Polenta with Ragu of Braised Beef

  • Time: 4 to 6 hours
  • Serves: 8
  • Level: hard

‘It’s a tricky one this, and more for the cooks who are a little more skilled. However if you like braised beef and mighty fine sauces, this is for you. Taking between 4-6 hours, it’s a dinner party special – all your friends will be licking their plates clean for sure.’

'Ah polenta, a traditional Italian dish our family eat on special occasions. The sauce Dad made requires you to lick your plate clean.'

What you need

For the ragù

2 kilos of short rib beef, or beef shin with bone, or oxtail – or combination of each

2 large onions

2 large carrots

3 sticks of celery

6 cloves of garlic – peeled and chopped

2 star anise

4 bay leaves

Large sprig of thyme

Sprig of rosemary

10g dried porcini mushrooms

1 tbs mushroom ketchup

30ml tomato puree

Half a bottle red wine (optional)

60ml port (optional)

45ml sherry vinegar

1 sheet kombu seaweed

2 tsp sugar


Redcurrant jelly


For the polenta

350g coarse real polenta (i.e. non-instant)

2 litres of water

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon of  salt

Large handful of grated parmesan

50g unsalted butter

Dad's Recipe Tales

Many people don’t like polenta

Is it because polenta is a type of porridge and therefore synonymous with grits and gruel? Do people scoff at polenta because they believe it to be trumped-up peasant food? If this is the case why do they not scoff at lobsters, oysters or oxtails which were also once the staples of peasantry? Or is it that despite its wholesome heritage it just doesn’t taste of much? And this much we can all agree on – but surely all carbohydrates are essentially bland when eaten on their own. You could say the role of a carbohydrate is to act as a neutral conduit for other, more flavourful, ingredients – yin that needs its yang.

So give polenta a chance. It may be an acquired taste, but it’s a taste well worth acquiring.

Polenta rituals

An authentic polenta ritual requires an elaborate routine which must include the right occasion, the right equipment and of course the right recipe. Ideally, the polenta is cooked over a wood fire outdoors and always in a dedicated and huge copper polenta pot. It must be stirred with a particular stick – called a ‘cannella’ – which will, of course, become a treasured family heirloom and passed down through the generations. After what seems hours of cooking, the polenta is deemed ready to serve. With many hands and excited shouts of advice and guidance the cooked polenta is rolled carefully out of the pot, where it will hopefully land in a perfect mound in the centre of a large wooden board. It is then ceremoniously paraded to the table by an elated entourage, all beaming with proud smiles.

Polenta tradition

Like most culinary traditions and rituals it is not so much about the food – it’s about keeping memories alive. This is what motivates my tales of food and cooking. I believe everything we eat is associated with stories, stories that help define who we.

Our family will make polenta several times a year and always at New Year. It is always served with a ragù of braised meat. Long may the tradition live.

How Dad Cooked It

You need real polenta – often sold as Bramata polenta, not the instant form which is pre-cooked and ready in 5 minutes. I have researched five Italian chefs – each has a different idea of ratio of water to polenta (5:1 to 7:1) and the amount of polenta that will feed say six people (150g – 350g). Suffice to say this is not rocket science – we are making a crude porridge (see my notes above). The maize will absorb the water over time and be cooked in about 45-50 minutes. However, it seems to be important to decide on the quantity of water at the outset as additions of extra water at the end of cooking can break down the texture of the polenta. The Italian way is for the polenta to be quite stiff – definitely not runny or loose, so add more or less water at the outset to suit they way you like to eat polenta. Finally, polenta needs to be eaten as soon as it is cooked. If left too long it will congeal and set into a solid mass. Any leftover polenta can be grilled at another time.

To make the ragù:

  1. This should be made 1 day in advance. You will need a very large cast iron casserole – or similar.
  2. Fry the meat in light olive oil on a medium to high heat until browned on all sides. Do this in batches, transferring the meat to a large bowl as it is browned. Turn on the extractor and open the kitchen door – this is a smoky process. Change the oil often. When the meat is browned drain and clean the pan. De-glaze the pan if you like – but taste – if it tastes in the slightest bit burnt do not use.
  3. Bring 1 liter of water to the boil and add the kombu seaweed. Turn off the heat and allow to steep for 15 minutes – remove the seaweed and discard.
  4. Roughly chop the onion, carrot and celery and fry in pan in olive oil with the star anise. Do this on a medium high heat ensuring the vegetables brown but do not burn. After 10 minutes add the chopped garlic, stir and cook for another 5 minutes, remove the star anise, and add the tomato puree let this cook until it is reduced and starting to brown, then add the mushroom ketchup and dried porcini, vinegar and sugar and cook for 5 minutes, then add the port and wine and bring to a simmer, let the alcohol evaporate and then add the kombu stock. Turn off the heat and let the liquid cool a little.
  5. Add the meat and any juices left in the bowl. Add more water until most of the meat is submerged.
  6. Place this in an oven set at 110C Gas 1/4. The principle according to Harold McGee is to heat the stew gently at temperatures below 50C for two hours which will decrease the time the meat needs at higher temperature. Then raise the temperature to ensure the meat reaches 80C at which point the connective tissues will start to breakdown. Generally, this type of braise can take between 4-6 hours. Test the meat often and remove when it falls away from the bone and the connective tissues are tender. Take the casserole out of the oven and let it rest on top of the oven until cool. Leave in a cool kitchen or the fridge overnight.
  7. The next day remove the meat from the bone and put the meat into a separate bowl and then in the fridge. Put the bones back in the braising liquid and bring the braising liquid back to a very gentle simmer and cook for one and a half hours. Strain the braising liquid and discard the vegetables and bones. Put the liquid back into the pan and reduce the liquid to make a generous sauce for the meat. Before finishing whisk in a knob of cold butter and a tablespoon of redcurrant jelly (to taste). Let the sauce cool for 10 minutes. Then add the meat and re-heat at a very gentle heat until hot – but nowhere near boiling. Serve with polenta.

To make polenta

  1. Boil the water in a large pan and add the salt and bay leaf.
  2. Sprinkle over the polenta over the water and whisk to mix.
  3. Cook slowly for 45 minutes or so, stirring almost continuously with a wooden spoon until the polenta ‘comes away from the side of the pan’.
  4. Add the butter and parmesan and stir until incorporated and smooth. Turn off the heat, put a lid ajar over the pan and let it rest for 3 minutes. Then serve immediately.

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