I have many great memories of homemade pasta sauce simmering away on the stove top while I was growing up. My mother almost always made her own sauce and very often made meatballs as well. Her sauce always smelled great and absolutely spoiled me for later life. I always wondered why pasta sauce never quite measured up for me, clearly I HAD been spoiled. The only other sauce I’d had that I actually really enjoyed was while traveling in Italy. Go figure.
I never “learned” how to make sauce, really. I tinkered around, figured out what I liked, and figured out what didn’t work. Turns out it’s pretty simple and pretty straightforward. None of that having a pot simmering over the stove top for 17 hours while some super secret cache of spices and herbs gets added in dribs and drabs. I make a damn tasty pasta sauce and it takes very little time, as little as 15 minutes if you’re in a rush. I usually give it a few more minutes, but the point being you can have sauce; cheap, easy, and tasty in not much more time than it takes to heat up that stuff in a glass jar.
Polenta is a bit of a different thing. My family used to make this as well, although it was usually a bit more rare. One of my aunts or my mother would make it, but it wasn’t a particularly common dish for them to make. While I was growing up you would never see polenta anywhere. Not in restaurants, not in cookbooks, not in the supermarket. Polenta has seen a bit of resurgence in the last decade or so. For hundreds of years it was essentially peasant food; cheap simple eats that’s essentially corn meal mush. Purists (and boy are there polenta purists) cook it simply with water. More daring people (those who live dangerously) might cook it with chicken stock, butter, herbs, and spices. No matter how you cook it, when done, it makes a pretty stiff corn mush that turns out onto a plate into a mound. Just a few minutes of cooling brings it to a point where it can be cut and served, traditionally it’s cut using string. It can be refrigerated and reheated later. One of my favorite things to make is to take day old polenta, slice it, and fry it in browned butter. Grate some Reggiano across the top and it’s a fantastic snack.
Polenta is now on every menu in everything from middling corner dives to Michelin star awarded Italian restaurants world-wide. With good reason then. It’s a comfort food thing. Warm, nourishing, and simple. A food that fifty years ago was almost embarrassing for folks to mention they ate to being highlighted on Top Chef today. Quite a transformation.
Both of these items can be made at the same time. You can get quick cooking polenta now. Purists will tell you it’s heresy. I’ve made quick cooking polenta for people who wouldn’t dare even make it, lied right to their face about what I’ve made, and they told me what lovely polenta I make. I can’t tell the difference either, generally. So if you don’t tell anyone and you keep it a secret, no one will be any the wiser.
I generally get my sauce started first, it doesn’t take much time and can pretty much be left to its own devices while you’re cooking the polenta – which takes some tending. I start with some sort of tomato product, canned is just fine. You can use fresh tomatoes, I don’t because it takes forever and decent canned tomato is good stuff these days. I use ground peeled or crushed tomatoes. You can use whatever you like depending on the texture you prefer. My general rule of thumb is just to check the ingredients on the can. If it’s more than tomatoes, maybe some citric acid, I move on and find something else. One 28 ounce can is enough for both of us to have polenta, sauce, and have a container left over for pasta the next night.
I use a big wide pan with high sides to make my sauce. It keeps the splattering down to a minimum and gives enough surface area for things to cook pretty quickly. One can of sauce, a tablespoon of olive oil, some salt and pepper to taste, and you’ve got a pretty good start. I really enjoy basil in my pasta sauce, less so oregano. You may feel otherwise. I generally go overboard on dried basil and very little on oregano. I may add a tablespoon or more of dried basil and only half a teaspoon of oregano. You can play with the seasoning quite a bit to suit your tastes. I find a lot of basil a pretty good thing though. Generally sauce enjoys some onion powder, 1/2 teaspoon, some garlic powder, again 1/2 a teaspoon, and maybe a clove or two of actual garlic, minced. If you like a little heat in your sauce, along the lines of arrabiata sauce, you can add some red pepper flake. I like arrabiata sauce so I’ll often add one small dried red pepper crushed up – seed and all.
Once everything’s been added, you just need to let it cook a bit. In my large pan I set it over medium low heat, maybe 3 or 4 on the electric range. You can keep it partially covered to keep the splatter down. It’s going to make a little bit of a mess, that’s just a given. Just be prepared to clean up a bit, it’s more than worth it. I stir it every once in a while, give it about 20 minutes or so and it’ll be ready to eat. If it gets a bit thick and you want to thin it out you can just add a bit of water or stock. Simple as that.
As far as the polenta is concerned, it’s also an easy operation, you’ve just got to be willing to stir. And stir. Follow the directions on the side of your particular package, but the general rules are about 3:1 water to cornmeal. Bring the water to a boil, add a bit of salt, and pour the polenta in slowly, stirring the whole time. You’ll have to continue stirring most of the time it’s cooking, which is why I use the quick-cooking variety. You’ll want to cook it until it pulls away cleanly from the side of the pot. A wooden spoon will also stand straight up and down in the mix by itself. With quick cooking variety this may take eight to ten minutes. With regular variety polenta this may take anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes. No joke. Quick cooking for the win, then. Once it’s done cooking, you pour it out onto a wooden board (or plate, or cutting board – whatever really) and allow it to sit for a few minutes. In that time it will set and you can cut it into slices with a string or a knife.
You can take some liberties with polenta that might get you killed in Italy. You can cook it with stock, stir in cheese, add butter, add basil, it goes on and on. I generally add a little bit of butter and some Reggiano Parmesan. Reggiano Parmesan and butter are both things that make almost anything better.
I get my polenta into a bowl, top with some fresh sauce, and grate some Reggiano on top. That’s it. I’m a sucker for simplicity. If you’re not interested in polenta (I can understand that despite my love it for it) you can simply boil up some pasta. I like my pasta cooked in well salted water and made al-dente, 8 or 9 minutes for box pasta, even less for fresh pasta. Same deal, top with sauce, grate some cheese over it, and call it a day.
- 28 Ounce Can of Crushed Tomatoes (or other tomato product)
- 1/2 Teaspoon Onion Powder
- 1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
- 1 Tablespoon (or more) Dried Basil
- 1/2 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
- 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
- Salt and Pepper to Taste
- 1 Clove of Garlic Minced Well
- 1 Cup Polenta
- 3 Cups Water (Approximate)
- Salt to Taste
- Cheese and or Butter (optional)