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Potluck Likes

January 12, 2015

Potlucks make great parties. Especially for the food obsessed. These are fantastic opportunities to see what other people cook. Not to judge them, but to be inspired by them. And if you have kids they can be a giant laboratory to learn more about what the little ones will tolerate without having to cook a wide variety of foods that will ultimately be rejected.

Last night I learned my kids aren’t so crazy about grassfed rib eye. And that’s okay. It just means more for me.

That aside, we went to a potluck on Friday. The last time I attended such an event was in the fall. Usually, I try to make something relatively easy that transports well and can feed a lot of people without breaking the bank.

So, this time I mashed up two different Marcella Hazan recipes with some degree of success.

Marcella Hazan is a name that’s rarely associated with fuss-free recipes. In fact, you may recall she is the Italian goddess of Fussy. Which is not to say that her techniques can’t be corrupted by home cooks who just don’t have the time to “add the cornmeal in a very thin stream, letting a fistful of it run through nearly closed fingers.”

The very notion of adding polenta to boiling water so slowly that you can “see the individual grains spilling into the pot” is ridiculous. Okay I confess, I’ve done it her way in the past. Actually, I’ve done it more than once. But I’m not going to do it again.

These days I’m fine making cornmeal mush out of imported Italian cornmeal and calling it polenta. I’ve been doing it for a while and it’s delicious.

What I’ve recently started doing is pouring a double batch of the stuff into a long rectangular pyrex pan. Then stuffing the hot polenta with dollops of local full-fat ricotta cheese. I lay out a grid of tablespoon scoops on top of the polenta and push them into the soft cornmeal with the back of a spoon. Then I smooth over the top of the cornmeal to hide my little cheese treasures.

The fun part is topping the pan of polenta. Back in the fall, I crowned it with some shredded Brussels sprouts and crushed walnuts. But that was fall, and for a much different audience.

At a big potlucks it’s best to try and go with a crowd pleaser, so I made Marcella’s tomato sauce with onion and butter. The recipe in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking calls for two cups of canned tomatoes. But canned tomatoes don’t come in two cup quantities.

I did a little math and my can of tomatoes weighed in at closer to three and a quarter cups. With some more math I realized the conversion here was really pretty simple.

1 can of whole tomatoes
1 stick of butter
1 half of a large onion
salt

And that’s pretty much it. I doubled it. So, yeah, two sticks of butter. Butter makes it better. Butter actually makes it crazy delicious.

Speaking of crazy, I just can’t leave things alone and let them be simple. I needed to break out a strainer and seed the canned tomatoes. But you don’t have to do that. I was doing well with time and wanted to go the extra mile. It all just goes into a pan or pot or what-have-you. Do break up or cut the tomatoes and put in all the juices. The sauce cooks at a slow simmer for about 45 minutes.

Taste it and you’ll know. Don’t worry if the fat floats free from the sauce. That’s fine. You can stir it back in. Add more salt if it needs a bit more oompf. And if you aren’t sure, take a spoonful out and add a grain or two of salt to that. If it’s improved, add more salt to the pot. If it’s too salty, stop.

Clever, no? Rocket science it is not.

The onion comes out before you serve the sauce. It’s just there for flavor. Or, if you abhor waste like me and think a tomato-butter poached onion sounds like a delicious pre-potluck snack, have at it.

So the gravy went on top of the mush, and I heated the whole casserole up in a 350 degree oven for the components to meld. Also I wanted to try and give the thing a fighting chance at being lukewarm when it arrived in Schenectady.

Right before being packed into the car, the dish got a shower of freshly grated Parm-Reg. I mean, what’s not to love? It’s seasoned cornmeal, stuffed with creamy fatty cheese, slathered with butter and umami, and more grated umami on top.

Another easy vegetarian dish that’s far from being health food. But it’s a winner.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Doug permalink
    January 12, 2015 10:38 am

    Marcella’s recipe has been our go-to “make your own damn sauce” for a long time. For something so simple and quick, the flavor is surprisingly complex. Enough so that we haven’t taken the next step of using it as base for traditional gravy, adding pork chops or sausages. Sometimes simple is plenty good enough.

  2. January 12, 2015 2:13 pm

    +one the Marcella tomato sauce. She has 3 recipes and amazing how different they taste… and all 3 delicious.

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