Cheesy Baked Polenta

As in cheesy goodness, not cheesy in a corny way.

A few years ago, I tried out a recipe from a magazine for polenta lasagna– layers of sauce and cheese but instead of noodles, the recipe called for cutting up disks of ready-made polenta and sandwiching those between the layers. I liked the idea, thinking that the polenta would add a nice, nutty taste in addition to an interesting firmness instead of the usual softness that you get from noodles. Unfortunately, there was one huge flaw with the recipe: using those ready-made tube o’corn polenta. Although admittedly a quick and easy solution to dinner, it tasted a bit chemically to me.

So I set out here to redeem that dish, opting to make and bake a batch of polenta or corn grits if you will. I brought some medium ground corn grits to a boil with some vegetable stock, a sprinkle of dry herbs, a pat of butter and a generous helping of parmesan cheese then poured the bright yellow mix into a greased baking pan. The polenta firmed and toasted up nicely in the oven, leaving a nice crunchy edge. This was then doused in a sweet, slightly spicy tomato sauce made meaty with a mix of sautéed mushrooms, and topped off with lots of mozzarella cheese. Warm and satisfying, this is a delicious way to satisfy any baked pasta craving yet gets you out of any pasta rut.

Baked Polenta

  • 1.5 cups cornmeal, medium ground
  • 3 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • olive oil
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Tomato Sauce

  • olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • 1 large carrot, chopped into 1-2 inch pieces
  • 1 large celery stalk, chopped into 1-2 inch pieces
  • 3-4 garlic cloves
  • 8 oz crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 4 oz shiitake mushrooms, sliced and stemmed
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 28 oz can crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • 2 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease an 11 x 13 baking dish with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and set aside. In a medium bowl, mix together 1.5 cups of stock with the cornmeal and set aside. Bring the rest of the stock with 1 tablespoon of butter and the salt and pepper to a boil then slowly whisk in the cornmeal slurry. Reduce heat to medium low and continuously stir with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes or until thick. Stir in the parmesan cheese. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish and bake on a rack set in the middle of the oven for 30-40 minutes or until the edges are browned and pulling away from the edges of the pan.

While the polenta bakes, make the sauce. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the bottom of a large pot over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and saute until softened and moisture has evaporated, about 7-10 minutes. While mushrooms cook, add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic to a food processor bowl, fitted with a steel blade. Grind until vegetables are all finely chopped. Add this mix to the mushrooms and let cook for about 5-7 minutes. Pour in the white wine and let cook for 3-4 minutes or until wine evaporates. Add the tablespoon of butter and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Stir in tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, basil, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Let this simmer for 20-30 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle the sauce over the baked polenta then pile on the mozzarella. Return to the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes or until cheese has melted and slightly browned. Let sit for 5 minutes before cutting into squares and serving.

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