how to cook artisan polenta (with sausages)

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creamy and comforting, stone ground polenta with a pork sausage ragu

creamy and comforting, stone-ground polenta with a pork sausage ragu

Quick? Did I say quick?

No, I didn’t.

I do however say divine, comforting, luscious, creamy, heart warming.

Making a good polenta is a bit like making love. Slow and careful is generally better than plasticky and prepackaged. Tubes are for losers. I mean, polenta tubes. I hate them, they taste like soap.

I do occasionally use instant polenta as an emergency gluten-free meal. However, once you try the rustic, custardy flavor of organic stone-ground polenta there’s hardly a way back.

You will say:  it takes at least 40 minutes! I have lost count of the times I have heard “I don’t make real polenta because I have to stand forever by the stove “.

The truth is that with a bit of planning you can have a life and get two dinners out of it. I always cook twice as much so I can make baked polenta with the leftovers. It’s delicious and freezes well.

To minimize the chance of polenta sticking to the pan and therefore the continuous stirring, you need a tall pan with a heavy bottom. You also need to cook it over the lowest possible heat. Use a heat diffuser if your stove is too hot.

This way you need to stir it every 5-10 min which allows you to clean the kitchen, do laundry, make phone calls, play with FB, anything which would keep you home on a rainy evening. Even better, make a party of it. Polenta is ideal to feed a crowd and even your most clumsy non-cooking friend can take care of it.

Polenta with sausages

From top left: soffritto, sautee sasages, deglaze, add tomato and herbs, add salt and water to polenta, simmer, polenta before cooking (watery) and after (creamy)

 

Recipe

  • 400 gr (approx 1 lb) coarse polenta cornmeal, organic and stone-ground if possible.
  • 10-12 sausages (Umbrian sausages are flavored with garlic and black pepper, but the classic Italian style fennel sausages would be acceptable)
  • 1 each of the following: onion, carrot, celery stick, fresh bay leaf, sprig of rosemary, clove
  • 1/2 cup red or white wine
  • 3 lb canned peeled or crushed tomato
  • grated pecorino or Parmesan to taste
  • good quality, fresh and peppery olive oil

Make the sauce:

Using a pan which can accommodate the sausages in a single layer, saute onion, celery, carrot and sausages in 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. When the sausages start to brown, deglaze with wine.

I generally use white wine but in the picture above you can see that I have used a generous amount of red wine. This is simply because today I had a bottle which had been open for a couple of days and needed to be finished.

Note that red wine makes your sauce more acidic so you might need to correct it with 1-2 teaspoon sugar. This is generally not necessary if you use white wine. Just taste your sauce before serving to make sure.

Once the wine is evaporated add tomato, bay leaf, clove and a sprig of rosemary bound with kitchen string. Simmer over very low heat for at least 1 hour or until thick and velvety.

Make the polenta:

You need approx 1 lt (1 quart) water per 100 gr (3.5 oz) polenta. Mix the polenta meal with 2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 lt ( 2 cups) water at room temperature. This will soften the polenta and will avoid lumps.

Bring to the boil the rest of the water (3.5 lt / 14 cups) in a large pot then reserve 2-3 cups of it in another container. Different brands of polenta will absorb different amounts of water so you might not need it all. Pour the softened polenta in the boiling water, lower the heat to minimum and cook for 40-50 min. Stir as explained above, making sure to scrape the bottom and corners of the pan. If the polenta becomes too thick before 40 min add the reserved warm water by the cupful so it will not stick to the bottom of the pan.

The polenta is ready when it comes easily off the sides of the pan. This might not be clear the first few times you make it, so please taste it which will also help you to decide if you need more salt.

Serve:

Ladle the polenta into deep bowls, cover with a generous layer of sauce, one or two sausages, a drizzle of a fruity/peppery extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of Parmesan or Pecorino.

Leftovers:

Keep the polenta covered while you have dinner. If it becomes too cold it will be difficult to remove it from the pan. Transfer the leftover polenta in an oiled baking dish. Top with leftover sauce, sliced sausages and sliced mild cheese as mozzarella or caciotta. You can also add sautee mushrooms or a few handfuls of cooked, chopped spinach. Sprinkle with more grated cheese and put away or freeze for another dinner. When needed, bake at 200 °C/390°F for 30 min or until lightly golden on top. Defrost before baking.

Baked leftover polenta a great dinner made with no efforts!

Baked leftover polenta a great dinner made with no efforts!

Serves 8 or makes 2 dinners for 4.

olive oil and wine ciambelline cookies

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light, crispy and fragrant of fennel and anise ciambelline

light, crispy ciambelline, fragrant of fennel and anise

What an exciting and busy time this is! Summer is finished and fall has descended on us with all its gorgeous beauty. Olive harvest is well underway. This year we are gifted by the much needed help of friends who have come all the way from Singapore for the event, how delightful!

It’s a lot of work but we are having a fabulous time. Beside picking, we have been doing a great deal of laughing, chatting, cooking and drinking. We’ll probably be ready  in one more day and then we’ll need to wait until next week for the pressing and bottling to enjoy our emerald liquid.

The only and real “Alla Madonna del Piatto olive oil“.

The last few B&B/cooking guests will be arriving this week-end for our first – of I hope many – Pasta and Vino Tour. We should actually call it Pasta and Vino and Olive oil tour as it will be heavy on the bruschetta ;).

Pasta and Vino

This is an extraordinary time to be here, wineries are buzzing with activity, there are food festivals and farmer markets in many of the hilltop villages. Olive mills are running 24/7, everybody is out and about with nets and ladders to pick olives until dusk. And if that was not enough, there are mushrooms, truffle, thick farro soups, polenta, pumpkin, fresh fennel and cime di rapa to add to the cornucopia of incredible foods available just now. Add the salami and life is perfect.

Last night, tired after a day of trodding up and down the hill, we prepared a light dish of homemade gnocchi with pesto and these cookies. The term ciambelline means small ring cookies. They are as “seasonal” as a cookie can get as they are made with wine and olive oil.  One can while the night away with a tray of these and a good bottle of sweet wine to deep them in.

Recipe

  • 450 gr (3 cups) 00 or pastry flour, better if organic and unbleached
  • 150 ml (1/2 cup) extra virgin olive oil
  • 150 ml (1/2 cup) white wine
  • 2 tablespoon anise seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 130 gr (1/2 cup)  light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup white regular sugar for coating

Preheat oven at 160 °C (340 ° F). Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place all dry ingredients – except the white sugar – in a food processor bowl. Using the blade at high speed, add the oil and wine and blend until most of the mixture forms a soft ball of dough, about 2 minutes.

If you don’t have a food processor or mixer, make the dough in a large bowl by hand and transfer on a lightly floured worktop.

Sprinkle the white sugar on a large flat plate or cutting board. On the worktop, roll the dough into 1.5 cm (1/2 inch) thick cylinders. Cut each cylinder into 10 cm (5 inch) pieces and roll them into the white sugar to coat.

roll the dough cycilinders in sugar, then form the rings

roll the dough cylinders in sugar, then form the rings

Pinch the ends of each cylinder together to form a ring.

Carefully arrange the rings on a the baking sheet. Bake for 30-35 min until just golden around the sides.

Cool on a wire rack and serve with sweet wine like a vinsanto, passito or marsala or a big mug of herbal tea.

Makes approx. 36 ciambelline.

the chicken whisperer

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view of my hometown Perugia from my parent's place (photo T. di Luca)

view of my hometown Perugia from my parents place (photo T. di Luca)

CHICKEN ALLA CACCIATORA a.k.a HUNTER STYLE or  CHICKEN CACCIATORE.

I spent my youth in a huge house overlooking my hometown Perugia. My parents where civil servants and in their free time took care of the large garden, the olive trees and the pets.

To be precise, my father took care of breeding the pets and my mother fought against the proliferation of pets. We had a dog and a cat and the occasional gold-fish of course. Even a guinea pig once.

That was fine with my mum.

The dog and the cat were actually treated to pasta al ragù just like us. Even with a sprinkle of Parmesan on top.

The problem was, my father had pet chickens. They were allowed to do anything they wanted. He talked to them.  They kept each other company. They – the chickens – ravaged the geraniums.

We never ate them. You don’t kill your pets do you? Occasionally he would deem one of the oldies suitable for a meal. They were so tough they were invariably only good for stock. For a roast or a stew like this one, she went to the market and bought a good freeranger from her favorite butcher.

And planted new geraniums.

Recipe

  • 1/2 free-ranging chicken cut into serving pieces
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, very finely minced
  • 1 tablespoon capers,
  • 4 tablespoon spoon good quality olives, not pitted
  • 1 sprig rosemary,
  • a handful sage leaves
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • zest of 1/4 lemon
  • juice of 1/4 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • extra virgin olive oil

Using a large thick bottom or non stick pan, sear chicken pieces in one tablespoon olive oil until golden on all sides. Good quality chicken should not produce any fat, but if it does drain it and wipe clean the pan before proceeding.

Turn heat to low, return chicken to the pan, add onion and stir frequently until caramelized.  Add minced garlic cloves, capers, olives, rosemary and sage leaves.

Please don’t use the inexpensive, pizza style, bland black olives. They are generally unripe green olives that have been dyed with iron salts (ferrous gluconate) after artificial ripening.

Season with just a sprinkle of salt and black pepper.

When everything is fragrant add one cup of wine, cover and simmer very slowly until the chicken is tender. This might take 45 min to 1 and 1/2 hours depending on size and quality of the bird. Add some water if the sauce gets too dry while simmering.

When ready to serve add the lemon juice and zest and balsamic vinegar. Taste and add more lemon if desired as it brings out the flavor of all other ingredients.

This dish is lovely with a side of steamed greens dressed with a fruity extra virgin and a splash of lemon juice if you like. If you need your starch, accompany it with homemade potato puree or polenta. Italians would never serve it on pasta or rice.

Serves 3-4 depending on initial size of chicken.

add the wine at this stage, when all other ingredients are fragrant

add the wine at this stage, when all other ingredients are fragrant

savory cauliflower crostata

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savory gluten free crunchiness, so delcious, so light.

savory gluten-free crunchiness, so delicious, so light

Does cauliflower count for detox? That’s what we are supposed to do for at least one week in January, isn’t it? Have you done the salad treatment and figured it’s bad for you since there’s a foot of snow outside? It’s too cold for self-inflicted punishment.

I am so glad is not bikini time yet. That’s even worse than New Year detox. Lucky me I don’t even wear a bikini anymore.

As a consequence I can have this wholesome, gluten-free food which is every bit as good and crunchy as any gluten equivalent. Not bad for a healthy dose of veggies and – as an added bonus – is wonderfully easy to digest.

Recipe

  • 1 cauliflower, cleaned and separated into florets
  • 1  garlic clove
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 5 eggs
  • 5 tablespoon grated parmesan
  • 200 gr (7 oz) young Pecorino or Asiago, diced
  • 125 gr ( 1 and 1/8 cup) tapioca flour
  • 125 gr ( 1 and 1/8 cup) glutinous rice flour
  • 125 gr (1 stick) butter

Preheat oven to 200° C/ 390° F.

Using my food processor method for sweet pastry, make the savory shell using the tapioca and glutinous rice flours, 2 eggs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoon Parmesan and enough cold water to obtain a firm dough. I have tried to make pastry with various gluten-free flours but this is by far the easiest and most consistent in terms of structure and flavor.

Line a 10 inch ( 25 cm) tart pan with parchment paper. Roll the dough into a 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) thin disk and transfer into the tart pan so to make a case with shallow sides. I roll the dough onto a clingfilm sheet and then I flip it into the lined tart pan.

Cover with the clingfilm and transfer in the refrigerator for at least 1/2 an hour and up to half a day. This crucial step will give you a crispy shell.

Blanch the cauliflower florets in plenty boiling water, drain.  Saute 1 finely minced clove of garlic in 2 tablespoon olive oil until fragrant. Add cauliflower florets and saute briefly to infuse in the garlicky oil. Season to taste with salt and black or red pepper. Set aside.

While the cauliflower is cooling, whisk 3 eggs with 1/2 cup milk and the rest of the grated parmesan. Transfer the cauliflower into the pastry shell and top with diced Pecorino cheese making sure to push the cubes in between the florets.

Pour the egg mixture over the tart and transfer into the oven.

Bake the crostata in middle of the oven 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden. We love it hot from the oven but it’s still good at room temperature.

Serves 4 as a vegetarian main, 6 as a side or appetizer.

PS. If in a hurry, using good quality store-bought puff pastry is a quick alternative to the pastry shell. In this case it’s obviously not suitable for a gluten-free diet.

zucchini and sausage risotto

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magical autumnal views from our windows

I am sure there must be an ancient proverb saying: whenever you add a good sausage to your food, it will be delicious. I do apply it with restrain so that I can fit through the doors, but it works every time.

Of course, you will say. You are in Umbria, you worship sausages.

Yes, but there are rules. I don’t buy mass-produced sausages. They are made with inordinate amounts of fat and up to 60% of their weight is water. If you cook those sausages in a pan they will release a puddle of heart-clogging greasy liquid.

I buy sausages from my fabulous butcher Guglielmo whose father actually raises a small number of pigs with proper feed. The sizzling sausages release that mouth-watering BBQ-like aroma wich attracts Google (our dog) from 100 mt away. They have just enough fat to cover the morsels in a thin gleaming coating. A small amount goes a long way and does not deposit so heavily on the hips ;) .

Recipe

  • 300 gr (3/4 lb) fresh sausage. Umbrian sausage is seasoned with garlic and black pepper.
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 3 zucchini, diced
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 lt / 5 cups low-salt chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 small onions, diced
  • 2 cups arborio, vialone nano or carnaroli rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Saute zucchini in 1 tablespoon olive oil until they just start to become golden. Make sure to use a relatively large pan so the zucchini will cook quickly and don’t boil in their own moisture. Add a pinch of salt, one finely minced clove of garlic and a few torn basil leaves, stir quickly and as soon as it is fragrant transfer into a bowl.

Add one additional tablespoon of olive oil to the same pan, one diced onion, 1 teaspoon fennel seeds and the sausage meat torn in small pieces. Sauté over medium-high heat until cooked through, breaking up the sausage pieces with fork, about 10 minutes. Deglaze with 1/4 cup white wine. Switch off heat and keep covered until ready to serve.

Add rice and stir 1 minute. Increase heat, add the rest of the wine and cook until absorbed, stirring often, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup broth and simmer until liquid is absorbed, stirring often, about 4 minutes. After this initial stage you can continue to cook , adding more broth by ladlefuls and allowing liquid to be absorbed before adding more, stirring only after you have added the liquid.

When the rice is tender season to taste. For extra creaminess finish with 1 additional tbsp cold diced butter stirring vigorously. Stir in the zucchini, the sausage, 2 tablespoons Parmesan and once last ladleful of broth. Cover and wait 5 min before serving. Serve, passing the remaining Parmesan separately.

a lovely meal for the first chilly evenings of fall