Thursday, August 4, 2011

summery polenta casserole.

corn has been on my mind lately after watching the 2003 documentary, king corn. the film documents the journey of american corn from its farm origins in iowa to its feeding of cattle in colorado to its conversion into high fructose corn syrup in a disturbing number of packaged goods we consume. i'm continually shocked by the realization that the vast majority of corn grown in this country is unedible off the cob and yet ends up (in excessive amounts!) in our bodies via other things we eat (but probably shouldn't!).

when i was younger, my favorite dish was my mom's mashed potato and corn casserole. looking back, the signs of my future vegetarianism weren't all too hidden (the rest of my family's favorite meal was grilled steak...). i loved the creaminess of the potatoes and the crunch of the fresh corn. it's been years since i ate that dish, and i have to admit my love of corn has largely waned in that time. i think i may have even once heard myself claim to dislike corn!

but the thing is that there are a lot of reasons to warm up to corn: grilled corn on the cob, for one. and for anyone following a gluten free diet, there's cornmeal, or polenta (whatever you call it, it's got a ton of iron, magnesium, zinc and vitamin b6!).

with corn on the brain, i decided to try out a summery corn and polenta casserole. this dish is bursting with summer flavors, from the fresh tomatoes to the fragrant green peppers to the sizzling cheese on top. plus, it's the kind of meal to restore even the biggest disbeliever's faith in corn. while i'm still planning on keeping my distance to its canned and sweetened forms, fresh corn is getting a renewed invitation into my diet.

summery polenta bake
adapted from dana treat

oven-baked polenta (recipe follows)

1½ cups tomato sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 ears of corn, kernels shaved off the cob

1 green pepper, chopped

¾ pound tomatoes, cored and seeded

1 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 chili, seeded and finely chopped

1 cup grated cheese

first make the polenta. do this early in the day (or at least 3 hours ahead of time) to give it time to harden.

heat the oil in a large non-stick pan and add the corn and pepper. sauté over medium heat just until tender, about 5 minutes. season with a pinch of salt. 

meanwhile, cut the tomatoes into chunks and place in a small bowl. toss in the sauteed corn and peppers, half the basil, and the chiles. add salt and pepper to taste.

preheat the oven to 375ºF. pour the tomato sauce into the bottom of large casserole dish. arrange the polenta triangles any way you like, using up all of the polenta. spoon the vegetables on top and into the spaces between the polenta triangles. give another slight salt and peppering, and sprinkle with the cheese. 

cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes, then uncover and bake for 10 more minutes, until the cheese is bubbly. sprinkle on the remaining basil and serve immediately! (this dish is also heavenly a day later, so don't worry for a second about what to do with leftovers!).

simple oven-baked polenta
adapted from nytimes recipe for health

1 cup polenta
1 quart water
1 teaspoon salt

preheat the oven to 350 degrees. combine the polenta, water and salt in a 2-quart baking dish. stir together, and place in the oven. bake fifty minutes. remove from the oven, and give it a stir using a fork or spatula. return to the oven for 10 minutes.

remove from the oven, and stir again. check that the grains are soft. if not, return to the oven for 10 minutes. remove and let cool, either in the same dish or by pouring it into another (lightly oiled) one. i left it in the baking dish to cool for an hour, then put it in the fridge for another hour to harden. once hard and cool, cut into squares (and then into triangles by halving the squares) and place on parchment paper for use in casserole.