Polenta, the ignored

It’s like Sunday in an Italian Village!

When did you last eat polenta that didn’t languish under some fish or lamb chop, or some ossobuco? I’m talking just polenta, as a meal. On its own. Thought you hadn’t. Believe me your life is poorer for it! Polenta in its own right is a wonderful thing if you make it fresh. The recipe below is for ricotta polenta, but you can just as well leave the ricotta out and you will still get a wonderful dish. Serve it with a simple tomato sauce and there’s lunch. Here I have added a simple vegetable stew, a bit like a caponata minus the aubergine (so not a caponata at all). The acidity goes very well with the richness of the polenta.

This entire dish, tomato sauce, vegetables and all can be ready in an hour! Start with the tomato sauce, then make the polenta and while that sets, make the vegetables. It doesn’t take longer than a glass of wine! Note that there is enough for four. All the quantities are correct for one party of four.

Let’s start with the simple tomato sauce. This is not my recipe, but one by Marcella Hazan, who basically introduced the English speaking world to Italian cooking. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcella_Hazan thank you for this recipe.
I am going to leave the discussion whether this is real Italian tomato sauce or not to others. I make a vast variety of tomato sauces, depending on what happens to be in my chiller and pantry and this is still one of my favourites. It’s especially good if you don’t have time to simmer a big pot for hours. Feel free to add basil or oregano, or garlic (crushed cloves, not chopped, please) or stick in a bay leaf or chop the onion and serve it all together, or give it a dash of wine; red for a deep colour and rich flavour, white for a touch of acidity. But before you do any of that, just try it as is and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

The Tomato Sauce
  • 2 cans whole peeled tomatoes (400g per can, 800g in total)
  • 140g butter
  • 1 brown onion

Pour the cans of tomato, juice and all into a saucepan. Cut the tomatoes up with a pair of scissors, or mash them with a fork (don’t wear white for this), turn the heat on low and while this heats up, peel the onion and cut it in half and drop it into the sauce. Cut a big piece of butter off the block and drop it into the sauce as well. Simmer for about 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally. It won’t look so great at first, kind of pale and sad, but it will perk up as it simmers along. Once it has thickened, just remove the onion and you’re done.

The Ricotta Polenta
Creamy crumbly, slightly dense, it’s like a huge ricotta gnocchi
  • 600ml milk
  • 40g butter
  • plenty of nutmeg
  • 125g semolina
  • 50g grated Parmesan
  • 100g ricotta
  • 2 egg yolk
  • salt
  • 500-600ml mold of any shape you like (I used an old quite flat ring mold)

This is ridiculously easy, you’ll see. Pour the milk into a saucepan, grate as much nutmeg into it as you like, but remember, it’s a spice, not a vegetable. Turn the heat to medium and while that is heating up, butter your mold very generously. Once the milk is simmering, slowly pour in all the semolina, stirring all the time. This will thicken up quite a bit, but keep stirring for a couple of minutes to cook the semolina properly. Turn off the heat, drop in the butter and stir it in. If you find it too stiff, add a little more milk, but careful, it needs to set. You want to achieve a texture soft enough to push into the mold, but not so soft it pours. Stir in the ricotta and Parmesan and once that’s evenly in there, add the egg yolks and stir in again.

Ladle the polenta into your mold. It won’t go in evenly, but try not to have empty spaces at the bottom of the mold. Now wet your hands and squish the polenta gently into the mold, flatten the top and leave it at room temperature while you make the vegetables.

You can stop right here, if you like.

Leave the polenta for about 10-15 minutes, then gently un-mold it. Depending on the shape of your mold, you may need to use a butter knife (or any knife that’s not pointy) to let some air into the bottom of the mold by gently loosening the polenta from the side while the mold is upside down. Gently does it! My ring let go of the polenta bit by bit, following the circle, so I had to lift the mold gently, following the curve. Shake or tap too much and it will break. The good news is that it tastes just as good in pieces as whole. Add freshly ground black pepper, grated cheese and some good olive oil and you have yourself a great lunch!

But you can also carry on and make…
The Vegetables
  • about 15 cherry tomatoes
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1/2 zucchini
  • small handful basil whole leaves
  • 1 can anchovies (30g-50g)
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 50ml water (or stock, if you have it)
  • a dash of red wine, about 2 Tbsp (it’s optional, but it helps)
  • 1/2 Tbsp sherry vinegar
  • salt, sugar & black pepper
Clockwise from bottom left corner; zucchini, onion & celery, sherry vinegar, cherry tomatoes, basil and an invisible can of anchovies.

Of course if you’re clever, you will have washed and cut your vegetables earlier on. Did I not mention that? Anyway, here we are; cut the cherry tomatoes in half lengthwise, sprinkle with good salt, a pinch or two of sugar and a grind or three of pepper and leave them to marinate while you do the rest. cut the celery into 1cm slices, cut your onion in half across the rings, then cut each half into 6 wedges (4, if 6 is too difficult). Cut the half zucchini in half lengthwise, the in half again lengthwise, then into 1.5cm slices. Look at the picture, its easier. Pluck the basil leaves and open the can of anchovies. By the way, you don’t need super quality anchovies for this, just a normal little can will do.

waiting for the stock to evaporate

In a cast iron pot (if you have one), heat 2 Tbsp oil to medium, throw in the onions and celery and stir about for 2-3 minutes. DON’T salt it, you’re going to be adding anchovies and there’s plenty of salt in there. Now tip in the entire can of anchovies, oil, juice and all and stir it in. The anchovies will melt and smell quite strong and that’s okay. Fry for a minute, add the zucchini and fry for another 2-3 minutes. Add the water or stock and a dash of wine and let it boil until it’s thickened, about 3 more minutes at most. Last add the tomatoes and the vinegar and stir to just heat. Add the basil leaves just before you serve it.

And if you add up all the minutes, you will get to 10 if you’re fast and 15 if you’re not. One way or the other, enough for the polenta to cool to shape.

All you need to do now is get the polenta out of its tin onto a plate, ladle the vegetables over it and surround it with tomato sauce. If you have a ring mold, you can make it look flash like I tried to, but honestly, you could set it in a plastic tub, out the veg over it and serve the sauce on the side and all will be well.

Tips:

The tomato sauce will easily reheat, so you can make it in the morning, if you like. I actually got Eddie to do it while I went to get the week’s shopping. It keeps in the chiller for 3 days at least and freezes beautifully.
Use a large-ish pot to fry the vegetables in. I used a 24cm Le Creuset, which I may have stolen from a friend, but that’s another story. The larger surface area will prevent the vegetables from stewing and will allow for much faster evaporation of the stock or water.
Leftovers will keep in the chiller for 3 days at least, but probably won’t, because it’s quite delicious cold!

A Note on Polenta

Polenta flour isn’t flour, it’s cornmeal and it comes in all sorts of different textures, from ultra fine to really coarse. I used “Granoro” brand, not because it’s the best, but it’s quite easy to find in KL (that’s Kuala Lumpur). It’s quite a fine meal, so it cooks quickly. Read the instructions on the packet of the brand you buy and adjust the quantity of milk and the cooking time. The manufacturers mostly get it right. If you bought the polenta a while back and it’s been languishing in your cupboard, I suggest you strain it before use. Little animals like to live in it. They are not in any way dangerous and polenta becomes extremely hot, so you’ll be fine if you’re not squeamish.

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