By Melissa Clark, The New York Times
It’s that casserole time of year again, when common sense dictates that dark, damp and thoroughly miserable days should end in carb-rich, cheesy and thoroughly cozy meals.
On days like those, I sit around and wonder if another layer of ricotta would somehow shorten the sleety, icy weeks that remain until spring — or at least make me forget about them at dinnertime. This soft, dense polenta casserole, constructed like a lasagna but without the noodles, might do just that.
On the surface, it looks just like a traditional lasagna, a blanket of brown-edged mozzarella tucked into the red sauce. But cut yourself a slice, and you’ll see the difference. Separating the creamy ricotta layers are thick, yellow stripes of polenta speckled green with spinach. With its gentle corn flavor, the polenta offers a sweet contrast to the savory tomato sauce, along with a pleasingly nubby texture that’s firm but not chewy.
The polenta may also come as a surprise. And that’s part of the appeal, especially now during our collective cooking rut, when many of us are craving something that’s novel but still familiar and comforting.
Making this recipe isn’t hard, but it does take time. You’ll need to cook the polenta on the stove, then bake it until firm before assembling the dish. (If it’s more convenient, you could do all that the day before.) The colder the polenta is when you layer it, the less likely it is to break apart. But don’t worry too much: If a piece of polenta falls off or cracks, just smush it back onto the slab. No one will notice after the casserole is baked, a gorgeous molten thing, capped with gooey cheese.
Be sure to get a good brand of marinara sauce, preferably one with chunky bits of tomato, for the deepest flavor. Or even better, if you have homemade marinara sauce stowed away in the freezer, use it here.
This recipe makes a lot of servings, possibly more than the number of members in your household. But leftovers freeze well. Pull them out when you need something warming and rich to get you through the rest of this winter, which will, thankfully, eventually end.
Recipe: Polenta Lasagna With Spinach and Herby Ricotta
Yield: 8 to 12 servings
Total time: 2 1/2 hours
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
- 1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 cups polenta (not instant)
- 5 ounces baby spinach (about 5 cups)
- 2 cups grated Parmesan
- 1 pound whole-milk ricotta (about 1 2/3 cups), preferably fresh
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil (or use more parsley)
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon grated fresh nutmeg
- 1 (25-ounce) jar good-quality marinara sauce (3 cups)
- Large pinch of red-pepper flakes, 1 pinch of dried oregano, 1 grated garlic clove or a drizzle of good extra-virgin olive oil, or a combination (optional)
- 1 pound shredded mozzarella (about 4 cups)
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees and butter an 13-by-18-inch rimmed baking sheet pan. Grease a rubber spatula with butter.
2. Prepare the polenta: In a large pot, bring 6 cups water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, then slowly pour in polenta, whisking constantly. Cook, whisking often, until polenta thickens, 8 to 12 minutes. Whisk in 4 tablespoons butter until melted. Whisk in spinach until wilted, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and mix in 1 cup grated Parmesan.
3. Scrape polenta onto the prepared baking sheet. Using the greased rubber spatula, spread the mixture into a thin, even layer to cover the entire pan, all the way to corners. Sprinkle 1/2 cup grated Parmesan on top. Bake until polenta is firm and cheese has melted, 12 to 18 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack until completely cooled, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or place in refrigerator until cool to touch, about 40 to 50 minutes. (Polenta can be baked the day before and refrigerated until needed.)
4. When ready to bake the lasagna, heat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
5. Prepare the ricotta filling: In a small bowl, mix ricotta, parsley, basil, egg, black pepper, nutmeg and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix until well combined and set aside.
6. Taste the marinara sauce. If it needs some zip, stir in any or all of the optional ingredients.
7. Assemble the lasagna: Using a knife or pizza cutter, cut cooled polenta in half widthwise, creating 2 pieces roughly 9 by 13 inches each. Using a large spatula, gently place one half in prepared baking dish. (It is important for polenta to be completely cooled and firm; otherwise, the pieces may break when transferring to baking dish. If anything breaks, just reassemble it in the pan. It won’t make much of a difference once it’s covered in sauce and baked.)
8. Spread about half the ricotta mixture in an even layer on top of polenta. Pour about half of marinara sauce on top of ricotta, sprinkle with about half of the shredded mozzarella. Repeat with remaining polenta, ricotta, marinara and mozzarella. Once assembled, sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan on top.
9. Place baking dish on top of a rimmed sheet pan in case the lasagna bubbles over. Bake until cheese melts, about 30 minutes. If you like, you can broil lasagna for 2 minutes after baking until cheese starts to bubble and develop brown spots.
10. Remove from oven and let lasagna stand for about 15 minutes to firm up before serving. Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 3 months.
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