Serves 4 to 6
Polenta is dried Italian corn that is ground a little finer than grits and cooked like cornmeal mush. If you don’t have anise or licorice basil, substitute green basil and add 1 teaspoon of bruised fennel seed. The portabella is a good, meaty mushroom, but any other type of mushroom will do.
• 1 1/2 quarts water
• 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
• 1 1/2 cups polenta
• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 1/3 cups diced red onion
• 1 medium stalk celery, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced, about 1/2 cup
• 1 medium carrot, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced, about 1/2 cup
• 1 large portabella mushroom, stem removed, halved and cut into slices, about 11/2 cups
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 28-ounce can crushed or chopped tomatoes or about 2 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled and pureed
• 1 cup anise or licorice basil leaves, coarsely chopped
• 1/2 teaspoon sugar (optional)
• Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
• 1/2 cup anise or licorice basil leaves, cut crosswise into thin strips
1. Bring the water to a boil in a large, heavy pot and then add the salt. Pour the polenta into the boiling water in a steady stream, stirring continuously. When the mixture begins to bubble and erupt, reduce the heat to medium low or low; the polenta should continue to cook but not spatter out of the pot. Cook the polenta, stirring frequently so that it doesn’t stick, for 35 to 40 minutes, or until thick.
2. At this point, the polenta may be spooned into bowls, topped with sauce, sprinkled with cheese, and garnished with basil, or it may be poured into a loaf pan, allowed to cool, and refrigerated for as long as 3 days. To make the dish with cold polenta, turn it out of the pan and cut it into slices about 5/8 inch thick, then into pieces about 2 inches square. Lightly brush the squares with olive oil and place them on a baking sheet under the broiler, on a griddle over medium heat, or on a grill over a medium-hot fire. Cook the polenta for 3 to 5 minutes on each side, or until it is golden brown on the edges. Arrange the polenta squares on a platter or serving plates and spoon the sauce on top.
3. To make the sauce, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a nonreactive skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and stir 1 minute. Add the celery and carrot and stir occasionally for 4 minutes. Cover and sweat the vegetables for 4 minutes. Add the mushrooms and garlic, stir, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, stir well, and cook for about 5 minutes; if using fresh tomatoes, cook for 5 to 10 minutes longer.
4. Taste the sauce and adjust with salt and sugar. Add the chopped basil, stir, and cover. Remove the sauce from the heat and let it stand for 5 minutes. Taste again for seasoning. Spoon the sauce over the polenta, sprinkle with the cheese, and garnish generously with the basil strips.