When polenta first hit the food scene in the United States, it was the kind of delicacy that graced the likes of only Italian specialty food shops and high-end restaurants.
No matter that it came from peasant Italian stock, or that it bore an extremely close resemblance to its humble cousin, cornmeal mush (yes, the same stuff that sustained Mary and Laura Ingalls on their trip West). Polenta was fancy, expensive and fussy to prepare, with most recipes calling for constant stirring for its 45-minute cooking time: dinner-party food at its sophisticated best.
Flash-forward a couple of decades, and let’s just say polenta has been around. You’re likely to run into it everywhere, in many manifestations, even hanging out in the refrigerated cases of your local supermarket, fully cooked and squeezed into a plastic tube.
And here’s the thing: With the exception of the stuff in the plastic tube (which is vile and should be avoided), all polenta is good polenta.
Yes, the long-simmered, coarsely ground stuff is better, especially if you can source freshly milled, coarsely ground polenta from heirloom corn. But even the powdery instant variety is acceptable for a quick after-work meal when you’re starving for a little comfort but don’t have much time.
Usually, though, I split the difference and opt for finely ground polenta that’s quicker to cook than the coarse stuff but has a more interesting, nubby texture and fuller flavor than the instant kind. It cooks in about 25 minutes, and you don’t have to stir it very much. While it cooks, you’ll have the chance to throw together some kind of topping.
In this recipe, I keep the topping fairly simple: a straightforward sauté of browned onions and sausage spiked with fennel seeds and rosemary.
But I do add something special to the polenta pot. In addition to a bay leaf and a good amount of butter, I stir in some grated raw butternut squash. The squash cooks in the same amount of time as the cornmeal, adding a mild sweetness to the mix.
The squash also lends the polenta a refined air, perhaps even elevating it back to its halcyon days on the dinner-party circuit. Or maybe it’s just a cozy weeknight meal with a twist. You decide. The polenta’s seen it all.
Butternut Squash Polenta With Sausage and Onion
1½ teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed
1 bay leaf
1 cup fine polenta (not quick-cooking)
5 ounces seeded and peeled butternut squash, coarsely grated (1 cup)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Black pepper, as needed
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
1½ pounds sweet or hot Italian pork sausage, sliced into ¼-inch rounds
2 teaspoons minced rosemary
1 teaspoon fennel seeds (optional)
2 small onions, peeled, halved length wise and sliced into ¼-inch half moons
Rosemary sprigs, for garnish (optional)
In a large pot over medium-high heat, combine 4½ cups water, the salt and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in polenta. Stir in squash. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring frequently, until polenta and squash are very tender, 20 to 30 minutes. If the mixture gets too thick while cooking, add a little more water to the pot. Stir in butter and black pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
While polenta cooks, heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausage, rosemary and fennel seeds if using. Cook, stirring occasionally, until meat is golden and cooked through, 7 to 10 minutes. (Do this in batches if necessary, adding oil if the pan looks dry.) Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate.
Add more oil to the skillet if it looks dry, then add onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they are tender and golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Return sausage to pan and stir to heat through. Spoon polenta into bowls and top with sausage and onion. Garnish with rosemary if you like. Makes 4 servings.
Note: If you’re using coarsely ground polenta, cook for 30 to 40 minutes, adding more water if it starts to dry out. If you have only instant (or quick-cooking) polenta, add the squash, salt and bay leaf to the boiling water 15 minutes before stirring in the polenta. Coarsely ground cornmeal can be substituted for fine polenta.