If there’s one dish that says “winter” to me, it’s polenta. You never used to see it on menus in Italy during the summer months, but now that polenta’s become as ubiquitous as pasta in some restaurants, it wouldn’t surprise me. Still, I reserve it for the colder months when it’s as welcome as a down comforter. In the Italian cultural organization I’m part of, we hold a polenta festa each winter, where people from the community bring all sorts of dishes featuring humble cornmeal, including desserts. This year, I brought a casserole of polenta pasticciata.
If you’re scratching your head at the name, maybe the messy remainders of the casserole above will give you some clue. It’s hard to translate perfectly, but “pasticcio” in Italian means a hodgepodge, or mess, (“un bel pasticcio”, for example, would translate to “a fine mess”) so polenta pasticciata refers to a messy polenta, or one that’s mixed up with a lot of other “stuff.”
Make the polenta ahead of time and spread it out on a cookie sheet or baking pan. Let it cool, then cut into triangles (or squares or any other shape you like – remember, this is a “messy” casserole). Spread some tomato sauce on top, then layer with more polenta and more sauce.
For the record, I have never used commercially prepared tomato sauce. Maybe there are some good ones now, but I’d still rather make my own. (Well, that’s not exactly true. There was that time we went camping and bought a jar of some questionable tomato sauce).
However, my friend Michelle, of Majella Home Cooking, who’s a caterer, also cans 3,500 pounds (yes, that number’s right) of tomato sauce every summer. This is tomato sauce of a whole different category that what you buy in the store. Fortunately, she sells some of her precious jars of tomato sauce, and I bought half a dozen jars to use when I’m in a pinch. You can read about her family’s tradition of making tomato sauce here (and contact her to buy some sauce if you live anywhere near New York City.)
The sauce is just ideal as a base for any dish that requires tomato sauce, and I’ve used it straight from the jar for my eggplant parmigiana and other dishes. For this recipe though, I wanted to jazz it up a bit, so I added some sautéed crumbled sausage and another ingredient I recently discovered at the supermarket….. canned cherry tomatoes from Italy.
I’m not pushing this brand or any other. In fact, the first time I bought a can of these, it was a different brand and I can’t remember what the name was. But both times, they were flavorful and sweet and added texture to the sauce. I think they’d make a great pizza topping too.
After layering the casserole (I made three layers but it’s not writ in stone), just sprinkle some grated parmesan cheese on top.
Bake in the oven until the cheese is melted and everything is thoroughly heated. I had to set the casserole off to the side to take the picture, before the crowd lapped up every last bite.
Which is why I made a mini casserole just for me and baked it when I got home.
There’s really no recipe with exact quantities per se here. Quantities depend on how much sauce you have, how much polenta you make, how large your pan is, etc. This is the kind of dish that doesn’t have to be exact or perfect – remember it’s a pasticcio – a “hodgepodge.”
I started with about a cup and a half of polenta (I used the kind that cooks in five minutes, not the long-stirring kind) Cook according to package directions and spread on a cookie sheet. (I sometimes add half milk and half water to the polenta, and sometimes add some parmesan cheese too. It gives it more flavor. Make sure you add enough salt if you don’t use the parmesan cheese.)
Let the polenta cool, then cut into triangles or any shape you want.
Arrange a layer of the polenta triangles on the bottom of an oven proof casserole, then spread with a layer of tomato sauce.
For the tomato sauce, I used a jar of my friend Michelle’s homemade sauce (Majella Home Cooking) and added a pound of cooked and crumbled Italian sausage, plus a 14 oz. can of cherry tomatoes imported from Italy. Simmer all the sauce ingredients together for about 30 minutes before spreading on the polenta.
Spread some sauce over the polenta, then repeat two or three times, depending on how much polenta you have, how much sauce you have, and how big the casserole is. Finish with a generous sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Bake covered with foil (or a lid) for about 30-45 minutes, or until everything is piping hot, removing the foil the last 10 minutes.