Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Polenta With Coarse Ragu

I love polenta. I'm not crazy about the way corn subsidy and industrial over-production have destroyed the rest of US agriculture, or the way corn in the form of processed ingredients and animal feed has come to dominate the food chain here, but fuck it, polenta is terrific. It has a lovely texture in your mouth and a welcome flavor that is discernible even against stiff competition, and it makes a nice vehicle for basically any kind of condiment. I've served it with cooked bitter greens, meats, ragu, under grilled vegetables with a drizzle of balsamic, even under fruit or sweet cheese with chopped nuts, honey or maple syrup. If you let it set and firm up, you can cut it into pallets and toast it, brown it in butter or under the broiler or even bread it and fry it. You can make little pockets in slabs of it and stuff them with jam or cheese. You can layer it with ragu, bechamel and cheese and bake it in a casserole. It's basically another kind of bread, and it can be used in as many ways as bread. I used to make polenta with stock pretty often, but lately I seem to prefer the simpler flavor of polenta cooked in plain unsalted water. It's basically perfect the way it is.

I have tried making polenta out of Mexican Masa, and it works fine, but I have come to prefer plain yellow corn meal. I don't know if there's any real difference, but I get the feeling there's more flavor in the yellow corn meal, and the masa seemed grainy when served loose and hot. I love tamales, and I intend to run a similar experiment with them, but it'll probably come out like you'd expect, with masa being better for tamales and yellow corn meal being better for polenta. I tried making polenta from fresh corn in the food processor once and it came out awful, gummy and gluey. I don't mind white hominy grits for breakfast, where meat and eggs provide flavor and body, but grits don't hold their own next to a ragu or other savory companion the way yellow corn does.

Enough already. We get it, you're a goddamn polenta wizard. Boil water and make polenta, what, you want a cookie?

I like to serve polenta with coarse ragu, not a smooth puree or wet sauce. The contrast in texture between the soft polenta and the chunks in the ragu is a big part of its appeal. I've used bacon, ham and steak occasionally, but sausage is my regular choice for meat, though you could make a fine ragu with just vegetables. I get a lot of meat from Paulina Market, and they usually have "torpedos" of sweet Italian sausage that I like a lot. They are about a half pound of fennel sausage formed into ovals. Not having a casing, they are easy to use and one torpedo is the perfect size to make precisely enough ragu for Heather and me. I started the Ragu by pulling lumps of the sausage off the torpedo for browning in a skillet with some olive oil. Once the sausage had a nice color, I added half a sliced onion. Once the onion was tender, I added a couple of fresh plum tomatoes and an apple, all cut into half-inch cubes. I like the flavor of grilled or seared fresh tomatoes, even the hothouse tomatoes we have in the winter, but if used alone they tend to leave the ragu a little dry, so after the tomatoes and apple had caramelized a fair bit, I added a couple of canned San Marzano tomatoes, breaking them open as I did. Once all those ingredients had gotten to know each other. I added three big garlic cloves, sliced, a hunk of ginger, a jalapeno and a serrano pepper, all diced. As an aside, what the fuck happened to jalapenos? They are hardly peppery at all any more. Maybe it's my fault for using them out of season, but it seems like forever since I've had a jalapeno that had any heat to it at all. That's why I'm also using serranos lately. They don't taste like much of anything, but they have a little kick. When all the aromatics had sweated a little, I added a couple glugs of white wine and let the ragu simmer and mellow a little.

I plated the polenta and floated the ragu on top, drizzled it with olive oil and decorated it with some shaved parmigiano and chopped cilantro and mint. Alley news: The mint is coming in like gangbusters in the JSP Memorial alley plot this year, already a shrub the size of a bushel basket. I like polenta soft enough to "catch" or slightly envelop the pieces of the ragu, but not so soft that it's runny and hard to eat with a fork, and this batch came out pretty good. It's easy to add too much dry cornmeal to the water because it takes a couple of minutes to bloom and let you know what its finished consistency will be. It will look impossibly liquid at first when you have it right, but it stabilizes and thickens over the course of about five minutes, and the consistency improves over time, so don't fear letting the polenta sit there going blop blop for as long as it takes to prepare the rest of the meal. You could let it go for an hour if it's wet enough and no harm would come.


  1. this sucks that i can only post under your name. boo. i did want you to know that the sausage was fantastic!

  2. Thank you beautiful. I could totally have forged that and nobody would know.

  3. I also noticed that jalapenos don't seem as spicy anymore! And my work around has also been to use serranos.

    This recipe sounds delicious - I'll probably try it out sometime. Most of my friends would call me a good cook and I've never even tried to make polenta from scratch so go ahead and have that cookie.

  4. a thought: when buying jalapeƱos look for the ones with lots of what looks like scar tissue on them. you know the ones, they look like they've just been sitting in the bin for too long, but it's misleading. the more scars you see, the hotter the pepper.

  5. Recently I saw where they were cross-breeding jalapenos with bell peppers to make a monster pepper for "poppers." I wonder if somehow the regular style jalapenos gene pool has been sullied. I've noticed in previous years we've gotten some that were so hot they seem habanero-possessed. Anyway, what's your ratio of water to corn meal?

  6. Illicitizen I have no idea, I just stir corn meal into the water until it looks right. Having fucked it up a bunch previously, I now know what looks right. It's less polenta than you think for the amount of water.

  7. I have the answer to the polenta water ratio after years of making crappy polenta where I was constantly having to add more water and cursing that I had to. Use 4 to 5 cups water per 1 of polenta. I know that sounds (and looks) like a ton of water but you will get nice soft polenta in one easy go of it.

    Plooping the leftover polenta out onto a sheetpan and baking it until the outside is kinda crispy is very, very tasty by the way.

  8. Coming from England it's hard to get decent masa here so I use polenta for cornbread.
    Last week I tried to make masa harina from hominy...liming it ect. Big falure. Have one more bag of hominy and will try again.
    Did you get the idea for soaking the rice in V8 from Ideas in food? They do risotto like this.

  9. theunder, I don't know what Ideas in food is, but no, it was just an idea in food.


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