Want some springtime comfort? Try this buttery vegetable polenta.


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’re 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: carbohydrate-rich, non-challenging foods that go easy when life gets 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 used to call 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

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


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