Right now, I'm working on a Cincinnati-style chili to bring to an "American" pot luck tonight.
The honoree is celebrating 40 years in America. His first home in America was in Cincinnati, hence the chili, which is not a traditional chili but more of a Greek-influenced meat sauce served over spaghetti, shredded yellow cheddar cheese, cooked kidney beans and/or onions (known as two-way, three-way, four-way and five-way respectively). More on this later. (Update -- the recipe is posted --- click here to see it.)
Last Monday, I hosted a potluck dinner meeting at my home. Many fine dishes were shared including Kay's salmon, rice and cheese casserole, Joanne's homemade crusty rosemary bread, Karen's frosted flakes baked noodle dish (which tasted amazing believe it or not, but definitely a sweet not savory style kugel), Jeanne's spinach noodles with grilled vegetables and much more. I offered up leftover, defrosted lemon cheesecake cups from Noah's graduation dessert buffet the week before as well as this quick and easy Polenta Bake (which earned raves from my friends, discerning cooks themselves.)
Honestly, this wasn't the dish I set out to make. I had vague thoughts of a lasagna or polenta lasagna went I went shopping, but when I got home I literally had only an hour before my company was to arrive, so I vamped and improvised and came up with this easy and luscious tomato-mushroom polenta bake. I apologize for the inexact quantities but I did this on the fly and didn't measure or right down, however it is more of a process based on what's in the refrigerator and/or pantry. Make it soon, make it your own, and leave your friends raving.
Tomato-Mushroom Polenta Bake with Pesto and Cheeses
Serves About 6-8
I know it's not traditional, but making polenta in the microwave is perfect for those nights when you need something fast that's not pasta, rice or potatoes. No mushrooms? Substitute sauteed greens or other vegetable of your choice.
1 recipe microwave polenta
(see recipe below)
2 tablespoons grapeseed or olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1-1/2 pounds of assorted sliced mushrooms (I used a combo of crimini, white button and shitake)
About 1 teaspoon ground French Provencal or Italian seasoning (or a 1/4 teaspoon each of dried, ground oregano, fennel, basil, thyme)
1/8 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 28-32 ounce jar or can of good quality pasta sauce (I used Trader Joe's Tuscan marinara sauce)
About 8 ounces of prepared pesto (I like Costco's Kirkland brand in the big jar), divided
Salt and pepper to taste
Sliced tomatoes (optional), enough to cover the polenta layer
About 16 ounces of fresh ricotta cheese (I used part-skim milk)
Grated or shaved Parmesan
About 4 ounces of fresh mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Make the microwave polenta:
In a souffle dish or other 2.5 quart or larger microwavable dish, stir 1 and 1/4 cups of yellow corn meal into 4 cups of water. Cover with waxed paper and microwave on high for 12-16 minutes, until polenta has begun to set but is still somewhat loose. Stir the polenta once, about six minutes in. (Total time depends on your microwave power). Be careful, polenta will be very hot. Take out of microwave and stir in about 1/2 teaspoon of salt (or to taste) and a few grindings of black pepper (optional) and scrape the polenta into the bottom of a greased (with oil spray or olive oil) lasagna pan or large, deep, round casserole. (I used my 14" round Spanish earthenware casuela.) (Polenta technique adapted from Barbara Kafka's Healthy Microwave Gourmet.)
While the polenta is cooking in the microwave, start the mushroom-tomato sauce mixture. In a large saute pan, saute onions until golden, add garlic and saute until lightly golden. Add mushrooms and seasoning and red pepper flakes. Saute until mushrooms are almost cooked through. (Add a bit of broth or water if needed.) Mix in pasta sauce and 1-2 tablespoons of the pesto sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste and correct the seasonings if needed.
Assemble the polenta bake: Atop of the polenta layer, add sliced tomatoes (if using) in a single layer. On top of that layer, plop on tablespoons of the ricotta alternating with tablespoons of the remaining pesto sauce. Ladle mushroom-pasta sauce mixture on top and spread out evenly. Sprinkle with shaved or grated Parmesan cheese and slices of the mozzarella. Bake until cheese is browned and the dish is heated through (about 30-40 minutes.)
Straight from the oven, this dish is a bit "loose" but it firms up with standing time. It is delicious either way.