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The magic happens in the cooker, but should appear on the plate as well.

Tara O'Brady/The Globe and Mail

My affection for my Instant Pot was not immediate.

I wanted to love it – a “write-our-names-on-the-cover-of-my-notebook” kind of love. I envisioned my little droid buddy beeping cheerfully, offering meal after meal in the blink of an eye.

However, while my Instant Pot lit up dutifully and sang its song, it did not speak my language. I have never taken to pressure cookers, even though I grew up with them, know how to use them and have always had one in the cupboard.

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I do appreciate their time-saving qualities – and I think anything that gets people excited about preparing meals is wonderful. My trouble is, I like a close relationship with my cooking. I am compelled to poke and prod as I putter around the kitchen. As my braise slow cooks I keep it company, spending my time filling the oven with other things (garlic confit, roasted beets) to make use of the heat. I find comfort in dal bubbling languidly on the stove. I like checking in and seeing how things are progressing, testing texture and flavour as they develop. I want to feel like I have an active role in the cooking process.

So, I ignored my Instant Pot for ages. Until I came across a recipe for carnitas that called for braising the pork first, then browning it in a pan. Somehow, the fact the recipe didn’t entirely finish on its own, without my intervention, gave me the sense of influence I needed. I could choose to cook it further; I might choose to further reduce the juices. I could decide in the moment how crisp I wanted the final product to be. It was a new day. The Instant Pot and I could be friends.

I found our rhythm when it allowed my hands to be free for other tasks. It would not become the cook of the household, but it could be my companion, picking up the slack as needed. After the carnitas, it steamed eggs for salad, cooked beans, made risotto and tenderized ribs for the grill. Polenta soon followed, and it was another revelation. Minimum stirring, a twist of the lid, and soon enough the Instant Pot chimed and a billowing cloud of polenta was ready for my final touches. Sorcery, really.

I’m more than content to enjoy polenta simply, with flaky salt, cracked pepper and a pat of butter. And yet, that is only a starting point. Polenta can be the backdrop to mushrooms sautéed with woody herbs and garlic; to pork sausage crumbles fried and sizzling, with a blanket of shaved fennel on top; or to roasted tomatoes and plump butter beans with paprika-stained oil.

For spring, I propose a dish marrying temperatures and textures: a soothing bowl of polenta paired with a tangy jumble of lettuces and buttery olives. I put the salad together as the polenta cooks, so neither is kept waiting for the other.

I had it in my head to keep this dish vegetarian, but in another mood I might have whisked a smear of anchovy paste into the dressing, or slipped gossamer slices of spicy sopressata among the leaves. The olives have savouriness to counter the polenta’s lull, and I bolster that contrast with acid in the form of both lemon juice (for floral brightness) and red wine vinegar (for a deeper sharpness and touch of sweet). Soft-set boiled eggs bring needed richness and a bit of heft. Whisper-thin strands of cheese contribute lactic funk to ground it all.

The point is to have quite a bold salad, so that it acts almost as a condiment as well as an accompaniment, bringing the polenta along. It is the play of hot and cold, of creamy against crisp, of salt against rich, of all these things working together and in opposition that brings the spark to the whole production. The magic happens in the cooker, but should appear on the plate as well.

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Magic polenta with crunchy chopped salad

Serves 4

For the polenta

  • 1 cup traditional polenta (not quick-cooking)
  • Medium-grained kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter

For the salad

  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice (about half a lemon)
  • Red wine vinegar, to taste
  • Half a red onion
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3/4 cup Castelvetrano olives, smashed, pitted and chopped
  • 1/2 cup raw pistachios, shelled and chopped
  • Medium-grained kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 head romaine lettuce, chopped
  • 1 head radicchio, chopped
  • 4 eggs, boiled to your liking, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 2 ounces Parmesan, pecorino, or similar cheese

Whisk the polenta with 4 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt in the bowl of a 6- or 8-quart Instant Pot. Bring to a bare simmer over medium-high heat, then affix the lid according to manufacturer’s instructions. Cook at high pressure for 9 minutes. Once the cycle is finished, and being careful of steam, manually release pressure. Open the lid and whisk polenta until thick and smooth. Beat in butter. Taste and adjust seasoning; the aim is for the polenta to taste sweetly of itself, so err on the conservative side of salt, as the salad will contribute the needed boost. (Set to the warming function if the salad wasn’t made during cooking and the polenta is not being served immediately. Stir regularly.)

Squeeze the lemon juice in a large bowl and stir in an equal splash of red wine vinegar. Slice the onion into thin half moons, and toss in the mixture. Let stand for 5 minutes.

Stir the garlic into the onions, then stream in the olive oil and blend together. (Since the onion will tangle around the fork or whisk, you will not get a perfect, emulsified dressing; that is okay, do the best you can.) Stir in the olives and pistachios, then season with kosher salt and ground black pepper. Assertiveness is the aim; an extra drip of red wine vinegar is usually a good idea.

Tumble the lettuce and radicchio onto the dressing, and with clean hands toss to coat. At the last moment before serving, and ever-so-gently, turn the eggs into the dressing as well.

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Serve the polenta either family style or individually, with a puddle on the plate as foundation. Pile the salad on top and use a microplane to finely grate the cheese over all.

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