Polenta may not sound so exciting, but when made with love, it can be one of the most delicious and satisfying dishes you’ve had in some time. When the exotic foreign mystery grain of maize came to Europe via the Columbian Exchange, Europeans treated it like they did every other grain. They ground it and cooked it into porridge, adding their own local ingredients like dairy products. Today, this creamy and cheesy cornmeal porridge is still a favorite staple of Italian, especially northern Italian, cuisine.
A little while after, tomatoes followed to the old world, and though not considered edible at first, gradually evolved into items of culinary interest, onward to a destiny of being a beloved ingredient across the continent today. Salsa Pomodoro just means tomato sauce, but being the original Italian word for tomatoes, it hints that the first of these american fruits to arrive in Europe may have been yellow, and not red.
I’m still using some red tomatoes here because they look better with Polenta, but I’m also using some yellow ones to honor this original appearance. Though the original preparation was a simple but tasty dish of raw tomatoes with olive oil, cooking into sauce must soon have followed. But this is not your every day tomato sauce. Here, onions, mushrooms, a little anchovy, all make for a very rustic, meaty concoction, an acidic umami bomb that is not blended, packed with fresh herbs and resulting in a sauce that is simultaneously deep, bright, chunky and yet saucy, a full of flavor to counterpoint the rich polenta.
1 cup coarse ground cornmeal
2 cups water
2 cups chicken stock*
1 cup whole milk
2 tbsp. cold butter
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese (the real stuff please!)
*NOTE: Feel free to substitute or change any of the ratio of liquids as long as you have 5 parts liquid to 1 part polenta grains. I prefer a balance of all three, but using all water allows for a lighter, purer flavor, while more chicken stock adds meaty flavor, and more dairy makes it richer and heavier*
CHUNKY POMODORO SAUCE
1 lb. red tomatoes, sliced then hand crushed
1 lb. yellow tomatoes, diced
2 shallots, sliced
3 cloves garlic, smashed and sliced
6 button mushrooms, diced
2 tbsp. butter
2 preserved anchvies, chopped
1 cup white wine
2 tbsp. fish sauce
1 bunch fresh parsley, lightly chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
These dishes take about the same amount of time to prepare, so if you’re skilled in the kitchen you can do them at the same time.
FOR THE POMODORO SAUCE:
Over medium high heat, saute the mushrooms and onions in olive oil until all the water has cooked off and everything is lightly caramelized. Add white wine and deglaze, cooking until mostly reduced. Stir in the butter, then add the crushed red tomatoes, fish sauce, garlic, and anchovies. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Cook for 1-2 hours, depending on how thick a sauce you want.
Stir in the herbs and diced yellow tomatoes, then turn off the heat. They will cook just barely in the residual heat. The combination of cooked and mostly raw tomatoes is what makes this sauce for me. If you were to add more briney ingredients like olives and capers, you called call this sauce a puttanesca.
FOR THE POLENTA:
In a sauce pan, combine all the liquid and sprinkle the polenta on top, stirring as you go. Lightly season the water. Put on medium high heat and bring to a boil, stirring every minute or so. Once the porridge starts to boil and spit, reduce the heat to a low simmer. Cook for 45 mins to one hour, stirring every so often at first, then more constantly towards the end as the porridge thickens and comes together.
Turn off the heat. Add the butter and real parmesan reggiano cheese, stirring vigorously until melted and combined. Season with salt to taste. Not my use of the word stir throughout these instructions. A whisk is not required.
From here, the possibilities are endless. One of my favorite preparations not covered here it to pour it in container, chill and let set, then slice into pieces and fry.
But for today, simple top with your fresh pomodoro sauce, and if desired more herbs and parmesan cheese.
It pairs well with just about any protein too. Here’s a piece of fish!
Until you try it, don’t you dare say it’s boring.