Layered Polenta Casserole

Here’s a simple recipe for an Italian casserole with robust spaghetti night flavor. Polenta is an easy, tasty side dish that’s strong enough to support a casserole.

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I created this recipe as a way to offer the ease and robust flavor of spaghetti dinner in a fresh form. It relies on a couple ready-made grocery store items, but those items can be replaced with an equal amount of the homemade version if you have time available to make those components yourself.

Serves 4

  • 1 1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup beef or chicken broth (either is good in this recipe)
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 8 oz sliced white or mini portabella mushrooms
  • 1 T butter
  • 14 oz jar or 15 oz can pasta sauce, traditional or mushroom flavor
  • 14 oz bag frozen meatballs
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon each dried parsley and oregano (or 1 T fresh chopped herbs)

You will need a 2 qt saucepan, a 10″ skillet and a 2 qt covered round glass baking dish. This recipe can be finished in a microwave or in the oven. Using the oven option requires preheating the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt the butter in the skillet over medium high heat and cook the sliced mushrooms for 10 minutes or until mushroom are browned.

Make the polenta: heat the water and broth in a saucepan over medium high heat and slowly whisk the cornmeal into the pan, stirring constantly. In a few minutes, the mixture will reach a boil, and the polenta will thicken quickly. Remove from heat and spread the polenta in the bottom of the glass baking dish.

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Next place the frozen meatballs on top of the polenta.

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Now pour the spaghetti sauce over the polenta and meatballs and layer the mushrooms on top. For the top layer, sprinkle the mozzarella cheese, parsley and oregano.

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The final step is baking. The baking time is short because the hot polenta helps thaw the meatballs while the casserole is assembled. The casserole may be finished by cooking covered in the microwave for 10-12 minutes or baking in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Enjoy.

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Spaghetti Dinner

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This evening’s edition: rigatoni and ground beef with Mid’s sauce

Like chili or tacos, spaghetti is one of those dinners I regret I can’t serve more often. If I make spaghetti more than once a fortnight, I risk seeming lazy or obsessed. Since I seldom cook my own sauce, spaghetti is indeed an easy dinner for me to serve, aside from that moment of juggling pans as everything seems to finish at the same moment.

Here in the Midwest, spaghetti is actually two different things, a product or a dinner genre. The difference depends on whether you are buying or making spaghetti. In the grocery store, spaghetti is what you’d call a box of dried semolina dough that is cut to uniform length and ~2 mm girth. When you cook dinner at home around here and call it spaghetti, it could be almost any combination of tomato sauce, pasta and ground meat. Actually the meat is optional. If it is present, it may be crumbled or shaped into meatballs.

Spaghetti dinner has the rare quality of growing with a cook throughout a lifetime. It can be both a starter dish for a beginner or the signature meal of a master. I have made several attempts at creating a decent homemade sauce, but I end up with a bland but nice looking result, like a Penney’s catalog of cuisine. Since these efforts have not yet been worth the time I’ve spent on them, I usually buy a tomato sauce and add meat. My favorite store bought sauce is Mid’s, which is a bit pricey but has a much deeper tenor than typical jarred sauces.

Spaghetti dinner can be varied to the point of using a starch other than pasta. A few years ago, I tried substituting polenta for pasta, with favorable results. I can now make spaghetti dinner twice as often by disguising it as a polenta casserole. The next time I make this casserole, I will post its simple recipe. It is just a bed of polenta covered in meatballs and tomato sauce then topped with mushrooms and mozzarella cheese.

I just had a vision of making a chili variation on the polenta casserole.

That’s what I need to make next.

If it works, I have an excuse to cook more chili, which is even more satisfying than making spaghetti dinner.

This could be how tamales were born. They are a taco variant of the polenta casserole.

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