Polenta with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe
Temperatures have dropped this week here in Massachusetts and my appetite has shifted with the weather. I’m reading Bill Buford’s wonderful book, Heat, about his efforts to master Italian cooking in the kitchens of celebrity chef Mario Batali and a colorful cast of Italian chefs back in the Old Country. And I’m particularly entranced with his depiction of learning to make polenta—how he learns to let the dish cook for a very long time, even hours, for peak flavor, and how mastering this most basic dish is one of his proudest achievements.
This rustic cornmeal mush is a dish I was raised on. My grandparents come from Piemonte in northern Italy, and polenta was a staple food in our house. I’ll never forget the shock we felt in the 1990s when we realized that the peasant food that had sustained my ancestors was now the stuff of fine dining. In our house, polenta was served with Bolognese sauce and cheese, or as a starchy base for chicken cacciatore. We always made extra so we could pack it into a dish overnight, then slice it and fry it up in butter the next morning to serve with maple syrup.
So between all that family memory and Buford’s book, I was craving polenta in a fierce way today. I decided to cook up a classic combo: polenta with broccoli rabe, sausage, and grated cheese. Oh, and butter. Northern Italy is a land of butter, not olive oil.
Polenta with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe
Note: Instant polenta (the word describes both the dish and the cornmeal it’s made with) can be a great shortcut when you don’t have time slow-cook the corn for a couple of hours. However, making the real thing with coarse-ground cornmeal really is worth the effort. Think of it as a Sunday afternoon dish, something to gently bubble on the stove while you kick around the house.
Yield: 4 servings, plus extra polenta for breakfast the next day
- 1 cup coarse ground polenta (Italian cornmeal, see Note)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 pound sweet or spicy Italian sausages
- 12 ounces broccoli rabe, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 to 4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 4 teaspoons salted butter, divided
- Garnish: Red chile flakes, freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Put 7 cups of water in a 3- to 4-quart pot and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Slowly pour in the polenta, whisking with your other hand until the mixture begins to boil again. Add the salt and whisk, then reduce the heat to low and continue to cook the polenta, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until the mixture is thick and the cornmeal is very tender. You can stop the cooking in as little as 45 minutes and up to 4 hours; the longer you cook, the better the polenta will taste. Keep the polenta at a temperature where it bubbles up gently, like lava. If you cook it past 1 hour, you may need to periodically add a small amount of hot water if the mixture seems very dry.
About 30 minutes before you’re ready to serve the polenta, put 1/2 inch of water in a skillet and add the sausages. Set over high heat, cover the pot and bring the water to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium and continue simmering, with the cover on, until the sausages look uniformly gray. Remove the cover and let the water boil off completely. As the sausages continue to cook in the hot pan, they will release their own fat and begin to brown. Cook, turning occasionally, until the sausages are browned on all sides, about 10 minutes more. Remove sausages from pan, leaving the fat behind, and cut into 1/2-inch rounds. Keep warm.
Fill a 2- to 3-quart pot with salted water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the broccoli rabe and bring the water back to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low, and cook until tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Add the olive oil to the pan in which you’ve cooked the sausages and set over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook until translucent, then add the drained broccoli rabe. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Remove from heat.
Scoop about a cup of polenta into each of 4 bowls, then top each with a teaspoon of butter. Spoon equal portions of the broccoli rabe into each bowl and top with sausages, a sprinkle of chile flakes, and the cheese. Serve hot.
Pack any leftover polenta into a container and refrigerate, covered, overnight. Next morning, slice the polenta and fry in butter, then top with maple syrup and a sprinkling of cinnamon.