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Last minute lady

Polenta instead of pasta

I made an amazing Mushroom Ragu this weekend, inspired by the great Lydia Bastianich.  I have been making this recipe of hers for years, but when I saw her on Rachael’s show last week, it reminded me how much I love it.

In typical Lydia, northern Italian style, she makes this dish often to be tossed with pasta or stirred into risotto, but just as often with polenta.  Instead of taking the easy way out, by making instant polenta and topping it with this mushroom ragu, which would have been amazing, I decided this time to make polenta from scratch, which was almost just as easy and took only a little bit longer.  Then, in a buttered casserole dish, I spread a layer of polenta and covered it with the ragu and some shredded pecorino cheese.  Another layer of polenta went over the ragu, then more sauce and cheese, this time mozzarella as well as the pecorino.  I baked it for 45 minutes and served it as you would a lasagna, only this time with polenta layers instead of noodles.

It’s a great alternative for someone who is avoiding wheat and although hearty, since it was a vegetarian dish and I used very little cheese, it felt much lighter than a noodle lasagna.

Polenta is a versatile ingredient and you could experiment with how to serve this endlessly.  Some just cook it and spread it on a wooden board to dry a bit and then serve. Otherwise pour into a baking dish to solidify, then slice it and serve, and the easiest of all is to just whip up a pot and dump it onto a plate with whatever topping you choose-Italians even eat it for breakfast as porridge!

Here is Rachael’s Vegetable Polenta Lasagna

Ingredients

For the red sauce:

  • Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 ribs celery, finely chopped
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 can Italian San Marzano tomatoes (28-32 ounces), crushed
  • A few leaves fresh basil, torn

For the bechamel sauce and ricotta:

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 rounded tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 box frozen spinach (10 ounces), defrosted
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh ricotta cheese

For the polenta:

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 6 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
  • 2 1/2 cups quick-cooking polenta
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel pollen or ground fennel (optional)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
  • 4 tablespoons butter, plus some for greasing the casserole
  • 2 cups shredded provolone cheese
Serves 6

Preparation

For the red sauce: Place a rack in the center of the oven. Heat some EVOO in a medium size Dutch oven or saucepot over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, carrots, celery and onion to the pot. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; add the bay leaf and thyme and cook to soften, 5-6 minutes. Next, stir in the wine and the tomato paste. Add the tomatoes and crush with a potato masher or wooden spoon. Bring the sauce to a bubble and reduce the heat to a simmer and thicken, 15 minutes.

Pre-heat the broiler.

For the bechamel and ricotta: Melt the butter in a saucepot over medium heat and whisk in the flour for 1 minute. Then whisk in the milk and bring to a bubble. Season the sauce with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Thicken the sauce and keep warm over low heat.

Drain the spinach well and separate it into small pieces. Mix together the fresh ricotta and spinach in a small bowl.

For the polenta: Bring the milk and chicken stock to a low boil. Add the polenta and season with the fennel, if using, salt and pepper. Whisk the polenta to mass, 3 minutes. Finish the polenta by stirring in 1/2 of the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and the butter.

Butter a casserole dish. Add half of the red sauce and top with half of the polenta. Pour the bechamel sauce over the polenta and dot with the ricotta cheese and spinach. Top the bechamel layer with the remainder of the polenta. Top the polenta with more red sauce and the remaining Parmigiano Reggiano and provolone. Reserve theremaining red sauce, if any, to serve on the side. Broil to set and brown, 5 minutes.

Rosemary Maggiore is our Last Minute Lady. A single mom of two kids plus a full time job (she runs this website!) keep her busy and usually pushing things to the last minute. Somehow she manages to keep her cool and her sanity while she enjoys good food, wine, friends and most importantly, family.

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