Until just a few years ago, I thought that all polenta came precooked and wrapped firmly in plastic. When I was in college, my roommates and I would occasionally buy it packaged that way. Once we sawed through the wrapper, we’d cut it into thick rounds and cook those slices in butter until they were crisp and warmed through. Topped with some jarred marinara sauce, we thought it was QUITE the sophisticated meal.
There is nothing wrong with that kind of polenta, but once you taste the freshly cooked kind, all creamy and enriched with Parmesan cheese and a dab of butter, well, there’s no going back. It’s one of my pantry staples, because it can help unify a few leftover odds and ends into a really good meal. My favorite thing to do is top polenta with some pan-wilted spinach and a couple poached eggs. It’s an almost-instant dinner.
I’ve also found that polenta dishes are excellent to share with new parents. They reheat well, last for days in the fridge and are edible comfort for the sleep-deprived.
Last week, it was my turn to bring a meal to a new mama friend who, in addition to needing the general nurturing of polenta, also has to avoid gluten. After a bit of digging, I settled on Rachael Ray’s Polenta Vegetable “Lasagna.” It’s a casserole in which you layer homemade marinara sauce with polenta, a ricotta cheese and spinach mixture and a béchamel sauce (if you’re cooking for someone who also eats gluten-free, make sure to swap out the all-purpose flour with rice flour or the like).
Once everything is assembled, you top it with cheese and set it under the broiler until it bubbles and is gorgeously brown. Because you want to ensure that all the components are done well, it does take a bit of time, but that just makes it perfect for The Weekender.
Before you start stirring your polenta, here are a few things you should know:
– If you’re pressed for time, divide the work and cook up the marinara sauce a day or so ahead.
– Rachael doesn’t specify the size casserole dish you’re to use, but I recommend using the biggest you’ve got, or dividing the dish between two. This recipe makes a lot.
– If polenta isn’t part of your kitchen repertoire, don’t fret. Just keep whisking and all will be well.
– This dish is quite gloppy when it first comes out of the oven. If you want cleaner slices, let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes before cutting.
– If you’re taking this to friends who are new parents, I recommend that you bake it and cool it before delivering, so that it holds together. It should reheat nicely in a 350 degree F oven, provided you cover it tightly with foil.
Marisa McClellan is a food writer and canning teacher who lives in Center City Philadelphia. Find more of her food (all cooked up in her 80-square-foot kitchen) at her blog, Food in Jars. Her first cookbook, also called Food in Jars, will be published by Running Press in May 2012.