Want some springtime comfort? Try this buttery vegetable polenta. | Seattle Times

Comfort foods can take different forms. In their most heartfelt form, it’s those childhood tastes that resonate emotionally: a casserole of noodle kugel, a chicken leg straight from my grandmother’s cooking pot, a buttered slice of warm anadama bread from my dad. They may not be comforting to everyone, but to me they are as soothing as a purring cat curled up in my lap (not comforting to everyone either).

Then there’s the more general type of comfort food: high-carb, unchallenging foods that go easy on when life’s tough.

The most comforting dishes combine the personal with the universal. In my kitchen, a bowl of soft polenta does just that.

When I ate it as a child, I drizzled it with molasses and called it cornmeal to evoke the little pioneer sisters from my favorite storybooks. These same ingredients, cornmeal and molasses, also went into my dad’s anadama breads.

Years later I learned that what I called cornmeal porridge is the American cousin of Italian polenta, the main difference being the corn grind. The polenta is coarser. And it’s usually eaten savory, with the only sweetness coming from the cornmeal itself, often balanced with a handful of parmesan cheese. Yet it gives me the same warm, cozy feeling as that childhood porridge.

Not only comforting, polenta is also versatile. A pot can hold just about anything you want to go with, whether it’s a simple black pepper spray or the most elaborate stew.

This version filled with vegetables is perfect for spring. It looks fancy but is extremely easy to prepare: a quick braise that layers asparagus and peas with shallots, vermouth and lots of fresh mint.

You can prepare the filling while the polenta is cooking. I usually cook my polenta, as I like hands-off recipes. But if you prefer to have more control, you can simmer the polenta on one burner while preparing the sauce on another.

If you’re short on time, you can substitute the instant polenta. But you won’t get the same pleasantly nubby texture and deep corn flavor.

Or, if it’s the buttery filling of asparagus, peas and shallots that calls 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 brings you comfort will work perfectly here.

Recipe: Polenta with asparagus, peas and mint

By Melissa Clark

Buttery polenta serves as a moist and savory bed for the asparagus and peas in this leafy, veggie-rich main course. Sautéed shallots add sweetness, while fresh mint adds sparkle to a satisfying yet light meal. You can replace the mint with mild herbs or use a combination for the most complex flavor. And, if you’re short on time, instant polenta will also work in place of regular. Just follow the instructions on the package to cook it.

Yield: 4 servings

Total duration: 1 hour

INGREDIENTS

1 1/2 cups polenta, coarsely ground cornmeal or grits (see tip below)

1 teaspoon sea or fine table salt, plus more if needed

4 to 6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup grated parmesan, or more to taste, plus more grated parmesan for serving

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more if needed

2 large or 4 small shallots (or 1 small red onion), thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, finely sliced

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 broth

1/2 cup torn mint leaves, or use parsley, cilantro, or a combination of mild herbs

Freshly ground black pepper

NOT

1. If cooking polenta on a stovetop: In a medium saucepan over high heat, combine 4 1/2 cups water, polenta and 1 tsp salt. Boil, stirring frequently, until thickened, 30 to 40 minutes, depending on how finely ground the polenta is (coarsely ground polenta takes longer).

2. Alternatively, cook the polenta in the oven: heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a medium Dutch oven or other ovenproof saucepan over high heat, bring 4 1/2 cups of water, the polenta and 1 teaspoon of salt to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, stirring constantly, until mixture begins to thicken slightly, 3 to 5 minutes. Cover the pot and transfer to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes, then stir the mixture. If it looks dry, add another 1/2 cup of water. Cover the pot again and continue cooking for another 20 to 30 minutes.

3. When the polenta is thick and creamy, stir in 2-4 tablespoons of butter (depending on how much butter you like) and the Parmesan. Taste and add more Parmesan and salt, if needed.

4. While the polenta cooks, prepare the vegetables: In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add shallots and sauté until soft and golden, 4 to 6 minutes.

5. Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute or two, until fragrant and very lightly browned in spots. Add the vermouth and cook until the alcohol evaporates, about 2 to 3 minutes.

6. Stir in asparagus and peas and cook until vegetables are glossy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the broth, the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and a large pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Cook until the vegetables are tender and the sauce thickens slightly, 2 to 8 minutes. (Thicker asparagus will take longer to soften.) Stir in mint. Taste and add more salt if needed.

7. To serve, ladle polenta into bowls, top with vegetables and their sauce and grind plenty of fresh pepper. Finish with shavings of parmesan.

Tip: If using instant polenta, cook according to package directions and start at step 3.

And to drink …

With the richness of polenta, butter and cheese, the sweetness of shallots, the bitter herb of asparagus and the green freshness of peas, the choice of wine is anything but simple. I would lean more towards a dry white wine, avoiding any apparent woodiness. A good, rich Sancerre would do just fine, as would a grüner veltliner of similar weight. An unoaked Chablis would be delicious. You can 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 a Bardolino from the Veneto region of Italy, a Ribera Sacra from Spain or a French Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages. — ERIC ASIMOV