Sausage Ragù and Polenta for a Potluck Supper

My mother is from Frascati so half of me is a local yokel, as I like to say.  But Frascati has an English-speaking international school which our children attended and through which I met so many lovely people from all corners of the earth.  The sad thing is that most of them, unless they were married to an Italian like me, had to leave Frascati after a while, and the good thing is that many of them return regularly to visit.  It was mainly via these expats that I got to know all about potlucks and have come to love them so much.   Potlucks are a staple when we ‘do’ a girls-only get together.

I don’t know about you but I think potluck suppers are super – everyone gets to contribute something and the total menu ends up being so more than the sum of its parts.  Potlucks often end up being veritable feasts and leftovers to take home are the proverbial icing on the cake.   True, those who don’t like,  or are are shy, about cooking are probably those who don’t relish the idea of having to ‘compete’ with the more accomplished home cooks – but in my experience of over twenty years, these same people soon get over it and look forward to really enjoying what their peers can produce.   Look: if you can’t cook you can always bring a rotisserie chicken (that’s my go-to contribution when I’m too busy to cook), or some good quality cured meats (think breasaola seasoned with olive oil and balsamic vinegar topped with a scattering of rocket/arugula leaves and thin wafers of parmesan), or various kinds of pizza, or a great salad, or a shop bought dessert.  No excuse, in other words.

For last night’s potluck, I decided I’d forgo the chicken routine (done that too often recently) and actually cook something, however strapped I knew I’d be for time.  Hence the idea of making polenta (easy peasy, just follow the intructions on the box) and topping it with a meat sauce that would not take hours and hours to cook.  As it so happened, I had half a jar of truffle butter in my fridge – a precious ‘leftover’ from a potluck that took place last May, that friend Sandy from Vancouver had bought. I decided it was high time that ingredient got used up, and what better way than to add it to the polenta.  If you like truffle, yum yum and more yum.

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The other night was a very ‘Antipodean’ gathering of girlfriends.  Leanne, our hostess who lives in the nearby town of Marino, is from South Africa.  Liz (who like me lives in Frascati) and her daughter Simona are from Sydney, newbie Donna is also from Australia, and recently retired Alison is from New Zealand.  Michelle who sadly couldn’t join us for work reasons is a Brit but she was born in Australia too.  So Susy (also a Brit) and I were the only two gals from the northern Hemisphere.  Another friend who couldn’t make it was Debra, American, who was catching an early plane for Hong Kong the next morning (her Italian husband works there).  So you see how lucky I am.  Other great and regular potluck girlfriends include Irish Margaret, American Victoria, Danish Charlotte, the above -mentioned Canadian Sandy and last and certainly never least American Libby.  Who knows, maybe one day I’ll get around to writing a potluck-meal cookery book, based on our experience?

Anyway back to the recipe(s).

INGREDIENTS: Italian sausages (skinned), fresh tomatoes and tomato sauce (passata), some wine, an onion, some black pepper, some coriander, a couple of cloves, salt and pepper, a bayleaf, parsely.  For the vegetable stock: a carrot, a stick of celery and any other veggie of  your choice.

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Start by making the vegetable stock – any veg you have in the fridge and simmer for at least 20 minutes in plenty of water.

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I used six sausages – and skinned them before cooking them.

4An onion, the coriander, the pepper and the cloves.

5I had some red wine.  You could use white if you preferred.

6-e1570951256597.jpg7I had three tomatoes and I processed them.

8I also got to use some passata.

9A nice big heavy bottomed saucepan and enough olive oil to cover the entire surface.

LET’S GET COOKING

10Turn the heat on and use a potato masher to mash up the skinned sausages.

11The sausage meat tends to get caught up in the potato masher – so help untangle the meat with a sharp knife.

12Keep mashing the meat and swish it around too with the wooden spoon.  Cook it over a high heat for about 10 minutes.

13Add 1 ladle of the vegetable stock.  Cook it down – i.e. keep cooking until the stock evaporates. The whole idea of the stock is to keep the meat soft.

14Now add a splosh of red wine – and again, keep cooking so that the alcohol evaporates.

15We can turn the heat down now.  Add the minced onion , the spices and the bayleaf.  I sprinkled lots of salt over the onion before I mixed it in with the meat.

16I quickly added the fresh tomatoes and the passata.

17I combined all the ingredients and then added a couple of ladles of the vegetable stock. I placed the lid on the saucepan and let the sausage ragù stew/simmer over a low heat for about an hour.  I checked on it now and then and added a little bit more of the stock when necessary.

18I let the stew reduce to a very thick consistency, as you can see in this photo.  When the ragù reached room temperature, I added some minced parsely.  Just because.  Don’t ask me why.

It was now time to make the polenta.

19I followed the instructions on the packet. Basically, polenta requires five times the volume of water per polenta.  For instance: 100g polenta will require 500 ml of cooking water.  I added the truffle butter to the cooking polenta towards the very end.  Those specks you see are bits of truffle.

HELPFUL TIP WITH POLENTA:  Bring the water to the boil and then add the salt (10 g per liter of water).  When the salt has dissolved, take the pan away from the heat.  Use a wooden spoon or spatula to creat whirls in the water, i.e. go round and round with the spoon, quite fast so that a kind of ‘well’ is created in the middle.  Pour the polenta into this ‘well’, all at once, and get mixing as fast as you can.  Get rid of lumps if they should form. And then place the pot back on the heat again to finish cooking it.   I chose the quick-cooking polenta that requires less than 10 minutes.  Also, I added a teensy bit more water than technically required to make a more looser, ‘runnier’ texture.  And that was because I knew we would be reheating the polenta later on, just before serving, and I didn’t want to create a monster thickness.

20I used a ladle to put the ragù over the polenta at the beginning and then poured the last amount straight from the pot, scraping every little bit out with a rubber spatula.

21When everything had cooled down enough, I enveloped the pyrex dish with loads of clingfilm and placed it on a tray to help  me carry it to the car and up the steep flight of steps to Leanne’s house.  You need strong thighs to get to her home !

We placed it in a hot oven for a few minutes before serving it.  Freshly grated pecorino was served as a topping for those who wanted it.

I was having such a good time I didn’t take any photos, which is quite rare for me.  What a shame.   We started off with Alison’s delicious bresaola.  I had also made an emmer wheat/spelt salad seasoned with olive oil and lemonjuice and studded with cherry tomatoes and rocket/arugula.  Leanne made a delicious Indonesian soup, called Laksa. Liz and Simona brought a fab beef slow-cooked curry served with steamed rice.  We did not go hungry that’s for sure !

I asked Alison to kindly forward me a photo of some leftovers she took home.

KNRX9733I know it sounds as if I spent a lot of time cooking this polenta concoction but in reality it was a lot less.  Let me break it down for you.  It took me less than 5 minutes to get the vegetable stock going.  While that was simmering, I had to peel the onion and mince it (I used an electric blender for that).  Ditto for the tomatoes.  I had to gather the rest of the ingredients.  Pour the oil into the saucepan.  Skin the sausages.  By the time I actually got to cook the sausage meat, less than 15 minutes had gone by.  The initial cooking that required stirring and supervision did take about another 15 minutes.  So, in terms of ‘real’ time, it took me only half an hour to get the ragù going.  For the rest of its cooking time, about one hour, I was able to get on with other activities.  I checked on it about three times in all.

The polenta took me a total of about 20 minutes from start to finish.  I could have speeded things up by using an electric kettle I suppose.

The great thing about this polenta recipe is that you could freeze it in advance?

Shrimp and Melon Salad

Now, there’s an odd couple.  I’d never heard of such a combination.

I saw this recipe presented in an Italian TV programme featuring “Benedetta”, that’s the lady’s name, from somewhere in the countryside in the Marche.  Indeed, from somewhere in the countryside in the Marche very very close to where my mother-in-law hails from.  A small beautiful hilltop town called Monterubbiano.  We spent many Summer holidays there with our children.

Now, you have to understand that in Italy it is quite common to make fun of people’s regional accents and dialects.   Our son has been living in Milan for the last three years and by the way doesn’t have a strong Roman accent, not at all.  Even so, his colleagues will ask him to utter a few choice Roman phrases because it tickles them pink.   My husband and I are likewise tickled pink by this Benedetta’s accent from the southern part of the Marche (the north part speak more like they do in Emilia Romagna).  All this tickled-pink business is usually just gentle joshing but there are times when people can get a little snobby or downright mean when it comes to accents and that is where I part company.  I am very proud of the fact, for instance, that I can speak some Frascatan dialect, acquired via my grandmother Giuseppina, even though it does sound quite gritty and awful compared with ‘proper’ Italian.  So hats off to Benedetta from not shying away from her “Marche sporche” accent.  She finishes every recipe off by tasting what she’s prepared, giving it the thumb’s up and saying “fatto in casa per voi”  (which translates something like “I made it at home for you”) in her undisguisable sing-song lilt.

Well, she herself got this recipe from a fish and seafood restaurant run by a friend of hers (can’t remember the name), also from the Marche.  It looked so easy to make, I simply had to give it a shot.

The first time I made it, it was lovely.  The second time, not so good on account of the fact that the melon wasn’t much cop.  Had very little taste.  So I think that a good melon is the prime ingredient here.  For the rest … it’s easy peasy.  Take a look.

INGREDIENTS: Lemon zest, lemon juice, extravirgin olive oil, salt, pre-cooked scampi (mine were frozen), slices of celery

IMG_4518IMG_4519IMG_4520IMG_4521IMG_4522IMG_4523img_4524.jpgI haven’t bothered giving any written instructions because it’s all common sense – the pictures say it all, correct?

IMG_4525IMG_4526IMG_4527It can be prepared in advance and left in the fridge for a few hours, covered with clingfilm.

A word about the frozen shrimps.  I chose the best quality I could find and rinsed them in cold water countless times.  Neary all frozen fish is covered with some watered down ammonia or other preservative to stop it from spoiling.

Fresh shrimps would have been best, of course.

Pasta col Tonno Sfiziosa – ‘Fussy’ Pasta with Tuna

I am reposting another version of the classic pasta with tuna – one that can’t be made in a hurry and that requires a little attention to detail in the prepping phase.  Definitely worth the trouble, however, if you have the time and inclination.  I wrote the post in December 2014, that’s quite a while ago !

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It is very traditional to have a fish-only themed menu on Christmas Eve in most parts of Italy, including Rome.  Also traditional are foods fried in batter such as artichokes, cauliflower, broccolo, apples, cod fish etc.  Spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti in a clam sauce) are always a big hit.  And so is pasta with tuna – not fresh tuna but tuna packed in olive oil.

I stopped buying tuna a few years ago, after reading about the parlous state of this particular fishing industry.  I don’t want to sound all holier than thou over this decision and I am sure I am not the only one.  However, I also keep an optimistic attitude and look into reports on improvements (in Italy’s Mediterranean waters at least) and it would appear that the numbers of tuna have grown to the point that I can now resume eating it without feeling guilty (and being careful, of course, to choose the right brand).

The photos on today’s post were taken at the end of last summer, the tuna being a present from friends who had just returned from a holiday in Puglia.

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This tuna was A-star stuff, packed in proper olive oil and not some other substandard seed oil, and presented in a glass jar.

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Some tomatoes, a couple of cloves of garlic … and my new kitchen ‘toy’ – a tomato peeler.

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You don’t have to peel the tomatoes but I was in raptures of reverent tomato peeling activity and enjoying myself the way little children do when trying out a new toy …

IMG_9621IMG_9622A couple of anchovy fillets … and some lemon zest (for freshness).

Chop and de-seed the peeled tomatoes …

 

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Cook the garlic (careful that it doesn’t burn, it must cook until it is golden).

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Sprinkle salt all over the chopped tomatoes while the garlic is cooking …

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Get your pasta out (spaghetti would have been nice but I didn’t have any that day) …


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Add the tomatoes to the frying pan …

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After a few minutes, add the anchovy fillets …

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Taste … and add a pinch of sugar if necessary.


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It won’t take more than 10 minutes to have this sauce ready.  At that point, add some torn basil leaves and the lemon zest.  Switch off the heat.

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Sssssh … don’t tell anyone but I didn’t do such a good job of de-seeding the tomatoes.  Never mind.  I am still alive.

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Grate some pecorino cheese.  I think anyone who has been reading my blog for a while is fully aware of my reluctance to engage in cheese grating which is why I do my level best to fob this job off to any other family member or friend who happens to be in the vicinity.  It is important to have someone else grate your cheese for you, yes … but it is also important to make sure that the proper sized cheese grater is used.  See the photo above? The holes in the grater are too big … the grated cheese is not ‘fine’ enough for a pasta.  The finer the cheese grated, the easier it will be for the cheese to ‘melt’ completely into the sauce.  I know it sounds silly but it makes all the difference.

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While the pasta is cooking … drain the tuna.

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When the pasta is just about cooked, transfer it it to the pan with the tomato sauce.  Turn the heat on again and allow the pasta to finish its cooking time directly in the sauce.  If the sauce looks like it’s going to dry out, add some of the cooking water.

 

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Add the tuna last …

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Combine all the ingredients and switch off heat.
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The green bits are, I think, a mixture of mint and marjoram.  Parsely would be great too.

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Add the grated cheese last.

It is not ‘normal’ in Italian cuisine to mix cheese and fish together.  This recipe is one of the exceptions.  As is pasta with mussels and pecorino.

https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/pasta-al-tonno-variation/

Pasta col Tonno – Classic Pasta Recipe with Pre-Cooked Tuna

I am reposting a recipe I wrote back in March 2011.  It is a classic and it’s worthwhile keeping in mind when time is of the essence.  So think of this variation as the “quick and easy one”.

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At a restaurant not far from home last night, I was surprised to be served a dish made up of polenta accompanied by a tomato sauce and tuna – most unusual and very good too. Upon closer inspection, it transpired that that the tuna was not the fresh kind but, rather, the tuna that is packed in oil – you know, the kind one always keeps in the pantry for salads or for those just-in-case emergency occasions when a very hungry stomach (or two) will fight a very convincing battle with the brain when it presumes to think that cooking can’t be paramount on one’s list of priorities. And that is time to make a pasta and tuna dish so that both stomach and brain will be appeased.

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The ingrediens: some pasta, a jar of tuna packed in olive oil, a jar of tomato sauce, garlic, anchovy fillets and any fresh, green herb you may have around … in this case it was some marjoram.

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When one is in a hurry, it is best to think slowly and act quickly … so take a moment to ‘orchestrate’ the necessary steps.  First things first: put the water on to boil and pour some olive oil into a good-sized saucepan.

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Peel some garlic and cut in half and put it into the saucepan together with one anchovy fillet.  Turn the heat on a low heat (we don’t want the garlic to burn to a crisp) … and then open the jar of tuna and put it through a colander, and open the jar of tomato sauce.

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When the garlic has turned golden and the anchovy fillet has sort of dissolved …

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Add the tomato sauce.

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Put the pasta into the boiling water …

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Add some salt …

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Add a pinch of sugar too … it is the sugar and the salt that really ‘add’ taste to any tomato sauce because both ingredients are enhancers of taste: i.e. both ingredients make any flavour taste better !  That is why a little bit of salt is added even to sweet dishes.

I defy any chef worth his or her hat to deny that salt has no place in the kitchen ! People are absolutely terrified of salt and this is very silly indeed.  The important thing is to use only a small amount … in fact, only the RIGHT amount.

And as for those who worry about high blood pressure and all that that entails … please take the time to google around on the merits of untreated sea salt versus the very nasty chemically cleaned sodium chloride (here is one easy link to get you started: http://www.ecomall.com/greenshopping/salt.htm ).

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As the sauce sputters away merrily, add a sprig of your herbs …

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Followed by the tuna, drained of the oil it was preserved in …

Give it a good stir, gently breaking up the tuna so that it thickens the sauce.

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When the pasta is almost ready (i.e. two to three minutes before the cooking time recommended on the packet), you can drain it directly into the saucepan …

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If the sauce is a little too thick, you can ladle in a little of the cooking water … and keep cooking the whole lot until the pasta has ‘absorbed’ all the sauce and is ready to be served.

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The reason I insert this somewhat unappealing photo is to show that a jar of tuna and a jar of tomato sauce and 500 g of pasta can go a long way !  It can definitely feed four very hungry people …

 

 

Ready to eat … and it took just over 15 minutes from start to finish.  (For your information, the above pasta is the kind that takes 12 minutes to cook.)

There is nothing like a plate of pasta to placate a hungry belly AND a brain that thinks it’s too busy to cook …

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Bread Salad – Panzanella

I wrote about a ‘special’ panzanella on this blog four years ago – ‘special’ because it added an ingredient that is not normally associated with a panzanella, in this case squid.

https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2015/06/21/antipasto-squid-panzanella-inspired-by-ristorante-pepenero-in-capodimonte/

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More recently, I read such a beautiful post about panzanella by Judy Witts Francini (of Divina Cucina fame) that I thought to myself: what IS the point of writing another one, you’d only say more or less the same things.   The one panzanella she didn’t mention is the one we make near Rome (panzanella romana), the one my grandmother would prepare for me as an afternoon snack (merenda).  Basically, it was just a lot of chopped tomatoes placed over a slice of bread, and seasoned with salt and olive oil.  Delicious.

The good thing about panzanella is that it can be prepared ahead of time and is actually great for parties.  Here is a photo of a huge panzanella I made last summer on the occasion of my sister-in-law’s birthday.

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And now, without further ado, but with imagined roll of drums and blaring of trumpets, here is the link to Judy’s post:

Panzanella – Why Tuscan bread is Saltless

My Own ‘Cheat’ Parmigiana di Melanzane Recipe

Sometimes I post a blog after a distance of three weeks: today I am posting three recipes all on the same day.   And they are all about aubergines/eggplant.  It must be that I am fired up by aubergines today?

If there is something that makes me almost weep with gastronomic pleasure, it’s a properly make parmigiana di melanzane, a layered aubergine and mozzarella bake in a tomato sauce with parmesan thrown in for good measure and a key ingredient that gives the recipe its name.  I wrote a blog about it last year:

https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2018/08/31/patience-permitting-a-parmigiana-di-melanzane-most-fitting/

“Patience Permitting, A Parmigiana di Melanzane most Fitting” – the title says a lot, doesn’t it.  Yes, yes indeed.  This is a recipe that takes a LOT of time and patience and one that I most likely make only once or twice a year.

So … I thought that I might work out a ‘cheat’ version – never as good, obviously, but all in all nothing to sneer at.

Take a look.

INGREDIENTS

Aubergine, flour, oil for frying (this time I used olive oil but you can also use groundnut oil which has a good smoke point), mozzarella, tomato sauce, grated parmesan cheese, basil

1Start by slicing the aubergine into ‘chips’ and then flouring them.  The reason they need to be floured before frying is that they will otherwise absorb an awful lot of oil.  The flour acts like a sheath.  Shake the excess flour off the chips before frying them.

2Fry them until they go crisp.   Lay them on kitchen paper that will absorb any excess oiliness.

3Wait for them to cool down a little and then place them in a roasting pan – I happened to use this pyrex dish.  Add chunks of mozzarella. Sprinkle some salt.

4Add a layer of tomato sauce, scatter some basil leaves, and sprinkle some parmesan.

5Repeat the same procedure, with another layer.

6Bake until cooked.  Add more fresh mozzarella and basil leaves just before serving.

Not quite as lip-licking delicious compared with a ‘proper’ parmigiana di melanzane but it’ll do when time is of the essence.

My Mother’s Aubergine/Eggplant Sandwich

Since I wrote about my mother-in-law’s recipe with aubergines, I think it might be a good idea to also include one of my own mother’s aubergine recipes.  This is not about rivalry between mothers-in-law but, rather, about variety being the spice of life.

INGREDIENTS

Aubergine/eggplant, flour, egg, oil for frying (groundnut oil), mozzarella, anchovy

Start by turning the oven on.  Isn’t it weird how so many summer dishes actually entail having to deal with a hot oven? Sigh.

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Flour on the left, beaten eggs on the right.  You might even add a little water to the beaten egg.  I had to water down my egg wash once because I didn’t have enough eggs to hand and everything worked out just fine.

2Slice the aubergine into rounds.

3Flour them on both sides and then dip them in the egg wash.

4Fry them on both sides.

5Pat the top of the fried aubergine with some kitchen paper to absorb any excess oiliness. Then sprinkle a little bit of salt.  Only a little.

6The idea is to make a sandwich with the slices of fried aubergine.  Place some mozzarella and a fillet of anchovy (the kind that is packed in oil) on one slice, add some basil and then bring the two halves together.

7Bake in the oven (200°C I would say) until they are done – about half an hour?

They don’t look like much but don’t be fooled.  Not once, not once I repeat, have I ever had any leftovers when it comes to this recipe !