Today I was inspired by my dear friend Marie Renello of Proud Italian Cook to make polenta. I saw her post and it brought back a rush of memories about my grandmother. It just so happened that I had all the ingredients in the house and I took that as a sign to make my rendition of polenta.
For those of you who are not familiar, Polenta is cornmeal. Sort of like the “Italian grits”. The original polenta was cooked stove top, low and SLOW. And I mean slow. I would remember my grandmother or mom mixing the polenta in simmering water and salt for close to 45 minutes, (they had great upper body strength) then adding cheese and butter once it became thick and creamy.
Thank God polenta now comes in an instant version that you only need to stir for 5 minutes.
Back in the day, when grandma called and said it was “polenta night”, everyone went over. She served the polenta on a wooden pastry board and put the mushroom sauce on top. This was not just any board. It was huge and used specifically for polenta. She had it stored all wrapped up in a clean bed sheet in her closet.
We all sat around the board at the dining room table and grandma would spread the polenta out of her saucepan and top it with her famous mushroom sauce. Everyone picked their spot and started to eat. Polenta starts to get hard around the edges and a little chunky 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 we had company for dinner outside the immediate family, grandma served the polenta in bowls with her sauce. Not nearly as much fun.
So after strolling down memory lane today, I made my version of polenta with mushroom sauce. I add sausage to my version for a little added kick.
I didn’t eat my polenta tonight off a board but 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.
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.
(Please let me know if you try it. I am curious as to what you think).
I usually serve my polenta in shallow bowls and take the remainder from the saucepan and spread it out onto parchment paper in a jelly roll pan. Spread the polenta out as flat as possible. Once the polenta has hardened I 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.
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.
Polenta with Mushroom and Sausage Sauce
1 ( 16 oz. ) box of instant polenta
1- 1/2 lbs. mixed mushrooms (white button and baby bellas are a good choice)- diced
3 sausage links- I usually use 2 hot and 1 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
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 saute 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 saute 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.
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. * 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. ( I usually make the entire box and freeze some of the leftover polenta for another meal).
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 done, take it off heat and add 2 tbsp. butter and mix well.
Ladle the polenta into shallow bowls if you are not going to be using a pastry board and top with the sauce. Serve with additional cheese, if desired.