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Whether you call the dish polenta or grits, this buttery, comforting foundation will accommodate just about any savory topping.

The difference between the two is in the grind of the corn. Polenta is the coarser grind, which explains why it has a slightly chewier texture than grits. But both work equally well as a pillow for sautéed spring vegetables — especially spinach and Asian greens, sparked with lemon and finished with shreds of salty, nutty Parmesan cheese.

Sure, cooking polenta requires time and effort to simmer and stir, but it can be made ahead and held in the refrigerator for about a week until ready to use. If you're short on time, substitute the instant polenta or the premade polenta in a tube. But these won't have that rough, nubby texture or deep rich corn flavor.

Fresh spring spinach makes a fine match; its mild flavor and nuanced mineral notes are a perfect balance to the lush golden cornmeal. Be gentle when sautéing spinach and use a light hand; it collapses quickly in the pan. Despite its fragile nature, spinach packs a powerful nutritional punch; it's loaded with vitamins A and K, folate and iron, magnesium and potassium, and plenty of vitamin C.

One of my dad's favorite dishes was sautéed spinach with a splash of cream served up on toast. Vibrant green and somehow soothing, this dish is something I can eat just about any day for lunch. Top it with a fried egg and sizzled bacon for a winning Sunday brunch.

Find local spring spinach at farmers markets, so bright it almost squeaks, begging to be brought home and enjoyed at once.

Polenta with Spinach, Lemon and Parmesan

Serves 4 to 6.

You may end up with more polenta than you need, but it keeps nicely in the refrigerator in a covered container for about a week. From Beth Dooley.

For the polenta:

• 4 c. water

• 1 tsp. salt

• 1 c. medium cornmeal

• 1 tbsp. butter

For the spinach:

• 2 tbsp. butter

• 2 lb. fresh spinach

• 1 clove garlic, smashed

• 1 tsp. grated lemon zest

• 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 1/4 c. shredded Parmesan cheese.


To prepare the polenta: Bring the water to a boil in a medium heavy saucepan set over high heat. Add the salt and then pour the cornmeal slowly into the water, stirring with a wooden spoon as it thickens, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Reduce the heat and cook the polenta, stirring every 10 minutes, until it is quite thick, adding a little water if it becomes too stiff, for about 45 to 50 minutes. The grains should be swollen and taste cooked, not raw. Stir in the butter.

To prepare the spinach: Melt the butter in a large skillet set over medium heat. Add the spinach and garlic and cook, stirring, until the spinach is wilted and most of the moisture has evaporated. Toss in the lemon zest, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.

Serve the polenta in bowls topped with the spinach and shaved Parmesan cheese.

Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at