Baked Polenta with Spinach and Leeks
5/11/14: This week on "The Food Guys:" Greg and Jon take up a favorite topic: how to incorporate more vegetables into every meal. Coleslaw, broccoli and cauliflower get some attention before they introduce the following recipe for baked polenta with spinach, leeks and ricotta.
Baked Polenta with Spinach, Leeks and Ricotta
You can assemble this dish hours ahead and bake it when you’re ready. Serve with a crisp green salad using Romaine lettuce, cucumber, and any other fresh vegetable additions you’d like. Make the basic soft polenta first and set the pan it’s in into a pan of hot water over very low heat to keep warm while you prepare the vegetable and ricotta filling. Stir the polenta occasionally to make sure it stays soft and smooth. Stir in small amounts of extra hot water, if necessary.
Basic Soft Polenta
5 cups water
Salt and pepper
1 cup medium or fine cornmeal
6 tablespoons butter
Bring water to a boil in a medium-size heavy sauce pan over high heat. Add 1 teaspoon salt. Pour cornmeal slowly into water, stirring with a wire whisk or wooden spoon as you go. When all the cornmeal has been added the water may rise up violently. Quickly reduce the heat to medium and continue stirring about 5 minutes as the cornmeal begins to thicken just a bit.
Turn heat to very low. Cook for at least 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so. If polenta becomes quite thick, thin it with 1 to 2 tablespoons water, stir well and continue cooking. Add more water as necessary, to keep polenta soft enough to stir. Put a spoonful on a plate, let it cool, then taste. Grains should be swollen and taste cooked, not raw. Adjust salt and add pepper.
Add 6 tablespoons butter to the polenta and stir well. The polenta is ready to be used.
Spinach, Leek and Ricotta Filling
The best spinach for this dish is bunched spinach, older than baby spinach, with leaves that have a sturdy structure. Baby spinach is best used in salads and in quick stir-fries or sautés.
2 pounds fresh spinach, well washed and tough stems removed (about 1 1/4 pounds prepared weight)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large leeks (about 1 1/2 pounds total) using white and pale green parts only, split lengthwise, washed and thinly sliced (about 2 cups prepared)
Salt and pepper
2 cups whole milk ricotta (15 or 16 ounce container)
2 large eggs
Pinch of cayenne
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1/4 cup grated Parmesan, loosely packed (1 ounce)
4 ounces Fontina or Swiss cheese, grated (about 1 cup loosely packed)
2 tablespoons soft butter, for baking dish
Soft Polenta (see recipe above), kept warm
Put 2 quarts of cool tap water into a large pot with an 8-quart capacity. Add the spinach, which will fill the pot to the brim. Cover and set the pot over high heat. Cook 5 minutes. Uncover the pot. You’ll see the spinach has reduced to about half the height of the pot. Continue cooking at the boil, stirring, for another minute or two until the spinach is completely tender and is still very green. Drain in a colander. Run cold tap water over the spinach, manipulating the mass until cool enough to handle. Squeeze handfuls of spinach to remove all excess moisture—very important or finished dish will be mushy. Chop the spinach with a large chef’s knife.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the leeks. Stir well, season lightly with salt and pepper, and cover the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool, uncovered.
In a large bowl, combine chopped spinach, leeks, ricotta and eggs. Season with more salt and pepper (about 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper), then add cayenne, lemon zest, half the Parmesan and all but 3 tablespoons of the Fontina and stir well. Taste again and adjust seasoning as necessary.
Butter a 2 1/2-quart baking dish such as a 9- by 12-inch rectangular one or a 10- x 2-inch round pan. Spoon slightly less than half of the warm polenta into the dish and spread with a spatula to make a thin layer. Refrigerate 10 minutes to set the polenta. Spoon vegetable filling evenly on the polenta and spread evenly. Top with remaining soft polenta and spread to smooth the surface. (May be made ahead up to this point a few hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before baking).
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Sprinkle remaining Parmesan and Fontina on top, and bake, uncovered, for 40 to 45 minutes, until top is golden brown. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes before serving. You can cut into wedges like a pie or spoon portions out onto plates.
Makes 6 to 8 main dish servings.
TIP: Refrigerating the baked pie overnight will firm the filling and polenta making cutting the pie into wedges a snap. Reheat each wedge in a microwave oven or regular oven (350 degrees for 15 minutes).