Baked cornmeal // Polenta al Forno
It may not seem as authentically Italian as pasta, but polenta (ground cornmeal) was a lot easier find after the war, when pasta was hard to come by. Polenta became a staple in my family meals. My mom grew to love polenta, but didn’t perfect her recipe until she had moved to Canada.
The Italian ladies my Aunt Elda worked with at a factory in Canada shared their polenta secrets. They suggested that my Aunt cook her polenta in a saucepan until creamy, and finish by baking it in the oven topped with with tomato sauce and cheese. My Aunt shared this with my mom and I soon fell in love with this new, lasgna-style polenta.
Polenta is prepared throughout Italy. In the Molise region of Italy, where my mom is from, it is served creamy in a bowl. In the North of Italy it is served firm and crusty with olive oil and sometimes mushrooms and gorgonzola cheese.
Carla’s tip: Look for medium to coarse grind yellow cornmeal that is also known as polenta.
*Bonus Tip: For an easy, delicious, and gluten free snack, buy a prepared polenta roll (found at your local grocer). Slice, grill and serve with olive oil and sundried tomatoes (and even a bit of goat’s cheese!). My sister shared this treat with me.
Polenta al Forno
- 5 cups water or chicken stock
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 cup cornmeal, medium or coarse grind
- 2 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
- 3 1/2 cups Mom’s tomato sauce (add extra to serve on the side)
- 1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
- 1 cup mozzorella cheese, grated
- 2 cups mushrooms, sliced (optional) such as crimini, shittake or portobello
- 2 Italian garlic sausages (optional)
- Add water (or a blend of chicken stock & water, as you prefer) and salt to a heavy saucepan over high heat.
- Whisk in cornmeal until well blended, bringing mixture to a boil. Stir frequently at a boil, cooking at a high (medium-high) heat until mixture is thickened and begins to splatter.
- Reduce heat to low and continue cooking and stirring until texture is thickened and reduced, about 20 minutes. (Keep in mind that the polenta will cook further in the oven.)
- Remove polenta from the heat and add olive oil, 1/2 cup Mom’s tomato sauce, 1/4 cup each of Parmigiano and mozzorella cheeses, mix well after each addition.
- If using mushrooms, cook them in a skillet with an additional 1 Tbsp oil and 1 Tbsp melted butter, until golden and cooked (5 to 8 minutes). Remove from heat and add about 1/2 cup of mushrooms to polenta and mix well.
- If using sausages, grill, pan fry or bake in a 375 oven for about 20 minutes, turning often, until the sausage is evenly browned and warmed through, and the liquid runs clean. Slice the sauce into rounds and add about 1/3 of the sausage to the polenta and mix well.
- Line the bottom of an 13- x 9 -inch greased baking dish with about 1/2 cup of Mom’s tomato sauce. Spoon the polenta over the sauce using a spatula to evenly spread. Top with about two cups of tomato sauce and remaining mushrooms and sausages if desired. Sprinkle with about 1/2 cup each of the Parmigiano Reggiano and mozzorella cheese.
- Bake in a preheated 350F oven for 30 minutes until polenta still jiggles when you shake, or 10 minutes if you prefer a firmer polenta. Let the polenta cool for about 20 minutes before cutting and serving.
- Serve with additional tomato sauce and additional Parmigiano Reggiano cheese if desired.