Well, it is raining here in the Boston area today. I cannot remember the last time we had a true rainy day (not just an afternoon thunderstorm). The novelty of it all is almost kind of nice.
Here is a meal that would warm your belly...a hot steaming bowl (or plate) of creamy polenta topped with a sweet, smoky tomato-meat sauce. My husband and I both love to eat polenta, and I love cooking it because it is so healthy, inexpensive, and low in effort. I've finally found a good, easy technique for lump-free polenta, which I'm happy to share with you! It took me years to find a way to get the lumps out of my polenta, and I found it in the most unusual of cookbooks, a little volume called Babe's Country Cookbook. Babe as in the pig from the movie. I guess you just never know when you will a good recipe!
The sauce here is adapted from Patricia Wells Trattoria to be a little lighter, but it is a light sauce to start with. Instead of a dense, rich sauce packed with meat , this is instead a light and flavorful sauce where the meat acts as more of a flavoring or garnish. Wells calls for sausage meat -- I lightened it up by using ground chicken. To replace some of the flavor lost by that choice, I added in my top-secret ingredient...1 Tbsp of fennel seeds. My husband is a fennel-hater, so that was why it was top-secret! But he really loved this sauce, fennel seeds and all. Put those seeds in, even if you are a fellow fennel-hater! They add a sweetness, smokiness, and lovely depth of flavor. This sauce makes a big old batch. Now that we are heading back into fall, it is great to have a little tub of this in your freezer just waiting for a last minute pasta supper or a lasagna.
adapted from Trattoria, by Patricia Wells
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 strips turkey bacon, chopped
salt to taste
about 8 oz ground chicken
2 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes in their juice
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, optional
1 Tbsp fennel seeds
1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
2. Add in the onion, celery, carrot, turkey bacon, and a little salt. Cook until the vegetables begin to soften, and the bacon begins to cook (about 4 minutes).
3. Add the ground chicken, and cook through over low heat, about 7 minutes. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to break it up as it cooks.
4. Add the crushed tomatoes directly to the skillet, and add the crushed red pepper flakes (if using) and the fennel seeds. Cook uncovered over low heat until the sauce begins to thicken up, around 20 minutes or so. Add salt and pepper to taste.
And now for lump-free polenta! This is actually a breakfast recipe...cooked for a shorter time, it makes a nice, loose "cornmeal mush" that we love to top with a little milk and honey or maple syrup for breakfast. If you're in a rush, it's just fine to serve this topped with the ragu (or anything else) after 10 minutes. It will just be thinner...you'll want to serve it in a bowl. If you want a thicker polenta, give it a good 30-45 minutes when cooking. You'll notice that the sides begin to move away from the pan, and it will be thick enough to stand a spoon up in! Also, for a smaller number of people, go ahead and half this recipe.
adapted from Babe's Country Cookbook, by Dewey Gram
6 cups water
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 tsp salt
2 cups cold water
1. Bring the 6 cups water to boiling in a large saucepan or Dutch oven.
2. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine the 2 cups cornmeal with the salt and the 2 cups water. This stops the lumps in their tracks!
3. Once the water is boiling, add the cold water-cornmeal mixture gradually, stirring the whole time. Bring back to a boil, but BE CAREFUL. Polenta can splatter! Once it reaches a boil, turn down to low, and simmer, from 10-45 minutes, depending on personal preference.
4. Before serving, add salt and pepper to taste.