My grandmother, my mom's mom, was pretty crunchy-hippie as far as I can tell (apparently she loved flowy jumpsuits and I am dying for pictures, hand-me-downs, anything, I mean c'mon). She was a vegetarian for years and years, making an exception only when there was kielbasa offered. I love this fact about her.
It's an exception I understand: I've been a vegetarian since 2010 and the thing I miss most is sausage—the snappiness and the juiciness and that insane fatty-spice flavor (which neither tempeh nor tofu, much as I love both, will simply never be able to replicate).
My mom has said before that Nona would make tomato sauce with fennel seeds to get at that fragrant Italian sausage flavor, and last night I tried it and then some, adding smoked and hot paprika too. L and I both loved it over polenta (which I always bake in the oven rather than do on the stovetop, because it's SO easy. The first time I ever made polenta, in college, it was with Joy the Baker's oven-baked polenta recipe, and I've basically never made it any other way). Next time I'll try this with a thinly sliced bulb of fennel in addition to the onion, and garnish it all with fennel fronds.
Hot Italian Sausage-less Tomato Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon hot paprika
Good pinch chile flakes
Kosher salt to taste
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
4 ounces frozen chopped spinach (optional)
Stir the olive oil, onion, garlic, fennel seeds, paprikas, chile flakes, and a big pinch of salt in a good-sized pot. Turn the heat to medium and stir regularly until the onions are beginning to soften and go translucent and silky, about 7 to 10 minutes. (Starting it all in a cold pot will help keep the garlic and spices from burning.)
Add the tomatoes, plus about half a cup of water (use the water to rinse out the inside of the tomato can). Stir together well and simmer gently, partially covered, for about 45 minutes, until the sauce has really come together. Stir in the spinach if using (no need to thaw) and taste for seasoning.
1 cup polenta or coarse-ground cornmeal
4 cups water
A few big pinches kosher salt
Pinch red chile flakes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino
Heat the oven to 350° F. Stir together the polenta, water, and salt in a 9x9-inch pan or a smallish, shallowish baking dish, and bake uncovered for 45 minutes.
Remove the polenta from the oven and stir in the chile flakes, olive oil, and grated cheese, stirring well to combine. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.