Saturday, June 26, 2010

Oven-Baked Chicken Polenta Florentine

We love polenta in my house, whether it's the kind in a tube, which I slice, brush with garlicky olive oil, and grill or saute until crisp, or the kind I make from scratch from finely ground cornmeal. I used to stand over the stove stirring the dangerously hot and sputtering mixture, until I discovered a fool-proof oven method, which I'll share with you below.

After cooking, polenta can be enjoyed plain as a side dish, in place of rice, pasta or potatoes, or it can be used as a base for your meal. For this recipe, I sauteed spinach, chicken sausage, onion and garlic and layered it on the polenta. You can change it up using any ingredients that appeal to you. This recipe is naturally gluten-free, and can be made dairy-free by substituting non-dairy cream, butter and cheeses where indicated.

Oven-Baked Chicken Polenta Florentine
Serves 6 - 8

6 cups water
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup cream (soy cream can be substituted)
4 tablespoons butter
pinch Parmesan cheese -- grated or shredded

16 ounces baby spinach -- stems removed (my personal preference - not mandatory)
1 pound ground chicken or chicken sausage, removed from casings
1/2 small sweet onion -- minced
1 clove garlic -- minced
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning or poultry seasoning
salt and pepper
1 jar pasta sauce or 2 cups homemade marinara
12 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese (soy cheese can be used)
2 tablespoons parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 425. Grease a 9x13 glass baking pan for the polenta (use a 9x9 pan if you cut the recipe in half).

In the greased baking pan, whisk together the water, cornmeal, salt, and pepper. Cover tightly with foil, and bake 30 minutes, stirring halfway though. At 30 minutes, the polenta should still be loose enough to whisk but not watery. If it's still too watery, let bake an extra 5 - 10 minutes.

Remove polenta from oven and add cream, butter and a pinch of parmesan. Whisk briskly until smooth. (This can be done hours ahead of time. Let polenta cool in pan and then proceed by topping with cooked ingredients.)

While polenta is baking, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add damp spinach in batches, stirring frequently, until wilted. Pour mixture into a sieve and let drain.

Reuse the same skillet to saute chicken or sausage and onion until cooked through. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add seasonings and stir to combine. (This can also be done ahead of time. You can set the filling aside until you're ready to assemble and bake the dish.)

Layer all of the spinach and then all of the chicken mixture on top of the polenta. Top with sauce and cheese. Bake about 30 minutes, or until cheese bubbles and is beginning to brown. Use a big spoon to serve portions to your very grateful family and friends.

NOTE: I've had equally good success using Quaker Corn Meal (very finely ground) as well as Bob's Red Mill Polenta (a coarser grind) for making the polenta.

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