Comfort food can take different forms. At its most heartfelt, it’s those childhood tastes that resonate emotionally: a pan of noodle kugel, a chicken foot straight out of my grandmother’s soup pot, a buttered slice of my father’s warm anadama bread. They may not be comforting to everyone, but, to me, they’re as soothing as a purring cat curled up in my lap (also not comforting for everyone).
Then, there’s the more general kind of comfort food: carbohydrate-filled, unchallenging things that go down easy when life feels hard.
The most powerfully comforting dishes combine the personal with the universal. In my kitchen, a bowl of soft polenta does exactly that.
When I ate it as a kid, I drizzled it with molasses and called it cornmeal mush to evoke the little pioneer sisters from my favorite storybooks. Those same ingredients, cornmeal and molasses, also went into my father’s anadama loaves.
Years later, I learned that what I called cornmeal mush is the American cousin of Italian polenta, the main difference being the grind of the corn. Polenta is coarser. And it’s usually eaten savory, the only sweetness coming from the cornmeal itself, often balanced out by a fistful of Parmesan. Still, it gives me the same warm, cozy feeling as that childhood mush.
Not just comforting, polenta is versatile, too. A pot of it can accommodate pretty much anything you want to serve it with, whether it’s a simple shower of black pepper or the most elaborate ragù.
This vegetable-topped version is perfect for spring. It looks fancy but is extremely easy to make: a quick braise that layers asparagus and peas with shallots, vermouth and loads of fresh mint.
You can make the topping while the polenta cooks. I usually bake my polenta, since I like recipes that are hands-off. But if you prefer having more control, you can simmer the polenta on one burner while making the sauce on another.
If you’re short on time, you can substitute instant polenta. But you won’t get that same pleasingly nubby texture and deep corn flavor.
Or, if it’s the buttery asparagus-pea-shallot topping that’s calling to you rather than the polenta, skip it. Instead, you can serve the braised vegetables over pasta, toast, rice or a plate of scrambled eggs. Anything that gives you comfort will work perfectly here.
POLENTA WITH ASPARAGUS, PEAS AND MINT
Buttery polenta serves as a soft, savory bed for asparagus and peas in this verdant, vegetable-rich main course. Sautéed shallots add sweetness, while fresh mint lends brightness to a satisfying yet light meal. You can substitute any soft herbs for the mint or use a combination for the most complex flavor. And, if you’re short on time, instant polenta will work in place of regular, too. Just follow the directions on the package to cook it.
Yield: 4 servings | Total time: 1 hour
1 1/2 cups polenta, coarse-grind cornmeal or corn grits
1 teaspoon fine sea or table salt, plus more as needed
4 to 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup grated Parmesan, or more to taste, plus shaved Parmesan for serving
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
2 large or 4 small shallots (or 1 small red onion), thinly sliced
3 thinly sliced garlic cloves
2 tablespoons dry vermouth or white wine
2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups frozen or fresh peas (no need to thaw frozen peas first)
1/3 cup vegetable or chicken stock
1/2 cup torn mint leaves, or use parsley, cilantro or a combination of any soft herbs
Freshly ground black pepper
If cooking polenta on stovetop: In a medium pot over high heat, combine 4 1/2 cups water, polenta and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened, 30 to 40 minutes, depending on how finely the polenta is ground (coarse-ground polenta takes longer).
Alternatively, cook polenta in oven: Heat oven to 350 F. In a medium Dutch oven or other oven-safe pot over high heat, bring 4 1/2 cups water, polenta and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, stirring constantly until the mixture starts to thicken slightly, 3 to 5 minutes. Cover pot and transfer to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes, then give the mixture a stir. If it looks dry, add another 1/2 cup water. Cover the pot once more, and continue to bake for another 20 to 30 minutes.
When polenta is thick and creamy, stir in 2 to 4 of the tablespoons butter (depending on how buttery you like it) and the Parmesan. Taste and add more Parmesan and salt, if needed.
As the polenta cooks, prepare the vegetables: In a large skillet, heat oil over medium. Add shallots and sauté until tender and golden, 4 to 6 minutes.
Stir in garlic and cook for another minute or two, until fragrant and very lightly golden in spots. Add vermouth and cook until alcohol evaporates, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Stir in asparagus and peas, and cook until vegetables are glossy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add stock, remaining 2 tablespoons butter and a large pinch of salt, and bring to a simmer. Cook until vegetables are tender and sauce thickens slightly, 2 to 8 minutes. (Thicker asparagus will take longer to soften.) Stir in the mint. Taste and add more salt, if needed.
To serve, spoon polenta into bowls, top with vegetables and their sauce, and grind on lots of fresh pepper. Finish with shaved Parmesan.
And to Drink …
With the richness of the polenta, butter and cheese, the sweetness of the shallots, the bitter grassiness of asparagus and the green freshness of peas, the choice of wine is anything but straightforward. I would lean toward a dry white wine, while avoiding any overt oakiness. A good, rich Sancerre would do the trick nicely, as would a grüner veltliner of similar weight. An unoaked Chablis would be delicious. You could choose an Italian white — like a Soave, verdicchio or Fiano di Avellino — or a godello or albariño from Spain. If you prefer a red, I would go for something light, like a Valpolicella Classico or Bardolino from the Veneto region of Italy, a Ribera Sacra from Spain or a French Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages.
— Eric Asimov