Ahh, Polenta—my old nemesis.
Years ago I purchased a vacuum-sealed brick of the finest polenta and lived with it, packing it along it in at least one move – until I worked up the nerve to make the thing. The trouble was, I had never had polenta, had never seen it made, or even knew what it was supposed to look like when cooked. In a way, I wasn’t much different than the first pioneer who said ‘there must be a way to make grits for dinner.’
My first attempt was a disaster. I think the biggest problem was that the folks who packaged the polenta and I had entirely different ideas about what a ‘medium sized saucepan’ was. My estimate was far too small to contain the swirling mass of cornpone that erupted from the boiling water as soon as I spooned it in. In less than ten minutes I had enough polenta to feed all of Corsica and that’s not including the overflow I had to scrape off of the side of the pan and the stovetop. Oh, and it was all too dry.
So I forgot about polenta for a while, until recently, when I purchased another vacuum-brick, and armed with Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, dove in.
I needed something to mach with the polenta, of course, and my inspiration came from a Better Homes and Gardens recipe booklet called ‘Easy Skillet Meals.’ As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had good results starting with the checkout aisle books and I love making elaborate to-do’s in our giant 12-inch Calphanon pan.
Bittman’s formula is simple enough: 2 parts water, 1 part polenta, some salt and so on. He has several more elaborate versions involving cheeses and herbs and so on, but I wanted my polenta to be a base for the ragout, so I kept it simple.
The ragout was also pretty straightforward (recipe follows). I used pork instead of beef, went light on the mushrooms because the wife won’t eat them, used homemade chicken broth instead of beef broth (I’ve never made, or heard of, pork broth, but I’ve used chicken broth with pork before and it’s a fine mix), and stuck with the recipe for pretty much everything else. The sherry is the most important part. Really, taking a big pan of meat and vegetables, tossing some spices in and then splashing it all around in some white wine or sherry is so reliably wonderful, and so simply accomplished, it’s hard to justify needing a recipe at all. But it was helpful to have a place to begin. And I’m not certain I would have thought of the cherry tomatoes—which were awesome.
As I mentioned, my plan was to serve the ragout over the broiled polenta, which I did. The problems arose when I tried to broil the polenta into the corn-breadish squares I hoped for. The idea is that after the polenta is cooked into a thick-grit-like state, you pour it into a pan, chill it, and then broil it.
I almost certainly didn’t let the polenta set long enough before broiling, as it sort of achieved the proper consistency on the top, but was still kind of semi-liquid underneath. This wasn’t at all the disaster I had endured on my first polenta attempt, but the results were far from perfect. We ate it, it was good, but still, it was more like grits than polenta.
This recipe fits the bill for casual get-togethers, and it's prepared in only 30 minutes. If you like, spoon the mixture over noodles and serve with crusty bread or corn bread and wedges of melon.
Start to finish: 30 minutes
1. Trim any fat from meat. Cut meat into ½ inch pieces. In a large nonstick skillet heat oil over medium-high heat. Cook and stir meat in hot oil for 2 to 3 minutes or until meat is slightly pink in center. Remove meat, reserving drippings in skillet.
2. Cook mushrooms, onion, and garlic in the reserved drippings until onion is tender. Stir in flour, salt, and pepper. Add beef broth and wine. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly.
3. Stir in sugar snap peas. Cook and stir for 2 to 3 minutes or until snap peas are tender. Stir in meat and tomatoes; heat through. If desired, serve over hot cooked noodles. Makes 4 servings.
12 ounces beef tenderloin
1-tablespoon olive oil or cooking oil
1/2 cup sliced fresh shiitake or button mushrooms (4 ounces)
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4-teaspoon black pepper
1 14-ounce can beef broth
¼ cup port wine or dry sherry
2 cups sugar snap peas or one 10-ounce package frozen sugar snap peas, thawed
I cup cherry tomatoes, halvedHot cooked wide noodles or pasta (optional) Or broiled polenta, if you roll like I do.