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In the Advent Kitchen -- December 5

Tomato-Basil Salad Polenta Casserole Spinach Lemon-Rosemary Bars with Sherbet

Tomato-Basil Salad

Polenta Casserole


Lemon-Rosemary Bars with Sherbet

Tonight’s dinner is rich but meatless. Let’s start with Tomato-Basil Salad. Then, keeping with an Italian theme, follow with Polenta Casserole. This is a dish your children (or spouse, significant friend, or just about anyone else) can do. It requires only layering and baking—not hard—and it’s full of lovely, warm, gooey melted cheese. Frozen spinach zapped in the microwave adds a nice green touch to the plates. Then, perhaps try a simple dessert? The Lemon-Rosemary Bars are easy to make and can bake along side the Polenta Casserole. The bars don’t look fancy, but they are different and will disappear quickly. Serve them with some fruity sherbet or low fat frozen yogurt for a refreshing end to the meal.

Tomato-Basil Salad – Serves 8

This recipe is a splurge in winter because it requires fresh tomatoes, basil, and pricey mozzarella. Nonetheless, the salad is tasty and colorful and goes a long way. If you’d like to make the tomato mixture ahead please do so, and then refrigerate it. You can top the salad greens with the tomato mixture later when you’re almost ready to serve dinner.

1 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

1 pint of yellow cherry tomatoes, halved

½ red onion, chopped

8 ounces of fresh mozzarella “pearls”

½ cup of chopped fresh basil

¼ teaspoon of salt

¼ teaspoon of pepper

¼ cup of olive oil

¼ cup of red wine vinegar

4 cups of baby salad greens

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, onion, mozzarella, basil, salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar and stir well to coat everything with the vinegar and oil. Divide the salad greens among the plates and top each with a bit of the tomato-mozzarella mixture.

Polenta Casserole – Serves 6

This lasagna-like casserole looks and tastes fancy, but it isn’t. The casserole can be inexpensive to put together, particularly if you opt for fat-free cottage cheese and make your own polenta, which is quite easy. Whether you decide to make your own polenta or not, the casserole is easy to assemble and bakes in about 40 minutes—quicker than most lasagnas. The quick cooking time is good, because, with the smells coming from your oven, you’ll be eager to taste the beautiful casserole with its combination of acidic marinara sauce, tangy and salty cheeses, and creamy polenta.

2 cups of fat-free ricotta cheese*

½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese (from the round green canister is fine)

¼ cup of chopped parsley (or 2 tablespoons of dried parsley)

¼ teaspoon of pepper

½ teaspoon of basil

1 26-ounce jar of marinara sauce

2 16-ounce tubes of polenta cut into 12 rounds each (or make your own

rounds or squares)

2 cups of shredded, part-skim mozzarella, divided

½ cup of shredded Parmesan cheese

¼ cup of chopped parsley (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and coat a large casserole dish or 9 x 13- inch pan with nonstick spray. In a large bowl, mix the ricotta, ½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese, parsley, pepper, and basil until well combined. Spread ½ of the jar of sauce on the bottom of the baking dish. Top the sauce with 12 of the polenta rounds. Divide the ricotta mixture evenly on top of the polenta, making little mounds on each round. Using half of the mozzarella, sprinkle each mound with some of the cheese. Top each mound with one of the remaining 12 polenta rounds. Spoon the rest of the marinara sauce over the polenta and sprinkle on the remaining mozzarella. Coat one side of a piece of foil with nonstick spray and cover the baking dish, sprayed side down. Bake for about 30 minutes or until heated through and bubbly. Uncover the dish and sprinkle with the ½ cup of Parmesan cheese. Return the dish to the oven for about 10 minutes or until the cheese is a little crusty. Let the casserole stand for 10-15 minutes and sprinkle with parsley, if you like, before serving.

*Or use fat-free cottage cheese, if you prefer.


This is a very basic polenta that firms up so that you can cut it and use it in other dishes. If you want to make polenta rounds, pour the hot polenta into empty, clean cans (15-16 ounces or so) that you’ve coated on the inside with non-stick cooking spray. When the polenta has firmed up, turn the cans upside down and use a can opener to remove the bottoms of the cans. Then push the polenta out (you may need to run a knife around the edges first) and use it as you’d like. Think beyond the casserole above. For example, you also can cut the polenta into squares and brown the squares in a little oil in a skillet, or you can cut the polenta into whatever shapes you like, place them on a baking sheet coated with non-stick spray, top them with something good—a bit of pesto and a tomato slice, for example—and bake them (350-400 degrees, depending on the topping) until browned and/or hot. Use your imagination. Maybe top the polenta slices with some sliced pears, goat cheese crumbles, and walnut pieces? Or maybe use some apple slices and sharp cheddar?

1 cup of yellow cornmeal

1 cup of water

2¾ cups of boiling water

½ teaspoon of salt

Line an 8 or 9-inch square pan with aluminum foil and coat it with non-stick spray. Mix the cornmeal and water in a large saucepan. Whisk in the boiling water and salt. Cook the mixture over medium heat about five minutes, whisking constantly, until the mixture boils and thickens. Reduce the heat to low and cook the polenta another 5 minutes, stirring it occasionally. Remove the polenta from the heat and spread it in the pan. Cover the pan and let the polenta cool to room temperature. Refrigerate it until it’s firm.

Lemon Rosemary Bars – Makes 16+

These bars are quick to mix up and elegantly simple. The bars are essentially a type of lemon rosemary shortbread—crunchy and infused with bright lemon and piney tasting rosemary. If you possibly can, use fresh rosemary and snip it into small pieces with a pair of kitchen scissors. The bright green flecks will look nice in the bars and provide better flavor than the dried rosemary. The bars are just right with a cup of coffee or tea, and they also make a nice accompaniment to sherbet or low fat vanilla extract yogurt or ice cream.

½ cup of Smart or Earth Balance (or butter)

½ cup of confectioners’ sugar

1 tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary (or 2 teaspoons of dried rosemary)

1¼ cups of flour

Grated zest of a lemon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and coat a 9-inch-square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray or line the 9-inch pan with aluminum foil and coat the foil with nonstick cooking spray. Place the Smart Balance in a microwave-safe mixing bowl and melt it in the microwave for 15-30 seconds or according to your microwave directions. Add the confectioners’ sugar, rosemary, flour, and lemon zest and mix everything well. Spread the dough evenly in the prepared pan. Score the dough with a sharp knife and bake it for about 20 minutes. Let the bars cool for 5 minutes, re-cut them, and let them cool in the pan before removing them. If you’d like, dust the bars lightly with powdered sugar before serving them.

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