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Baked Polenta with Escarole and Three Cheeses

By: Chef Richard     Category: Main Dish / Meatless     Makes: 8 servings

Golden Polenta, or coarse cornmeal, is a comforting mainstay of Northern Italian cooking, whether simmered to a creamy consistency & served alongside roasted meats, or molded & cut into squares, then grilled or baked between layers of sauce & cheese. Slightly bitter escarole, a bright green leafy endive, responds brilliantly to cooking; its flavors mellow, & it has enough heft to stand up to its braise in the sauce. This entire dish can be assembled & chilled in the refrigerator the day before baking and serving. Neufchâtel is a lighter style of cream cheese.

Ingredients:

  • 3¾  cups water
  • 1½  cups yellow cornmeal
  • 1  teaspoon salt
  • 3  tablespoons olive oil
  • 1  medium head of escarole, chopped
  • 1  cup chopped onion
  • 1  28-ounce can crushed tomatoes w/ added puree
  • ½  cup chopped fresh basil
  • 2  tablespoons tomato paste
  • 4  garlic cloves, minced
  • 6  ounces Neufchâtel cheese, room temperature
  • 1  large egg
  • 1  cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 3   ounces)
  • 2  cups freshly grated Monterey Jack cheese (about 8   ounces)

Instructions:

  • Butter 9x5x2½-inch loaf pan. Bring 3¾ cups water, cornmeal, and salt to boil in heavy large saucepan, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook until mixture is very thick, whisking frequently, about 5 minutes. Transfer to prepared pan; smooth top. Cover and refrigerate until firm, at least 3 hours or overnight.
  • Heat oil in large pot over medium heat. Add escarole; sauté until wilted, about 3 minutes. Add onion; sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Mix in crushed tomatoes, basil, tomato paste, and garlic. Simmer 10 minutes to blend flavors. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Using electric mixer, beat Neufchâtel cheese in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in egg, then Parmesan cheese.
  • Preheat oven to 400°F. Oil 8x8x2-inch glass baking dish. Turn polenta out onto work surface. Using serrated knife, cut into 20 slices. Spoon ⅓ sauce over. Drop cheese mixture by small spoonfuls over sauce. Arrange remaining 10 polenta slices atop cheese. Spoon remaining sauce over. Sprinkle Jack cheese over. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead; cool 2 hours, then cover and refrigerate.) Place dish on baking sheet. Bake casserole until cheese melts and sauce is bubbling around edges, about 35 minutes (or up to 45 minutes if chilled). Cool 10 minutes and serve.