I cannot call this a casserole. I grew up eating casseroles, subject to that generation of mothers who cooked with Campbells cans of soup, found Tupperware to be the rage and added crushed Ritz crackers or canned, fried onions to the top of—you guessed it—casseroles. (But I love you mom, and I still make that green bean mushroom soup fried onion topped casserole for Thanksgiving every year—and gobble accordingly). Mostly, though, I cannot call it a casserole because of the horrified expression that will attach itself to my husbands face, the fearful tone that will decidedly enter into his voice, and his overarching concern in what that sheer word—just by being uttered—might inflict on an otherwise perfectly nice ‘dish.’
So this dish has forever, awkwardly, been called my “Italian layered dish.” Which really, he might add, is appropriate since Italians don’t eat casserole. And he might be right (I haven’t heard of an Italian casserole—just ‘many ingredient dishes’ like lasagna, frittata and all things il forno). All great things Italian are layered one upon the other to make this divine dish: polenta, sausage, red sauce and mozzarella. I often serve it at parties and once quadrupled the recipe in two 9×13 aluminum pans to serve at a family reunion.
This dish is a keeper, in part because it is so homey and warming and unusual. It may pose as an understudy to lasagna, though is far easier to make and equally satisfying. This dish easily maintains a spot on my top 5 favorite dishes, specifically because it screams comfort food and easy entertaining.
So, when my husband asks me ‘what’s for dinner,’ and I reply—cheekily—that we are having the “Italian Layered Dish” [coughcasserolewheezesniff], an unreserved wave of enthusiasm comes over him. “You spoil me, he says,” and indeed I mean to:
For Tomato Sauce: (unless you already made and saved this sauce; then skip to Layered Dish)
4 T olive oil
4 cloves garlic
6 Roma tomatoes
1 T oregano AND 2 T basil OR 1 T Italian Herbs
1 tsp kosher salt
4 T tomato paste
For Layered Dish:
2/3 cup Parmesan
1 T olive oil
1 LB mild (or hot if you like) Italian sausage, sauteed
8 oz fresh mozzarella sliced Â¼ inch thick OR 8 oz shredded mozzarella
Preheat oven to 375. Make polenta: combine milk, butter, sugar and salt in heavy saucepan and heat to simmer. Slowly add cornmeal in thin stream, whisking constantly. Lower heat and stir with wooden spoon or rubber spatula (I use a silicone spatula) until mixture has thickened and begins to leave sides of pan, about 10 minutes. Off heat, mix in 1/3 cup Parmesan and place in baking dish. (If using tube of polenta, crumble in bowl, add Parmesan then press into bottom of pan).
Make tomato sauce: add 4 T olive oil to skillet over medium heat, add garlic, stirring until golden, 3 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes, herbs, salt and sugar. Simmer 15 minutes stirring occasionally, add 4 T tomato paste, blend and cook another 3 minutes. Meanwhile, saute sausage in 1 T olive oil until cooked through.
Sprinkle ½ of the remaining Parmesan over polenta, add layer of [all the] sausage, add layer of [all the] tomato sauce, sprinkle remaining Parmesan, top with mozzarella and bake for 30-35 minutes (until bubbling). Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Note: I have been known to buy polenta in a tube (sold by Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s), per-shredded Parmesan and mozzarella for those times when I am cutting myself some slack/taking a break/energy applied elsewhere. If you have made extra tomato sauce, or better yet canned some, then all of this adds to a removal of 2/3 the effort in making this dish. Other times I make the polenta from scratch (recipe above) and slice up fresh mozzarella. This dish is pretty forgiving, so use that oblong dish, or any baking pan roughly equivalent to an 8×8 square dish. 6 servings.