My friend Nick recently traveled to a few countries in Europe, and when asked what his favorite meal he had there was, he answered polenta e casura, a specialty of Milan. (Judging from my success at Googling the dish, assuming I have the correct spelling, it is a closely kept specialty of Milano cuisine, too.) In any case, the dish sounded soothing, comforting and rustic: braised cabbage and sausage, with polenta on the side. What could be simpler yet more satisfying than that?
There may be much more to the authentic dish than that, some wine perhaps, an intricate stock. But I was tickled to realize this morning that I coincidentally had all the makings for a basic version at home. I’ve been glancing at this package of spicy chicken sausages in my freezer every time I open it for months now. I didn’t buy it. A friend of mine did, on a grocery shopping trip just before coming to a get-together at my place, and accidentally left it behind. So I stashed it in the freezer for safekeeping. I know, it’s like, who leaves groceries such as sausages in their friends’ fridges? Extremely busy people, that’s who. People who didn’t have time to stop at home. And people who still haven’t had the chance to meet up and get it back. Well, I’m sorry, Aaron, but I’m just going to eat these now.
According to Mario Batali, according to Bill Buford in Heat, celery leaves are the most flavorful part of the plant. This works out great for me because I like to eat the stalks raw, but I don’t enjoy the leaves that way. So I try to cook with them before they wilt. I ripped off a handful of leaves from my bunch and chopped them up along with garlic to throw in the sizzling olive oil.
Speaking of Heat, if you also read it and recall the part about making polenta, you might have been as surprised as I was to learn that the classic preparation for this cornmeal mush is to cook it, stirring laboriously, for several hours. Avoiding the volcanic glops that spurt from the center of the pot, as poor Mr. Buford endured. Well, the way I always cook polenta, to self-satisfactory results, is in about ten seconds. Just get some water boiling, whisk in some fine yellow cornmeal (it doesn’t even have to be labeled “polenta” or Italian), and presto! I don’t even bother adding butter or cheese, just a little salt, though these optional ingredients would make it that much more tasty.
What a winter warmer. And unlike most wintery stews and soups, this hot lunch took only fifteen minutes to cook. If you don’t have any fresh tomatoes around, or are sticking to seasonal fresh veggies only, you might swap the small tomato for a spoonful of tomato paste. I happened to have tomatoes due to an irrepressible craving for grilled cheese with tomato a few days ago. That was a good lunch, too.
Braised Cabbage and Sausage with 10-Second Polenta
(makes 2 servings)
about 2 cups shredded cabbage
1 spicy chicken sausage link (or any sausage you prefer), sliced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 handful celery leaves, chopped
1 small-medium plum tomato, chopped
1/2 cup fine yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
In a skillet or wide saucepan with a lid, heat the olive oil on medium-high. Add the garlic and celery leaves, and stir for about five seconds. Add the sausages and stir until cooked, about 2 minutes. Add the cabbage and tomato and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Season with a few pinches of salt and pepper. Add one cup of water, reduce heat to low and cover.
Meanwhile, bring 2 1/4 cups water to boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat to medium, and pour in the cornmeal while whisking rapidly. Keep whisking, and in about ten seconds you should have polenta. But to continue softening the grains a little more, keep cooking on low heat, whisking, for another minute or so, adding a splash more water and whisking it in if it’s looking too dry. Season with a little salt to taste.
Lift cover from pan after about five minutes of cooking. Continue cooking excess liquid off for another five minutes or so, or until consistency is just slightly soupy. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or pepper as desired. Serve on top of a scoop of polenta.
(for 2 servings)
2 cups shredded cabbage (or about 1/3 of a small head at $1/lb): $0.50
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal: $0.25
1 chicken sausage link (guessing it was around $5/pack): $1.25
handful of celery leaves: $0.20
1 small tomato (at $2.99/lb): $0.50
1 large clove garlic, 1 Tb olive oil, salt, pepper: $0.25
Four brownie points: The chicken sausage package says there are six grams of fat per link, which means one hearty portion of this recipe has three grams of fat plus half a tablespoon of olive oil. Not bad! Also, never underestimate the nutritional vigor of the lowly, cheap, white cabbage. Like greener greens, it’s rich in Vitamin K, and has fiber and B-vitamins and antioxidants to keep you healthy throughout the cold months and city toxins.
Seven maple leaves: Cabbage is in season, and I’ll probably be cooking a lot with it and its many versions over the winter. It’s very versatile, great raw and lightly sauteed and it holds up to long cooking, too. The chicken sausages my friend purchased were from Trader Joe’s, not organic and “minimally processed,” whatever that means. I seldom buy sausages, because they’re a little on the expensive side for my humble home cooking, but I can’t wait to get my next ones at the Greenmarket, to prepare for the Greenmarket sausage cassoulet fundraiser cook-off at Jimmy’s No. 43! (No idea what I’ll be making for that yet.)