This is a complete winter’s meal. It’s hearty and vegetarian, although if you want to include Italian sausage, cook it separately, slice it, and arrange it on top of the finished dish. For a streamlined process, make the tomato sauce and the beans ahead and heat them together while you cook the polenta. This dish is best made with a rich creamy bean such as borlotti. If borlotti are unavailable, try French horticulture or wren’s egg.–Steve Sando and Vanessa Barrington
LC WINTER’S MEAL NOTE
As the headnote says, this borlotti beans with creamy polenta is a complete winter’s meal. But don’t let that stop you from making it a complete autumn’s meal. Or early spring’s meal. Or any other time of year when it just happens to be a tad chilly come evening. Like tonight, perhaps?
Borlotti Beans with Creamy Polenta
For the tomato sauce
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 medium yellow onion chopped
- 1 medium fennel bulb trimmed and chopped
- 3 garlic cloves finely chopped
- 4 teaspoons chopped oregano leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- Salt to taste
- 1 small carrot peeled and shredded
- One can whole San Marzano tomatoes or plum tomatoes
- Freshly ground black pepper
For the polenta
- 4 cups water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup polenta
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese plus more for garnishing
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups drained, cooked borlotti beans
- 1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
Make the sauce
- In a small Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion, the fennel, the garlic, 2 teaspoons oregano, the red pepper flakes, and a pinch salt. Saute until the vegetables are soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes.
- Add the carrot and saute for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their juice, stirring to break them up with a wooden spoon. Add another pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered, at the barest simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are reduced and beginning to separate from the oil, at least 2 hours or up to 3 hours.
- Add the remaining 2 teaspoons oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Let cool. (The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 2 days at this point.)
Make the polenta
- About 45 minutes before serving, bring the water to a boil in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the salt and, whisking continuously, slowly pour the polenta into the water in a thin stream. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring nearly constantly with a long-handled spoon, until the mixture thickens, the grains soften, and the polenta begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, 40 to 45 minutes. Stir in the butter and 1/2 cup Parmesan and season with pepper. Cover to keep warm.
- Add the beans to the tomato sauce and warm them together over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. Stir in the parsley about 5 minutes before serving.
- Spoon the polenta into warmed shallow bowls and make a well in the center of each serving. Spoon some of the beans and tomato sauce into each well. Garnish with Parmesan cheese.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
This vegetarian dish has it all. In fact, we didn’t even miss the meat. The borlotti beans are creamy, the chunky tomato sauce flavorful, and the polenta creamy and cheesy. Fennel makes an appearance, lending a subtle, sweet anise flavor. The parsley perked it up aesthetically. I really liked the grated carrot in the tomato sauce; it added an earthy sweetness. It’s the quintessential picture of autumn. The only thing I would change is to use cream instead of water in the polenta (yes, I love it extra creamy). This is the dish to curl up with under a cozy blanket with a fire roaring in the fireplace. It is hearty, homey, and comfortable somehow. Nothing fancy, just really good rustic food. As a bonus, this tomato sauce would be wonderful on pasta or stirred into a bowl of chili or soup.
This was wholly successful as a vegetarian winter entrée. It was visually appealing, nutritionally balanced, and tasted great. There were flavors and flavor combinations here to stimulate jaded winter palates as the combination of beans, fennel, and polenta was interesting not only in terms of taste, but also texture. The fennel is a gentle yet pleasantly surprising presence. And in the creaminess arena, this dish is the satisfying and happy melding of cheesy, creamy polenta and rich, creamy beans. While the dish would have stood well alone, I accompanied it with a peppery sautéed green chard to add to the color palate and visual appeal of the meal. A moderately carnivorous friend read the recipe’s introductory note after eating this dinner, and agreed that the Italian sausage would be an excellent topping, as suggested. Nonetheless, he dubbed the vegetarian version a keeper, noting “I could eat this every day!” The search for the borlotti bean was worth it; researching this bean, I learned it is also known as the cranberry bean, which is what I used after finding it at a well-stocked Italian grocer.
Originally published January 16, 2008