The cooler temperatures and the changing fall colors beckon us to follow suit in the kitchen. Harvest hues of golden yellows, browns and reds are just as beautiful on our plates as they are in the swathes of fall foliage decorating the countryside. And what better a use for a harvest of stone ground cornmeal than polenta. Served warm, in a mound of buttery or cheesy delight, or allowed to firm up and sliced into geometrically precise shapes, polenta is as versatile a base for full-flavor sauces and toppings as its common grain brethren: pasta and rice.
It’s also simple to make. The biggest worry is lumpy polenta which we can completely eliminate by mixing the cornmeal with the cold water and bringing everything to a boil rather than waiting for the water to boil and trying to sift the cornmeal into the boiling water while stirring continuously. Mixing the grains into the cold water will give you guaranteed results every time. And there’s no need to stop with polenta; any hot grain dish, from grits to oatmeal can be prepared in this manner.
For this dish, we’ll be letting the polenta set up in an 8-by-8 cake pan and then cutting it into various shapes for each plate. This recipe makes 8 servings of polenta and you can choose from several different suggested shapes or even create your own. However you decide to cut the polenta, a wheel cutter—or pizza wheel—works the best. A quick spritz of non-stick cooking spray on the wheel will ensure a perfect and precise cut.
If you’re a fan of plain polenta, this recipe will surely satisfy. But for us, the Italian sausage and sugo sauce that tops the creamy maize foundation can’t be beat. The acidity in the tomatoes provides most of the flavor for the mild-tasting polenta, and the Italian sausage provides the complimentary textures to the smooth porridge it rests atop. Canned plum tomatoes, specifically San Marzanos, are the preferred tomato variety for this dish. These tomatoes are grown only in the San Marzano region of Italy and are marked with the appropriate D.O.C. certification on the can. San Marzano-style canned tomatoes are plum tomatoes grown elsewhere in the world and processed similarly. The wine equivalents are appellations where wines are known by their region names and not necessarily the grape varietals.
Fall colors, fall temperatures, fall flavors. Three perfect reasons to get back in the kitchen for a hot meal.
Polenta with Sugo Sauce and Italian Sausage
- 1 pound bulk mild Italian sausage (or links with the casings removed)
- 1 large sweet onion, sliced thinly
For the sugo sauce
- 28 ozs San Marzano tomatoes in their liquid
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 4-5 cloves garlic, finely minced
- ½ t. cracked black pepper
- 1 T. dried tarragon
- 1 T. dried thyme
- ½ t. kosher salt
- 4½ cups cold water
- 1½ cups yellow cornmeal
- ½ t. kosher salt
Prepare the sugo sauce first since it needs time to simmer. Sweat the onion and garlic in 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil until they are tender and fragrant but not caramelized. Add the remaining ingredients for the sugo sauce, crushing the tomatoes. Bring the sauce to a gentle simmer stirring occasionally to keep the sauce from burning on the bottom of the pan. This sauce should barely bubble for about an hour. Stir every 15 to 20 minutes.
For the polenta, prepare an 8×8″ cake pan by lining it with non-stick aluminum foil up all four sides. Add the water, cornmeal and salt to a 4 quart sauce pan. Place the pan over medium-high heat. Stirring constantly, bring the polenta to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and continue stirring constantly until the polenta thickens and loses its glossy sheen about 15 minutes. Immediately pour the hot polenta into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Allow the polenta to sit at room temperature for about an hour to firm up.
Brown the sausage in a large skillet. After the sausage is completely cooked, add the onions to the pan, sautéing them until they start to brown. Add the sugo sauce to the skillet and thoroughly combine it with the sausage and onions. Reduce the heat to low and allow the sauce to simmer for a few minutes to combine the flavors.
Remove the polenta from the cake pan by lifting it out with the foil. Fold the foil sides flat and cut the polenta into four squares. Each square is two servings which can be cut into two large triangles (1 per serving), four small triangles (2 per serving), four strips (2 per serving) or twelve cubes—cut each strip in three— (6 cubes per serving). Arrange the shape or shapes on a plate and ladle the sausage and sugo over top.