This recipe contributed by Laura J. Peterson
Challenge: Ian can’t have wheat or other substitute pastas (as he’s also allergic to soy, rice, and other popular replacements, and I haven’t found corn and/or quinoa pasta sheets), and he’s also allergic to mozzarella, cow-milk cheese, garlic, onion, zucchini, eggplant, and most other popular Italian ingredients.
Solution: Polenta is not only delicious, but, when cooled, can be spread into a pan to form a layer (thicker than a pasta sheet, but I’ll take it). I think it’s actually easier than fidgeting with slippery fragile pasta sheets and is even more flavorful. Take it as read that you can substitute / add to this particular ingredients list to make it more Italian; just be aware that everything here has been tailored deliberately to Ian’s allergies.
- Polenta (natch) like http://www.bobsredmill.com/corn-grits_polenta.html; I’ve never cooked with the tubes but I don’t think they’d work for the necessary spread layers.
- Package of ground beef (I used bison)
- 3 cups cooked leafy spinach (one of those bags ought to be enough)
- 2 cups of beef broth (I found an organic Whole Foods 365 carton with no added ingredients)
- 2-3 stalks of celery
- 1 small tin of tomato paste
- 1 tin (small or large depending on your preference) of crushed tomatos or marinara sauce
- Cheese (6-8 slices or 2-3 cups of grated… I used Whole Foods 365 Goat Cheese slices for ease of layering)
- Fresh basil
- Salt and pepper
- Italian seasoning (fresh or dried oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary, etc.)
- 1 bay leaf
- 2-3 tablespoons of canola oil
- Dash of Worcestershire sauce
- One large deep stock pot (polenta)
- One medium pot or pan (for the beef)
- One small saucepan (for the sauce)
- A medium to large casserole dish (deeper is better than wider — you want a good 3-4 inches deep)
- Aluminum foil
- Bottle of red wine for cooking and enjoying afterwards. Our go-to plonk is Trader Joe’s La Ferme Julien Rouge, a terrific red table wine at the ~$5 mark. (The Blanc and Rose are fine, too!) http://wineharlots.com/wordpress/2009/04/la-ferme-julien/
Heat the canola oil in the “beef” pot (not until it spits, but warm it up some), and stir in chopped fresh basil until the oil is infused with the flavor of the basil.
Bring 5 cups of water and 1 cup of the beef broth to a simmering boil in your “polenta” pot, along with a good dash of salt. Slowly stir in 2 heaped cups of polenta. Stir frequently to avoid sticking. When the oil from the “beef” pot is ready, pour most of that basil-oil into the polenta, leaving the “beef” pot coated. Sprinkle in a good teaspoon or more of Italian seasoning and add a little more salt, if needed, and pepper, to the polenta.
While you’re tending the polenta, start frying up the ground beef. Once it starts to brown, add the W. sauce, half a cup or so of the wine and the last cup of the beef broth. Finely chop, or food process, the celery and add it in. (Note: this is our onion substitute and is optional for you — you could also add some celery salt — but regardless, we’ve found that the slight bitterness of celery pleasantly cuts through that beef flavor, serving a similar purpose to a bay leaf). Simmer until the beef has absorbed the flavors and some of the liquid has reduced down. Drain off the liquid (you could strain the beef into another dish) and set it aside to cool, preferably in the refrigerator.
The polenta should start to swell up rapidly and will be ready to work with in about 20 minutes. When it’s ready, it should be the consistency of the thickest grits you’ve ever had — not runny, but heaped and clumpy and gooey. If it’s runny, give it more time on the stove.
When the polenta is done, spoon a few serving-spoon heaps onto the bottom of the casserole dish, then smear into an even layer with a spatula. The amount you need may vary based on the size of the dish — I think I used about 3 cups. Then put the casserole dish into the fridge or freezer to cool; this will help the polenta “stratify”.
Pre-heat the oven while you wait; if you have a microwave, you can also steam up the spinach in its bag or in a large dish and set aside to cool. (Make sure you do steam the spinach, though, so it doesn’t cook and ooze liquid when baking!) When the oven is ready, bring the casserole dish and beef out of the fridge. You’re ready to make the lasagne.
Spread the tomato paste onto the bottom layer of polenta, then spread the beef out on top. Press down firmly with the back of a spatula. Then, spoon out another few spoonfuls of polenta from the pot and smear on top until the beef isn’t visible. This layer can be thinner than the base. The polenta should spread easily and maintain its gooey consistency. Then spread the spinach out evenly on top of the 2nd polenta layer, then cover evenly, almost to the edges of the dish, with generous amounts of your cheese. Add the final layer of the polenta, which should be a good 1/2 inch layer depending on how much you have left. (I had quite a bit of leftover polenta, but my deepest dish was also not very big.)
Cover the lasagne with foil and set in the oven. Cook for half an hour, then remove the foil and cook for another 20-30 minutes.
While the lasagne is baking, pour your tinned tomatoes into the small pan, and add a bay leaf and seasonings to taste. (My tomatoes had crushed basil in them already, so no extra seasonings were needed aside from the bay leaf.)
When the lasagne is ready, cut into serving squares using a spatula or flat-edged stirring spoon and serve onto plates or into shallow pasta bowls. Pour sauce on top and serve with optional extra shredded cheese and the rest of the wine.
Enjoy, and let us know what you think!