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.

Rigatoni with Italian Sausage and Red Sauce

On busy nights, pasta with red sauce is a great go-to dinner. It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s inexpensive.

A box of pasta and a jar of red sauce can serve at least four people, and together they cost less than $2.50, or about $.63/portion, which is not bad.

What is bad, however, are most jarred tomato sauces. Both the name brand sauces that cost more — like Ragu and Prego — and the store brand or packer brand sauces usually are bland, tasteless and disappointing.

But I’ve been using this recipe to fortify ordinary pasta sauces for years and the result is a tangy, delicious and nutrition-packed red sauce that will please your family and spare your pocket book. Because most of the flavor is added during cooking, you can start with any brand of red sauce. I usually pick up a couple of jars just to keep on hand whenever they go on sale.

This red sauce can go with any pasta, from spaghetti to ravioli to stuffed shells or manicotti. You can even put it on a pizza, although I prefer my extremely simple pizza sauce recipe.

I used rigatoni, one of my favorite pastas. I just love to use it when I’m including Italian sausage in my pasta because they are both about the same shape and it just looks better. I always have plenty of grated parmesan on hand as well.

Whole Wheat Rigatoni with Italian Sausage and Red Sauce

1 box dry whole wheat rigatoni noodles

1 jar red pasta sauce, any kind

3 TBS EVOO, separated

1 onion, medium dice

1/2 green pepper, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice

6 to 8 white button mushrooms, sliced (you can use canned if you want)

3 cloves garlic, rough chop

1 lb Italian sausage, either spicy or mild

1 TBS Italian seasoning

Fresh cracked black pepper

1/4 cup grated parmesan (or more)

1. Cook rigatoni according to package directions, usually 10 minutes. Drain but don’t rinse. Return to pot, drizzle generously with EVOO, season with salt and pepper and toss. Cover and set aside.

2. Put cast iron skillet on the fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, make a slit down the sausage casing and remove sausage from the casing and add to the pan. Use a spantula to break up the sausage into 1″ chunks. Brown about 5 minutes, stirring frequently so that all sides are browned. Set aside.

3. Put sauce pan on the fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions and green pepper. Cook until onions translucent, about five minutes, then add mushrooms and the Italian sausage, making sure to include all the flavorful oil from the bottom of the cast iron pan. Cook until mushrooms browned, about 3 minutes, then add garlic and Italian seasoning. Cook another minute, then pour jar of red suace into the pan and stir. Fill empty jar with a little bit of water, replace lid and shake to get all the excess sauce out, then pour it into the pan and stir. When it begins to bubble, reduce the flame to a simmer and cook about five minutes. Turn it off.

4. To plate, spoon a little of the pasta into the center of a pasta bowl. Then spoon a generous amount of sauce on top of the pasta, making sure to display lots of big chunks of sausage. Sprinkle generously with parmesan cheese.

If you have a small can of sliced black olives lying around, they go great in this recipe as well. I normally serve this with garlic bread and with hot sauce on the side. This makes a great mid-week mid-winter meal.

What fast, inexpensive dishes do you make for your family this time of year? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog.

Baked Mostiaccioli with Italian Sausage

Did you ever become completely obsessed with having a certain food? This happens to me all the time.

Last weekend, my wife and I were on our way to a crafts show — good husband that I am, I went voluntarily — when we drove past an Italian grocery called Rosario’s. It’s kind of famous here on the South Side of Chicago, primarily because its sign features pigs jumping into a meat grinder to be turned into sausages, which spell out the name of the store. Here’s a photo:

The pigs used to light up sequentially so the sign kind of animated the slaughter of the hogs, but the lights broke years ago. Good times!

Anyway, Rosario’s had a big sign advertising a sale on mostiaccioli. Immediately, it became embedded in my brain and I had to make mostiaccioli.

Penne pasta and mostiaccioli are the same thing. Penne, which is the plural of the Italian word “penna” which means “feather” or “quill”, comes in two versions: penne rigate, which has little grooves along its sides to help the sauce stick to it better, and penne lisce, which has no grooves. Penne lisce is also known as mostiaccioli, which is Italian for “little mustache”.

Oh, those Italians and their pasta names!

Mostiaccioli also can be served the same way you would serve penne rigate, which is boiled, then poured into a pasta bowl and covered with red sauce and parmesan. But growing up we always had it baked in a casserole with tomato sauce and grated parmesan, then smothered with mozzarella cheese. It’s almost like a pizza casserole, except replacing the pizza dough with pasta. Everything else is essentially the same.

I like my mostiaccioli to have a crispy top, so I let it go longer than it probably should. Other people prefer it stringy, like a pizza. You can decide which way you prefer.

Baked Mostiaccioli with Italian Sausage

1 TBS sea salt

1 lb box dry mostiaccioli noodles (or penne or ziti)

14 oz can diced tomatoes

4 oz can tomato sauce

1 TBS tomato paste

2 TBS EVOO, separate

1/2 white onion, medium dice

1/2 green pepper, medium dice

1 jalapeno pepper, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice (optional)

2 cloves garlic, crushed

4 oz can mushroom slices

4 oz can sliced black olives

1 TBS Italian seasoning

1 tsp granulated sugar

1/2 cup grated parmesan

1/2 lb spicy/hot Italian sausage

8 oz grated fresh mozzarella (about 1-1/2 cups)

1. Fill large pot with hot water, add salt, cover and bring to boil. Add pasta and cook to package instructions for al dente, which is slightly undercooked. The pasta will continue to absorb the sauce while it bakes, so you don’t want to boil it too soft or the end product will be mushy. Drain.

2. Meanwhile, put sauce pan on fire. When hot, add half the EVOO. When smoking add onions and peppers and cook until translucent, about five minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add tomato paste and stir aound until mixed in, then add diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, Italian seasoning and sugar and stir together. Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the tin can taste is cooked out and the flavors meld together, about 10 minutes.

3. Put your cast iron pan on the fire. When hot, add remaining EVOO. When smoking, carefully place the sausage in the pan and brown, turning to brown evenly. Cook until cooked almost all the way through, about 5 minutes.

4. In mixing bowl, combine pasta, sauce, sausage and parmesan and mix well with a spatula. Then pour into a casserole dish and top with the mozzarella. Bake at 375F covered for 30 minutes, then uncovered another 10 minutes to crisp up the cheese. Serve in pasta bowls, garnish with parsley sprigs.

This recipe is also easy to cook in bulk and baked mostiaccioli is a standard at South Side block parties, first Communion parties, church picnics and the like.

What are some of your food obsessions? Please share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

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