Lasagnas are like people: there are a million variations, each with its own odd and sensational characteristics, and you should go out of your way to meet and experience as many of them as possible.
Here, with Food Daddy’s first foray into the world of Baked and Layered and Off the Boat, I present a lasagna that combines some elements (ricotta filling and tomato sauce) that usually come to mind when you think “lasagna”, with a bit of a perk via the inclusion of some chopped sausage (vegetarian or otherwise) and a departure from the norm of white-flour lasagna noodles, relying instead on polenta – here made into sheets — as the “pasta” holding the whole affair together.
We will experiment with other polenta dishes, and MANY, many more lasagnas (there’s already another incredible recipe in the hopper I can’t wait to refine and share with you) but this is a nice way to take a few old Italian favorites and work them together.
A note to my gluten-sensitive and full-on Celiac Foodies out there: THIS IS GLUTEN-FREE! And I’m marking it as such by including it in the GF category. BUT BE WARNED: if you choose to use a vegetarian sausage — many of which are just so good that nobody but you will ever know it’s not real pork — you MUST read labels, as the majority of these fine products have, as their main ingredient, the dreaded Vital Wheat Gluten.
This lasagna is dense, and satisfying. And did I mention DENSE? A little goes a long way. I fed five people and still had leftovers. This is, if you cut the proposed 9 portions into 18 portions, a PERFECT central entree for a dinner or cocktail party.
A further note from an Italian boy: as you serve this, the host gets the first piece. And not because he or she earned it, but because the first is the hardest to get out of the pan until you’ve made way for the others to slide out more easily — like one of those “mix and move the pieces” puzzles with the squares and the one open space. The sloppy-ass first hunk goes onto a plate which is quickly removed from sight, and then the guests are served the pristine slices that follow. The cooling time noted makes slicing and serving SO much easier, and nobody cries in pain as they burn the roofs of their mouths on molten cheese.
For the Polenta:
1 Cup “Quick” Polenta (corn meal) or precooked cornmeal (masa)
(regular corn meal can be used, but stove-top time will be tripled)
3 Cups water
1 tsp. Salt
For the Marinara Sauce:
1 Can (28 oz.) diced tomatoes, rinsed and drained
1 Small yellow onion, diced
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. chopped garlic (or three cloves fresh, chopped)
1 Tbsp. dried parsley
2 tsps. Dried oregano
1 tsp. Dried thyme
1 tsp. Salt
For the Filling:
1 (15 oz.) Container ricotta cheese
1 Large egg
1 Cup plus 1/4 Cup grated parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp. Parsley
1/2 tsp. Salt
1/2 tsp. Black pepper
2 Cups shredded mozzarella cheese
4 Links Italian sausage (cooked and drained, precooked, or vegetarian), diced
Prepare the Polenta:
Bring corn meal, water and salt to a boil in a saucepan over high heat. Once bubbling reduce heat to medium and stir frequently, about 5 – 7 minutes, until thick and belching steam. As it gets thicker you’ll need to stir constantly for the last minute or so. The resulting porridge should be the consistency of loose mashed potatoes.
Lay out a long sheet (about a yard or so) of waxed paper on a flat surface. Remove polenta from heat and spoon it quickly down the center lengthwise of the wax paper. With a rubber spatula, dipping it frequently in warm water, spread polenta thin to form a long rectangle at least three times as long as (and at least the single width of) your 9″ x 9″ square baking dish. God, I hate fucking math. Roughly? A 10″ x 30″ sheet of polenta. An alternate method, once you’ve spread the polenta to near-size, is to cover with an additional sheet of wax paper and, with light pressure, use a rolling pin to smooth it out. Leave polenta to cool and set up until firm.
Prepare the Marinara:
In a suace pan, saute onions in olive oil over medium high heat, until transparent. Add garlic and continue to cook until the onions begin to brown, stirring frequently.
Add remaining sauce ingredients and cook, covered, over high heat until mixture comes to boil. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the tomatoes are tender and have given off all their liquid, puree to a chunky consistency with a hand blender or by transferring to the bowl of a blender or food processor. Return to pot, bring to a boil over high heat, then cover and remove from heat.
Prepare the Filling:
In a mixing bowl, mix all the ingredients (except the remaining 1/4 cup of parmesan, the shredded mozzarella and the sausage), until well combined.
Preheat oven to 400°, and Assemble the Lasagna:
Cut the polenta into three equal sections. Each should be roughly the size of the baking pan. They will be slightly larger (who wants slightly smaller? How ugly that would turn out!) so again, cut each square section into four squares. It makes placing them easier and accounts for uneven edges. I’ll explain how when we get to it. Please don’t rush me, I’m under enough pressure as it is.
Ladel a thin layer of sauce onto the bottom of your 9″ x 9″ baking pan. If you’re smart it will be disposable aluminum, or your husband will be on dish duty after dinner. Take your first 1/3 of the polenta, which you’ve cut into 4 squares. Reassemble the square in the bottom of the pan by placing each one with the clean-cut center corner toward the outside corners of the pan; this will place the jagged edges and rounded corners in the center, and you’ll have a nice neat square with more consistent thickness.
After the first polenta layer, spread on 1/2 of the ricotta cheese filling mixture; ladel on 1/3 of the remaing sauce. Top with 1/2 of the sausage and 1/3 of the mozzarella.
Repeat with the next layer of polenta, the remaining ricotta, another 1/3 of the sauce, the remaining sausage, and another 1/3 of the mozzarella. Top that with the remaining layer of polenta, and cover with the last of the sauce and the mozzarella, and the reserved 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese.
Bake in center of oven at 400° for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350° and continue to bake for 30 minutes more, or until top is golden brown and with crispy, dark edges.
Remove from oven to cooling rack or heat-proof surface, and allow to sit at room temperature for 20 minutes. Cut into wedges (3 x 3 works best) and let your guests fight over who gets the coveted center square. Or the coveted corners with their TWO exposed sides of crispy edges. People are funny that way. And we fucking love ‘em for it.