Saturday, March 16, 2019

Creamy Polenta with a Ragû of Italian Sausage & Mushroom…Dinner from Leftovers…and a New Home (....and an Anniversary)

Nine years ago today I started writing a blog. Every year…to mark the date…I have posted a special recipe that includes pistachios.  There is nothing significant about pistachios—other than that I love them…and that I posted a cake featuring them on the first anniversary.  These pistachio recipes have just been a fun way for me to mark the passing of the years.

On this anniversary I don’t have a pistachio recipe.  In fact, I don’t really have a normal blog post.  Three days ago I moved.  I imagine what I am experiencing is pretty normal…but I haven’t moved in almost 30 years and my life is in a bit of an uproar at the moment.  As I have looked for a home and planned for my move I tried to maintain posts to my blog.  But as anyone who has moved (I think that’s everyone!) knows, the chaos peaks with the move and doesn’t really dissipate too much once you are officially residing in the new place.  I hope in the weeks to come that I will be able to post at my normal pace of at least three posts a month…but please know if there isn’t much, I’m not quitting…just busy.  In time I hope to return to my normal pace…or maybe even increase the number of posts I am able to write.

I have been surprised at how difficult it has been to get my bearings in my new kitchen—I cook in other people’s kitchens for a living, so I assumed cooking in my own new kitchen wouldn’t be that difficult.  But somehow it isn’t as easy as I had anticipated.  A lot of my equipment is still packed—and the amount of time I have to spend preparing a meal isn’t that great.  On my first evening, my mother and nephew stopped by.  I decided to make Fettuccine Alfredo for all of us.  When I was ready to put it on the plates I realized I had no silverware!  Dinner service came to grinding halt while I searched for the box and then plowed through it hunting for some forks.

But I have been determined to not succumb to takeout.  So for my first post from my new kitchen (and on the ninth anniversary of my blog) I thought I would share what I have made for my own table for the last three evenings. I think it might be encouraging for anyone experiencing a particularly busy moment in their lives.  My meals have been simple...but delicious.  It is not surprising that on my first night (after the Fettuccine) I made a meal that was almost entirely from my pantry…and I followed two nights in a row with leftovers from that meal. (I love leftovers—they are “prepared food” of the absolute best kind.)

I have actually wanted to post the recipe for my pantry dinner of Creamy Polenta with a Ragû of Italian Sausage and Mushrooms for a long time.  I make it often.  I have never posted it because I make it differently every single time—always according to what I have on hand.  So rather than make up a recipe to type out in the traditional way, I’ll just explain what I do so you will be free to improvise according to what you have on hand too.

To begin, make the polenta.  I have already posted my basic recipe.  You can make any amount you like according to the number of people you are serving.  I think 3 or 4 tablespoons of dry polenta is more than enough for one person.  I always make a little extra so I can spread it out, chill it, and then have the makings of a meal that uses firm polenta (directions are on that same post).  For this dish I like to add a couple of ounces (2/3 cup) of finely grated Parmesan to the basic recipe.

While the polenta cooks, you will have plenty of time to make the ragû (or do other things if you are busy!).  I usually make enough ragû for two (but again, the recipe can be multiplied).  I start by browning a link of Italian sausage (4 to 5 oz.).  Sometimes I brown the link and then slice it.  Sometimes I cut the casing off and crumble the sausage and brown it.  You can sauté the mushrooms (4 to 6 oz. for two—I almost always have crimini on hand) in the pan after the sausage…or in a separate pan—your choice.  Follow the instructions on my basics post for sautéing mushrooms.  You can quarter them or slice them, as you prefer.  If you like, deglaze the mushrooms with a splash of white wine.

If you have some of your own marinara sauce (in the freezer...or canned), bring a cup (or a bit more, if you like a lot of sauce) to a simmer.  Add the sausage and mushrooms and heat through.   In recent years I haven’t been as good about making my own tomato sauce at the end of the growing season.  But canned tomatoes make an excellent sauce.  You can use your own favorite recipe—or the one in the notes at the end of this baked pasta. Sometimes I use just onion—sometimes just garlic.  If you like, you may add some dried oregano…or minced fresh thyme or rosemary.  You may finish the sauce with minced flat leaf parsley.  I imagine basil would be delicious, but I almost never use fresh basil in the winter (which is when I usually make this dish).

This year I froze tomatoes whole and have been thawing them as I need them to make quick sauces.  I think it is one of the best things I have learned how to do recently.  You can thaw exactly what you need.  Just set the quantity of tomatoes you need in a shallow bowl on the counter (or in the microwave) to thaw.  As they thaw, they will exude tons of liquid.  Don’t throw this away—it is delicious and tomato-y (even though it looks like water).  When the tomatoes are thawed, the skin will pull away.  Discard the skins.  Pour the liquid into a container.  Roughly chop the flesh and add to the liquid.  Use this just as you would the canned tomatoes.  A pound of tomatoes (or a 14 oz. can) will make about a cup of sauce.

To serve, place a big spoonful of polenta on each plate.  Make a well in the center and spoon in the ragû, allowing it to overflow.  Shave some Parmesan over if you like, and serve.

Even though I am only cooking for one now, I went ahead and made enough ragû to feed two.  This gave me a head start on my meal the next evening.  Taking my cue from that baked pasta I mentioned above, I tossed the remaining half of the ragû with 3 oz. of penne (cooked very al dente).  I then folded in a generous third cup of coarsely grated Fontina (about 1 1/2 oz.).  Low-moisture Mozzarella would have been good too…I just happened to have some Fontina on hand.  I discovered at this point that I didn’t have any of my regular baking dishes unpacked….  

So I spooned the pasta into a small oven-proof sauté pan, blobbed some ricotta over the surface (maybe 2 oz.) and scattered some finely grated Pecorino over all.  I baked it in a 375° oven until it was hot and bubbly (about 20 minutes).  I would have run it under the broiler to brown it a bit, but I couldn’t figure out how to get my new broiler to work…and I was hungry….

For my second meal of leftovers I cooked the firm polenta as described in the post referenced above that includes the master recipe for soft polenta.  I smeared it with ricotta as described in that post.  To top it I sautéed the rest of my package of crimini mushrooms (just under 4 ounces).  When the mushrooms were done I added a bit more oil, reduced the heat and added a minced green onion.  A little garlic…or some shallot would have been good too.  After about a minute I added a couple of handfuls (about 2 oz.) of very roughly chopped spinach (from this morning’s farmers’ market) and cooked it until it was just wilted.   About the time I added the green onions to the pan I started an egg.  Follow the instructions on this post, covering the pan for the look I got.  If you leave the pan uncovered, your egg will look like the ones in that original post.  Either way is fine.  Place the mushroom and spinach mixture over the ricotta-topped polenta and then top with the egg.


I hope this post will inspire people to feel free to cook without a specific recipe (using basic concepts and techniques instead)…and to cook when they don’t think they have the time.  I know this isn’t always possible…and there is absolutely nothing wrong with take-out—or eating out—when life has become overwhelmingly busy.  But somehow making the effort to feed myself from my own kitchen…and then sit down to enjoy it at my own table…made me feel less frazzled.  Frankly, just writing this post has made life feel a bit more normal….

Hopefully I will be able to keep up a schedule of three or four posts per month, but even if my posts become few and far between for the next few months, I hope regular readers will check back in occasionally to find out what I’m up to.  I can’t wait to put my new kitchen through its paces!


Katrina said...

Yum! And welcome to your new home. And congrats on 9 years!

Heather said...

First I love the use of the polenta leftovers - looks divine. I’m loving the polenta with ragu. I’m a huge fan of just a simple tomato sauce but think the mushrooms would be a great addition to my usual - and something I always have. I definitely understand The move. (The first day I cried because I couldn’t find coffee filters.) I am celebrating the year-versary of moving to my new home after a bad break up. I couldn’t be happier - it feels great to be settled and strong. Best wishes for your settling in as well.

Cecilia said...

Thanks very much for this lovely post and all your posts. I turn to your blog so often. Tonight I wanted to make your Alfredo sauce and saw this post. It is has some good ideas that I will use this week too. The process of getting used to a new (different) kitchen is a real one. I have been in my house 5 years this August and can feel a real change in my comfort and efficiency with cooking here. I knew that teaching people with disabilities how to cook in a kitchen set up for training, was never effective. The training has to happen in the kitchen the person will be using. Cooking is a real skill and it is so nice to hear from a skilled and caring person in your posts. Good luck with re-ordering your life. You deserve the best.

Paige said...

Hi Cecilia! I'm so sorry I am only seeing your comment now. Blogger hasn't been notifying me when I have a comment, so I never saw this. (I have to find out why this has happened!) Thank you for your encouraging words--it makes me very happy to hear from people who turn regularly to my blog and are really cooking from it. Thank you! (And I have really been enjoying my new kitchen. Hopefully I'll return to a more regular schedule of posts soon.)

Paige said...

Hi Heather,

So sorry I didn't see this comment before (see my comment to Cecilia). Thank you for your kind comments about the polenta..and your good wishes. I'm so happy to hear you are feeling great at the 1 year point! I'm at the six month point as I type this. It has been a fun and wild ride. All and all, the move has been a great thing for me--and I'm feeling more settled every day.

Paige said...

Thank you Katrina!!