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A few weeks back, while doing my monthly Trader Joe’s run, I scored a package of fresh chicken Italian sausage. Upon returning home, I stuck it in the garage freezer and promptly forgot all about it. Ok; it’s my MO. Finding myself with most of a pot of polenta leftover from Friday night’s bœuf bourguignon dinner and wondering what to do with it (there are myriad uses–no worries), I remembered that sausage and easily pictured it with a simple tomato sauce along with a cascade of sautéed mushrooms. A little garlic, of course–but not a lot. How about some fresh asparagus, I thought? It is asparagus season, after all. (Here in Colorado Springs –and I know this because of a longtime faithful reader, thanks–, we have wild asparagus that should just about be coming on. Take a peek around.) While it did dirty a few pans (hello wonderful DACOR dishwasher– ours was made by Asko, the Swedish company–and is still running perfectly without mishap after 9 years/knock on wood), within 45 minutes we had an easy-scrumptious dinner on hand with which to watch a couple of episodes of Netflix’ addictive new series “Transatlantic.”
So what is polenta anyway and isn’t it the same as grits? Read on.
“Traditionally, polenta is made from yellow corn and grits are made from white corn. Polenta is slightly coarser than grits,” explains Debbie La Bell, Director of eCommerce for Hayden Flour Mills. Grits are traditionally a product of dent corn, which refers to both white and yellow field corn that is soft and starchy. According to Roberts, grits are not made with uniformly ground corn; in fact, he argues that grits taste better when made with a variety of textures. Italian-style polenta, on the other hand, is made with flint corn, which has a harder texture than dent corn. Cornmeal is any type of ground corn, ranging in texture from super course to finely ground corn that practically resembles flour. The hard endosperm particles are what gives cornmeal its texture, which is especially important for making cornbread. “The US Government recognizes polenta as just another stage of cornmeal, but try to tell an Italian that and you’ll probably have an argument,” Roberts says. FOOD AND WINE by Kelly Vaughan
Polenta is basically cornmeal mush, and it can be made with any kind of cornmeal, ground coarse, medium or fine. (You don’t need bags marked “polenta.”) As with most ingredients, though, the better the cornmeal you start with, the better your result in the kitchen. (NYT)
VIDEO: (How to make…) Creamy Polenta with Parmesan and Sausage–Mark Bittman/NYT
So now that you’ve got your polenta on, you’ll be very glad when you try this:
Chicken Sausage on Polenta with Asparagus
- 4 cups cooked polenta made with half milk and half water. Follow package instructions and season generously with salt and pepper. (I like Bob's Red Mill polenta.)
- Tomato sauce-see recipe in notes or use your own sauce or purchased jar
- Olive oil
- 4 chicken Italian sausage links (3/4 – 1 pound) I like Trader Joe’s. Can sub turkey Italian sausage.
- 1 pound asparagus, trimmed and sautéed lightly — seasoned with salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper
- 4- ounces button mushrooms, sliced thinly and sautéed with a sliced garlic clove — seasoned with salt and pepper after they’re done
- Grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and zest of one lemon—garnishes for serving
- Preheat oven to 150-200 F and place 4 shallow serving bowls on the racks to warm.
- Cover the polenta to keep it warm or cover and turn off the heat. Just before serving, warm through – or finish cooking if need be – whisking in a little milk, water, or butter if needed to keep the polenta very creamy and loose.
- Make the tomato sauce (see below in Cook’s Notes or use your own recipe/use a jar of purchased sauce) and leave covered on low until needed, stirring regularly.
- Heat a medium heavy skillet over medium-high flame and drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil. When oil is hot, add the sausages. Brown the sausages on both sides, lower heat, and cook until done through with no pink remaining. An instant read thermometer should read at least 165 degrees F.
- If you haven’t yet cooked the asparagus and mushrooms, drizzle a tablespoon of oil in two small skillets, heat through, and add the vegetables. Cook until tender and a little crispy, tossing and turning regularly. Season with salt and pepper. Cover to keep warm or stick in oven. (As noted above, you can reheat in the microwave if needed.)
- To serve, spoon about a cup of the now hot polenta (it might need some more broth or water to loosen it up again–whisk, whisk!) into each of the warmed bowls and spread evenly into an oval. Top each serving of polenta with a sausage link. Add warm mushrooms and asparagus to the side of the sausage and spoon tomato sauce – about 1/2 cup– across the sausage and vegetables. Sprinkle with a ¼ teaspoon or so of lemon zest, a tablespoon or two of the Parmigiano Reggiano, and a few grinds of pepper. Serve hot or warm.STORAGE: Store well-covered for 2-3 days in the fridge. The sausage and the tomato sauce would freeze fine, but I wouldn't freeze the vegetables or the polenta.
• 1 tablespoon EACH: olive oil and salted butter
• 2 tablespoons EACH: minced yellow onion, carrot, and celery
• 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary or ½ teaspoon rosemary dry crumbled between your finger
• Garlic clove, minced
• 1 pound (about 5 medium) ripe tomatoes, cut into small dice (food processor works well to chop them.) You can easily sub a pound can of diced tomatoes here.
• Salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper
• Pinch granulated sugar In a heavy 3-quart saucepan, heat oil and butter over medium flame. Add onion, celery, carrot, and rosemary. Season with a pinch each salt and pepper. Cook about 5 minutes or until softened, adding garlic for the last minute. Stir in chopped tomatoes with their juices along with ½ teaspoon kosher salt, ¼ teaspoon fresh ground pepper, a pinch of crushed red pepper, and a pinch of granulated sugar. Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring regularly. Taste and adjust seasonings. Cover and keep warm until needed. Copyright Alyce Morgan, 2023. All rights reserved.
About Chicken Italian Sausage: This sausage comes either raw (fresh) or precooked depending on the manufacturer. Precooked sausage only needs a good warming; raw sausage must be cooked thoroughly before eating. Make sure there is no pink remaining in the meat after frying and/or that an instant read thermometer reads 165 F. I prefer the fresh varieties. Wine: A Barbera d'Alba is lovely but if you've an inexpensive Chianti lying around, go for that. Need an American wine? A red zinfandel will always love Italian sausage and is a decent wine value any day.
CHANGE IT UP….
No polenta for you? Use pasta or mashed potatoes instead. Need less carbs? Measure just a 1/2 cup of polenta in each bowl to cut them in half. Or to nearly eliminate them, try fresh or sautéed spinach. Don’t like asparagus? Serve green beans or a side salad instead. Sautéed onions and sweet peppers are a frequent accompaniment to Italian sausage; add them if you like. Then if you have leftover sausage, you can use those along with some of the tomato sauce on your grinder or sub, which is sometimes called “the bomb.” While I specify Chicken Italian Sausage, there are many other chicken sausages you might like to use. Roasted or sautéed chicken parts will work, too.
Need a vegetarian or vegan version? Roast, grill, or sauté thick slices of well-seasoned zucchini and/or eggplant and layer them down the center of the polenta in place of the sausage. Include sautéed or roasted peppers, onions, and garlic if you like. If vegan, use only water or vegetable broth to make the polenta and choose toasted bread crumbs rather than cheese.
LIFE GOES ON:
Our daughter Emily was “home” over last weekend to attend our church’s yearly lecture series, this year given by well-known historian and fine speaker, Diana Butler Bass. While we thoroughly enjoyed the lectures and dinner party, we were also happy to share meals at home with Emily — always a treat to cook for one’s children. Not a pretty picture, but I made my Boeuf Bourguignon in the slow cooker as I could not stay home to watch it in the oven– and it was lovely! Try it sometime. Yes, you still have to nearly totally make the dang thing on the stove before it goes in the slow cooker, but still. You don’t have to be in the house for 3 more hours. Not only that, the slow cooker leaves the kitchen much cooler if you’re living where summer’s already rearing its hot head. In fact, I served the stew on polenta (a new one for me)– the leftovers of which I used for today’s chicken sausage recipe.
While I didn’t cook for the Saturday dinner party for 40 — all marvelously done by good friend Patti — I did go along and help serve, clean up, and so forth. Best sous and husband Dave tended bar beautifully. I thought you might enjoy seeing the heavy hors d’oeuvres Patti chose (see below) instead of a typical dinner menu. Quite fun and kept everyone moving to get more to eat and chatting with different people all evening. I do think it’s more work than say chicken and roasted vegetables or trays of lasagna with green salad but there’s no doubt folks adored it. The orange shooters with the parsley on top, by the way, are full of delectable room temperature or barely warm carrot-ginger soup. I somehow cut off Patti’s head here and I owe her an apology!
While we’ve had a few snow flurries in the last week, it is feeling more like spring and we might even get rain today — please, God. My daffodils are up. Not blooming, mind you. Just up. The tarragon is growing green from the bottom and the chives –often my first spring herb — are chiving on.
Thanks for keeping me company in my kitchen. You encourage me and keep me smiling always.
Make polenta; it’s not hard, I promise,