Polenta is a grain that has always eluded my grasp. There are so many things that can go wrong with polenta – it can be rubbery, it can be undercooked and sandy, it can be unpleasantly gelatinous – the list goes on and on. And yet using the stuff that comes in a roll just doesn’t seem like a solution. There is something deeply troubling about the fact that those little rolls of polenta can sit there, pre-cooked and entirely unrefrigerated in the supermarket aisles. Can you imagine buying rice that way? Or oatmeal? Or any other kind of grain? It’s just wrong.
So I decided to conquer this fear of polenta for part two of this month’s project – casseroles. I also wanted to make a dairy-free casserole for my friend Joanne who requested a dairy-free recipe because her daughter is having problems digesting dairy.
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of using polenta in place in lasagna noodles, for a twist on a classic lasagna. So I went with a polenta lasagna recipe, layering my polenta “noodles” with spinach and tomato sauce, and omitting the cheese one usually finds in a lasagna dish. To increase the flavor, I added sausage to the tomato sauce, giving the dish a savory heft.
Now, if you’re looking for a quick casserole recipe, I must warn you – this is a bit of an undertaking. The polenta takes a full 1/2 hour to cook – plus extra time to boil the water. I think the secret to cooing polenta, by the way, is to actually follow the directions on the package – I added the polenta very, very slowly to the boiling water – like, in a very small and steady stream. It took time, but it produced lump-free polenta – a feat I have never accomplished before.
Making the tomato sauce by hand, while worth it, ups the time quotient on the recipe, as does separately sauteing the spinach. It also takes time to let the polenta set into “layers” before it’s ready to be cut and placed in the casserole.
But, while it was a lot of work, I was happy with this casserole. The polenta “noodles” soak up the tomato sauce without entirely losing their texture, and the polenta is a great foil to the bright, acidic tomatoes and bitter spinach. My only problem is that I think I over salted the tomato sauce, which is quite easy to do, but which made the dish a little salty for my taste. Yes, it would have been nice with cheese, but it’s a perfectly fine savory dish without it. I even added a crunchy bread crumb topping, which is the perfect way to finish the dish.
Recipe: Polenta Casserole With Spinach, Sausage, and Tomato Sauce
Makes approximately six servings.
4.5 cups water
1.5 cups polenta
Salt and pepper
1 tsp olive oil, plus more for cooking sausage, spinach, oiling various pans, and coating bread crumbs
3 sweet Italian sausages, removed from their casings and broken into small bits
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 15 oz can tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
1 tbs basil, finely chopped
6 oz spinach
2 cups fresh bread crumbs
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
In a large saucepan, bring water to a boil over high heat. Add olive oil and a pinch of salt, then slowly (like, seriously, really slowly) pour in the polenta, whisking all the while. Turn heat to low and continue to cook over a low simmer, stirring frequently with a long handled wooden spoon or other stirring apparatus, for 1/2 hour. Remove from heat and pour into a lightly oiled jelly roll pan (I used a pan approximately 12 inches by 17 inches). Pat down into a 1/4 inch thick sheet. Let cool.
In a saute pan, heat some olive oil over medium heat. Add the sausage and cook until cooked through and browned. Add onion and cook until slightly softened. Add garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, water, and basil; increase heat to medium high and bring to a boil. Lower heat and let simmer for 15 minutes or so, until thickened. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
In a saute pan, heat olive oil over medium low heat. Add spinach and satue until wilted. Remove to a plate and let cool, slightly, until able to handle.
In a small bowl, toss bread crumbs with a little olive oil, until lightly coated.
Lightly oil a casserole dish. Slice polenta into large wedges that will fit into your casserole pan – while it’s not important that the wedges are the exact shape of the pan, the bigger they are the better. Place 1/3 of the polenta wedges so that they cover the bottom of the pan. Add 1/3 of the tomato sauce and spread over polenta. Place 1/2 of the spinach over tomato sauce. Cover with another layer of polenta wedges, then another 1/3 of the tomato sauce and the rest of the spinach. Top with remaining polenta, then cover with remaining sauce. Spread bread crumbs over the top of the casserole.
Place baking dish in oven and bake for 20 minutes, until sauce is bubbling at the edges and bread crumbs are browned. Serve with a side salad and a nice glass of red wine.