The bleak days of winter call for warm and comforting dishes. After the festive feasting, let’s take a leaf from our forebears’ book and embrace nourishing staples that store well over the winter and can be turned into inexpensive and filling meals.
The Italians gave us polenta, yellow flint corn that is coarsely ground and could replace pasta in the colder months when eggs were scarce and costly. The southern states gave us grits, ground white hominy that is similar in flavor, but smoother in texture. Both make a wonderful mush or porridge and can be enriched with butter and cheese and topped with a simple meat or vegetable sauce.
Taken a step further, the mixture can be chilled and cut into slices, before crisping up in a skillet or on the grill and served as an accompaniment to meat or seafood or as a simple vegetarian supper.
There is something meditative about the typical method of preparation, slowly sifting the corn into boiling salted and water and stirring for 30 minutes or more until the mixture achieves the right thickness. With time at a premium, I was delighted to find a recipe in the New York Times cooking section that moved the action into the oven and freed me from standing at the stove. I tried it once and the results were every bit as good as the traditional way and I have never looked back. Be sure to use artisanal corn from a good source. I have listed a couple of suppliers below. Domestic corn is much fresher and every bit as good as the imported version, so find one you like and stock your larder for the colder months.
Oven Baked Polenta
I made this dish with organic yellow flint corn from upstate Wildcraft Farms, purchased at the Union Square greenmarket. The best mail order source for flint corn is www.ansonmills.com, which sells both the white and yellow varieties. You can use either, but yellow is traditional for polenta. The artisanal corn is so tasty, I sometimes skip the butter and cheese and rely on salt and pepper and a little olive oil for flavoring. The base cooking method produces a soft porridge. You can then cool it down and use to make the crispy version. The quantity below serves 5 to 6 and the batch can be divided between soft and crispy.
Base Recipe for Soft Polenta
1 cup polenta or coarse ground flint corn
1 quart water
½ tsp. salt
1 ½ Tbsp. butter at room temperature
¼ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the polenta in a 2 ½ to 3 qt. baking dish and stir together with the water and a pinch of salt. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for fifty minutes. Remove from the oven and add the butter, stirring thoroughly. Bake for a further ten minutes before removing from the oven. Test the grain to make sure it is tender. If it is still firm, bake for a further ten minutes. Stir in the cheese and serve immediately with the either the mushroom sauce, sausage and peppers or topping of your choice. For crispy polenta, pour the mixture into an oiled, shallow baking pan, smooth top with a knife or offset spatula, cover and store in the fridge for up to five days.
About thirty minutes before you are ready to serve, cut two to three rectangles of firm polenta per person and leave at room temperature. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a non-stick pan and shallow fry the polenta on both sides until lightly browned and crispy. Serve immediately with your choice of topping.
Wild Mushroom Sauce
½ oz. dried Porcini Mushrooms
12 oz. cremini mushrooms chopped (3 cups)
1 large shallot minced
1 large clove garlic minced
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. butter
½ cup white wine
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 cup reserved porcini mushroom soaking liquid (Strain out the sediment)
1/4 tsp. of vegetable bouillon powder such as Marigold, or ¼ a vegetable stock cube
1 Tbsp. creme fraiche or full fat sour cream (optional)
Fine sea salt and fresh black pepper
Place the porcini mushrooms in a small bowl, add 1 ½ cups hot water and leave to soak for at least twenty minutes until softened. Remove from the soaking liquid (reserve for the sauce), squeeze out the excess liquid and mince finely.
Heat one Tbsp. butter and one Tbsp. olive oil in a heavy skillet and add the cremini mushrooms, sautéing over medium heat, stirring constantly for a couple of minutes until softened, before adding the porcini mushrooms and a pinch of salt.
Cook for a further couple of minutes before removing from skillet and setting aside. Wipe the skillet with a paper towel and heat one Tbsp. olive oil and one Tbsp. of butter over low heat. Add the shallots and a pinch more salt and cook gently, before adding the garlic and sautéing for a further couple of minutes.
Turn up the heat and add the white wine and thyme sprig. Cook on high for a minute before adding ¾ cup of the reserved soaking liquid and bouillon powder and reducing the heat to medium. Cook for a few minutes until the mixture cooks down and becomes syrupy.
Add the mushroom mixture and mix thoroughly, before stirring in the crème fraiche or sour cream and simmering for a further two minutes. Taste to see if it needs a little more salt and add a few twists of fresh ground black pepper. If the mixture is too thick, you can add a little extra soaking liquid. Serve with crispy or soft polenta. The sauce will keep for up to three days in the refrigerator.
Sheet Pan Sausage & Peppers
Use the best quality pork sausages. I used a mixture of sweet and hot Italian sausages. As an alternative to polenta, add some cut up potatoes and an extra tablespoon of oil for a complete supper. The garlic cloves will get softer and sweeter during roasting, so be sure to serve a couple to everyone’s plate.
10 large pork sausages
2 medium red onions cut into small wedges
2 red bell peppers cut into thick strips
10 cloves of garlic skin on
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 fresh bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
Salt and black pepper
Place the sausages, peppers and onions on a large heavy sheet pan, drizzle with the olive and ¼ teaspoon of salt and mix thoroughly with your hands. Bash the garlic cloves with a heavy knife to loosen, but not remove, the skins. Scatter over the sausages and add the thyme sprigs and bay leaves.
Roast in a 400-degree oven for 25 minutes, remove from the oven and turn the sausages over. Add the chicken broth and return to the oven for a further 20 minutes until the sausages are cooked. Add more salt to taste and a few twists of black pepper. Serve with soft or crispy polenta. Any leftovers can be reheated gently in a covered skillet.