What is Your Comfort Food?

October 17, 2012

Comfort food.  What does that mean to you?  For some it means food from their childhood.  For others it means food that is homey and simple.  Others would say it means the most decadent unhealthy thing you can eat.  As with most things food-related, there is no absolute definition of comfort food – it is different things to different people.

For me, comfort food is something I dearly love that I don’t eat all that often.  And when I do eat it, it makes me very happy.  It feels warm and nourishing but it is not something that I will regret eating the next day.  French fries would fit the bill except for that last part.  I would probably include the things that my mom used to make (flank steak, bbq chicken, meatloaf, stuffed cabbage, fried sole) but I don’t eat those things anymore.

So I offer up polenta.  Very cozy, somewhat nourishing, kind of special without being fussy.  For me, it’s a joy to eat.  Especially when there is fresh corn in the mix.  Polenta made with just cornmeal can get a little oatmeal-y on me.  Let me explain.  I like my oatmeal salty not sweet.  Brown sugar, raisins, maple syrup – none of those things are welcome in my bowl of oatmeal.  Salt only.  There is exactly one other person I know of on earth who eats oatmeal this way and he is my father and he taught me that oatmeal should be salty.  So, when I tuck into a big bowl of oatmeal, it tastes so very good at first.  I rejoice in the first few bites.  And then I get bored.  The texture is a bit gloppy and the flavor is very one note – salty.  Kind of like polenta.  I serve myself a big bowl and I am so happy for a few moments and then it starts to feel gloppy and salty – like oatmeal.

Not, however, if you add the kernels from two ears of corn and a dollop of ricotta cheese.  It becomes something much more complex.  The corn adds sweetness and crunch and the cheese adds richness but not so much that you regret eating it the next day.  Really, I would have been very happy eating it all by its lonesome but I saw a recipe for a bowl of polenta with tomato fennel broth that was topped with wild mushrooms and greens, and it was one of those where I basically stopped all my cooking plans so I could make it.  Except that I couldn’t get fennel at my small local grocery store and I’m not all that into the wild mushrooms I can find here (I miss my chanterelles!), and greens felt like they would mute my dish, so I went in another direction.  I used the corn cobs and lots herbs to make a flavorful broth, which I cooked long enough to reduce down and concentrate flavors.  I bought cremini and shiitake mushrooms, both of which keep their shape nicely and bring earthiness without weirdness to the bowl.  Yes, you will dirty three pots making this dish.  Sorry about that.  You won’t notice after the first bite.

One Year Ago:  Arugula Salad with Asian Pear and Roasted Onions
Two Years Ago:  Cranberry Soup with Farro, Graham Cracker Pound Cake, Roasted Pear Salad with Chèvre and Fig Vinaigrette
Three Years Ago:  Creamy Blue Cheese Dressing, Holly B’s Cappuccino Bars
Four Years Ago:  White Beans with Tomatoes and Sage

Fresh Corn Polenta with Tomato Corn Broth and Mushrooms
Dana Treat Original
Serves 4

For the broth:
2 corn cobs
½ onion
3 garlic cloves, peeled
3 parsley sprigs
2 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
6 peppercorns
1 tsp. kosher or sea salt
4 roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
4 cups water

For the polenta:
4 cups water
1½ cups polenta or medium cornmeal
1 tsp. kosher or sea salt
Kernels from 2 ears of corn
¼ cup ricotta cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

To finish:
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 pound cremini mushrooms, stems removed, slice in half
½ pound shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, slice in half
1 tbsp. thyme leaves
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup (or more) basil, cut in thin ribbons, for garnish
½ (or more) cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Make the broth:
If you haven’t already, cut the kernels off the two ears of corn.  Set the kernels aside in a bowl.  Place the cobs, onion half, garlic cloves, parsley and thyme spigs, bay leaf, peppercorns, salt, and tomatoes in a soup pot.  Pour in the water.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce to a lively simmer and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has reduced to about 1½ cups, about 45 minutes.  Pour through a fine mesh strainer into a smaller pot.  Press on the solids in the strainer to extract the juices.  Cover the broth and set aside.  (This can be made earlier in the day.  Reheat it when you are ready to use it.  You will want it nice and hot.)

Make the polenta:
Pour the water or broth into a pot that has nice high sides.  Bring to a boil.  Slowly drizzle in the polenta, whisking constantly.  It will seem like too much liquid for the amount of polenta, but the liquid absorbs pretty rapidly.  Turn the heat to low.  Continue whisking until the mixture is very thick, just about 5 minutes.  Make sure the heat is on low and allow to cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes.  It will bubble thickly and may mess up your stove, the higher the sides on our pot the better for reducing mess.  After 10 minutes, stir in the fresh corn kernels.  Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring often.  Stir in the ricotta cheese and allow it to cook for another few minutes so that the flavors can meld.  Season to taste with pepper and salt.  Cover and it should keep warm for about 30 minutes or so.  If you need to reheat it, you can do so gently over very low heat.  Be sure to stir it well so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot.

Finish the dish:
Place a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Melt the butter, add the olive oil, and add the mushrooms.  Allow them to cook without disturbing them for a few minutes so they can get a bit of a sear.  Then stir occasionally as they cook for another 5-10 minutes.  About halfway through the cooking time, add the fresh thyme leaves and a good pinch of salt.  Once the mushrooms are nicely browned, season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spoon a healthy portion of polenta into 4 shallow bowls.  Top with the mushrooms, fresh basil, and a shower of Parmesan cheese.  Carefully ladle the broth around the very edge of the bowl, so it moistens the polenta without making the mushrooms soggy.


  1. I hate the term “comfort food” … it has always, to me, meant “food you stuff yourself with out of emotion, not hunger or need for nutrients, in a pathetic, ineffective attempt to make yourself feel better about something.” … I appreciate that it obviously means something entirely different to most people, but to me it really has that hugely negative connotation. :-(

    Comment by cathy — October 17, 2012 @ 11:49 am

  2. This does sound like a very comforting dish. I have although never had the opportunity to try polenta so that needs to change.

    Comment by bellini — October 17, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

  3. Oh Dana, I’m so making this! I’ve never thought to add ricotta and fresh corn to polenta and I can imagine how perfect it would be. Love this meal a lot. And total comfort food which for me is food that is unfussy (though I might skip the 3 pans part of this recipe and just stick with the polenta and the mushrooms).

    Comment by kickpleat — October 17, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  4. […] my Google Reader during my morning break, I came across this recipe from Dana Treat and thought ‘oooooh, polenta! I’ve not had that in aaaaaages!’ […]

    Pingback by sick day food « Cooking with Jenny — October 17, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

  5. Polenta is right up there on my list as well. The New Vegetarian Epicure has a gorgonzola and leek version that I absolutely love (very rich, but worth it).

    Risottos are near the top as well. Going into fall, wild mushroom risotto can’t be beat (am going out for those chanterelles soon!). I also use Anna’s (NVE again) recipe as my base there – but it’s evolved considerably over the years, sometimes including things like leeks or chard.

    So happy to see you are settling in and cooking delicious things again!

    Comment by Melora — October 17, 2012 @ 7:11 pm

  6. I have to be honest here, I have never made polenta. I am Mexican/Spanish, grew up in the U.S., made food from all over the world my whole life, in my thirties, I am in culinary school, and I eat everything! But never made polenta. So the funny part is, this week I bought Bob’s Red Mill cornmeal to make polenta, then I came across your post. It looks amazingly creamy, beautiful, and delicious. The mushroom tomato broth is calling my name. Now I cannot wait to make polenta!

    Comment by fabiola@notjustbaked — October 17, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

  7. Made this tonight Dana and it was awesome. Put a little chicken sausage on the kids’ bowl and everyone was happy. The broth is divine. Ive made corn broths before and found them too strong but this one is light and flavoured perfectly. And thanks for posting it today!!

    Comment by Catherine — October 18, 2012 @ 2:06 am

  8. Polenta is one of my comfort foods for sure. I could eat a huge bowl of it. All by it’s lonesome. And be quite content. But with fresh corn…oh yeah that sounds way better.

    Comment by Joanne — October 18, 2012 @ 3:00 am

  9. I’ve been waiting for this recipe since you posted it on your Instagram! Thanks :)

    I have my oatmeal salty AND sweet. It must have brown sugar (or maple syrup) and raisins, but it also has to have a significant pinch of salt in there.

    Comment by Hilary — October 18, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

  10. My comfort foods are all over the place. I love warm cookies, but I’m really most comforted by breakfast foods- perfectly poached eggs, oatmeal with maple syrup (I like it sweet!), and a really good everything bagel with scallion cream cheese. I love this recipe, Dana. I’ve got fresh corn from the summer in my freezer- definitely putting it towards this. Hope all is going well in CA. xx

    Comment by Clara — October 19, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

  11. […] My comfort food? Pie – fish, chicken, whatever. How about […]

    Pingback by Favourite posts this week - Bake 'n' Shake — October 20, 2012 @ 9:31 am

  12. Polenta and risotto. But my all-time comfort food is Japanese–tamago gohan. It’s a bowl of piping hot Japanese rice with a raw egg mixed in, seasoned to taste with soy sauce. Quick and easy, and oh so, comforting!

    Comment by Pam — October 20, 2012 @ 10:51 pm

  13. Polenta is delicious comfort food, but my go-to is always a bowl of steamy hot pastina with butter, maybe some garlic. It’s like a warm-memory-filled hug and always makes me smile. :)

    Comment by nik — October 22, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

  14. I think I might be starting to agree with Cathy. Comfort food is great, but it’s only comforting while you’re eating it. Since Sandy has stranded me at home all day, I have been “comforting” myself quite a bit. Maybe tomorrow I will comfort myself with your polenta. And then I will go to the gym. Or take a nap.

    Comment by holdthegross — October 30, 2012 @ 2:35 am

  15. Mashed potatoes. :)

    Natalya @ Ruff House Art

    Comment by Nattie — October 31, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

  16. We have chanterelles in the area, they’re just a spring instead of fall crop here. Your Oakland hills have loads! You should go hunting next spring, so fun!

    Comment by Beth — November 9, 2012 @ 4:27 am

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