This recipe is a complete revelation and a long story. This is hands down my absolute favorite casserole right now, combining fresh cranberries, the rich flavors of roasted winter squash, sweet potatoes and brown sugar, and a topping of salty warm polenta and a liberal amount of melted parmesan cheese. The cranberries burst in the oven and have this wonderful jammy thing that they do with the brown sugar, and seriously, nothing says festive like fresh cranberries. It’s epic. Vegetarians and carnivores alike will devour it happily, and it would make a main dish just as show-stopping as a Thanksgiving roast turkey. Plus, it’s really simple and easily adapted to different vegetables. The basic formula is just to roast some winter squash, leeks and cranberries, top with brown sugar, and then top that with a really cheesy batch of polenta. Done. With me so far? At this point of the story, this is the second time I’ve made the casserole (the first time had no pictures), so the sun sets, I finish cooking the casserole, and I set aside a nice photogenic serving to take a picture of when the sun comes back up.Then tragedy struck. Well, not really tragedy, but a major roadblock in taking nice pictures and doing much of anything other than sitting around and watching tv.Damn.
So I was in the garden, just walking around, not doing anything exciting at all, and then *poof* my brain shut off and i forgot how to use my feet or something. My toe caught on something, my ankle twisted, made a really glorious popping noise, and then I ate it face first in the dirt. I did my best damsel-in-distress voice and called for J. to come help me, and while I waited that long minute or so, I had plenty of time to think about how completely annoying this was going to be. I’m a workaholic, since my job is to do fun things like make jam and plant flowers. If you saw my to-do list right now you might throw up, it’s huge. I have kale that needs planting, jam to make, tomato sauce to can, lavender to transplant, seeds to start… All of which usually require the use of my feet. Our farm is really not handicapped-accessible, which this is experience has made me feel very guilty about, and think about changing.
Turns out I ruptured a ligament in my ankle, an injury that’s supposedly just as serious as a break but with a much faster recovery time. So for at least another few days, I’m holed up in a cheap motel room so I can have some creature comforts that we don’t have at the farm (like flat, crutch-friendly floors, indoor plumbing, and tv). Nothing like some Dr. Drew and trashy magazines. So I wish I had a beautiful picture of the finished casserole, but I don’t, and since I’m really bored right now, I want to spend my free time convincing the internet universe to roast some cranberries. I promise that when I’m back on my feet I’ll update this post with that one last picture, of the caramelized vegetables and cranberries topped with oozy gooey cheesy warm polenta, steaming hot and delicious out of the oven. It’s coming, I swear. Until then, take my word for it! Bookmark this page for your holiday recipes– you won’t be disappointed.
Roasted Pumpkin, Cranberry and Polenta Casserole
Serves: around 10, depending on portion sizes. You could decide to serve this as a vegetable side dish as well, in which case the smaller portions would serve closer to 15 or even 20.
Cook Time: about 3 hours, a lot of which is just roasting time in the oven
For the Vegetable Filling:
- 1/2 a large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2″ cubes
- 1/4 medium pumpkin, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2″ cubes
- 1 leek, rinsed and cut into thin rings
- 1 large sweet potato, cut into 1/2″ cubes (skin on)
- 3 c. fresh cranberries
- 2 tbs. chopped fresh herbs (what do you have in the garden? parsley, sage, thyme, marjoram, oregano, and rosemary would all be fine. I used thyme and sage)
- 1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil (this is the time to use the high quality stuff if you have it, but it won’t make or break the recipe)
- 2 tbs. butter
- sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- 1/2 c. dark brown sugar
For the Polenta Topping:**
- 2 quarts of vegetable stock
- 2 c. coarse ground cornmeal
- 8 tablespoons of butter, or earth balance if you want to make it vegan (shush, I know it’s a lot. If you’re on a low-fat diet, just reduce it to 2 tbs.)
- 6 oz. parmesan cheese, grated
- 1/4 c. mascarpone (if you have access to it, or just leave it out)
- 1 tbs. freshly cracked black pepper
- sea salt to taste
- 1/4 c. chopped flat-leaf parsley
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a large casserole dish* with 2 tbs. of butter. In a large mixing bowl, combing the prepared butternut squash, cranberries, pumpkin, sweet potato and leeks. Liberally season with freshly cracked black pepper, the chopped fresh herbs and sea salt. Pour the olive oil over everything and mix it together well, making sure all the surfaces of the vegetables are covered with oil and evenly seasoned. Pour the seasoned vegetables and cranberries into the prepared dish and bake, uncovered, in the oven for 1 1/2 hrs. Pull the tray back out, give everything a stir to make sure it’s all cooking evenly, and sprinkle the brown sugar across the top. Put it back in the oven and cook for another half and hour.
After the vegetables have been roasting for an hour, start your polenta. In a large pot, bring the stock to a boil. Gradually whisk in the cornmeal a little bit at a time. Turn the flame down to low and keep whisking the cornmeal and stock. The cornmeal will take 35-40 minutes to cook through, and you’ll need to whisk it pretty constantly to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom and burn (very similar to the process of making a risotto). When it first starts cooking, you don’t really need to whisk it constantly, but you’ll need to whisk it atleast every few minutes. The thicker it gets, though, the more you need to stand right there and keep whisking. I’ve noticed that some brands of cornmeal cook much faster than others, so if it’s very thick after 20 minutes, turn off the heat and taste it. When it’s done it will be thick and the individual grains of corn will kind of disappear into a more consistent, creamy texture. If the polenta is thick but still tastes crunchy, just add a little stock and keep cooking it until it tastes smooth and creamy.
Once the cornmeal is cooked thoroughly and the mixture is creamy and thick, turn off the heat and stir in the butter, mascarpone, 3/4 of the grated parmesan cheese, black pepper and sea salt. Taste it. It should taste cheesy and wonderful. If it doesn’t, add some salt and pepper and taste it again.
Pour the hot polenta over the roasted vegetables and smooth the top out with a spatula. Sprinkle the whole casserole with the flat leaf parsley and remaining shredded parmesan cheese, and put back in the oven for 20 minutes to melt the cheese and bring all of the flavors together.
Now, you can either serve this casserole right away, while the cheese is still runny and the polenta is soft, or you can make it a day in advance and heat it back up in the oven with great results. If you make it in advance, the polenta will set and you’ll be able to cut out perfect little rectangles of casserole, but the various people that have tried this casserole have said that it’s better while the polenta is still soft. Either way will work though- if you have a busy Thanksgiving cooking schedule planned, this might be something to make the day before and just heat up right before dinner.
*Sitting in the motel room, I can’t remember what the exact dimensions of my casserole dish. I think it’s 9×14″? It’s one of those glass dishes perfect for making lasagna for a crowd…. Again, I’ll have to update this when I get back to the farm.
**This casserole can easily be made vegan by simply omitting the cheese and using Earth Balance instead of butter. When I do something like this I’ll make sure to add some extra fresh herbs and black pepper for lots of flavor.
P.S. Everyone seems to think making polenta is really hard and annoying. It’s not. Just boil some stock and pour in cornmeal and stand there and whisk it til it’s thick. Don’t be scared.