Where have you been all my life?
Love, Sarah B
So it happened again, twice in one month. I’ve fallen in head over heels with an entirely new-to-me food. This time, it’s polenta.
I am a little embarrassed to admit that I have absolutely no memory of ever eating polenta. I suppose when it appears on restaurant menus it’s something that I don’t give any consideration, and seeing it on the grocery store shelves fails to inspire in me in any way. How could this happen? Or rather, fail to happen? Why haven’t I given this delightful food a fair chance to woo me? I am almost ashamed to be singing its praises now as if it’s some new-fangled product that has just hit the shelves. I picture you sitting there, reading all this rolling your eyes: “Thanks for comin’ out Sarah B, but you’re a little late to the party”.
And can we please talk about the versatility of this fabulous food? You can cook it down to a velvety consistency as I’ve done here, creating a creamy, yellow polenta pillow for bright spring veggies to lie on. It’s also delicious with saucier dishes, like tomato-based stews, and of course the traditional meat-centric mains. Or you can cook it with less liquid, spread on to a large tray, slice it and bake or fry it. What?! Consider my mind blown. I am looking forward to experimenting with spreading it ultra-thin and using it as a wrap, or flatbread. And making cookies and cakes. And crackers. Is this old news? Probably. Thanks for continuing to indulge me, even if I am a bit slow on the uptake.
Thank goodness I still have plenty of polenta years left in this life because if the last week is any indication of my future, I will be eating this stuff a lot.
Yellow Corn Carotenioids: A reason to eat more Polenta!
Polenta is typically made from yellow corn, which is delightfully loaded with carotenoids – the special compounds that are responsible for the red, orange, and yellow pigments in fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids are powerful antioxidants that protect the cells of the body from damage caused by free radicals. Carotenoids, and specifically beta-carotene, are also believed to enhance the function of the immune system. 
Studies are currently being conducted to examine the potential anti-cancer properties of carotenoids, as they have shown the ability to stimulate cell-to-cell communication. Researchers now believe that poor communication between cells may be one of the causes of the overgrowth of cells, a condition which eventually leads to cancer. By promoting proper communication between cells, carotenoids may play a role in cancer prevention. 
Keep in mind that carotenoids are fat-soluble compounds, meaning that they must be eaten with fat to be absorbed by the body. Your intake of carotenoids may be compromised by a low-fat diet, or if you have a condition that inhibits fat absorption. To ensure that you are absorbing carotenoids it is a good idea to include healthy sources of fat in your meal, such as a drizzle of olive oil or other plant-based fat. Luckily with this dish, I’ve got you covered.
I always recommend purchasing certified organic foods whenever possible, but I think it is especially important in the case of corn. Organic corn is non-GMO and does not contain any harmful pesticide residues. Better yet, look for heirloom varieties that have not been hybridized.
The inspiration for this dish came from one of my favorite food blogs, Coocnut & Quinoa, written by the amazing Amy Chaplin. Like Amy, I chose a blend of seasonal green vegetables to lie atop the polenta for a spirited combination that sings of spring. Asparagus and sweet green peas are a favorite combination of mine. If you can find wild leeks (sometimes called ramps) in your backyard or your grocery store, snatch them up quickly – their edible season is short. Wild leeks are delicious and add a real allium snap to this dish. You can read more about them in this post where I made a wild leek pesto. And as I am major flower-eating enthusiast, I suggest picking a few of the blossoms too for a garnish. They taste like chives and add such a special touch to the finished dish (pictured below).
If you want to make this dish vegan, simply use flavour-neutral coconut oil in place of the ghee and leave out the cheese – it is still utterly delicious without it.
A warning about cooking polenta: this stuff literally bubbles like lava when simmering, spewing crazy-hot corn grits everywhere. Keep a lid on it between stirrings, and watch those forearms!
Spring Spirit Polenta
1 cup polenta (not instant)
4 – 6 cups light vegetable broth or water
2 small onions
250 g. asparagus
50 g. wild leeks
1 cup shelled green peas
knob of ghee or coconut oil
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano (hard sheep’s milk cheese), plus more for garnishing (optional)
olive oil for garnishing
1. Heat the vegetable broth (water is fine) and a good pinch of sea salt in a large saucepan until simmering. Slowly pour in the polenta in a steady stream, whisking all the while to prevent clumping. Stir constantly for a couple minutes, reduce heat and simmer. Stir every five minutes or so. If the polenta becomes too thick, add hot water and whisk in.
2. While the polenta is cooking, prepare the vegetables. Finely dice the onions. Wash, trim and cut the asparagus on the diagonal into 1” (2.5 cm) pieces. Wash and pick over wild leek leaves, and save any flowers for garnish. Shell peas.
3. When you are about 15 minutes away from serving, heat a little ghee or coconut oil in a large skillet add the onions, and a pinch of salt. Fry over medium heat until golden (about 10 minutes). Next add the peas and asparagus. Cook for 2-3 minutes, just until their raw edge has disappeared (add a little water if the pan is very dry, which will help to steam the veggies). Then add the wild leeks and wilt. Squeeze half a lemon over the top. Season to taste.
4. You can tell the polenta is cooked when you rub a small amount of it between your fingers and it is no longer gritty, approximately 30-45 minutes (read the label on your own box for cooking time approximations). The final consistency should be creamy and smooth. Add the grated cheese to the polenta if desired, and give it a final stir. Add a little milk or water to thin if necessary. Season to taste.
5. To serve, scoop a portion of polenta onto a plate then add the cooked vegetables. Add shaved Pecorino Romano if desired, a drizzle of quality olive oil, and a wedge of lemon on the side. Rejoice.
So now I am really on fire. Two new foods in two weeks must be some sort of record! What are you discovering these days? What delicious whole foods are getting you all hot and bothered? Please do tell. I am bursting at the seams with inspiration and I’m still hungry for more.
…but what else is new?