My 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:
1. 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.)
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.