipe yet. I think it sort of got there, but I'm not completely satisfied with it. If you would like to try, I just cooked up onion, garlic, sausage, tomatoes both whole and chopped, dried parsley, and dried sage. Perhaps I need to add a little hot sausage with the sweet, but I'll have to figure that out the next time I make this.
First of all, I'll need to clean off the splatters from my kitchen cabinet, as while it was simmering this sauce definitely had range! In the end, I think that this sauce was a great pairing with the polenta. It is sort of brothy with deep tomato flavor and the meat not overpowering it. The taste of the polenta base comes through with each bite in a perfect complement to the sauce.