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.

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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.