We’re ecstatic to see the temperatures finally rising above the 30-degree mark again, but that doesn’t mean winter has released her chilly grip on the Northeast. Before we start breaking out the berries and avocados (believe us—those are coming soon, come hell or high snowplows), we’re riding out the rest of the winter with hearty, satisfying, stick-to-your-ribs meals, like this Rustic Vegetable and Polenta Lasagna.
Though it makes appearances on high-end restaurant menus all over the world, polenta has humble origins. It dates back to the original cultivation of maize in Northern Italy in the early sixteenth century, when the ground cornmeal, cooked with water or broth into the familiar springy cake, became a diet staple among peasants during the food-scarce winters. Though it bears some similarity to grits from the Southern United States, polenta and grits actually come from two different types of corn and are processed differently; grits, in particular, are processed with alkali, which makes the niacin and tryptophan in the grits bioavailable—an important preventive against pellagra, a potentially lethal vitamin B3 and tryptophan deficiency that was widespread in the South in the early 1900s.
The differences in the raw materials and processing of polenta and grits, not unexpectedly, lead to variations in flavor and texture. Some folks are staunchly pro-polenta, believing it to be superior in taste, while some will gladly tell you to, well, kiss their grits. We like them both, but for this original lasagna recipe, we rely on the firmer cake texture of polenta to hold up through the baking process . . . while smothered in delicious, veggie- and herb-packed tomato sauce and light layers of cheese. (Vegans can easily make an all-veg polenta and skip the cheese; we recommend a sprinkle of nutritional yeast for a cheesy fake-out.)
As if that weren’t enough enticement, polenta is gluten-free, and it’s considered a good carb, with plenty of necessary sugars and fiber to give us a boost of energy and help us feel full. Polenta is also rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C, and it’s low-cal, especially if you skip the butter and use soy or almond milk when making your polenta. To save some time, we’ve used a premade polenta here; if you do the same, just be sure to read the nutritional information on the packaging, because all polenta brands are definitely not made equal.
Rustic Vegetable and Polenta Lasagna
By Sarah Bessette
Nonstick cooking spray
2 tubes premade polenta (we used the type with fresh herbs)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 large green pepper, sliced
1 large red pepper, sliced
1 cup baby bella mushrooms, sliced
1 (28-ounce) can fire-roasted chopped tomatoes
1 (24-ounce) jar tomato basil sauce, or homemade tomato sauce
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons fresh Italian herbs of your choice
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
16 ounces grated mozzarella cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1. Preheat the oven 360 degrees F.
2. Spray an iron skillet with nonstick cooking spray and heat over medium. Slice the polenta lengthwise about ¼ inch thick. Brown the polenta strips, approximately 1 minute per side; set aside.
3. Heat the olive oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat. Sauté the vegetables for about five minutes, or until shallots are translucent. Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce, garlic, and seasonings. Simmer, covered, over low heat for 30 minutes.
4. In a casserole dish, arrange a layer of polenta strips and top them with the vegetable-sauce mixture, followed by a layer of mozzarella and a layer of Parmesan. Repeat until all polenta has been used, and end with the two cheese layers on top. Bake the lasagna, covered with foil, for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and cook for another 10 minutes to brown the cheese. Allow to cool slightly before serving.