Get Comfortable

I tend to think visually, and though I am not a fan of food jargon I do like the term “comfort food.” I think this is because when I hear it I see myself sitting in our orange chair, wrapped in a blanket, eating something like macaroni and cheese or rice pudding. I am a big fan of comfort food, and I have one dish that is the most comforting of all.

I first fell upon this dish when I was working near Union Square, and I was able to duck out to (the now defunct) Verbena’s take out café. Every once in a while they offered a bowl of polenta with a fresh tomato sauce. I never wanted to leave, and I wanted my bowl to magically refill like in Strega Nona.

I found a variation of this dish at Via Quadronno. More than once I have gone there and plunked down myself (and a bit of cash) for their Polenta del Cacciatore, which they describe as baked cornmeal, Bolognese with mushrooms and mozzarella. It’s served in a piping hot au gratin pan, and the cheesy top is all bubbling hot. The tomato sauce is rich, and the polenta is a firm and buttery contrast to it. This is the dish to mend all wounds: emotional, physical, but maybe not economical.

I’ve done my best to replicate this dish at home, and have found some success. My take on it is fast and cheap (at least cheaper). Here’s what I do:

I make up some fast-cooking polenta (the five minute kind). I don’t often have time for the regular stuff, plus last time I made it I burned my hand on the bubble and pop.

I’m not sure if the polenta box calls for butter, but I learned from the folks at Verbena that adding butter to your polenta is an excellent idea. Add enough to make it yummy but not too shiny.

When the polenta is the right thickness – like oatmeal, pour it out onto a a baking pan. You want it about 1/2 to 1 inch thick. Let it cool and become solid.

Now the hardest part is over.

Open up a container of good Bolognese sauce. I know Maurice makes his own, but I’m just not doing that when I’m making dinner and I want to feel comforted. Locally, Citarella makes a decent sauce, and it isn’t too expensive. Heat up the sauce.

When the polenta is solid, cut it into pieces to fit into an au gratin pan.

Top it with the Bolognese sauce.

Sprinkle with cheese. I’ve been using parmesan, but next time I’m going for the mozzarella.

Put the dish under the broiler for a few minutes, until a nice crust forms and the cheese is melted and a little brown.

Find your version of my orange chair. Find a blanket. Sit in the chair; wrap self in blanket. Begin to eat the polenta (preferably in a bowl)—then ask the one who takes care of you for a glass of red wine. You could have gotten it yourself, but you just made this amazing dish and deserve to be waited on.


The Time, Space, Family Dinner Conundrum

We were sitting around the table this evening having dinner (linguine with a semi-spicy tomato/shrimp sauce and broccoli rabe) when I came upon this big idea. I was noticing that I really wanted to know if everyone was enjoying the dinner. Both Evan and My Girl said they liked it, and that’s when it hit me. For me to truly enjoy a meal I have cooked, the pleasure factor has to be greater than the preparation (e.g., time, effort, number of pots and pans used). The linguine dish was good, but it took a lot to put together (and that’s without making my own sauce or cleaning the shrimp). Evan admits that he would describe the left over mess (that he cleans up) as high, and I don’t think that’s just because I stacked a sauté pan on the stock pot.

The good news is that the people I’m cooking for (besides myself) don’t really have an inkling about the mess they are going to encounter while they sit around the table enjoying their meal.


Soup's On

Well yes, we have been eating dinner. Case in point: yesterday it was freezing cold, and the weather just screamed soup. I had a hankering for something with vegetables, beans and pasta, so that’s what we had for dinner.

Here’s what I did:
Put about 2 T Olive Oil in a big pot. Sautéed 1/2 onion, chopped. Added 2 cloves of garlic, minced. Added 3-diced carrots and 3 stalks of celery – also diced. Let things begin to soften.

Add some chicken broth (about 1 C) and some water (about 2 C). Add 2 C fresh string beans, cut about to about 1 inch; 6 whole plum tomatoes from a can-chopped; two 14 oz cans of cannellini beans (drained); and the rind from some Parmesan cheese. Bring to boil, then cover and simmer for a good long time.

When you are about 10-15 minutes from serving cook some tubular pasta in a separate pot. I use a separate pot because I don’t want the pasta to take all my good broth. Cut up a zucchini into the same size as your pasta and add it to the soup. Add salt and pepper to taste. When your pasta is done, drain it and put some of it in a bowl. Add a ladle of soup (being careful not to serve the cheese rind). Garnish with some Parmesan cheese. Easy and good. Today is even colder (a high of 24 degrees), so we’re having leftovers.