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Polenta Lasagna: A recipe in progress

photo 3My family can be a tough crowd.

I prepared this polenta lasagna, pictured at left, for dinner on a recent night. It filled the kitchen with that appealing Italian restaurant smell. When it came out of the oven, none of us could resist its burbly, cheesy, tomatoey, come-hither appeal as it rested on the counter. We gathered around in anticipation.

I enjoyed my serving quite a lot. I thought the whole package came together — the gooey pockets of mozzarella, the buttery flavor of fresh spinach tucked inside, the bright marinara sauce, the warming familiarity of the flavors.

“I’m not sure what’s wrong with it,” said my wife. “Maybe the tomato sauce is off. The polenta itself is good.”

“The spinach is gross,” piped in my 12-year-old. “You didn’t cook it right, did you?”

“I really like it,” said my 14-year-old, taking a second bite and then cocking her head. “But it could use more cheese. Or maybe a different cheese. Would cheddar be good?”

The recipe came out of my head rather than from a cookbook, so I consider it a work in progress. But my goal was to make a polenta casserole that would be easy to serve and easy to like.

Here’s what I did:

photo1. I started with this product, which I really like — Bellino Instant Polenta. The parboiled grain cooks in three minutes. While it doesn’t develop that toasty flavor of polenta you stir for 20 minutes, it’s a convenience product I heartily recommend. (Available at Whole Foods Markets.)

photo 32. At the end of two minutes, the polenta was like corn-based napalm bubbling out of the pot, ready to sear your skin. I covered it quickly, turned down the heat and continued stirring once it had calmed. I added about 2 tablespoons of butter and 1/3 cup chopped Parmigiano Reggiano cheese to enrich it. I resisted the temptation to add more. I wanted it to taste good without turning into a caloric gut bomb.

photo 23. I spread the still-runny polenta out in a large sheet pan to cool and firm up for 5 minutes. During that time, I wilted a heap of mature spinach (about 2 gallons) with a little salt in my wok. I drained the spinach in a colander, pressing it a little to rid it of water. For the record, I’d rather use frozen spinach that the “baby” salad spinach usually sold. You have to look for the big, crinkly leaves.

photo 44. I unscrewed a jar of this stuff. My wife was right — it was good too stridently acidic and oniony. The Scarpetta brand (which I’ve found at Fresh Market) is much better.

photo-65. I cut the semi-cooled polenta in half, and put half on the bottom of this 9-by-13 pan. I topped it with rounds of fresh mozzarella , half the tomato sauce, the spinach and some shavings of parmesan cheese. I put the remaining polenta on top, and then topped it with the remainder of the tomato sauce and more mozzarella. I covered it the pan and baked it at 375 degrees for about an hour.

photo 26. And then we ate. I still think it was a very tasty business that didn’t require a whole lot of work. My family, despite their initial criticisms, gave it thumbs up rather than down, and didn’t mind leftovers the next night.

But it could have used some improvement. I used two balls of an inexpensive domestic cow’s milk mozzarella and one ball of imported bufala mozzarella. The former was a little rubbery, the latter tender and delicious, but also $6. Hmm…maybe shredded mozzarella would be better.

Other thoughts: I might have chopped the spinach, though I stand by my decision to keep ricotta cheese away from it. I maybe should try making this again with some good crushed San Marzano tomatoes.

Still, I want to make it again and have everyone in my family swoon. I’d welcome any suggestions for improving this dish.

11 comments Add your comment

Darin

February 19th, 2010
9:40 am

I was at Toscano and Sons a couple of days ago looking at their polenta selection and I was completely befuddled by the choices. I wanted to try a recipe for mushroom sauce over polenta but I couldn’t decide on what type to use. This Bellino instant version looks easy to prepare.

Dishing Donna

February 19th, 2010
10:34 am

I usually insist on making my own spaghetti sauce or marinara sauce from scratch, but other than that — I think this recipe sounds delish! Did you have any trouble with the polenta?? I can never seem to get mine right, but now with this recipe … I’m determined!!
http://www.dishingwithdonnashow.blogspot.com

Reds

February 19th, 2010
1:08 pm

John, about how thick did you spread the polenta in the sheetpan? The dish looks pretty tasty, but i think that would be my only worry… that the polenta was too thick for my tastes…. but then again, i like to use a mandolin to make eggplant lasagna “noodles”… so it’s more like an eggplant parm, but tasty. And i agree with you on the frozen spinach vs baby spinach. I made beef and spinach manicotti this week, and just used the frozen stuff. :)

Kar

February 19th, 2010
2:35 pm

I love the concept of polenta lasagna, anything that heats up polenta so that it burns your teeth. I think though that since it tends to be a heavy, flat flavor, you might want to lean towards spicy rather than “fresh.”

Also, that’s a waste of fresh spinach. I don’t get how people can take beautiful fresh spinach leaves and either boil/fry them till they’re just a green paste. Also, since you didn’t mention them, you might consider some thin sliced onions or something for an extra “bite.”

Leslie

February 19th, 2010
6:18 pm

John,
I have a great polenta and lamb ragu which rocks. It’s ground lamb, fennel, onions, tomatoes and seasoning layered with polenta and feta cheese. OMG. I can email it to you if you want. Leslie; Leslie@FightsFeast.com

Fred

February 19th, 2010
7:12 pm

Dear Leslie,

Email it hell, post it here lol. I want to try it.

John, looks good although I may try to find the polenta somewhere other than at WholePaycheck. Also would it be ok if I was a a s’ghetti sauce snob and made my own rather than used that jarred junk lol?

I may try that Sunday………. unless Leslie posts her polenta/lamb ragu recipe……… or maybe I can go all crazy and make them both.

Foodgeek

February 20th, 2010
12:32 am

OK, so here’s a really labor-intensive idea: You could, after chilling your polenta “sheets,” cut them in half heightwise. And possibly shave them down even more than that after that was accomplished. You could bake the resulting “pasta” for your “lasagna” in the oven, prior to assembling.

But here’s the thing: After cooking the polenta, seasoning it, adding butter and/or cream and/or reggiano, and then frying it or baking it (with something to keep it from sticking to the pan), you’ve probably added more than enough fat to the polenta to completely cancel any health benefits that could be achieved over using fat-free, extruded semolina pasta sheets, which probably taste better in this preparation, in my experience, so why even try?

Well, I know why. I mean, I’ll try almost anything once, or twice, or even repeatedly, if I think it might be worth it. But given what you’ve written, I doubt I’ll do this “lasagna.” I certainly don’t have an aversion to polenta in any form, and I like shrimp and grits, and I think it’s a creative idea – by the way – but if it’s a hard sell, I’m inclined to just say that you might want to skip it, even if your goal is centered on the corn meal flavor.

fer

February 21st, 2010
10:45 am

I’m all for using the frozen chopped spinach in dishes like this, but surely some of you good cooks have found an EASY way to get the water out of it. Please share your methods…..

Christy

February 21st, 2010
11:10 am

Try shredded fontina cheese instead of mozzerlla. My favorite recipe for polenta casserole uses fontina–I think it adds more flavor than mozzarella. Here’s a link to the recipe:
http://simplyrecipes.com/recipes/polenta_casserole_with_fontina_and_tomato_sauce/

Reds

February 22nd, 2010
3:54 pm

Fer — i put it in a strainer and press a bowl that fit just inside it down on top of it. Then, I got through with a fork and make sure that the big clumps are not saturated.

fer

March 2nd, 2010
2:07 pm

I’ve used the strainer but with my hands and not the bowl. SUCH a good idea! Thanks, I can’t wait to try it!