I will readily admit that one of my all-time favorite foods is polenta. I love the stuff! And frankly, it makes for an incredibly simple and wholesome meal when you cook it using this no-fuss method borrowed from the great Marcella Hazan (all hail the Queen of Italian cuisine!). While Marcella, unsurprisingly, favors the labor-intensive method of constantly stirring, she offers a wonderful alternative method in her masterpiece, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, one of my most treasured cookbooks (and while we're on the subject - if you don't own a copy, yet, you should immediately run out and purchase one!).
My Spring-time version of polenta is light, colorful and full of flavor. The sauteed leeks add richness and depth while the peas add a pleasant sweetness to the dish. The bright, cooling burst of mint adds an unexpected element to the flavor profile and makes the polenta taste decidedly Springy. As I am incredibly fond of poached eggs, I love serving one on top of this dish, but it would certainly work well as an accompaniment to roasted chicken or lamb.
As far as the polenta, itself, I am absolutely crazy about Anson Mills' Polenta Integrale. It is a rustic, coarse polenta milled from an Italian heirloom red tentrino flint and has a lot more texture and flavor, when cooked, than any other polenta I've tried. If you don't feel like seeking out the fancy stuff, regular ol' polenta grain will work just fine. But, for heaven's sake, don't buy that instant stuff! It is pallid and lifeless compared to slow-cooked polenta and since the cooking time is mostly inactive, anyway, why on earth would you cook it any other way? Marcella would be so proud...
Spring Vegetable and Mint Polenta
7 1/2 cups water
scant 2 cups polenta
3 T butter
1 large leek
10 oz peas (thawed, if using frozen)
4 cups spinach leaves, chopped
1/4 cup chiffonade of mint leaves
salt and pepper, to taste
In a large pot, bring water to a rolling boil. Pour polenta in a very slow, thin stream, whisking constantly. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir for two minutes. Reduce heat to lowest setting and cover pot. Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring for one full minute every 10 minutes.
While the polenta is cooking, prepare the vegetables. Cut off the tough green ends of the leek and slice in half lengthwise. Thinly slice the leek and rinse very well with cold water. Allow to drain. In a large, shallow pan, add butter and melt over medium-high heat. Add leeks and saute until slightly caramelized and soft, about 10 minutes. Add peas and cook until warmed through, another minute or so. Add cooked vegetables, chopped spinach, and mint to the cooked polenta and stir well. Add plenty of salt and pepper, to taste. Serve immediately with a poached egg on top, if desired.