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.