Many – or indeed, most – recipes call for mint. It is no doubt a flavour that is well matched with these vegetables, it give the dish an immediate and striking distinctive ‘spring’ freshness. On the other hand, it can also give the dish an everlasting lick of menthol which can dominate the other flavours, and last long in the mouth. Use sparingly, or alternatively use basil, which also lends a spring-like freshness to the dish and a definite Italian note. (I also intended to use the same vinarola in pasta – so the basil is a better match). Other, recipes add a little vinegar at the end, which can give it a little piquancy for eating as an antipasti.
If the recipe appear long, don’t be dismayed, it really is fairly straight forward – a simple stew of spring vegetables. Let your instincts guide you…
1. For the polenta, using a large pan, bring the water to a boil and add the salt, then slowly sprinkle in the polenta stirring with a wire whisk. Bring back to a boil. Switch to a flat wooden spatula and stir, reduce the heat and cook at a very gentle simmer for about 30 minutes stirring regularly. Turn the polenta out into a plate or an oiled baking tray/brownie tray. Use a thin metal spatula to flatten the top evenly. Allow to cool for an hour.
2. For the artichokes peel off the tough outer leaves. (Much of the task of preparing artichokes is dependent on the freshness and size of the artichokes. As they get older they need a little more effort.) Using a sharp paring knife trim around the bottom of the artichoke where the leaves meet the base. Then trim down the bottom and into the stem. The trick is to trim rather than cut too deep. If there is a long stem trim this with a vegetable peeler. Cut and discard the stem where it looks very tough or woody. Then cut across the top of the leaves about a quarter of the way down. Finally, cut down the middle of the whole artichoke from the top to the stem. If the fuzzy choke is developed cut this out – immediately plunge into a bowl of water with the juice of one lemon.
3. For the asparagus, snap off the woody base of the stems by bending the spears with your hands. Peel the stalks only if thick and tough. Cut the spears in half and boil for 2 minutes. Drain and set aside.
4. For the broad beans, if peeling the skins, boil for 2-3 minutes depending on size. The idea is to cook them long enought to remove their but allow then to finish cooking in the stew. Drain and when cool enough to handle peel off the tough outer skins. If your fresh bean are young and small, pod and set aside.
5. Pod the peas and set aside.
6. Chop the onion and garlic and fry in a heavy-based pan with the light olive oil on medium heat for 20 minutes until transparent. Add the artichokes and fry for a few minutes then add the wine and bring to a boil to burn off the alcohol. Add the stock and bring back to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook with a lid ajar for about 20 minutes or until the artichokes are on the verge of being done, top up with more stock or water if it is getting too dry. Next add the other vegetables according to the time they need to cook or finish cooking to coincide with the artichokes being cooked. Fresh broad beans in skins will need 5-10 minutes depending on size, peas will need 5 minutes, and the asparagus should go in last and needs just a couple of minutes. The timing is not terribly critical as the stew can happily continue to cook (see notes above). At the end of cooking add chopped mint or a few basil leaves, and allow to soften for a couple of minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
7. Remove the polenta from its container or plate and cut into portions. Brush the polenta lightly with vegetable oil and fry on a very hot griddle pan for about 4 minutes on each side – or until the polenta is marked with browned grill lines and it is heated through.
8. Arrange the vegetables over the pieces of polenta on individual plates. Serve with good olive oil for drizzling, grated Parmesan, and quarters of lemon.