Monday, September 27, 2010

Italian-Style Shepard's Pie... Topped with Provolone Cheese, Creamy Polenta & Spinach-Arugula Pesto

{Pacific Foods Everyday Chef Challenge -- Part Two}

At this time of year, fall and football are more or less synonymous terms in our home. Though I've never been a die-hard football fan -- and don't expect to become one anytime soon -- I have to admit that college ball has kind of taken hold of my senses in the last five years or so. Until this happened, the onset of football season meant only that we'd have something to do on a rainy weekend when there was absolutely nothing else on our docket.

Now, however, the start of college play brings a familiar and much-welcomed rhythmical cadence to our fall; a unifying thread that ties our family together despite the miles of road between us. We know that at the moment play begins... whether our vantage point is from a down-filled couch or a stadium bleacher... we are in the same moment. There is something comforting and soothing about the sounds we'll share -- the play-by-play and color commentary; the enthusiastic pitch and fervor of the crowd; and the swift rumble of the gridiron. It's a rough and tumble bit of poetry that we welcome each week, sometimes with great pleasure... and sometimes with dismay. In either case, it's a tradition that is often met with a roaring fire and something simmering away on the stove to be served up at halftime.

With this week's second (and final) Everyday Chef Challenge, sponsored by Pacific Natural Foods, I couldn't help but reflect on our Saturday tradition... happy to think up another easy one-pot meal like the soups and chili we so love.

Using Pacific Foods' Organic French Onion Soup and fresh spinach as kickoff ingredients, this Italian-Style Shepard's Pie gives a little wink and nod to the "French onion soup" that makes up its rich broth -- with a thin layer of provolone cheese dropped over the top to melt down into the bowl, and up and over its sides. Then the whole thing is capped with a creamy topping of polenta that's dotted with a dollop of fresh spinach-arugula pesto once out of the oven. It's satisfying, savory... and sensational!

Chock full of zesty Italian chicken sausage (both mild and hot) and lots of fresh veggies -- like zucchini, carrots, and spinach -- this dish delivers a distinctly Italian twist to its more traditional brethren... perfectly capped by the extra "3-P" addition of provolone, polenta, and pesto.

This is a great, satisfying meal that can be ready by halftime or served up on a busy weeknight, in individual bowls like the one shown here... or layered into one baking dish for added ease. It's a quick chop of veggies; a 30-minute sauté and simmer; a five-minute prep of polenta; and a final pop in the oven to quickly melt that little bit of provolone.

It's a quick play of ingredients... with a winning outcome!

Take a peek at my entry in this week's final Everyday Chef Challenge, alongside those of the other participating blogger/challengers: Elana's Pantry, Herbivoracious, Aggie's Kitchen, and $5 Dollar Dinners. It's a delicious line-up, supported by a great team of everyday chef challengers with sumptuous entries of their own. Perhaps you'd like to join in? If so, see online details for entry, and the opportunity to win a two-day trip to a Napa culinary bootcamp.

Remember... you can vote for your favorite recipe once every 24 hours through the entire week!!

Disclosure: I am working with Pacific Natural Foods on the Everyday Chef Challenge promotion and have been paid a stipend for my participation.

Italian-Style Shepard's Pie...
Topped with Provolone Cheese, Creamy Polenta & Spinach-Arugula Pesto
A Savory Nest recipe for Pacific Foods' Everyday Chef Challenge
Serves 4

If you want to go meatless, simply substitute a hearty canned bean and extra veggies in place of the sausage. Not a big cheese fan? Simply omit this step altogether or add just a little parmesan to your polenta to give it a subtle pop of flavor.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup diced onion (about 1 medium onion)
1 cup diced carrot (about 2 medium carrots)
2 ribs celery, diced
1 1/2 cups diced zucchini (about 2 large zucchini)
1 clove garlic, minced (about 1 generous teaspoon)
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1 teaspoon ground black pepper, divided
1 pound mild Italian (ground) chicken sausage
1/2 pound hot Italian (ground) chicken sausage
4 to 5 ounces chopped fresh spinach (about 4 cups chopped)
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
2 cups Pacific Natural Foods Organic French Onion Soup, more if you want it extra soupy

1 cup coarse ground cornmeal (traditional-style Italian polenta/corn grits)

4 to 6 slices provolone cheese

For pesto (makes about 1 cup):
Blend any combination of your favorite herbs along with some added flavorings (like parmesan, pine nuts, garlic, salt, pepper) and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Pesto is super easy to make with a handful of this and that, whirred up quickly in a blender or food processor. If you prefer to follow a recipe, try this...

2 to 3 cups fresh arugula leaves
1 to 2 cups fresh spinach leaves
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 to 2 garlic cloves (as preferred), roughly chopped
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup, just enough to create a loose spread)

Note: Leftover pesto can be kept in the fridge in a sealed container for about one week -- just add a little drizzle of olive oil over the top to keep it really fresh. You can fold this extra oil in before using, or drain it off if preferred.


1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, carrot, and celery to skillet; sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, until onion has softened a bit. Add in zucchini, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper; continue cooking for another 2 to 4 minutes, until zucchini has softened. Transfer veggies to a large dish; set aside.

3. Add chicken sausage to same pan used for veggies (do not wipe or wash pan clean). Cook sausage over medium-high heat, breaking it up with a spatula as it cooks; add 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper to season; continue cooking for a total of approximately 10 minutes, until sausage has browned. Add cooked veggies to sausage; mix to combine. Add in spinach and Italian seasoning; continue to cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, until spinach has wilted some. Add in soup; reduce heat to simmer and continue cooking for another 20 minutes.

4. About 15 minutes before serving, bring 3 cups of water and 1/2 teaspoon salt to boil in a heavy saucepan. Slowly add polenta to boiling water. Reduce heat to low; continue cooking polenta for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until thickened. (If desired, add in 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese for an added cheesy flavor.)

5. Ladle sausage-veggie mixture into individual oven-safe bowls (or into a baking dish), top with provolone cheese, then a spoonful/layer of polenta. Place dish(es) in oven for approximately 2 to 5 minutes, depending on size of dish and thickness of cheese, just until cheese melts. Top individual servings with a dollop of pesto, or serve pesto alongside plated servings. (Use store-bought, prepared pesto, or make it up fresh.)

To make pesto: Simply add all the ingredients (expect olive oil) to food processor (or blender). Pulse to combine. Slowly drizzle olive oil in, as you continue to pulse mixture, until it loosens up and reaches a paste-like consistency. Adjust seasonings, to taste.

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