Monday, February 17, 2014

Polenta with Marinara Sauce

Ingredients for Polenta

Pouring polenta in a thin stream

Adding grated cheese

Constant stirring

Polenta pulling from the side of the pot
 Polenta cooling in a glass dish

 Slicing cooled polenta

 Sauteeing sliced polenta

Polenta with Marinara Sauce

Polenta with Marinara Sauce

6 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups coarse polenta
½ cup grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
Oil for sautéing
Chopped Italian parsley for garnish (optional)

1.      Bring water to a rapid boil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven.  Add salt and butter.
2.      Pour polenta into the boiling water in a thin stream.  Whisk or stir continuously to prevent     lumps from forming.  Turn heat down to low. 
3.    Switch to a long handled wooden spoon.  Continue stirring the polenta.  After about 15      minutes add the grated cheese.  Continue to stir the polenta for another 15 minutes or until it pulls from the side of the pot.  This process will take 25 – 50 minutes depending on the quantity being cooked and the coarseness of the polenta.
4.   When the polenta is done, pour it into a loaf pan, baking pan, roasting pan or other similar container.  Cover loosely and let cool, about 2 hours.
5.   When ready to cook, unmold polenta onto a chopping board.  Cut into ½” thick slices.
6.   Prepare serving dish by spooning 4 tablespoons of marinara sauce on the bottom of the  platter.  Place in a 200°F oven.
7.  Heat oil in a shallow skillet.  Carefully place sliced polenta into hot oil and cook until  golden.  Turn and cook other side.  Transfer slices to prepared platter.  Return to oven to  keep warm.
8.   When all of the slices have been cooked and plated, spoon more marinara sauce over the polenta.  Sprinkle chopped parsley on top of the dish.

Marinara Sauce:

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup diced onions
1 tablespoon crushed garlic
2 bay leaves
1-28 oz can crushed tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup basil chiffonade

1.   Heat olive oil.  Saute√© onions for 2 minutes or until softened.  Add garlic and cook for 2  more minutes.  Add bay leaves and cook for 1 minute.
2.    Add crushed tomatoes with its juice.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add basil if using.
3.    Simmer for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.  Adjust seasoning if  necessary. 
4.   Ladle over polenta or pasta.  Or, let cool and transfer to clean container or jar.  It will keep  in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or freeze up to 3 months.


Polenta is a grainy flour made from ground maize.  Maize, or corn, was introduced to Italy from the New World in the 17th century and soon replaced most of the other local grains in use because polenta adapted very well to the regions’ dairy products.  Generally, there are two kinds of polenta: fine and coarse.  Fine polenta cooks faster but I prefer the coarse kind because it has a more interesting texture.

Polenta can be served plain which is just boiled in water, or it can be dressed up.  I like to cook it with butter (prevents it from sticking to the pot) and cheese which makes it good enough to eat on its own.  It can be served soft like porridge which is often accompanied with meat and gravy.  It can also be poured into a mold, sliced, and fried or grilled. 

I have served polenta in different ways.  There was polenta with chipotle en adobo which was highly flavored and didn’t need a sauce.  There was Polenta al Forno which is sliced and baked with chopped tomatoes and cheese.  And then there is Polenta Elisa in honor of my daughter’s birthday, which is a 2-layer dish with sage and cheese.  My father-in-law’s family hails from Casali in the Abruzzo region of Italy.   He told me that Nana (his mother) always served polenta with pork sausages.   And so this is how we eat polenta. 

This marinara sauce recipe is something I came up with when I volunteered to bring a hot pasta dish for 40 people for lunch to my daughter’s Academic Decathlon competition.  I must have been crazy to make this sauce from scratch when we had to leave the house at 6:00 in the morning to get to the competition which was 50 miles away!  Or maybe, this is just how much I love to cook :-).  You can multiply this recipe and store the leftovers.  I froze mine which will be good for other pasta or polenta dishes. 

I like using the canned crushed tomatoes because it is thick and is packed in its own juices.  No, I wasn’t crazy enough to start with fresh San Marzano or Roma tomatoes!  Onions and garlic added depth to the flavor.  And of course, the basil added an herbaceous flavor which made this sauce transcendent.  Overall, this marinara sauce was thick without being chunky.  It clung to the pasta and bathed it with a majestic flavor.  Best of all, it is easy to make and versatile to use.

So what are some of your family’s favorite dishes?

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