Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sausage, Mushroom and Spinach Polenta Lasagna

 I really like polenta. It must be because it reminds me of my Louisiana grits-eating roots. Polenta and grits are essentially the same thing: cornmeal. The only difference is grits are treated with an alkali like lyme, which makes them white, and polenta is left in it's natural yellow state. They are virtually interchangeable, and both lend themselves well to cooking with milk and cheese, creating a creamy, comforting dish. I liked the idea of polenta lasagna because it seemed  a bit easier than having to boil lasagna noodles and fussing with lining them up in a pan. You just cook up some polenta, and pour it layers with a sauce mixture, add some cheese, and pop it into the oven. I searched out some recipes and ended up basing it loosely on this Rachael Ray recipe, adding spinach, extra spices, and changing the ratios a bit.

This reminds me a tiny bit of one of my favorite esoteric cajun dishes: grillades and grits. Cheap cuts of beef are braised in a tangy, richly spiced red wine-infused roux, and served on top of creamy grits. This dish has a similar balance of tangy sauce (this time from balsamic vinegar), rich meat, and creamy cornmeal.

I'm in love with this polenta/grit casserole idea, and I'm eager to try out other possibilities. It's easy to make, stores and freezes really well, and is gluten free! Sub in kale or collard greens for the spinach, try chorizo or andoullie instead of Italian sausage, or skip the sausage entirely and add extra mushrooms for a vegetarian dish. If you want to go a little further afield, you can make Tamale Pie or Chili Lasagna (whatever you want to call it). Layer chili with polenta and top with cheddar or pepperjack cheese.

Sauce mixture

1 T olive oil
10 oz crimini or portabello mushrooms, sliced
1 pound hot Italian sausage, casings removed
2 onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup chicken broth
3 T balsamic vinegar
1/2 t thyme
1/2 t basil
1/2 t oregano
red pepper, black pepper, salt
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes with basil
1 lb frozen spinach

1 quart or water or chicken broth, or some combination of the two.
2 cups milk (low-fat or skim is fine)
2 cups instant polenta
1/4 cup parm
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups (8 oz) shredded cheese, such as an Italian mix or mozzarella, low fat is fine

Preheat oven 400°F.

Heat a large saucepan or dutch oven over medium high-heat. Add olive oil and mushrooms. Cook for a few minutes until browned. Remove and set aside. Add sausage and break it up into small bits with the back of a spoon as it cooks and browns. Remove and set aside. Brown the onions and garlic. Add remaining sauce ingredients and simmer 10 minutes.

While the sauce is cooking, bring water and milk for polenta to boil. Add the polenta in a steady stream, stirring constantly for the first couple of minutes. Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, adding more water if needed to keep polenta thick but creamy and stirrable. Turn off heat, add parm, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Spray a 3-quart baking dish or lasagna pan with nonstick spray and pour half of the polenta into the bottom of the dish, spreading it out to cover the entire bottom. Top with half of the sauce mixture, then half of the cheese. Repeat. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes. Serves 8-10.