Thu 4 Jun 2009
My neighborhood smells like perfume. Though my schedule over the past few weeks has been somewhat chaotic (it may not surprise you to know that the bankruptcy world is a little…what’s the word…busy these days), I cannot resist pausing on the landing on the way out the door each morning to inhale the crisp, damp air. Laden with moisture from the previous night and the impending threat of the week’s summer storms, it burgeons with the heady presence of jasmine, roses, and lemon verbena. Dewy brush and grass begin to warm in the morning sun and the scent reminds me of an old campground, even though we are in the middle of a gargantuan city. The Hollywood hills are strange this way – a wild island in the midst of a sea of concrete. Despite the messy realities of my upcoming day, in those moments the scented air makes the world seem perfect.
Eventually, those realities catch up with me. My job, like so many others, can be unpredictable from week to week. It’s not uncommon for me to interrupt a nice leave-by-6:30 streak with two weeks of complete crazy, only to return to relative calm once again. During those busy times, it’s critical for me to keep things on hand that can easily be thrown together into real food. This week, a few simple ingredients – polenta, Italian sausage, and tomato sauce – have made for a few fast and delicious dinners that I’d love to share with you.
This is one of my lightning-fast recipes. It’s so incredibly simple, I almost hate to call it cooking - it feels more like ingredient assembly to me (though, really, you can say that about all cooking if you take a big enough step back). Consider this one of those baby steps between picking up takeout and cooking something complex. I set a timer last night to see just how long this takes. It seems fast, but my sense of time is roughly as accurate as a terrier’s, so some objective verification was necessary. From opening the fridge to plating the finished food, I clocked this in at around 9 minutes, and that included the sliced polenta modeling session on my cutting board. Four ingredients, two pans, less than 10 minutes. Wowza.
If you aren’t familiar with polenta, my lovelies, you should be. I cheat and buy the precooked kind. You can easily make your own, though it can be a little time-consuming. Precooked polenta typically comes in either a roll or a loaf (both called a chub). I like the roll because it slices into disks very easily. You can usually find it near the salami/pepperoni in the grocery store. Made of corn, polenta is a hearty, delicious alternative to pasta (and delightfully wheat-free for our gluten-avoiding friends). Though delicious in savory dishes, as I suggest here, it also makes a wonderful addition to the breakfast table. Sauté and top with maple syrup for rib-sticking, corn-based goodness.
Recently, I’ve been tiring of bottled pasta sauce and have been making my own uber-mind-blowingly simple sauce that I keep on hand for pizza, pasta, whatever. For this dish, you can certainly use whatever pasta sauce you like; if you want to try my quick and dirty version, scroll down below the main recipe.
Polenta with Tomatoes and Italian Sausage
Serves 2 - double or halve as needed
200g polenta chub, sliced into 1/2″ disks
2 links Italian sausage (I favor the turkey Italian sausage from Jennie-O, but go with what feels good)
2/3 cup tomato sauce (start with this, and adjust as needed)
Fresh parmesan or pecorino cheese for garnish
- Slice and saute the polenta
- Cook the sausage
- Add the tomato sauce to the sausage
- Assemble in bowls
It will help immensely to use two skillets for this meal. I use a cast-iron skillet for the sausage and thus don’t add additional oil; use your discretion based on your pans. Heat both skillets over medium-high heat, adding a touch of olive oil (from a Misto is fine) to the pan where you’ll cook the polenta.
Add the disks of polenta to their skillet, laying each disk flat. Turn them gently after 3 minutes on the first side. When a side is done, it will be a luscious golden yellow (but not necessarily browned). When both sides are fully cooked, turn off the heat.
While the polenta is cooking on its first side, squish the sausages out of their casings and into the other (hot) skillet. Using a wooden spoon or a spatula, poke at the sausage meat until it’s nicely broken up into little bits. Stir frequently to allow it to cook all the way through. When you can no longer see any pink (approximately 5 minutes) and the edges are looking browned, turn off the heat and spoon in your tomato sauce. Stir well, letting the heat from the pan warm up the sauce. I like mine to be more meaty than saucy; adjust as needed.
To serve, spoon the sauce over the polenta in pasta bowls and top with grated cheese. Gobble at will.
Absurdly Easy Tomato Sauce
28oz can crushed tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, pressed
2 T olive oil
Salt, pepper, etc. as desired
- Oil in the skillet
- Add garlic
- Add tomatoes
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. When shimmering, add the garlic and cook until fragrant - about 45 seconds. Don’t let the garlic get very brown or the sauce will be bitter. Add the tomatoes and turn the heat to low. Stir well.
After 5 minutes, take a taste. Add pepper and salt as desired. I sometimes add a splash of red wine for funsies, but usually I leave it just like this. Frighteningly simple, but it tastes so good and keeps well in the fridge. It’s perfect on pizza as-is and its simplicity lends itself to further fanciness, as we have added here.