This article was originally featured in The 30 Second Wine Advisor's FoodLetter on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2006.

Modifying recipes

The whole world, it is said, is divided into two classes of people: Those who divide everything into two classes and those who do not. But I digress. The culinary world, more to the point, seems to be divided between those who scrupulously follow every step in a published recipe, and those who modify recipes freely.

Mark me down firmly among the modifiers. I might, occasionally, follow a recipe precisely the first time I do it, particularly if it's an ethnic recipe that I want to make as authentically as possible, or maybe a classic procedure that I want to learn the traditional way. But even then, I may succumb to the temptation to add a little garlic to the ingredients list, or a splash of hot sauce; or short-cut a procedure that doesn't seem to be necessary.

Part of the process of learning to cook well, it seems to me, lies in gaining the confidence to read through a recipe, visualize what it will be like without actually cooking it, and knowing when it's okay to change it and when it's more prudent to follow orders.

The other day, sensing a hint of fall in the shortening days and changing slant of light if not in the heat and humidity, I was in the mood for something a little autumnal, and turned to a favorite (and sadly out-of-print) cookbook, Fred Plotkin's "La Terra Fortunata, The Splendid Food and Wine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia."

Plotkin's recipe for Polenta Pasticciata, an easy, hearty dish of polenta topped with mushrooms or sausage and molten cheese, looked like just the thing. But a stern warning in the introduction rubbed me the wrong way: "Cheese is essential, but the mushrooms or sausage are optional," he wrote. "Do not use both options."

"Do not use both options?" I mimicked, putting on a squeaky falsetto. "Why the hell not?" Sausage-and-mushrooms is one of my favorite pizza-topping combinations, and I think their earthy flavors go great together. Plus, I don't react well to being told what to do. So off I went to the kitchen, defying instructions and, I think, ending up with an excellent dinner. While I was at it, I added some garlic and onions, too; substituted Asiago fresco for the difficult-to-find Fruili Montasio cheese, and freely dispensed salt and pepper even though Plotkin's recipe, somewhat surprisingly, didn't mention them.

Here's my defiantly modified version. I liked it, and I think you will, too. (Of course you can leave the sausage out if you prefer it vegetarian.)

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two as a main dish, four as an appetizer)

For the polenta:
1/2 cup (120g) cornmeal
1 teaspoon (5ml) salt
2 cups (480ml) water

For the topping
4 to 6 ounces white or brown domestic mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons (30g) butter
Black pepper
1 mild Italian sausage
1/2 cup chopped sweet white or yellow onion
2 ounces Asiago fresco or similar Italian cheese


1. Make a thick polenta, using my non-traditional technique to avoid lumps: Pour the cornmeal and salt into the water in a saucepan while it's cold, stirring until it forms a smooth slurry; then cook this over medium-high heat until it thickens and starts to bubble. Reduce heat to very low and simmer, stirring frequently so it won't stick, until it's thick and very smooth. The traditional Italian technique calls for an hour of stirring, but with commercial cornmeal such as Quaker brand, you can get away with much less, as little as 5 to 10 minutes. Pour the hot polenta into an ovenproof baking dish that's been lightly greased with butter or olive oil, spread it out in an even layer, and set aside.

2. Cut the mushrooms into thick slices and mince the garlic. Saute the garlic in the butter in a skillet over medium heat until it's translucent and aromatic, then add the mushrooms and cook until they sweat, seasoning to saste with salt and pepper. Add a little additional butter (or water if you prefer) if they start to stick.

3. Take the sausage out of its skin and crumble it. Peel and chop the onion. Saute the sausage, using no additional fat, until it gives off a little fat, then add the chopped onions and continue sauteeing until the sausage is cooked and the onions are nicely browned.

4. Put the cooked mushrooms atop the polenta, then spread the sausage and onions over that; cover all with the cheese cut into thin slices. (If you prefer, you can follow the cookbook's original instructions, using either sausage or mushrooms and cheese, or divide the polenta between two separate bowls and top one with sausage and cheese, the other with mushrooms and cheese. I still say it's fine to blend them.)

5. Bake in a 350F (175C) oven for 5 to 10 minutes until the cheese is bubbly and starts to brown. Serve at once, with a salad or green vegetable and crusty bread if you like.

This could go very well with a richer-style white, and a Tocai Friulano or a full-bodied Pinot Grigio from Friuli's Collio or Colli Orientale would be just right. I wanted something red, though, and the good-value Falesco 2004 Vitiano Rosso, an affordable Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend from Umbria, hit the spot. A Chianti or Toscano Rosso would have done the job, too.