Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Polenta with Spuntature e Salsicce (ribs & sausages)

Years ago, when I lived in Rome, I'd order polenta with spuntature at a restaurant in my neighborhood of Trastevere. But only in winter. It's a rare restaurant that features it at other times of year, and if it does, it's likely to be a place devoid of Romans.

Even though you can certainly make polenta in spring, summer or fall, to me, it's strictly winter food. And now that winter is in full swing, polenta is on my mind.

I've made it a few times this season already, but not with spuntature.

Since I was going to be making a ragù, I thought I'd include some sausages too, and put together some meatballs to enrich the sauce even more.

As long as you're going to the trouble of cooking something for several hours, you might as well make enough to put in the freezer for a few meals later on, right?

So I pulled out my biggest stainless steel pot to get it going.

While the sauce was simmering away, I fried some meatballs. 

I know, frying foods isn't the best thing for you, and I do broil meatballs occasionally too. 

But there's nothing that brings back memories of my childhood like the scent of meatballs frying in hot oil. 

As children, we'd stand by the stove while my mother drained a few on paper towels, eagerly waiting to snare one and take that first bite into a crunchy, meaty ball, with steam still spewing out of it. 

After sampling one or two, the rest went into the pot with the sauce.

When the sauce had simmered for a couple of hours, I started on the polenta.

I've made polenta with a slow cooker, (using Michelle Scicolone's recipe below). I've made it in the oven in an "almost no-stir" method (America's Test Kitchen recipe below). I've made it with my nifty automatic polenta stirrer (the paiolo).

And I've made the instant type polenta too. They're all good, but to me the best tasting polenta is made the old fashioned way - with good coarse grain cornmeal and by constant stirring for 45 minutes while you stand over the pot.

The polenta transforms to a creaminess that's just begging for a good sauce to slather on top.

That's where the ribs and sausage come in.

And they could find no better place to rest - except in your stomach of course.

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Ragù with spuntature e salsicce

(Tomato sauce with ribs and sausage)

printable recipe here

2 1/2 - 3 pounds Italian sausage (hot or sweet)

2-3 lbs. pork spare ribs2 T. olive oil
1 large onion, minced
8 - 10 cloves of garlic, minced
2 carrots, minced
2 stalks of celery, minced
6 - 23 oz. cans imported Italian tomatoes
1 cup dry red wine
2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 T. dried basil, plus fresh basil, if available
1/4 tsp. dried red pepper

about 3 dozen meatballs (recipe below)

Place the sausage in a pot and cook over medium flame until browned, and some of the fat has been rendered. Remove the sausages from the pot and set aside.

Place the ribs in the pot and brown them all around. Remove and set aside.If there's a lot of fat in the pot remaining from the sausages and ribs, drain most of it, but leave a little for flavor. Add the olive oil to the pot. Finely mince the onion and garlic in a food processor and saute in the olive oil. Do the same with the carrot and celery. Cook the vegetables in the olive oil until softened.
Add the remaining ingredients and put the sausage back into the pot with the sauce. Add the spare ribs.

Add the fried meatballs to the sauce, if desired.
Cook everything together for at least two to three hours on a low flame, stirring periodically.

My mom's meatball recipe

I sometimes broil these, and they're good that way, but oh-so-much better when deep-fried. 

2 1-2 - 3 pounds of ground meat (I use a mixture of pork, veal and beef)
about 1/3 of a large loaf of sturdy white Italian bread, preferably a day old
about 1 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup onion, finely chopped
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup minced parsley
1 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper

oil for frying 
Trim the crusts off the bread. Put the bread in a low temperature oven for a short while or leave it out for a few hours to dry out. Save the crusts to make bread crumbs for another recipe.
Tear the bread into chunks and place into a bowl with the milk. Let the bread soak for at least 15 minutes or until it has absorbed the milk and softened. Squeeze as much milk as possible from the bread and discard the milk (or give to the cat). Squish the bread pieces with your fingers into a bowl with the ground meats until there are no big lumps. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well with your hands. Shape into round balls. Fry in a heavy pan with ample oil, or if you want to be healthier, place on a baking sheet or broiling pan and broil or bake at high heat (450 - 500), watching carefully so they don't burn. When they have a nice brown crust, turn them over and brown on the other side. Drain off the grease and add the meatballs to the sauce.

Basic Polenta

1 cup cornmeal

2 cups milk

2 cups water (or use all water and eliminate the milk)

salt, to taste

a couple of pats of butter

grated parmesan cheese, as desired

Pour the cornmeal and the milk and water into a heavy-bottomed pan. Stir over a low to medium high heat for about 30-45 minutes or until the mixture looks creamy. Add salt and taste the polenta. It will taste "raw" if it needs more cooking and may still have some grittiness. In that case, cook longer. If it becomes too thick, add more liquid. When it's done to your liking, turn off the heat, add a couple of pats of butter and parmesan cheese, as desired.

Slow Cooker Polenta - Michele Scicolone, "The Italian Slow Cooker" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010)

Serves 6

1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal, preferably stone-ground

1½ teaspoons salt

5 cups water (or half water and half broth)

Additional water, milk, broth or cream, optional

In a large slow cooker, stir together the cornmeal, salt and water. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours. Stir the polenta. If it seems too thick, add a little extra liquid. Cook for 30-60 minutes more, until thick and creamy. Serve hot.

Almost no-stir Polenta

From America's Test Kitchen

Why this recipe works:

If you don’t stir polenta almost constantly, it forms intractable lumps. We wanted creamy, smooth polenta with rich corn flavor, but we wanted to find a way around the fussy process.
The prospect of stirring continuously for an hour made our arms ache, so we set out to find a way to give the water a head start on penetrating the cornmeal (we prefer the soft texture and nutty flavor of degerminated cornmeal in polenta). Our research led us to consider the similarities between cooking dried beans and dried corn. With beans, water has to penetrate the hard outer skin to gelatinize the starch within. In a corn kernel, the water has to penetrate the endosperm. To soften bean skins and speed up cooking, baking soda is sometimes added to the cooking liquid. Sure enough, a pinch was all it took to cut the cooking time in half without affecting the texture or flavor. Baking soda also helped the granules break down and release their starch in a uniform way, so we could virtually eliminate the stirring if we covered the pot and adjusted the heat to low. Parmesan cheese and butter stirred in at the last minute finishes our polenta, which is satisfying and rich.

Coarse-ground degerminated cornmeal such as yellow grits (with grains the size of couscous) works best in this recipe. Avoid instant and quick-cooking products, as well as whole-grain, stone-ground, and  regular cornmeal. Do not omit the baking soda—it reduces the cooking time and makes for a creamier polenta. The polenta should do little more than release wisps of steam. If it bubbles or sputters even slightly after the first 10 minutes, the heat is too high and you may need a flame tamer, available at most kitchen supply stores. Alternatively, fashion your own from a ring of foil. For a main course, serve the polenta with a topping or with a wedge of rich cheese or a meat sauce. Served plain, the polenta makes a great accompaniment to stews and braises.

7 1/2 cups water (I like to use a combination of milk and water - proportions are up to you.)

 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt 

pinch baking soda

1 1/2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter 

4 ounces good-quality Parmesan cheese , grated (about 2 cups), plus extra for serving
ground black pepper 

1. Bring water to boil in heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mixture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.
2. After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15 seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan.) Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25 minutes longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to thicken as it cools.)

3. Remove from heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Serve, passing Parmesan separately.

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