When I was a child, the Island of Misfit Toys section of the stop-action animation “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was distressing to me, and I bet I am not the only American child who felt that way. The idea that toys that weren’t quite right were exiled to a miserable life alone on an island somewhere near the North Pole was horrible. The spotted elephant, the cowboy riding an ostrich, the little yellow scooter with a sad face . . . you couldn’t even tell what was wrong with the doll. As I watched the show on tv, I wasn’t ever that worried for Rudolph, or frightened of the Abombinable Snowman, but I was desperate that someone should save the forgotten toys.
It’s October, not December, and I’m not watching Rudolph on television, but today I felt a similar pang when I opened the refrigerator. The floppy, wizened carrot. The pale, limp stalk of stringy celery. The drooping, yellowing parsley. There’s even a bit of wine we didn’t particularly like, but had stubbornly insisted we would drink tomorrow. We didn’t. I regret that these perfectly good, entirely edible bits in the fridge should go to waste. I just can’t let the efforts of the farmers and the winemakers go to waste, not to mention my own efforts, if the parsley I grew and protected from slugs and snails all summer is left to wither uneaten.
What’s a sentimental and frugal cook to do? I can tell you what frugal Italian cooks do: They make sugo finto. It’s an ingenious dish I’ve adopted and use to rescue those last languishing vegetables and forlorn, forgotten herbs, and you should add to your repertoire too.
Sugo Finto is a Tuscan sauce made very much like a meat sauce, only without the meat, making it “finto,” fake. Instead of minced meat, assorted vegetables are finely chopped to imitate the texture of minced meat. Apart from the missing meat, this is rich Italian sauce full of olive oil, red wine and bright tomatoes, and best of all, it’s a forgiving recipe that will take any and all misfit vegetables and herbs and welcome them back to the dinner table. Have fresh tomatoes? Use those. Only have canned? No problem. The recipe below includes the standard elements in my version of sugo finto, but the proportions of vegetables, kinds of vegetables, amounts of herbs and so forth varies a little, or even a lot, according to what we have.
A word about the wine: Use whatever you have. It should be red, but I’ve used all sorts and had the sauce turn out fine. I’ve used wine that had been open too long, wine that I hated the taste of, wine I loved the taste of, and colours from pale to purple. The purpley wines will give your final sauce a bit of a tinge, but if that isn’t a problem for you asthetically, it should still taste delicious. For your reference, the photos below were of a sugo finto made with a bit of leftover Rioja.
This recipe is inspired by this one on Serious Eats, with some alterations. First and foremost, I never use 5 tablespoons of oil. I did the first time I made the recipe and found pools of oil sitting at the top of the pot after cooking. It still tasted delicious, but I’ve been gradually cutting back on the oil ever since. I always use canned tomatoes, for the simple reason that if I have homegrown tomatoes, or excellent fresh ones from the farmer’s market at the height of summer, I usually eat them raw or in simpler preparations. I use more onions, or even a mix of regular onions, shallots, green onions, and Welsh onions from our garden. Basically, what you have, you can use.
The Serious Eats version is absolutely right about serving it over polenta, but I have always used my old favourite recipe adapted from a book called What’s for Dinner by Maryana Vollstedt rather than the one provided as part of the Serious Eats recipe. You may have had an Italian tell you, as I have, that polenta can only be cooked outdoors in a huge cauldron and has to be stirred for six hours, while it spits molten hot cornmeal at you at regular intervals. I think I even saw that in a television show once. You may even have heard that polenta should only be stirred in a single direction (clockwise, or counter-clockwise, but never a mix of the two). I’m certain those methods produce lovely polenta and that those are traditions worth upholding — if you happen to have six hours, a large cauldron and much patience. And if it isn’t raining. I have always used a much simpler method, and to be honest I’m not even sure that the polenta/cornmeal I buy at a local Asian market is exactly the same sort the Italians use. I can tell you it works, though, and you’ll be done in just a couple of minutes rather than half a day. If you don’t like polenta, feel free to serve the sauce over pasta, gnocchi, or anything else you like with a robust, vegetable-filled Italian tomato sauce.
Polenta with Sugo Finto
Sauce inspired by Serious Eats; polenta adapted from What’s for Dinner? by Maryana Vollstedt
For the sauce:
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 stalks celery, diced
1 large carrot, diced
2 small to medium onions, diced
a handful of chopped Italian parsley leaves
1/2 cup red wine
salt and black pepper, to taste
1 standard can chopped tomatoes (14oz. can or 400 g tin)
crushed red pepper (chile) flakes (optional and to taste)
For the polenta:
1 cup (160 g) yellow cornmeal or polenta
3 1/2 cups (787 ml) cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter or butter substitute (optional)
grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese (optional)
1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add celery, carrot, onion and parsley and cook uncovered until onion is translucent and vegetables are soft.
2. Add the red wine and cook uncovered until most of the wine has evaporated or been absorbed.
3. Add a pinch of salt and pepper (no need to get carried away, as you’ll have a chance to adjust the seasoning later), then add the canned tomatoes and their juice. Stir to combine, and let the mixture come back up to a simmer. Lower the heat to medium-low and cover the pot. Leave to simmer for about an hour. Check it once or twice to see if you need to adjust the heat, and if it looks too dry, add a splash of water.
4. When the sauce is done, adjust the seasoning, which is especially important because of the differences in red wines. You may need to add salt and pepper, as you would in any recipe, but you could also need to add a pinch of sugar if the sauce seems too tart, or a splash of lemon juice if it is too flat. If you like a bit of heat, this is also the time to add a pinch of crushed red pepper (chile) flakes.
5. Turn the heat down (or even off) while you prepare the polenta.
6. For the polenta, mix the cornmeal/ground polenta with 1 cup (about 225 ml) water in a bowl. Stir to combine, but don’t expect it to combine well.
7. Put the remaining water and salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Give the cornmeal mixture another quick stir and then pour it slowly into the boiling water with one hand while stirring the pot with the other.
8. Reduce the heat to lowand simmer, uncovered, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. It should take only 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
9. Stir in the butter, if you are using it, or even some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese, if you want.
10. Divide the polenta onto four plates or into bowls, then top with the sugo finto. Grate a bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese over the top, if you like.
Leftover sauce can be frozen. If you have polenta left over, the way to proceed depends on what you did when you took the pot off the heat: Did you leave the leftover polenta in the pot to cool? Or did you pour it into a lightly oiled loaf tin to cool? If you transferred it to another container to cool, you are a polenta pro unrattled by the hustle and bustle of getting a meal onto the table. You have the option of refrigerating the polenta and slicing it tomorrow to make delicious dishes with fried polenta slices, or even use slices as a base for assorted appetizers, such as the polenta topped with barbecued chicken and avocado on the Whole Foods Market site. People who have ended up with a solid mass of cold polenta in a pot? Fear not. You can chop that into small square (or square-ish) pieces and consider broiling/grilling them as Merrill Stubbs does here on Food52 (albeit with a different polenta recipe) and then eating them as a snack, or using them on salads or in soups like croutons. Or you could always top them with leftover sugo finto.
Metric conversions mine. Gluten-free and potentially vegetarian and vegan, if you omit butter and cheese, or use vegetarian/vegan equivalents.
Post by Janet