Ciao, fellow foodies. Our goal with "The Mamma meets the Cucina" is to keep the Italian recipes and traditions going in future generations of our now American families. We've got the rich heritage, but unfortunately, not many of us have real live nonne and small Italian village marketplaces at our fingertips. That's why there's "The Mamma meets the Cucina!"
So, we decided to kick off with a recipe that puts an Italian twist on an American classic - Shepherd's Pie Italiano! Shepherds pie is one of those comfort foods...well, to me, Italian food is ALWAYS comfort food! It makes you feel warm and fuzzy (wait - maybe thats the vino...?) In any case, a hearty meal like this really makes me think of my grandparents and great grandparents. Before they came to America, they ate regionally. By this I mean that they ate whatever foods naturally grew in the climate and soil of their small towns. (Here, I must give a shout out to Guardia Lombardi - my grandparent's small, small, small town near the tip of the boot) They lived off their land and used those regional ingredients to come up with such amazing dishes. To them it was peasant food - to us, it's a delicacy hard to find in the states.
I always say - until I retire and move my family into our Italian villa on the Amalfi coast, the burden rests on me and my generation (as usual) to let these traditional style recipes live on in the future. It gives us a link to our past; it acts as a tribute to our ancestors; it keeps us hungry for more... (there's gonna be a lot of that around here!)
So with an Italian touch, we turned a bunch of meat in a pie shell into a rich, hearty Italian sausage scallopini casserole type thing with a polenta topping! A regular old peasant dish, right?! Tell me your mouth is not watering already? Watch as Chef Condo reveals his Cucina secrets play-by-play for all of you paisans out there....
SHEPHERD'S PIE ITALIANO
For this recipe, I'm taking the traditional Shepherd's Pie (beef and vegetables in a brown gravy topped with a mashed potato crust) and am adding an Italian spin to it. I'm talking sausage scallopini topped with polenta.
This dish is done in three stages:
Stage One - the scallopini
Stage Two - the polenta
Stage Three - combining and baking the two to make the pie
The scallopini (stage one) can be done ahead of time and refrigerated (up to a day). There is a lot of natural flavor coming from the garlic, onions, peppers, mushrooms and sausage, so you don't have to season much at all. I added a bit of black pepper and some Italian seasonings, and did not use salt at all. You can season to your liking.
The polenta (stage two) requires some time and effort. There's only four major ingredients (water, cornmeal, salt, parmesan cheese - I also added a bouillon cube for extra flavoring), but you have to be committed for 20 solid minutes of continuous stirring. Otherwise you risk burning the polenta or having it turn out lumpy. You want a nice, smooth texture What I suggest is to get yourself into a zone. Create a relaxed and happy atmosphere to help those minutes just breeze by. Throw on your favorite CD (my go-to is either the Best of Dean Martin or Dave Brubeck's Time Out), pour a glass of wine and have at it. You'll reap the rewards, I promise you!
Stage three is the easy part. Pour the scallopini mixture into a medium baking dish, spread the just-done polenta on top, and let it bake for 20-25 minutes. You can hit it under the broiler for a minute or so to crisp up the polenta, if you like. Let sit and cool for a few minutes before serving.
1 lb. ground sweet Italian sausage, removed from casing
2 tblspn olive oil (plus more if needed)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 portabella mushroom cap, chopped
1 15 oz can tomato sauce
fresh ground black pepper
1 cup corn meal
3 cups water
1 tspn salt
1 chicken bouillon cube
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
Heat olive oil in a large sauce pan on medium-high heat, add garlic, heat for one minute. Add ground sausage, breaking up in pan, stir occasionally. When sausage is evenly browned, add onion and peppers, stir. Add mushrooms, stir. When peppers and onions become crisp-tender, add tomato sauce. Season with some fresh ground pepper and Italian seasoning (adjust seasoning to your liking). Stir, cover and simmer on medium-low for about 20-25 minutes, until sauce thickens, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and set aside (you can prepare the scallopini portion earlier in the day and refrigerate to save time).
In a large sauce pan, place three cups water and bouillon cube, add salt, bring to a boil. Lower water to medium-low. Slowly add cornmeal a little at a time to water, stirring as you add. Do not add cornmeal all at once, or else it will clump. Stir cornmeal into water continuously for 20 minutes. You have to keep up with the stirring to avoid the polenta mixture from burning. About mid-way through, add parmesan cheese, continuing to stir. After 20 minutes, remove from heat.
Pour scallopini mix into a mid-size baking dish. Scoop polenta mixture on top and smooth out (like a cake frosting) to completely cover scallopini. Bake in oven uncovered at 350º for 20-25 minutes. Remove from oven, let sit for a few minutes. Serve and enjoy!