Crock Pot Cooking – Italian Sausage in Tomato Sauce

First, an apology: It’s been far too long since I’ve written a new blog. No excuses, but my only explanation is that my freelance writing career has demanded all of my time and I’ve been swimming in work since approximately mid-April. Hurray!

One project I was working on was a book on crock pot cooking. The project eventually collapsed due to, ahem, creative differences with the client but I suddenly find myself with more than 100 crock pot recipes, some of which I’ve already photographyed.

Hence, a new feature at Budget Cooking Blog: Crock Pot Cooking.

I’ve written many times about the convenience of using a crock pot, such as this blog, this blog and, oh yes, this blog. The best thing about the crock pot is that you just set it and forget it, and at the end of the day you not only have a delicious meal that will feed your family for days, but your entire home is filled with a lush, mouth-watering aroma.

This particular recipe is one of my favorites: Italian Sauasage in Tomato Sauce. The combination of slow-cooking the sauce and the addition of roasted garlic-flavored tomato paste really brings out the acidity in this sauce, but it is nicely balanced with the sweetness of the sugar and is given complexity by the oregano and fennel.

While enjoying this classic appetier, it’s easy to imagine yourself dining al fresco along Mulberry Street in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood, watching as the parade of people pass by.

While this would be wonderful as an entree served over pasta, I like to serve it as an appetizer over hard polenta. The primary difference between hard polenta and soft polenta is that the former is made with water and the latter with dairy, such as milk, cream or whatever you happen to have on hand.

Hard polenta — which is not actually hard but is poured out onto a sheet pan and allowed to set up — can be cut into any shape you like, which gives you a lot of versatility for plating. It also can be pan fried or even grilled if you would like some additional color and flavor.

Italian Sausage in Tomato Sauce

1 lb Spicy Italian Sausage, either bulk or casings removed

1 small Red Onion, small dice

1 Carrot, peeled, small dice

1 Red Bell Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

28 oz can Crushed Tomatoes with Italian Seasonings

6 oz can Tomato Paste with Roasted Garlic

1 tsp Dried Oregano, or 1/2 tsp fresh

1 tsp Fennel Seeds

1 tsp Granulated Sugar

1/4 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

6 oz Hard Polenta (recipe follows), cut into any shape you like

1. Put cast iron skillet over a medium heat. When hot, add sausage, onion, carrot and bell pepper. Cook until sausage is browned, about 7 to 8 minutes, breaking up the sausage as it cooks.

2. Transfer sausage mixture into crock pot. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, fennel seeds, sugar and black pepper. Cook and cover until mixture simmers and thickens, about 4 to 6 hours on low or 2 to 3 hours on high.

To plate, arrange polenta on an appetizer plate then use a kitchen spoon to ladle a generous portion of the sausage mixture over half the polenta, leaving the other half exposed. Garnish with some freshly grated parmesan cheese and a sprig of parsley.

Hard Polenta

4 cups Water

1 cup Polenta (coarsely ground corn meal)

1 TBS Whole Unsalted Butter

3 TBS Grated Parmesan Cheese

1/2 tsp Freshly Cracked Black Pepper

1. Bring water to a boil then slowly whisk in polenta, stirring constantly so that it doesnt clump. Reduce heat and cook until polenta thickens to the point where it pulls away from the walls of the pot, about 12 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn.

2. When thick, turn off heat and fold in butter and parmesan. Season with pepper. You don’t need to add any salt because the parmesan already is quite salty.

Let the polenta cool for a few minutes, then pour it out onto a greased baking sheet smoothing it with a spatula to create an even level. Let it cool completetly at least an hour. You can then use a knife to cut the polenta into triangles, stars, circles or whatever shape you want. These polenta peices can be grilled or sauteed, or stored in your refrigerator or freezer for another time.

For creamy polenta, substitute dairy such as milk, half and half or heavy cream for the water and kick up the butter to 1-1/2 TBS or more, depending on how rich you like it.

My apologies once again for my absence. I have missed writing this blog and am looking forward to sharing more easy, delicious and inexpensive recipes in the coming weeks and months.


Seafood Fridays – Shrimp and Grits

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? I do.

I haven’t been back down to the Crescent City since 2007’s Jazz and Heritage Festival, but I keep tabs on what’s happening by tuning in to WWOZ online every day.

And I reconnect with the city periodically from a culinary perspective, such as this recipe for shrimp and grits.

Up north, grits aren’t as big a deal as they are down south. We prefer polenta, which is also made of corn meal, but usually has a slightly finer grind.

But unlike polenta, grits have the ability to jump from your breakfast bowl onto your dinner plate, where they can serve as a delicious anchor for almost any dish: Shrimp and gits, pork and grits, chicken and grits. If I ever were to open a Southern-style restaurant, I would simply call it “And Grits”.

Grits can be sweet or savory. This past Sunday I took my daughter, Maggie Mae, out to brunch at Stanley’s — a great bar/restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood near DePaul University, where she goes to school — and among their breakfast offerings were grits sweetened with honey. They were fabulous.

For this recipe, I made standard grits —  with just water and little salt — then ramped them up at the end with butter and a ton of grated parmesan cheese. The result were creamy, nutty grits that perfectly complemented the strong flavors of the shrimp. Even my wife loved it, and she usually won’t eat shrimp.

I decorated the plate with a little braised green chard and some roasted corn-black bean salsa. It not only tasted great, but it looked pretty fantastic as well. I’ll have to save this one for the menu at “And Grits”.

Shrimp and Grits

1/2 lb 16/20 Shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 cloves Garlic, crushed

2 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp Sesame oil

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp Pick-a-Peppa Sauce

Dash red pepper flake

Fresh cracked black pepper

6 TBS Grits (not instant)

2 cups Water

Dash sea salt

2 TBS Whole butter

1/4 cup Grated parmesan cheese

For the Roasted Corn-Black Bean Salsa

1 can Black beans, drained

2 ears Corn, shucked and boiled

3 Tomatoes, ribs and seed removed, small dice

1/4 cup Red onion, small dice

2 TBS Cilantro, chopped

2 TBS Parsley, chopped

2 Green onions, sliced thin


Coarse salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1. Combine shrimp, EVOO, sesame oil, Worcester and Pick-A-Peppa sauces, and red pepper flake in a mixing bowl, season to taste with black pepper, cover and place in refrigerator to marinate at least 30 minutes.

2. Place grits, water and salt in a small pot, cover, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until thickened, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off heat and let sit at least 10 minutes, then fold in butter and parmesan cheese.

3. Roast corn cobs on the grill until they get a char, then cut the kernels off the cob and combine with all the remaining salsa ingredients. Season to taste with coarse salt and black pepper, cover and marinate in the refrigerator until ready to plate. Using coarse salt rather than sea salt gives the salsa a little crunch.

4. Saute shrimp with marinade in non-stick pan until cooked through, about 4 minutes. To plate, pile grits in the center of the plate and arrange shrimp decoratively on top of the grits. Spoon salsa so that it is falling off the shrimp and grits. Garnish if you want with a little braised greens.

Now that the Lenten season is ending, I have to decide whether to continue Seafood Fridays or not. Does anybody have an opinion? I would love to hear it. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Pork and Grits

I’ve only started using grits in my cooking recently, but I’m glad I discovered them, even if it is belatedly.

Probably because I was raised in the North, I never had much exposure to grits. About the only time I remember hearing about them growing up was when Flo, the sassy waitress on the TV show “Alice”, would tell people, “Kiss my grits!”

Grits are most definitely a Southern thing. Up north, people generally eat cream of wheat or oatmeal instead of grits. The closest thing we have is polenta, which like grits is made of corn meal but unlike grits is not treated with alkali.

It is one of America’s oldest foods, having been first introduced into the culture by Native Americans.

While grits are most typically eaten as a breakfast dish, they are starting to show up as part of dinner entrees. Shrimp and grits, which is a Louisiana dish, is now on many restaurant menus nationwide

Grits can be made either sweetened or savory. For breakfast, I prefer to make them with half milk and half water — this is known as Charleston-style — add a tab of whole butter and sweeten them with honey.

As a dinner side, I make grits will all water, butter, salt and fresh cracked black pepper and usually a lot of Parmesan or Romano cheese. You can use grits anywhere you would use polenta and the results will be delicious.

Pork and Grits

1 pork tenderloin, about 1-1/2 lb

6 TBS grits

2 cups water

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1/4 cup Parmesan and/or Romano cheese

2 TBS whole unsalted butter

1/4 cup Teriyaki sauce

1. Turn on grill (I used an indoor grill because it’s still wintery here, but an outdoor grill — gas or charcoal — is preferred). When hot, spray pork tenderloin with pay spray, season it generously with salt and pepper and throw it on the oiled grill. Turn occassionally so that all sides are marked, then reduce heat, move the tenderloin to a place on the grill where there is indirect heat, and let cook until done, about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the t-loin. Remove from heat, cover with foil and let rest for at least five minutes before slicing.

2. Bring water to a boil, add a dash of salt then whisk in the grits. Reduce heat and simmer until grits have thickened, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When finished, remove from heat and fold in butter and cheeses with a spatula. Balance at the end with salt and pepper because Parmesan and Romano already contain a lot of salt and you don’t want the grits to be too salty.

3. To plate, pile the grits in the middle of a plate or bowl. Pour the teriyaki sauce on the bottom so that it pools around the grits. Slice the tenderloin at a bias and then shingle along the sides of the grits.

I usually serve this with some sort of steamed green vegetable such a green beans, broccoli or Brussels sprouts, depending on what looks good at the market.

Programming note: I will be going on vacation for the next week, so there will be no new blogs until about March 15. Hope you all have a great week and I’ll see you when I get back!

The Power of Polenta

People tend to be intimidated by polenta. It has a reputation of being difficult to make and takes hours of stirring over a boiling pot to make it perfect. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Polenta is super easy to make, doesn’t really take that long, and can be a transformative experience. Armed with a few simple tips on how to handle it correctly, you can use polenta to make an everyday meal something truly memorable.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Poached Cherries over Creamy Polenta

Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Poached Cherries and Pecans over Creamy Polenta

At it very basic, polenta is made by quickly whisking corn grits into a boiling liquid then allowing the mixture to thicken. A paisan food, it comes from cultures without pretension. And while there is nothing fancy about polenta itself, it can be the centerpiece of any elegant dish.

There are two kinds of polenta and while each is delicious, both serve a unique purpose. There is creamy polenta and hard polenta. The difference can be defined with one word.


Creamy polenta has a soft, buttery texture and will literally melt in your mouth as you eat it. This is accomplished by adding dairy product, usually butter, milk and a soft  cheese such as mascarpone.

Because it is so versatile, creamy polenta goes with most proteins, from pork to chicken to beef or even fish. It also has enough body to be the centerpiece of an amazing appetizer,
such as polenta with Italian Sausage and parmesan.

It can be fried. It can be served as breakfast. Or its creamy texture and mildly sweet flavor even lends itself to be used to anchor a dessert.

Soft polenta’s luxurious mouth feel causes it to be a primary flavor in whatever dish you include it in. Smother it with sautéed mushrooms or douse it in a pool of tomato sauce, the taste of the creamy polenta will still shine through

Hard polenta — which is made with chicken stock or water, but no dairy – has one benefit that creamy polenta lacks: It’s really easy to grill. Because there is no dairy, it is far less
likely to stick to the grill. But the sugars in the corn meal also mean it will display grill marks brilliantly.

Grilled Polenta under Marinated Flank Steak

Grilled Polenta under Marinated Flank Steak

Another advantage is that grilled polenta be cut into any shape you want – triangles, squares, discs, even stars. You can stack it, shingle it or lay it flat. Because of its geometric
versatility, grilled polenta gives you a lot more plating options than its creamy counterpart.

Hard polenta also is relatively flavor neutral, meaning you can pair it with sweet or savory, and it will take a back seat to the food you pair it with. This makes it a nice base for appetizers and entrees.

Corn grits come in white or yellow, and in a variety of textures, from smooth to coarse. Although you can use either color or any texture to make polenta, traditionally coarse yellow corn grits are used.

Some corn grits are sold as polenta, but there’s no need to make a special purchase. You can use any corn meal or grits you already have and it will still work.

The process for cooking hard polenta versus creamy polenta are essentially the same – whisking corn meal into boiling liquid. The difference is with hard polenta you use just chicken stock and/or water, and for soft you use dairy product and/or water.

I didn’t specify milk because you can use milk, half and half, heavy cream or combination of all three.  In some kitchens where I worked, we would use whatever various liquid dairy products were left over to make the creamy polenta.

Creamy polenta usually is also fortified at the end with generous amounts of butter and cheese, usually a soft white, sweet cheese such as mascarpone. But you can use cream cheese, Neufchatel, shredded cheddar or anything you want.

Here’s a basic recipe for hard polenta:

3 cups chicken stock (and/or water)

1 cup corn grits

¼ tsp salt

¼ tsp white pepper (or black, either way)

Bring the chicken stock to a boil. Slowly whisk in the corn meal and return to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and continue to whisk until the polenta starts to pull away from the walls of the pot, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and remove from heat. Use a spatula to transfer to a sprayed or non-stick ½ sheet pan or a 9”x9” baking pan and spread evenly. Allow to cool completely then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour to harden. Use a knife to cut into whatever shapes you want. Before grilling, spray both sides and the grill with cooking spray.

Now here’s a recipe for creamy polenta:

2 cups dairy (milk, cream or half and half)

1 cup chicken stock

1 cup corn grits

¼ tsp salt

¼ tsp white pepper (again, black is also fine)

3 TBS unsalted butter

1 or 2 TBS mascarpone

¼ cup grated parmesan

Same recipe as above, except after you remove it from the heat, add the butter and cheeses. Cover and keep warm until ready to serve.

Wild Mushrooms and Polenta Appetizer

Wild Mushrooms and Polenta Appetizer

For plating, try covering the bottom of an appetizer dish with a basic tomato sauce, place a nice pile of creamy polenta in the center of the plate, then top it with some grilled Italian sausage garnished with a few pieces of freshly grated parmesan.

Another option is to cover the bottom of an appetizer dish with a brown mushroom sauce, center the creamy polenta, then top with sautéed wild mushrooms and fresh herbs.

You can buy polenta that is already made and comes in a tube, but why would you? It’s super easy to make and those tend to be quite flavorless. Yours will have so much more flavor.

Grilled Italian Sausage with Creamy Polenta and Shaved Parmesan

Grilled Italian Sausage with Creamy Polenta and Shaved Parmesan