What’s your normal dinnertime? My husband’s schedule changes every week and our dinnertime revolves heavily around that — when he’s home for dinner at all. So when he called yesterday and said he would be home late, it occurred to me that it might not be a bad idea to figure something out for dinner before he arrived, famished.
What I came up was polenta lasagna: reasonably healthy, tasty, easily assembled in advance, and even makes plenty for leftovers. There are several components, but I prepared and assembled them all in the afternoon so all I needed to do was pop the pan in the oven about half an hour before my husband was supposed to arrive. He was late, so I left it in the oven to warm and made up two plates while he changed out of his suit.
Despite the seeming number of steps this would be so simple to assemble in advance. The components are the polenta (which takes about half an hour), the fillings (caramelizing takes half an hour or so), and the sauce. The assembled dish bakes for 20-30 minutes and the parts can even be made concurrently.
First, make a recipe of creamy polenta. When the polenta is done cooking, stir in a tablespoon or two of butter or olive oil, then pour the soft polenta into a sheet pan. Spread it thinly and and evenly as possible and put the pan in the refrigerator to cool.
In advance, at the same time the polenta is cooking, or while the polenta is in the fridge, cut a medium onion into semi-circular slices. Remove the core from a bulb of fennel and slice it thinly. Caramelize them together in a pan over low heat, which should take 30-60 minutes. Appreciate how good your kitchen smells.
If pressed for time you could just saute the onion and fennel with the next group, but the depth of flavor is worth it for a few extra minutes. I usually caramelize one or two onions at a time and keep the excess in the freezer to save me time when I need it. Fennel has a licorice taste that is much stronger when raw. Caramelizing the fennel mellows the flavor to add a nice spicy hint to the dish without being overpowering.
The rest of the filling is sliced summer squash, chopped spinach, and a lot of garlic. Saute the the squash until softened, then add the spinach and garlic until the greens wilt. I actually used the same pan after cooking the onion and fennel and saved myself a few minutes of washing pans.
Now the polenta is chilling in the fridge, onion and fennel are caramelized, squash, spinach, and garlic are sauteed. Time for sauce!
One option is to use a basic red sauce. This was my plan, but I had a minor problem with my can of tomatoes tasting “off,” and with the immortal words “better safe than sorry,” dumped it and went with plan B: B for Bechamel. I didn’t get any process photos of me ruining the first batch or eking out the second, so you’ll have to trust me on this. Heat 1-2 tablespoons of butter or olive oil in pan and whisk in an equal amount of flour. When mixture is golden, whisk in warm milk. Heat until thick and smooth.
Assemble the lasagna in a lightly-oiled 8×8-inch glass baking dish. Cut the polenta into large squares and lay them in the dish. Top with the fillings and sauce, then repeat until finished. Grate a healthy amount of Parmesan cheese over the top and bake for 20 minutes or so.
I did not cover the pan with foil while baking since it doesn’t need to be in the oven that long; it did not dry out but yielded a slightly crisp top.
The items I used for the filling were what I had on hand. Other ingredients I think would be lovely include sliced mushrooms, eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini, ricotta or mozzarella cheese.
While writing up this recipe I realized that if you use tomato sauce (the bechamel contains flour) and corn meal or polenta that is certified as such, this would be a gluten-free dish, too! Some friendly folks on Twitter informed me that the mildly gluten-intolerant might be fine, but celiacs could suffer if there was cross-contamination if the corn was ground on equipment also used for wheat products. I learn something new every day!
Even though almost every week is meatless Chez Moi, I’m playing along for moral support with Meatless Week at the Cookbook Chronicles. Look for the hash tag #meatlessweek on Twitter for more meat-free meals!
1 batch creamy polenta
1 medium onion, halved and sliced
1 bulb fennel, core remove and sliced
3 small summer squash, sliced
3 cups spinach leaves
3 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil, salt, pepper, and Parmesan cheese for seasoning
2 cups bechamel or tomato sauce
For a really basic bechamel:
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1.) Cook polenta. Spread the polenta in a thin, even layer in a large sheet pan. Refrigerate about 20 minutes.
2.) Add a tablespoon or two of olive oil to a wide pan over medium-low heat. Add onion and fennel, stirring to coat with oil. Let cook, stirring occasionally until very soft. Add a small pinch of salt and 2 tablespoons of water. Stir well. Continue cooking until very soft and brown, adding a tablespoon or two of water to deglaze the pan.
3.) If desired, empty it and use the same pan from the onion and fennel without washing. Add a splash more oil, then add the summer squash. Saute until softened and slightly transparent, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and spinach and cook, stirring occasionally, until spinach is wilted. Remove from heat. Taste and adjust salt if needed. Season with black pepper.
4.) For bechamel if using: Heat milk in a saucepan until hot but not bubbling. Over medium heat, warm butter or olive oil in a different saucepan and stir in flour. Stir flour mixture constantly until golden brown then gradually add heated milk, whisking constantly until smooth. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and cook about 7 minutes. Stir in salt.
5.) Preheat oven to 375F. When polenta is set cut it into large squares or wide strips about the size of lasagna noodles. Use a plastic utensil (bench scraper, plastic knife, spatula) to avoid scratching your pan. Lightly oil an 8×8-inch glass baking dish and place a layer of polenta in the bottom. Spread about 1/3 of the sauteed and caramelized veggies on top, then about 1/3 of the sauce. Add another layer of polenta, then veggies, then sauce, repeating until all polenta is used. I got 4 layers of polenta, if yours is thicker and only made three, divide the filling in half instead of thirds.
6.) Sprinkle about 1/4 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top and bake at 375F for about 20 minutes. Serve warm.
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