Monday, December 6, 2010

Italian Grits

I'm a grits girl. What blows my mind is people who aren't. If you haven't tried it, let me start out by saying it is not cream of wheat, even though that's how non-grit eaters often associate it. That's about as annoying as asking for a Dr. Pepper at a restaurant and the server responding with, "We don't have that but I can bring you a root beer." Those two things are about as similar as milk and OJ. Anyway, I often get a kick out of non-Southerns staring at the white blob on their virginal plate or bowl, pushing it around and looking at the veterans in search of clues on what to do with it. While some add sugar [Sacrilege!], I believe a little salt and pepper and a pad of butter is nothing shy of perfection.

Grits are made from ground dried hominy, the puffed up corn kernels resulting from ears of corn soaked in lye to remove the husks. While I recognize that lye is poisonous and corrosive, all I'm saying it try it before you knock it. After all, it's not like I'm asking people to throw back some souse. And eating it at a hotel breakfast buffet in Detroit doesn't count.

The irony to me is that people go ga-ga for polenta, which is basically corn grits. That makes polenta a definite kissing cousin of grits. And if you've never had grits, you probably don't know what a kissing cousin is. That's what we call distant relatives we know well enough to greet with a kiss. They're totally in the same family and are equally as versatile and delicious.

I figured if I could ease some more people into the polenta realm they'd be nice and warmed up to try grits in the near future. So while I'll save my grits recipe post for another time, I wanted to give you two recent polenta dishes that would be awesome comfort food during Winter and also are easy enough to whip up over the holidays when you want to impress people without having to spend two days in the kitchen. Just think of polenta as your Rice Krispie treats in your back pocket, which has to be one of the easiest and most beloved desserts out there. You can basically sit in the kitchen reading US Weekly and drinking a glass of wine while your polenta is practically making its delicious self. And no one has to know!

The first recipe is polenta served with a mushroom and sausage ragu. In this scenario, polenta is a great alternative to pasta. For the same amount of time and effort, polenta makes things interesting and again has that super comfort food vibe we all love when the temps start dipping down and you want to be plopped in front of a fire. Polenta IS your toasty fire of comfort.

The second recipe is for a polenta cake. True, I've never heard of a grits cake but that won't stop me from advocating this incarnation of ground up corn. Think orange-scented pound cake but not as dense and with a wonderful texture. It's a homey, countrified cake you can eat in flannel and jeans, not something you feel the need to put on white gloves and sip tea out of fine bone china. And you know I'm not about fussy desserts that require a lot of fuss in the kitchen, so this can definitely be on your short list of "go-to" recipes when you need dessert in a pinch.

I happened to still be able to find fresh berries and stone fruit when I served this, but you could easily stew some frozen berries with a little sugar and lemon peel as a lovely compote. Of course it doesn't suffer from a scoop of vanilla ice cream either. And if you happen to find yourself eating the polenta cake for breakfast the next day, again no one has to know!

Mushroom and Sausage Ragu with Polenta

1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil, divided
8 oz hot Italian sausage
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 lb cremini mushrooms, sliced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp kosher salt, divided
1 (14.5 oz) can no-salt added diced tomatoes, undrained
2 1/2 cups, fat-free, lower sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup uncooked dry polenta
4 oz lower fat cream cheese
1 Tbsp butter

Heat skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 1/2 tsp oil to the pan; swirl to coat. Remove casings from sausage and add sausage to pan; saute 3 minutes or until browned, stirring to crumble. Remove sausage from pan.
Add 1 Tbsp oil to pan and swirl to coat. Add onions, sauteing for 3 minutes and stirring occasionally. Add mushrooms, sauteing for 4 minutes and stirring occasionally. Add garlic and saute for 1 minutes. Stir in sausage, 1/8 tsp salt and can of tomatoes; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium and simmer gently for 15 minutes.
Bring broth and 1 1/2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add polenta, stirring well. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 20 minutes or until thick, stirring occasionally. Add more stock if the polenta gets too dry. Stir in remaining 1/8 tsp salt, cream cheese and butter. Serve with sausage mixture. Yields: 4 servings.

Orange Polenta Cake with Vanilla-Scented Blackberries and Nectarines

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup medium-fine polenta or organic cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tsp packed finely grated orange peel
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup whole-milk plain yogurt
4 large nectarines (or plums), halved, pitted and cut into 1/3-inch wedges
2 cups blackberries
6 Tbsp sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter 9x5x3-in metal loaf pan. Dust with flour and tap out excess. Whisk 1 1/4 cup flour, polenta, baking powder and salt in medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat sugar, butter and orange peel in large bowl until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each one. Beat in vanilla extract and add flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with yogurt in 2 additions. Beat just until blended after each addition. Spread batter evenly in pan and bake until golden and tester inserted into center comes out clean, 50-55 minutes. Transfer to rack; cool in pan 15 minutes. Run knife around cake edges to loosen. Invert cake on rack then invert again on rack (top side up). Cool completely. Combine fruit and sugar in medium bowl. Scrape in seeds from vanilla beach and add to fruit in bowl. Toss to coat and let stand at room temperature until juices form, tossing occasionally, about an hour. To serve, cut cake crosswise into 1/2 inch thick slices and serve with vanilla ice cream and fruit.
Note: Cake can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap in plastic wrap and store at room temperature. Fruit can be made up to 3 hours ahead. Cover and chill.

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