Polenta: A Winter Supper

A winter supper: polenta with tomato sauce and Italian sausage.


The charming town of Petaluma is surrounded by the history of Italian ancestors – farmers and ranchers who raised the food that fueled the growth of San Francisco and the North Bay in the late 1900s. Third and fourth generation growers and ranchers continue this tradition today, and many have been able to sustain their heritage through the community actions of MALT and the Sonoma Land Trust. This recipe makes me think of their history, and it is a favorite dish. It’s simple, and yummy. My two requisites.

Polenta

Ingredients:
6 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups polenta
2 tablespoons butter (optional)
Shredded Parmesan cheese (optional)

Add salt to water in medium pot and bring to a low boil. Slowly stir in polenta, turn heat down to a simmer. Simmer for about 20 to 25 minutes, stirring frequently. The polenta should bubble gently – you don’t want the bottom to burn. You can’t over stir this recipe, so relax, listen to some music and in the meantime brown the sausages.

After the polenta has finished cooking through, stir in the butter (optional, but very good). Top with shredded Parmesan when you serve this creamy dish – I often serve it with goat cheese crumbled or Chèvre spread on top. You can also serve the polenta with tomato-basil-garlic sauce, or your favorite pasta sauce. I like to serve Polenta with Italian sausage. (See recipes below.)

You have a choice of how to serve the polenta: Creamy or browned. I usually serve it creamy and then place what is left over in a bowl or storage container and place it in the ‘fridge. I take it out later, cut it when it’s cold, and brown it in olive oil as a delicious “left-over.”

Italian Sausage

Buy your favorite Italian sausage – Mild or Hot. These are uncooked sausages, therefore you need to properly heat them through as you cook them and brown them. To serve 4, place 4 sausages in a deep sauté pan with a lid with ¼ to ½ cup of water. Poke each sausage, 2 to 3 times, with a knife. At medium-high heat, bring the sausages and water to a good simmer, then lower to low-medium heat and cover for 10 minutes. Add water if needed as the sausages cook through. Take the lid off and brown both sides on medium heat.

Tomato-Garlic-Basil Sauce

This quick sauce goes with almost anything!

Ingredients:
1 small can stewed tomatoes
1 large garlic clove, crushed and finely minced
½ tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon dried Basil

In a small saucepan, sauté the garlic in olive oil until just golden. Add stewed tomatoes with juice and crush tomatoes with a “potato masher” in the pan. Simmer 5 minutes. Add dried Basil and simmer 5 minutes. Voila . . . it’s ready.

BerKelly’s Garden Zucchini Parmesan

We don’t have an upscale kitchen (a relic of 1979), and the ingredients we cook with are simple – but we have purpose in our little kitchen and we are cookin’ this summer. Do you like the scrumptious yumminess of Eggplant Parmesan? This dish is similar, but BETTER, and made with, the season’s most prolific queen of vegetables, zucchini. We made this nutritious, crunchy, cheesy, layered, vegetarian dish with an enormous zucchini from the Anton Zucchini plant in our vegetable garden built this spring with help from family members and from our church family at Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma (podcast to follow soon).

The recipe has its own history, coming from our favorite hardbound cookbook, My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur. With Berkley’s roasted tomato, garlic, and basil sauce, this dish reached its full potential; however, feel free to use what works for you – a jar of your favorite tomato sauce will do just fine.

Recipe

Ingredients:

TOMATO SAUCE
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 14-oz can plum tomatoes with juice
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon water
Salt and freshly ground pepper

5 medium (or one GIANT) zucchini
Salt (we use Kosher salt) and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion (we use red onion in this dish), halved then sliced thinly
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
1/3 cup homemade fresh bread crumbs (we added about ½ teaspoon dried basil and ½ teaspoon kosher salt to 4 pieces of lightly toasted bread ground in the food processor, but you can use or your favorite ready-made brand).
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 375F.

For the tomato sauce, heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, whole tomatoes with juice, and sprig of rosemary. Gently crush the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon. Swirl the water in the can to pick up the last of the tomato juices and add to the pan. Decrease the heat and gently simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until thick and jamlike. Season to taste with salt and pepper (we add a sprinkle of chili flakes). Discard the rosemary sprig. This sauce can be made 4 days in advance or frozen and used later.

Trim the zucchini (at the ends) and slice lengthwise into 4 or 5 ribbons each. (If using a GIANT zucchini, cut in half first, then slice lengthwise.) Season with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet or cast-iron pan (we used a cast-iron skillet). Add the zucchini, in batches, and fry until browned on both sides. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to soak up some of the oil (we placed it directly into our baking dish). Cut each piece in half, crosswise (we didn’t need to do this).

In a separate skillet (we used the same cast-iron skillet for everything), heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Season with salt; transfer to a small bowl (we just added the onions on top of the zucchini in the baking dish).

In the same skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over low heat. Stir in the bread crumbs and cook until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the parsley.

Arrange the zucchini in a 2 quart baking dish (we doubled the recipe and used two baking dishes), overlapping the slices to make one dense layer. Top with the onion mixture and cover with the tomato sauce. Sprinkle with the cheese, then with the bread crumbs. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake until bubbling, about 45 minutes (we baked for 25 minutes). Remove the foil and bake for 5 to 10 minutes longer, until golden brown on top.

This dish tastes as good as it smells when it’s baking!

Mickey and Rachel Thomas in the Kitchen

As temperatures dipped in the Bay Area, Kelly and I headed south to soak up some good old Southern California sunshine. Our trip included some of my favorite things in life: Family, friends, food, music and baseball. The culmination of our road trip was a fabulous meal prepared with friends Mickey and Rachel Thomas, and an interview with Mickey about the role cooking plays in his life.

The beginning of our trip was in beautiful Pismo Beach where we enjoyed dinner with Kelly’s mom, Linda and her stepfather, Travis. Kelly frequently talks about how much she enjoyed her mom’s cooking growing up and Linda’s delicious barbecued pork sandwiches did not disappoint.

Kelly and Dad with the StudebakerOn the way to our second stop in Pasadena, we managed to fit in some disc golf at the historic Oak Grove Course. Our second evening was another treat – I met Kelly’s dad, Bruce, and his partner Cynthia. They are a couple of gourmets. Cynthia treated us to the most delectable baked salmon with potatoes (roasted with bacon drippings, yum!) and her famous orange cake. After dinner, Bruce took us for a spirited cruise in his custom modified ’38 Studebaker.

Day three’s itinerary led us east to Joshua Tree National Park for a night of camping on the desert floor. We enjoyed leftovers of salmon and potatoes and were treated to a brilliant night sky before bed.  The sparkling stars provided some comfort overhead, Palm Deserthowever the desert floor did not.  Our next trek was by foot on a 9-mile hike to and from Lost Palms Oasis following which we headed directly to the nearest store we could find to buy camping air mattresses.

Four nights of comfortable beds and comfort food lied ahead with my dear friends Mickey and Rachel Thomas. I consider them family, and they treated us like family in their lovely Palm Desert home. Many of you know Mickey as a talented musician from his days with Jefferson Starship and Elvin Bishop. He continues Rachel's "To die for" BBQ Wingsmaking fantastic music as he records and tours as Starship featuring Mickey Thomas. We spent our time telling stories, creating some incredible meals, drinking great wine, watching playoff baseball and ending each evening with a scary movie in the spirit of Halloween.

What many of you may not know about Mickey is his passion for food. Dinner with the Thomas’ is always a treat, whether Mickey or Rachel is cooking. They are both very talented in the kitchen and two of the sweetest most down to earth people you will encounter. After greeting us with a fresh Pasta Primavera dinner, Mickey and Rachel graciously allowed us to take over theirTapas Plate kitchen the following night for a meal we prepared with risotto and mussels. We spent our last day making a video for Noah’s Wish – Mickey and Rachel’s favorite charity – and planning our last feast. Creating this feast was like a musical performance with all four of us in the kitchen creating six dishes that were to die for:  Rachel’s secret barbecued chicken wings, stuffed eggplant rolls in marinara sauce, Vietnamese shrimp meatballs, Southern scallops with black beans, Greek salad, and spicy shrimp lettuce wraps.


Mickey, Rachel and Berkley The story of this feast unfolds here, in this slide show and interview with Mickey Thomas.

Family Reunion Pasta with Bolognese Sauce

FamilyRenionPhoto
Pasta with Bolognese sauce is a classic Italian meal that is simple to prepare – it just needs plenty of time for the sauce to simmer slowly.  I recommend selecting music that inspires you as you cook it then settle into a good movie as it simmers . . . . . Did I say, slowly? This is apparently the key to a good Bolognese sauce as I discovered in my Italian Classics by Cooks Illustrated.  This recipe is fail proof and yummy, and as they explain in their prologue for Bolognese sauce, it’s “about the meat, with the tomatoes in a supporting role.”  Tomatoes have played a starring role in an earlier blog entry, so this story is about the beef.

Grass fed ground beef and pork

Grass fed ground beef and pork

Since the meat is the focus of this dish, we used local, grass fed beef as the foundation. There are important differences in taste and nutrition when you compare grass fed beef to the much more common grain fed (or corn fed) beef that most Americans eat from cows raised on enormous industrial cattle lots. Carbon foot print issues aside, grass fed beef has far superior flavor and texture, and it is healthier because it is higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin E and is lower in fat and calories than grain fed beef.

Not many ranchers have the ability or support to raise organic, grass fed beef in California.  An exceptional ranch near us in the spectacular Point Reyes Peninsula is run by the Lunny family – third and fourth generation farmers who have found a way to raise grass fed, organic beef on their historic farm.  While our budget doesn’t allow us to enjoy the treat of their beef often, we plan special meals with them in mind. I interviewed Kevin Lunny, the grandson of the farm’s patriarch, Joseph Lunny, for a museum exhibition on family run farms, Growing the Future. As I listened to his story, my esteem for farmers and ranchers grew ten-fold.  I learned that farmers are not just hard workers, they are problem solvers, looking for solutions to the many challenges of farming such as land stewardship, soil erosion, and energy use. Knowing the people that grow my food has changed the way I think, cook, eat, and vote. Take a few hours for food and fun and visit a local farmers’ market if you haven’t already, and get to know the people who grow our food.

The following Bolognese sauce recipe is simply fabulous, and is straight from Italian Classics. The Berkelly influence comes from the organic ingredients we chose to use from our local food producers in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Just add music

Just add music

Ingredients
5 tablespoons unsalted butter (We used Straus Family organic sweet cream butter)
2 tablespoons minced onion
2 tablespoons minced carrot
2 tablespoons minced celery
¾ pound ground beef chuck, ¼ pound ground veal, and ¼ pound ground pork
(We chose to use mostly ground, grass fed beef and some ground pork which makes the sauce sweeter. We didn’t use ground veal.)
1 cup whole milk (Straus Family milk has a full, rich flavor. Cream makes the sauce too heavy).
1 cup dry white wine (We used a terrific white wine from the wine making region of Rueda in Spain – a Verdejo by V-solo – on sale that week at Whole Foods).
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes with their juice (We used Berkley’s roasted tomatoes instead since we had them on hand from our weekly CSA, Tolay Valley Farms.)
Sea Salt to taste
1 pound dried pasta (we used fusilli because it is kid friendly)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy bottomed Dutch oven or pot then add and sauté the onions, carrots and celery until softened (not browned).  Add the ground meats and ½ teaspoon salt and continually crumble the meat with a wooden spoon as it cooks. Only cook until the meat is cooked, but has not yet browned.

Reduced after 2 hours

Reduced after 2 hours

2.  Add the milk and bring to a simmer; continue simmering until the milk evaporates and the clear milk fat remains (about 10 to 15 minutes). Add the wine and bring to a simmer, continuing to simmer until the alcohol evaporates (another 10 to 15 minutes).  Add the tomatoes with their juice and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to a low simmer so that there is just the occasional bubble or two at the surface at one time. Simmer on this low setting until most of the liquid has evaporated (so, no simmering with the lid on), about 3 hours (four hours if you double the recipe, which we did.) Add salt to taste (we added at least another teaspoon of sea salt to our doubled recipe). You can make this sauce in advance and refrigerate or freeze it. We made it two days ahead for the family reunion.

3. Make pasta according to the package directions, leaving a little bit of cooking water on the pasta which helps distribute the thick meat sauce.) Serve in individual bowls with sauce ladled on top and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

To start out the evening, my sister, Kris, served beautiful Bruschetta (actually pronounced brus’ketta), and we rounded our meal by creating a salad bar with organic veggies and cheesy garlic bread.
FamilyAtTheTableB&W

The best part about the evening was seeing my family members eating with delight; laughing as they shared a delicious meal made with love.

Pizza Night in Petaluma

We planned our Friday night meal around our four teenagers. For those of you with teens you know that things can change in the blink of an eye. Of the four we managed to corral one.

Grateful for Mark!

Grateful for Mark!

Kelly’s 17 year old, Mark was gracious enough to hang with the “parents” on Pizza Night, and the rest seemingly had better offers. We were very grateful for Mark; he’s quite the entertainer and had us all in stitches as we cooked. Laughter is definitely the most important ingredient in all of our cooking. Everything is better with laughter. I’ve been known to say the same thing about butter, bacon and Kelly.

The Secret is in The Sauce

The Secret is in The Sauce

Tomato Sauce

I’ve (Berkley) been making the same sauce for the last couple of years. I don’t do anything unusual or extraordinary in making my tomato sauce but I always get great reviews. The secret to the sauce, as I once heard Alice Waters say, is in the tomatoes. I remember she liked the Shady Lady. I like the Heirloom. We got some beautiful Heirloom’s from Tolay Valley Farms in our weekly CSA pickup down at Ernie’s Tin Bar and added some organic Shady Ladies. I preheated the oven to 350 and cored eight tomatoes then tossed them in a mixture of olive oil and sea salt before placing them on a baking sheet. I threw them in the oven for 45 minutes and meanwhile diced half of an enormous sweet yellow onion along with five cloves of garlic. Once the maters were out and had cooled a bit I took the skins off half of them with my fingers. To make the sauce, I heated some olive oil in a sauce pan, added a dash of salt and a few quick turns with the pepper grinder then tossed in the garlic and onions. I sautéed until the onions softened then tossed in the tomatoes whole. I mashed the tomatoes with a potato masher (a trick that just came to me Friday) and mixed it all together.

Testing The Sauce

Testing The Sauce

I simmered the sauce for 30 minutes, stirring frequently, adding only salt and pepper to taste. I’ve frozen and canned this before.  It’s a great staple to have around the house – on pasta after a busy day or on toast for bruschetta to feed the unannounced but always welcome guest.

The Cheese

Searching for new employment in today’s changing economy has caused me (Kelly) to search within myself. Sometimes, this is a painful process.  Actually, it is a “yucky” process, but nevertheless it is necessary. To counteract the yuckiness, I find myself needing comfort food, and pizza is one of my favorite comfort foods. I like to bake, so I made the pizza dough while Berkley made his amazing sauce. This week’s story, however, is about the cheese because it is the cheese that makes pizza a comfort food.

We discovered a delicious, local source for cheese in Petaluma. We were introduced to the fabulous cheeses from the Spring Hill Cheese Company through a good friend, Ellen Beeler, who made pizza to remember one night. On Western Avenue (next to their creamery), patrons can enjoy cheese tasting in Spring Hill’s store. We’ve become big fans of their organic, absolutely yummy garlic curd, firehouse Cheddar and pesto Jack cheeses.

Although Spring Hill Cheese Company was started in 1998, it follows a long tradition of dairying in the area. Spring Hill’s ranch raises a herd of 400 Jersey cows because they produce milk with high butter fat. Jersey cows were among the early breeds raised by dairymen and women in the late 1800’s when immigrant families from Italy, Portugal, and other countries made Marin and Sonoma counties active in butter and cheese making. The lush grasses along the coast stay greener longer due to the cool ocean breezes and fog, providing a natural resource that has been perfect for dairy cows for over 150 years. Other breeds, like the black and white Holsteins, later replaced the Jerseys in the dairy industry because they produce more milk. Jersey cows produce less milk, but it is the richness that owner Larry Peter needs to produce Spring Hill’s wide variety of cheeses.

The Pizza Dough

Cormeal Crust with yogurt, YUMM!

Cormeal Crust with yogurt, YUMM!

Berkley researched pizza dough recipes online for me and came up with one I really like because it bakes into a light, crunchy cornmeal crust. The key to our pizza is the cheese; the key to this pizza dough  is the yogurt. Although I was a little intimidated at first, the pizza dough was easy to make. I doubled the recipe so that we could make two 16 inch pizzas, mixing organic whole wheat flour (1 1/2 C) and white flour (1 C), with cornmeal (1 C), baking soda (1 tsp), baking powder (2 tsp), salt (1 tsp), and dry basil (1 tsp) in a large bowl. Then in a separate bowl I stirred together Straus Family whole milk plain yogurt (1 1/2 C) and olive oil (4 T). Gently combining, I poured the yogurt mixture into the flour mix and stirred until it came together. The dough only needs to be kneaded (pun intended) for a minute or two – I just placed the mound of dough onto a piece of well floured parchment paper and used the heel of my hand (also floured) to work the dough into a ball, sprinkling a little flour as I worked it so that the dough would no longer stick to my hand. I wrapped the dough ball in the parchment paper and let it “rest” in the refrigerator for a bit. Rolling it out was easy. I cut the ball of dough in two with a knife, pressed each half of the dough with my fingers to start, and used a rolling pin to properly finish rolling each crust to 1/4″ thick. To transfer the dough to a baking sheet I lightly folded it in half to make it easier, then unfolded it onto the baking sheets.  To complete the crust, I made a 1/2″ folded edge, pressing with my fingers. We partly baked the pizza crust for 10 minutes at 400.

The Toppings

Mark putting on some finishing touches

Mark putting on some finishing touches

For the toppings, Berkley sliced green bell pepper and Italian sausage (Aidell’s) and Mark thinly sliced mushrooms and grated mounds of cheese. We chose three kinds of Spring Hill cheese for our pizzas:  Fresh Curds (crumbled on top, these become creamy when melted), Garlic Cheddar and Pesto Jack. Berkley spread his roasted tomato sauce over both pizza crusts. Mark topped his pizza with all of the above ingredients, and I made mine with the same, minus the bell pepper and plus oregano sprinkled around. These took about 20 minutes in the oven at 400.

Beets, Cucumbers n' Greens

Beets, Cucumbers n' Greens

While the pizzas baked, I put together a simple salad of diced roasted beets, red lettuce, and sliced cucumber with a creamy blue cheese dressing.

The Comfort

This pizza both crumbled and melted in our mouths as we ate outside on the patio.  We laughed some more as we heard about life through the eyes of a teenager. The pizza was just as comforting for breakfast the following morning and for lunch two days later on a hike.

Berkelly's Pizza fresh from the oven.

Berkelly's Pizza fresh from the oven.