Why It Works
- A properly cooked, creamy polenta makes perfectly spoonable layers that soak up the mushroom sauce.
- Lots of Parmesan, in both grated form and in a rich cream, add an extra level of decadence.
My mind has been a bit of a mess recently. How else can I explain the fact that we're finally getting some real warm weather with beautiful spring vegetables like asparagus and peas at the market, and all I can think about are gut-busting winter dishes like polenta with ragù? As long as there's a lingering chill in the air, I'm going to milk this mental discord—I know I won't be able to get away with it much longer since no one wants to read about parsnips and rutabagas when fresh tomatoes are actually tasting good.
So what am I cooking to appease my messed-up mind? How about something just as "messed up"? Let me explain: There's an Italian dish known as polenta pasticciata, which basically means "messed-up polenta." It may not be the most appetizing name, but perhaps I can win you over with a better description. Polenta pasticciata is nothing other than a baked polenta lasagna, with layers of polenta instead of any noodles. It's very easy to make and infinitely variable, since you can use whatever fillings appeal to you, whether that's Bolognese sauce or a vegetarian mushroom ragù like the one I'm using here.
To make our polenta lasagna, we start with polenta that's actually cooked right, which means it's cooked with enough liquid for long enough that you aren't stuck picking raw cornmeal grit out of your teeth after eating it.
We spread a layer of that good polenta in the bottom of a baking dish.
Then we top it with some grated Parmesan, for extra flavor. On top of that layer of polenta and cheese goes our filling, in this case a rich mushroom ragù that's bound with a small amount of tomato and just happens to be vegetarian. I went over the top and made a Parmesan cream by reducing heavy cream and whisking grated Parm into that, so I spooned some of that on top of the mushrooms as well. Some of you may say it seems redundant to put grated Parm and Parmesan cream inside this thing. I respond that it's a glorious mess.
Then we put another layer of polenta followed by more of the mushroom sauce, repeating with double doses of Parmesan as before.
We top the thing with a final layer of polenta...
...dot it with butter, and grate even more cheese on top. Into the oven it goes, at 350°F (180°C) for about 20 minutes, just long enough to heat it through and brown the top slightly.
Before cutting into it, it's best to let your polenta pasticciata stand for 20 minutes or so, since the piping hot polenta can be really soft. Once it's firmed just a tad, you can scoop or cut pieces from the casserole more cleanly.
Of course, that's if you have your head on straight. Mine's a bit of a mess right now, so I dug in way too soon and my polenta pasticciata collapsed. It was a damn delicious mess.
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). In a small saucepan, heat heavy cream over medium heat until simmering. Lower heat to medium-low and cook, stirring often to prevent scorching, until cream is reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Whisk in 2 ounces grated parmesan cheese until melted. Cover and set aside.
In a medium (roughly 2-quart) baking dish, spread a thin, even layer of polenta. Top with a small amount of the remaining grated Parmesan. Spoon half of the ragù on top in an even layer and drizzle with about 2 tablespoons of Parmesan cream.
Gently spread another even layer of polenta on top of ragù, covering it completely, then top with more grated Parmesan and the rest of the ragù. Drizzle 2 more tablespoons Parmesan cream on top. Spread a final thin layer of polenta on top, dot with butter and top with more grated Parmesan.
Bake polenta lasagna until heated throughout and golden on top, about 20 minutes. Let stand until cooled slightly so that the polenta sets a little, about 20 minutes. Reheat remaining Parmesan cream, thinning with a little water if necessary, and serve polenta lasagna, spooning Parmesan cream on top.
The exact quantity of polenta and mushroom sauce you need will depend on the size of the baking dish you use; it's possible you may have a small amount of polenta and/or mushroom sauce left over. This recipe calls for a half recipe of the mushroom ragù, but I recommend making the full batch, since it'll leave you with leftovers that you can freeze for future meals.
Medium baking dish (about 2-quart capacity)
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 44g||56%|
|Saturated Fat 23g||114%|
|Total Carbohydrate 39g||14%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||16%|
|Total Sugars 5g|
|Vitamin C 11mg||53%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|