This is a wonderful comfort dish for a gray day. I first had something similar at the Jazz School Café in Berkeley, and later went home and experimented. If you make this when golden-red heirloom tomatoes are available, they make a lovely contrast with the polenta. If you use vegetable stock for the polenta, it’s a vegetarian treat. Otherwise use light chicken stock—stay away from beef or dark chicken stock to preserve the yellow color of the polenta. I go very light on the cheese and it’s yummy, but if you are insouciant about dairy and calories, more makes it even creamier. Of course you can add or substitute in the sauce with just about anything: fennel, yellow peppers, bok choy, carrots, corn, squash, whatever fall vegetables please you.
1 Cup coarse, yellow polenta
6 Cups stock
salt and pepper to taste
1 ½ C mushrooms, sliced (Chanterelles are best, but any kind or assorted work, too)
1 large onion, sliced (or mix of onion, shallot or leek)
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 or 3 large very ripe heirloom tomatoes, chopped (about 2 pounds)
Handful of greens, rinsed and chopped (baby spinach, baby kale or chard)
Tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
Dash of hot pepper (cayenne or dried chili flakes, I use crushed chipotle)
1/3 C or so grated Gruyere cheese
¼ C or less shaved Grana Padano or Parmesan
Heat stock to just under a boil. Stir in polenta. Cook, stirring, about 20 minutes or till about the consistency of cream of wheat. Add salt and pepper to taste. (For those of you who like a bit more spice, add some pepper flakes to the polenta now—simple red chili flakes look terrific in the polenta and add a kick to this dish). Cook a bit longer till about the consistency of oatmeal. While polenta is cooking, sauté the onions and mushrooms in the oil. After they brown lightly, add the garlic, thyme and a dash of red pepper to taste. Sauté briefly and add tomatoes. Cook down till most of the water from the tomatoes evaporates and the mix is about the consistency of gravy. Add greens and set aside off the heat while polenta finishes cooking.
Spread one third of the polenta in a casserole dish. Add half of onions, mushrooms and tomatoes and cover with half of the gruyere. Add another layer of polenta, another of mushrooms and gruyere and a final layer of polenta. Sprinkle top with shaved cheese. Bake 450 for 20 minutes or till golden brown.