I’m not really sure what’s happened since Februaryof 2010, but it seems that was the last time I made polenta. Very bothersome. I happen to really love polenta. A lot. I have no easy explanation for why or how it has been thusly neglected for almost 2 years, but that’s the thing about polenta. It’s just not a show-y extrovert kind of food. It doesn’t jump up and down and squeal “oh, make me! Make me!” Rather, polenta is a bit of an introvert in the food world. It’s a reserved, simmer slowly, take its time, quietly delicious sort of thing that is easy to miss when you’re busy making this and that. And now I feel really bad.
But to make amends, I decided to make this beautiful recipe I found in my Cucina Italiana magazine. I love Italians. They would never forget to make polenta. And not only would they remember to make it, this is what they would do to it… they would simmer and reduce a delicious tomato sauce to spread on top with chunks of Italian sausage, and then they would top that with fresh mozzarella, bake it until it gets all melty and luscious and then drizzle it with olive oil and cracked pepper. In my next life I will be Italian.
Oh, man is this good. Mostly in the past (when I’ve remembered), I’ve made the creamy, spoon-able kind of polenta, but this is the kind of polenta that you let set up and thicken and become a delectable vehicle for any number of sauces or toppings. I did have to alter the recipe a bit because that’s what I do, and I’ve noted those changes in the recipe below. I have also included a few ways to get this on the table a little quicker. But good polenta takes time. It’s not difficult or complicated, but like most introverts, it will require time, patience and a bit of your attention now and then. In the end, you will be magnificently rewarded. Lovely stuff.
Here’s the recipe…
Polenta with Italian Sausage and Fresh Mozzarella
Recipe adapted from La Cucina Italiana
Polenta may sound like a lot of work, but it really isn't. It just takes a little time and some stirring now and then. I've altered the original recipe to add a little more flavor to the polenta (a little milk and parmesan cheese). And although I didn't change it in the recipe below, I'm not really a big fan of sliced chunks of link sausage in dishes like this, so might I suggest that you remove the sausage from the casings and pinch off 1/2-inch bits, dropping them directly into the sauce to cook. These turn out like little sausage meatballs and are much more tender without the sausage casings. And feel free to use spicy Italian sausage if you prefer. And you can certainly simplify this recipe by substiuting any good quality marinara sauce you might have on hand, and even adding some crushed red pepper if you like. And if you're pressed for time, each part of this can be made ahead of time (like days ahead), refrigerated and then assembled and baked when you're ready to serve it. Awesome!
4 cups of water
1/2 cup milk
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
Fine sea salt
1 1/2 cups coarse polenta
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 (14-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes in juice (preferably San Marzano)
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1/2 pound Italian sausage (bulk or links)
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped thyme
4 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
freshly ground black pepper
Spray a 10-inch cake pan or springform pan with cooking spray (I line the bottom with parchment paper)
In a large saucepan, combine the water, milk 2 tablespoons oil, bay leaves and 1 teaspoon salt; bring to a boil. Slowly add the polenta in a thin stream, whisking. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, whisking constantly for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring often (or a lot!) with a wooden spoon. Cook and stir for 30-40 minutes, until the polenta is thickened, creamy and tender. Stir in the grated parmesan cheese, taste for salt, remove and discard the bay leaves.
Transfer the polenta to prepared pan, spreading evenly with a rubber spatula. Let the polenta cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.
Run the tomatoes through a blender (hand blender), or food processor until fairly smooth. In a large saucepan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook for 2 minutes. Add garlic, reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are softened, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, wine, whole sausages, thyme and 1 teaspoon salt.
Bring the sauce to a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from heat.
Heat oven to 400 degrees with a rack in the middle. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove sausage from sauce and cut into 1/2-inch thick rounds.
Turn out polenta onto prepared baking sheet. Top with sauce, spreading sauce to 1/2 inch from edges of polenta. Arrange sausage and cheese on top. Bake until cheese is melted and just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Serve warm, with a drizzle of oil and a sprinkle of pepper.