Ratatouille Polenta Bake: Meatless and Magnificent!

This eggplant-based vegetarian bake became a favorite aboard Winterlude after a dinner party in Belize.

Ratatouille Polenta Bake Recipe

Lynda Morris Childress

Ingredients:
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup packaged polenta, cornmeal, or masa flour (Mexico)
1 tablespoon butter
Olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium bell pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small eggplant, diced (about 2 cups)
1 medium zucchini, diced (about 1 cup)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 can (14 1⁄2 ounces) diced tomatoes
1⁄4 cup grated or shredded Parmesan cheese
1 cup mozzarella, Swiss, or cheddar cheese, shredded

Steps:
Prepare polenta: Bring water to a boil in a saucepan. Add salt. Gradually add cornmeal, stirring constantly for about one minute. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring, until polenta thickens to the consistency of grits or loose mashed potatoes, and is cooked. Remove from heat; stir in butter. Spread polenta into a lightly oiled 9-by-9-inch baking pan. Set aside to cool. This will become the bottom layer or "crust" of the dish.

Sauté the onion, bell pepper and garlic in a bit of olive oil over medium heat for two to three minutes, or until onion is translucent. Add eggplant, zucchini, salt and ground pepper. Turn the heat up to medium-high and sauté until veggies are crisp-tender. Add tomatoes and reduce the heat to low. Simmer until heated through. Sprinkle polenta crust with Parmesan cheese. Spread the ratatouille over it in an even layer. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes. Remove from oven; remove foil. Top with additional shredded cheese. Return to oven and bake, uncovered, for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly. Let cool for five to 10 minutes before serving. Serves four to six, depending on appetites!

Anchored in the crystal waters of Placencia, Belize, aboard Winterlude, our Passport 37, my husband, David, and I were invited to dinner aboard E2Motion, a neighboring boat. Our friends Mark and Liz treated us to a delicious meal that included ratatouille, a thick, tasty French veggie stew with eggplant as a key ingredient. Eggplant is unusual to find in Belizean produce markets, so Liz was ecstatic about her treasure. I'd never even heard of ratatouille. Luckily, I loved it.

Later, while searching for meatless recipes that were similar, I stumbled upon the idea for combining ratatouille with another of my favorites: polenta. After playing with it and modifying it for cooking aboard — including the very real possibility of not being able to find polenta while shopping in a foreign port — this Ratatouille Polenta Bake was born. It turned into one of our favorite meals aboard Winterlude.

What Is Polenta?
by Lynda Morris Childress

By strict definition, polenta is the name of the delicious Italian way of preparing cornmeal by boiling it in water — not the name for cornmeal itself. But the popularity of this dish has led to interchanging the terms “polenta” and “cornmeal” in speech as well as product labeling; packages labeled “polenta” on supermarket shelves actually are simply cornmeal.

The quality of polenta can vary; some takes longer to thicken when boiled, requiring up to 15 minutes of simmering/stirring time; some thickens to the proper consistency fairly quickly. Polenta made the Italian way is versatile — use a water-to-cornmeal ratio of about 2-to-1.

It can be served plain, as a delicious side dish, like grits or mashed potatoes, or with toppings such as grated cheese.

It can also be molded and baked (as in the recipe above) or grilled. Making polenta is quick and easy, so be sure to put cornmeal (or packaged polenta) on your boat’s provisions list before your next cruise!