This is one of those recipes that I've been waiting to do for months. I'd heard about Polenta on the table and swiftly wrote it down in my already huge "to eat" list. Polenta on the table is an Italian dish where soft polenta and ragu or stew is served on a Spianatora (wooden table) with everyone dispensing with plates and instead digging in with a fork. I loved the idea instantly, the thought of this very communal way of eating and I queried everyone Italian that I knew who in turn queried other Italian people that they knew about where to purchase a Spianatora. The answers came back that there wasn't anywhere here to buy one here but that they could purchase one from Italy for me or get a friend to send one. I didn't want to trouble others for that and when one woman suggested using a big thick chopping board as a replacement I finally had my Spianatora of sorts.
It's incredibly easy, much easier than you would think and of course the biggest bonus is less dishes to wash up (always good in my book). And of course you could use any other meat aside from pork or you could substitute the quantity of meat with mushrooms or other vegetables to make a vegetarian version.
Usually the best weather for this is Autumn or Winter as it's a deliciously warming dish but I mentioned it to my friend M a few months ago and she was enthusiastic. So I invited her and her boys who I knew would love this way of eating over. Need I point out how fun it is for kids to eat this way, they'll think they've died and gone to heaven, although with 2 hungry and rambunctious boys, we needed to put down some place mats to ensure that our dining table didn't get ruined with trails of polenta and ragu (although we resorted to giving them small plates in the end). We told them that if anyone broke the "retaining wall" of polenta before the centre and bottom polenta was scooped out then the game was lost. This ensured that the boys didn't do what boys love to do and that seems to be destroying or smashing up things (which in turn saved my dining table).
Inti, with his ragu streaked right cheek enjoying himself
Polenta on the table
An original recipe by Not Quite Nigella
For the polenta
350g instant polenta
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoon butter
2 litres water
For the ragu
1 kg pork (not too lean) cut into small pieces
1 onion chopped
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
100ml white wine
1/2 cup tomato paste
400g mushrooms, sliced
400g tin diced tomatoes
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
oil for frying
6-7 basil leaves, torn
You will also need a Spianatora or a large wooden chopping board (not one that you cut raw meat on)
Step 1 - In a large pot or saucepan, cook the onion until becoming translucent, then brown the pork pieces in oil on high heat. If they release too much water, drain and reserve the liquid from the pot and then continue to brown. Add mushrooms, garlic, white wine and tomato paste in and cook for 15 minutes.
The pork ragu
Step 2 - Then add the tin of diced tomatoes, white wine vinegar and sugar and cook for 45 minutes until pork is very tender and soft. Add basil leaves in at the last minute.
Polenta poured on the Spianatora (ahem chopping board)
Step 3 - If you're using regular polenta it will take up to 30 minutes stirring and cooking. However I used instant polenta which only take 5-6 minutes which means that I can start the polenta when the ragu is ready. When the ragu is ready, boil the water in a medium to large pot and add salt. Stir in polenta with a flat bottomed wooden soon (to help ensure that the polenta doesn't stick to the bottom). Stir in butter once it thickens up (about 3 minutes into cooking it) and keep stirring it so that it doesn't stick.
Shaping the polenta with the base of a ladle
Step 4 - Have your clean chopping board or spianatora ready and scoop the polenta onto the chopping board ensuring that you don't go too close to the edge. Using the base of a ladle press down on the centre and build a higher wall of polenta around the outside of the circle. Ladle the ragu into the centre and give everyone a fork to dig in!