Polenta and Red Sauce

“Polenta is an Italian dish made from boiled cornmeal. A peasant dish, it can be made from any type of flour depending on region. When boiled, polenta has a creamy consistency because of the gelatinization of its starches.”

I learned something interesting about corn at the expense of the SO’s brother-in-law over the summer. BIL is from Treviso, Italy, which is north of Venice. He came to America last year to marry my SO’s sister, and now lives in America with her. Over dinner one day this past summer, we had corn on the cob which is one of BIL’s favorite things to eat in the entire world. I do have to say myself that sweet corn from Great Lakes State is particularly delicious. Anyway, the SO’s dad called BIL a porco, which is an Italian slang term for a pig. Apparently, corn is only raised in large amounts to feed pigs. Unlike the United States, corn is not a staple of Italian diets and it is common to poke fun at people who like to eat it, thus the reason why the BIL was called a pig.

I love corn. It was my favorite vegetable growing up, and just about the only frozen vegetable that I would eat. My mom always told me- and rightly so- that corn isn’t really a proper vegetable because of its starch content. I had never tried polenta before I met the SO, and it wasn’t really a staple of his diet, either. It’s a fairly easy dish to make and can be served in any number of ways that make it totally awesome. You might have seen tubes of prepared polenta in stores where you can just slice it and fry it in a pan or grill it. Most people will prepare the polenta then pour it into a baking sheet and allow it to cool; the polenta will form a sheet and you can cut slices from it. I have done this and the SO prefers his polenta this way, but I prefer mine creamy (like grits) with some red sauce and lots of cheese. Today was an especially blustery day here in SGPS, so I figured polenta with red sauce would be a perfect dish.

Recipe for Polenta

  • 1 cup polenta or finely-ground cornmeal (NOT instant polenta)

I was finally able to finish off my package of polenta from Forward Foods, a local shop in downtown College Town that sells organic cheeses, groceries, and coffee.

  • 4-5 cups water
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp butter

Bring 3 cups of water and salt to a boil in a large pot. Using a whisk, slowly pour the polenta into the water. Continue to whisk for about 2-3 minutes and turn the heat down to between medium low and low. It is very important to whisk like your life depends on it in this first stage. Whisking quickly improves the texture of the polenta and the more you whisk, the better it gets.

Continuously monitor the polenta; if it begins to bubble like a volcano, take it off the heat until it cools down. I will tell you now: polenta will boil and sticks to everything, and burns like magma. It takes about 30-40 minutes for the polenta to finish. Constantly stir it with your whisk and add water, a half cup at a time, if it becomes too dry. Once it starts to pull away from the side of your pot, it’s done. Add your butter, and you can decide what to do with it from there. I just serve it creamy, but here’s where you would put it into a buttered dish to cool if you want to cut it into slices.

I began my red sauce before my polenta. I started by oven roasting the tomatoes first; the middle of November is when tomatoes begin to resemble cardboard in taste because they are no longer in season. Roasting the tomatoes helps to condense their flavor and results in a much better sauce. I sliced the stem end off the tomato and took the seeds out with a metal spoon. Once I strained out the seeds over the sink, the extras became compost fodder. The tomatoes were sliced in half, placed on a rimmed baking sheet, and drizzled with olive oil. I sprinkled them with salt and pepper, and, according to a Martha Stewart recipe that the SO found, put them in a preheated 425 oven.

Normally, I have nothing but praises for Martha and regard her as the go-to expert for everything domestic. However, seven minutes into cooking time, the SO asked me about a random hissing noise coming from the kitchen. I went to investigate, and the hissing noise was the sound of the olive oil as it splattered onto the heating element in my oven. The oven itself was filling with smoke- the smell of burning olive oil is the worst- and I had to open the back door to air out the kitchen. I’m not sure if it was the cooking temperature or the amount of oil I used, but if I hadn’t listened to the SO, my tomatoes would has scorched and caught on fire. I took the tomatoes off the cookie sheet and drained the remaining oil off it, then put the tomatoes back in the oven at 350. I kept them in there for about 30 minutes until they began to brown and were totally soft.

Making tomato sauce is about the only good thing my blender does. I put the tomatoes in the blender with about 250 mL of Dadi broth and half of can of tomato paste and hit the puree button.

After the tomatoes were nice and puree-y, I began my usual routine of straining out any chunks. I have a big issue with texture and I can’t stand any kind of chunk or seed in my tomato sauce. Once I take out the seeds and strain the tomato puree through a sieve, the tomatoes are usually rendered into a kind of tomato water. In the last six months or so, I’ve been trying really hard to expand my acceptance of different textures and chunks of tomatoes has been on my list. Sooo… I ended up ditching the sieve and put my sauce straight into a pot to simmer with garlic and onion powders, oregano, basil, rosemary, salt, and pepper.

My sauce and polenta simmered at the same time and were done at approximately the same time. I spooned up some polenta into a deep bowl, topped it with mozzarella, put sauce on top of that, and then topped it all with freshly grated Parmesan. The polenta was on the super creamy side, and once it all mixed together, it resembled a really thick soup. It was just the heartiest, most appropriate dish to eat on a cold, blustery day.

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