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.
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.
Start by making the vegetable stock – any veg you have in the fridge and simmer for at least 20 minutes in plenty of water.
I used six sausages – and skinned them before cooking them.
An onion, the coriander, the pepper and the cloves.
I had some red wine. You could use white if you preferred.
I had three tomatoes and I processed them.
I also got to use some passata.
A nice big heavy bottomed saucepan and enough olive oil to cover the entire surface.
LET’S GET COOKING
Turn the heat on and use a potato masher to mash up the skinned sausages.
The sausage meat tends to get caught up in the potato masher – so help untangle the meat with a sharp knife.
Keep mashing the meat and swish it around too with the wooden spoon. Cook it over a high heat for about 10 minutes.
Add 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.
Now add a splosh of red wine – and again, keep cooking so that the alcohol evaporates.
We 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.
I quickly added the fresh tomatoes and the passata.
I 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.
I 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.
I 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.
I 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.
When 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.
I 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?