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I hope you are all well.
I have been away from posting for quite a while and missed all of you. I was away because I had a lot of things going on at once. I had a wonderful few weeks with my son who was visiting during his vacation. We had a great time and we were out and about every day and I had no time to post.
For my husband and I, having our son home makes our home complete.
Also during my absence, I celebrated a milestone birthday and turned 60-years old!
I don’t know where the years have gone and it seems the older I get, the quicker the years pass but I am very happy to celebrate this milestone birthday. My son was still home and having him celebrate my birthday with me was the best gift I could have ever received.
I apologize to those who wrote and wanted a new Easter tablescape. I promise you, you will have one next year. And I want to thank those who sent e-mails to see if I was okay when I hadn’t posted. I was overwhelmed by your thoughtfulness.
Now for today’s post …
The name of this post is “Memories of Grandma’s Polenta Nights”.
Some of you who have been members since DishingwithDiane began three years ago will remember the story I told about my grandmother and eating polenta with mushroom sauce off of her special pastry board. When Grandma called for “polenta night”, you dropped everything and headed over to her house. No questions asked and there were no excuses not to show up. It was as sacred as going to church, you couldn’t miss it.
(This photo is an idea of how the polenta was served on the board at grandma’s house minus the bowls, and Grandma made a lot more polenta.)
Not too long ago, I went to lunch with some of my friends and we were talking about family traditions and I mentioned eating polenta off the board at Grandma’s house. Some of my friends remembered the earlier post and some never heard the story.
(Here is a recap of my original story for my new members.)
For those of you who are not familiar, Polenta is cornmeal. Sort of like “Italian grits”. The original polenta was cooked stove top, low and SLOW. And I mean slow. I remember my grandmother and Mom mixing the polenta in simmering water and salt for close to 45 minutes, then adding grated cheese and butter once it became thick and creamy.
Grandma even had a special spoon to turn the polenta and when I see this spoon in Italian specialty shops, it always makes me smile.
(A polenta spoon can be purchased online at Fante’s Italian Market if interested. Their website is always fun to browse).
Thank God polenta now comes in an instant version that you only need to stir for less than 5 minutes, so I never bought myself the polenta spoon.
I find the best polenta to be “de la Estancia” brand.
Organic and “not gritty” at all, very creamy.
(I purchased this bag at Whole Foods but you can also order it online on Amazon.com)
As I said before, when Grandma called and said it was “polenta night”, everyone went over. Her wooden polenta board made a grand appearance at the table. It was huge and spanned the entire table. She had it stored all wrapped up in a clean bed sheet in her hallway closet. And after every use it was washed and oiled before putting it away for the next polenta night.
We all sat around the board at the dining room table and Grandma would spread the hot polenta out of her saucepan onto the board and top it with her famous mushroom sauce (very thick, almost like a Bolognese) and grated cheese. Everyone picked their spot and started to eat and talk and talk and talk.
As with any Italian family there was more than one conversation going on at a time- we got used to jumping in and out of conversations.
Back to the polenta…
Polenta starts to get hard around the edges at room temperature and that was always the time that my cousins and I wanted to become creative and make a design in the polenta.
I can’t tell you how many times we ate the polenta with the goal of making it look like the boot of Italy – never happened.
If Grandma had company for dinner outside the immediate family, she served the polenta in bowls with her sauce. Not nearly as much fun.
So after strolling down memory lane at the diner with my friends, I decided to make them polenta on the board so they could experience it first hand. Of course, I will set a place setting with bowls in case eating off the board is not what they had in mind.
I am serving the polenta with a favorite salad of mine, that both my grandmother and mother made all the time. It is so simple, delicious and refreshing – Orange and Fennel Salad.
Salad was always served in my house after the main meal, so I will be following that tradition with this luncheon as well.
My grandmother served fennel at the end of every meal (especially holidays) to aid with digestion, because God forbid you had heartburn or felt bloated after one of her meals, she would be insulted.
The salad is simple and consists of orange slices or segments, salt, pepper, sliced fennel and olive oil. Done…
I add some fennel fronds and orange zest before serving for garnish. (olives & sliced red onion are optional).
I don’t really have a specific recipe for this salad since I just toss it together, so I am printing the recipe at the end of the post from the website Memorie di Angelina with their link if you want to see step by step instructions with photos.
Every Italian meal has bread and I will serve this meal with homemade olive bread. Yes, I said homemade. We all know, I am not the baker but I am going to give this a try. I have to use the no knead bread recipe because homemade dough and I are not best friends – I added kalamata olives.
(Link to Bob’s Red Mill Bread Recipes will be posted at the end of this post.)
Usually I tell my guests what I am serving for a lunch in case there are food allergy concerns but this is a “surprise lunch” and I have other lunch options on stand by. I made my version of polenta with Grandma’s mushroom sauce, but I added hot sausage for a little kick.
While purchasing all the ingredients for this luncheon, I was basking in the memories the polenta brought back to me. The days when all my family was still with us and we were laughing and eating.
We were always eating!
Polenta, which was once thought of as a peasant meal, has now become quite popular in Italian restaurants.
I hope you try this recipe (with the instant polenta) and enjoy.
If you have any leftover polenta from the saucepan, spread it out onto parchment paper in a jelly roll pan as flat as possible. Once the polenta has hardened, cut rounds out of the polenta (with a wine glass or cookie cutter) and save them wrapped in wax paper in a container in the refrigerator. Perfect for any leftover sauce.
You can refrigerate for up to 5 days or store frozen for up to 3 months.
Another great tip from my Mom…
Fry the polenta slices the next morning in a 1/2 cup of olive oil in a large skillet on both sides until golden. Drain on paper towels.
Add a fried egg and you now have a polenta breakfast.
Since my last post about polenta three years ago, I have purchased my very own polenta board. (How I wish I had my grandmothers. I don’t know what happened to that.) and I have polenta night on occasion and think of Grandma.
My polenta board is actually made to serve pizza but I have adapted it for polenta and it is also great to add some extra height to a buffet table.
If you decide to have a polenta dinner party with friends, make different sauces in addition to the mushroom sauce. You could have marinara or pesto sauce if your guests want a lighter sauce. The mushroom / sausage sauce is a bit heavy.
So let’s start a tablescape…
I want this tablescape to feel as if I was eating at a farmhouse in the hills of Tuscany. I am sure that it would be just a picnic table I would be eating on but I decided to start with one of my favorite tablecloths.
I am using a cream tablecloth with an olive branch design to transport us back to Italy.
I love anything with this design and I think that is one of the main reasons my kitchen has a Mediterranean theme.
(This tablecloth is polyester which is one material I usually stay away from, but works perfectly for this meal because it is stain resistant. Between the tomato sauce and not eating off a plate, I didn’t want to take the chance and ruin the tablecloth because of a spill. It has a non-stick coating and liquid spills bead up as well.)
The napkins are olive green and I am using wooden napkin rings with a sprig of fresh rosemary for an earthy touch.
Here is something new for me, NO placemats or chargers for this rustic table.
Just a salad dish and a pasta bowl. Pasta bowl for the polenta if you’re not ready to eat off the board and a salad dish to enjoy my salad at the end of the meal. I wanted to make this meal exactly as Grandma did.
I do have the perfect dishes for this tablescape…It is very rare for me to purchase a square plate, but I saw these dishes and knew they would be a perfect addition to my Mediterranean kitchen.
The dishes are cream porcelain with a pattern of green and black olives. The pattern is part of the “Olive Branch” Dinnerware Collection and is manufactured by Lorren Home Trends. As an added bonus, the dishes are both microwave & dishwasher safe.
My only complaint with the set, is that the coffee cups are the size of demitasse cups and nothing you could use for morning coffee.
Flatware will be brown for that earthy feel…
and my glassware will be clear stemless wine glasses.
And now for the star of the show…the polenta board. It also doubles as my centerpiece.
I just love this board. I found it while getting in some retail therapy and searching Google for a polenta board.
(I do my best shopping online late at night).
Before I used it, I washed it with a damp cloth and then oiled it with food grade mineral oil, that you can purchase in Bed, Bath & Beyond.
For my table accents, I am borrowing everyday items from my kitchen. Starting with olive branch salt and pepper shakers. As you all know by now, I LOVE to use salt & pepper shakers to carry a theme. It is an easy inexpensive accent that adds so much to the table.
The salt and pepper shakers are by Bonita Home and match the dinnerware in cream ceramic with the olive branch design.
Another accent is an 8 inch artificial olive tree wrapped in burlap purchased at Ballard Design that I keep on my kitchen window sill. It adds so much to my kitchen and is a cute accent for this tablescape. (If you’re are not familiar with Ballard Design, it is a European inspired home furnishing store. There are a few retail stores but most items can be purchased on their website.)
Adding to the olive branch theme is a water pitcher that I bought in Sur La Table a few years back. Not the same manufacturer but it blends in perfectly.
You always have to shop your house first.
Some matching dish towels from the kitchen for any spills and now I am done.
Well almost... The polenta board tablescape may be complete but not the polenta board lunch.
In addition to the salad and homemade crusty olive bread, there is always room for dessert and I chose to make another Italian favorite- Olive Oil Orange Cake. I remember my parents eating this cake for breakfast with coffee.
It is close to a sponge cake and doesn’t have a strong taste of olive oil at all. It has the hint of orange flavor and Bob tells me that it tastes like the filling of sfogliatelle pastry.
I don’t have my grandmother’s original recipe, so I adapted this cake recipe with a few tweaks from the recipe on the website Italian Food Forever. Deborah Mele is one of my favorite chefs and I have been following her for years. I suggest you visit her website, ItalianFoodForever. (The link to this site is posted with the recipe.)
All my friends were good sports and ate off the board (made clean up a lot easier) and some are going to try this dish with their families. It is a lot of fun. Between the salad, bread, polenta and cake, this was the perfect meal.
(I set the table just in case bowls were preferred).
(Don’t forget the recipes at the end of the post)!
Until my next post, make every day a celebration!
Thank you for visiting my blog.
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Polenta with Mushroom and Sausage Sauce
1 (16 oz.) box or bag of instant polenta
1- 1/2 lbs. mixed mushrooms (white button, baby bellas, shiitake and oyste are a good choice)- diced
4 sausage links- I usually use 2 hot and 2 sweet- casings removed
1/2 cup of olive oil
1 large onion- chopped
2 cloves of garlic-minced
salt and pepper to taste
dash of red pepper flakes
1 cup white wine
1 cup beef broth or vegetable broth
2 tbsp. fresh parsley – minced
2 tsp. corn starch OR 1/2 cup heavy cream … (I use the heavy cream method)
8 oz. unsalted tomato sauce
5 oz. unsalted butter – divided
1 cup grated cheese
1/2 tsp. ground fennel (optional)
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion, garlic and a pinch of salt and sauté for 5 minutes.
Add the sausage meat and brown.
Add another pinch of salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and ground fennel and mix well with the onion / sausage mixture. (Adjust spices to your liking).
Add the mushrooms and sauté until soft with a golden-brown color.
Add the wine and scrape up all the brown bits in the pan from the sausage.
Cook until wine has evaporated.
Add the 8 oz. can of unsalted tomato sauce and 2 tbsp. fresh minced parsley.
Add the beef or vegetable broth –( reserving 1/4 cup of broth if you are using corn starch.)
Stir the 1/4 cup broth with the 2 tsp. cornstarch until dissolved. Add the cornstarch and broth mixture to the skillet to thicken the sauce. OR * 1/2 cup heavy cream can be substituted for the cornstarch and broth mixture.
Lower the heat to simmer and cook for 10-15 minutes until the sauce is thickened to your liking. Taste for seasoning.
While the sauce is simmering, prepare your polenta according to package directions.
When the polenta is done add 3 tbsp. butter and 1 cup (or more) grated cheese. Mix well and then take off the heat.
Once the sauce is off the heat, add 2 more tbsp. butter and mix well.
Ladle the polenta into shallow bowls if you are not going to be using a polenta board and top with the sauce. Serve with additional cheese, if desired.
Fennel and Orange Salad
Recipe courtesy of http://memoriediangelina.com
- 3-4 fennel bulbs, preferably not too large
- 4 or 5 oranges
- Best quality, extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- A few black olives for garnish (optional)
- Prep the fennel: Trim the fennel bulbs top and bottom. If you’re working with a larger, older fennel, particularly one that is spotted like this one, remove the outer layer. Now cut the bulb into quarters, then slice each quarter very thinly from top to bottom, making sure that each slice has a bit of the base, which will hold the slice together.
- Prep the oranges: Trim them top and bottom, then take a paring knife and cut from top to bottom along the sides, between the pith (the bitter white stuff just under the peel) and the flesh. Once the orange is peeled, trim off as much of any remaining pith as you can, then slice the orange horizontally into thin, rounds.
- Compose the salad: Arrange the fennel and orange slices decoratively on a serving plate (or, even better, on individual plates if you have the time). Season with salt and, if you like, freshly ground pepper. Garnish with the black olives if using and drizzle everything very generously with the olive oil. And for an elegant final touch, if you like, top with bits of fennel frond.