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.)