Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Freezer Cooking: Sausage and Marinara Polenta

We went skiing...yeah that was three weeks ago. I have been very irresponsible about maintaining my blog!

(Panorama pranking! Start out on one edge of the picture, run around the back of the camera while it's panning, and end up on the other side. Voila, you're cloned! Now try doing it while waddling around in skis.) 
My family goes to this tiny little ski resort in Yosemite. It's a far cry from those big commercial ski resorts like Big Bear or Mammoth, which is nice though because I don't have to focus on avoiding people faster and more competent than me. :)

The material point is, because we were staying in a national park as opposed to a big commercial ski resort, we weren't going to have access to restaurants, or supermarkets, or food in general. Which means we had to bring with us pretty much everything we planned to put in our bodies...

---Who do you think I am?!?!

My mom and I did some freezer cooking!

"Freezer cooking" is actually a real culinary term, not to be taken as a pun except when I put it in my title. It means when you cook a *healthy *natural *delicious homemade meal, package it yourself, and freeze it in preparation to pop out of the freezer and have for dinner some night down the road. It's like creating your own convenience food! Or at least, for those of you who believe that convenience food is about not having to cook, it's at least like dinnertime fungibility. Some examples that pop to mind: stuffed or marinated chicken breasts that can be frozen in plastic bags, defrosted, and then cooked/grilled, frozen burgers or veggie burgers, pretty much anything in a casserole dish, and even certain desserts like ice cream (haha yes I'm being a smart ass).

For those of you who are immediately prejudiced against anything remotely resembling fast food (I empathize), never fear: this dish was well-loved in my family even before we figured out we could extend its lifespan. Polenta was originally an Italian peasant dish. The essential nature of this plate is hearty, savory, comfort-food-esque. Admittedly it doesn't have the most elegant presentation, but its designed to feed a hungry family, not impress guests.

Here's it's basic composition: a thick layer of polenta (thick-ground cornmeal that has become thick and gooey from absorbing milk), topped with sausage, swamped in tomato sauce, capped with a layer of golden, melted mozzarella. The ingredients are distinct, but I love the way their combination gives the dish a simple richness.

The original recipe was titled "Polenta, Sausage, and Tomato Layers" ("Could I have a few more polenta and tomato layers, please?"). I think I'll go with sausage and marinara polenta ;)
Once the ingredients are stacked in the casserole dish, the polenta can either be baked immediately, or the dish itself can be wrapped in plastic wrap and/or covered in foil and put in the freezer for later! Either way, it makes a delicious, hot, filling dessert after a long day of exercise!

Sausage, Marinara, and Mozarella Polenta
Pretty much a full meal in one pan, this polenta dish is simple and flavorful, getting its deliciousness from the merits of its individual ingredients. It also makes a really convenient freezer meal--after assembling, it can be frozen in the casserole dish and re-baked in the oven in time for dinner!
Fills 1 casserole dish of diameter 7-8 inches (the pictures show WAY more than is called for in the recipe...my mom and I freezer cooked for the next 6 months!)


3 cups milk
1 tablespoon butter
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup yellow coarse-ground cornmeal
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Marinara, Sausage, Mozarella
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1 tbsp olive oil
4 Italian sausages (about 3/4 pound)
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce/ marinara
8 oz fresh or packaged mozzarella cheese


1. Put the milk, butter, and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a simmer.
2. Add cornmeal gradually in a thin stream, stirring constantly and taking care that the cornmeal does not coagulate on the bottom. 
3. Bring the heat down. Cook until the mixture is thickened, all excess liquid milk has soaked into the cornmeal, and the mixture pulls away from the side of the saucepan when scraped away (about 10 minutes). 
4. Immediately, while still warm, mix in the 1/4 cup of Parmesan. 

Marinara, Sausage, Mozarella
0. Oven to 375 degrees. Butter your casserole dish of choice.
1. Cook your sausage. Do this by squeezing the meat out of the sausage skins into a large pan. Cook the meat on medium heat, breaking up the large pieces as you go, until the sausage is entirely brown and completely cooked, about 10 minutes. Tilt the pan and push all the sausage to the higher side, so that the extra grease from the sausage runs down to the low side; remove with a turkey baster. This makes the sausage healthier and probably more palatable.
3. Spoon your polenta (above) into the bottom of your buttered casserole dish.
Sprinkle Parmesan over the top.
4. Cover polenta with an even layer of cooked sausace.
5. Drench the sausage with marinara sauce. 
6. Cover the marinara with an even layer of mozzarella cheese. 
7. Bake or freeze.
A) Bake for about 30 minutes, until the cheese is browned and the edges begin to bubble. Let sit for 10 minutes, and then dig in! 
B) Wrap the casserole dish in plastic wrap, cover the top in foil, and stick it in the freezer! When you want to eat it, remove it from the freezer at least an hour in advance of baking. If the meal still feels frozen solid when you're reading to bake it, you can buzz it in the microwave until it softens. You may have to bake the polenta for longer to compensate for its cold temperature. Let sit...now you can dig in. Wasn't that easy?

It was the beginning of March, and we were still getting tomatoes in our garden...so we went ahead and made our own marinara sauce.
Italian sausage near the beginning of the cooking process
The cooked sausage. My mom and I ended up breaking up these pieces still farther when we went to put them in the dish. You can see the grease being removed. 
Here's what the polenta looked like near the beginning of being cooked--very milky/liquidy, with some softening cornmeal on the bottom.
It's crazy how much liquid the cornmeal soaks up! 
When you scrape your wooden spoon along the edge, the polenta should stay pulled back from the wall; that's how you know it's done.
The polenta in the dish, with some Parmesan sprinkled on top. 

It's probably nicer to do the polenta with sliced fresh mozarella, but we didn't have any so we used the dried shredded kind. Both work!

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