3 Dips a Dipping...

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Life with an obsessive buyer.

Well, I guess that’s the view from hubby, JuanCarlos’, seats. I buy things; be it material scraps, vintage dishes, glassware, and even food ingredients with big ideas. Sometimes with no specific ideas at all, I just love how they look and I’ll figure it out later. Maybe that is what I should have called this blog. Buy it Now - Figure it Out Later.

In the looking good category, I’m often tempted by the olive bar at specialty stores. Or the condiment and cheese aisles. Who wouldn’t? They are stocked with alluring foods. So, it’s no wonder that when you open my fridge you will encounter jars and containers of what JC likes to call stragglers. Annoying stragglers, to be exact. We differ greatly in our view points. I love having these food items around because they come in handy in a pinch. On the flip side, my husband finds these types of jars, containers and “dangling participles’ quite annoying. The main reason: he doesn’t have much use for these ingredients, hence the questioning as to why we need so many of them. Which often leads to him needing to shift, maneuver around and rejigger them in the fridge. Of course, I see the absolute need for these, but I’m willing to consider his point of view; me as condiment hoarder for the ‘just in case’ moment.

In an effort to keep the peace around the holidays (at least that is what I’m telling him), I decided to make him happy and clean the fridge from condiment craze. Yet, we all know the real reason. I’m a serial something from nothing, experimentalist. I can’t help myself from looking at ingredients and seeing what they could be. And what perfect timing, as we look down the barrel of the final few holiday parties and gatherings left in the year, a trio of dips comes in handy. Dips are not just useful for dipping, but great to spread on sandwiches, or on the base of pizza or stuffed breads, dollop on a salad or tacos, or dang near anything else you can think of.

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Here are 3 dips for dipping. Or spreading or whatever you want to name them, for use in whatever way you choose.


Avocado & Sour Cream Dip

Ingredients
1/2 c avocado, cubed
1/2 c sour cream
1/4 c scallions + 1 T for topping
1 garlic clove, rough chop
1 T parsley
1 t lemon juice
1/2 t salt
1/4 t pepper

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Instructions
In a mini blender, buzz up the parsley, scallions and garlic first. Then add the avocado and sour cream. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper. Buzz again and taste for seasoning. Easy, breezy.

Chop up the scallions and garlic first. It helps to blend them up better.

Chop up the scallions and garlic first. It helps to blend them up better.

Chunks of avocado give it a creaminess.

Chunks of avocado give it a creaminess.

Fresh parsley and lemon give this dip a zip.

Fresh parsley and lemon give this dip a zip.

Avocado & Sour Cream dip. Creamy and tangy.

Avocado & Sour Cream dip. Creamy and tangy.

Roasted Pepper & Goat Cheese Dip

Ingredients
1/2 c marinated roasted red peppers
2/3 c goat cheese
1/4 c walnuts, roasted

Instructions
Roast the walnuts for 8-10 minutes in the oven or in a saucepan on the stove. Then using a mini blender, buzz up them up into small pieces. Remove from blender, then add the peppers and goat cheese and blend until you have a chunky consistency. Add the walnuts back in, and blend only until full combined, or you can simply stir them in. Taste for seasoning. Since I bought the marinated roasted peppers there was no need to add any additional seasonings.

Goat cheese makes it creamy and tangy. Peppers makes it sweet.

Goat cheese makes it creamy and tangy. Peppers makes it sweet.

Walnuts give a crunch. A wonderful combination.

Walnuts give a crunch. A wonderful combination.

Gorgeous bright color, full of tang, sweet and crunch.

Gorgeous bright color, full of tang, sweet and crunch.

Olive & Feta Cheese Dip

Ingredients
1/2 c oil cured black olives
1/2 c green olives
1/2 c feta cheese
1/4 c scallions, rough chop
1 garlic clove, rough chop
1/2 c parsley leaves
1/4 c olive oil
1 t lemon juice

The set up for something special.

The set up for something special.

Instructions
In a mini blender, buzz up the parsley, garlic and scallions. Add the black and green olives and buzz until it creates a paste. Add olive oil and lemon juice and blend until combined. Then add the feta cheese. Since the olives and feta have enough flavor and salt content, this dip should not require any additional seasoning. But always taste to see if you need more lemon juice or oil.

Toss the scallions, garlic and parsley in.

Toss the scallions, garlic and parsley in.

Buzz it up until coarsely chopped.

Buzz it up until coarsely chopped.

Add the olives. Then the oil, lemon juice and feta.

Add the olives. Then the oil, lemon juice and feta.

Olive tapenade with feta is a hearty dip, perfect with boiled potatoes for dipping.

Olive tapenade with feta is a hearty dip, perfect with boiled potatoes for dipping.

Bright, crunchy and super green string beans are a fresh and delightful addition to this platter.

Bright, crunchy and super green string beans are a fresh and delightful addition to this platter.

New and fingerling potatoes are the perfect size and consistency for dipping. They also make for a hearty bite.

New and fingerling potatoes are the perfect size and consistency for dipping. They also make for a hearty bite.

Did you see how easy it was to whip up not one but three dips? These were just one of those days when pulling ingredients out and seeing what works together creates ramekins full of goodness.

In my defense of stocking our fridge with these awesome ingredients, we had one of those ‘just in case’ moments when we needed to bring appetizers to a party. Perfect timing, I’d say, as I just finished making these dips and they were picture ready for the party. Pure evidence that having dangling participles in your fridge isn’t a luxury or a nuance but an absolute necessity. I feel redeemed and justified in my condiment collecting craze.

A colorful medley.

A colorful medley.

Fresh and inviting. So, go ahead and invite someone over. Pop some bubbly and dip away.

Fresh and inviting. So, go ahead and invite someone over. Pop some bubbly and dip away.

Post Note: While I was in North Carolina visiting my nieces, my youngest niece made all 3 of these dips for us to snack on. Then we brought the leftovers to my oldest nieces newly purchased townhouse, which we helped her moved into. These dips were the perfect snack as we unpacked, unwrapped and set up her new abode. Everyone loved them. I guess these 3 dips a dipping are even more handy that I originally thought.!

Asparagus - Loved 3 Ways

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Asparagus. The tall green trees of the vegetable forest. They are cousins to broccoli; the shorter, fuller shrub like relative. But trees, all the same. I love these tall beauties all on their own, just as much as when mixed in with other vegetables. I love asparagus grilled, or sautéd, roasted or steamed.  It's safe to declare that I simply love them.  

I guess all that love started a want.  How can I include these more often but with flair.  That's when I began flirting with ways to enhance these long, earthy stalks. A simple addition of one or two extra items is all that was needed. Once I did, they went from average vegetable side dish, to a 'stand out, move over' dish. It doesn't take much to make them shine brighter.  Here are three ways, but I don't need to tell you that there are countless others. 
On tap today:

  1. Quail Eggs, Shallots

  2. Goat Cheese, Lemon Zest

  3. Chorizo & Caramelized Onions

Long, tall, green. Like cypress trees swaying in the wind.

Long, tall, green. Like cypress trees swaying in the wind.

Asparagus, chorizo, caramelized onions, goat cheese, lemon, shallot, quail eggs.

Asparagus, chorizo, caramelized onions, goat cheese, lemon, shallot, quail eggs.

The first time asparagus arrived at my enhancement clinic, I made hard boiled eggs, quartered them, steamed the asparagus, scattered some thinly sliced shallot then drizzled the entire dish with balsamic vinaigrette and served them as an appetizer.  My latest upgrade;  swap the big ole chicken egg for their diminutive cohorts, the quail egg, I must admit I loved it even more.  The quail eggs are petite and deliver a more delicate touch.

Asparagus with Hard Boiled Eggs & Balsamic Vinaigrette

When cooking the quail eggs, drop them in boiling water for only 2 minutes, then into a bowl of cold water, and peel. This amount of cook time and cold water shocking provides soft yolk perfection.

When cooking the quail eggs, drop them in boiling water for only 2 minutes, then into a bowl of cold water, and peel. This amount of cook time and cold water shocking provides soft yolk perfection.

The next time asparagus showed up for some freshening up, I grilled them, let them cool slightly then crumbled goat cheese along their bristled tops, let it rain lemon zest and drizzled a red wine, lemon shallot vinaigrette.

Asparagus with Goat Cheese & red wine, Lemon shallot Vinaigrette

It's truly as simple as adding goat cheese, lemon zest and drizzling with a red wine shallot vinaigrette. This ain't brain surgery, I know but it does taste good to the brain, the taste buds and the belly.

It's truly as simple as adding goat cheese, lemon zest and drizzling with a red wine shallot vinaigrette. This ain't brain surgery, I know but it does taste good to the brain, the taste buds and the belly.

The third time the asparagus knocked at the refresh clinic, they were seeking a bit more intensity. So a good helping of sautéd chorizo and caramelized onions with just a drizzle of oil, coarse salt and pepper fit their request.

Asparagus with chorizo & caramelized onions

Sauté chorizo and chop into small pieces, add caramelized onions and drizzle of oil.

Sauté chorizo and chop into small pieces, add caramelized onions and drizzle of oil.

3 approaches. 3 ingredients.

3 approaches. 3 ingredients.

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In all these versions, I opted to oven roasted the asparagus. I preferred this method over steaming for this round.. You can prepare them to your liking. These are just three simple stories to tall tales of a stalky green vegetable. Of course, there are more tales to tell...

Asparagus in quiche.  Or salads. 
Use creamy sour cream mustard dressing or a blue cheese dressing
Asparagus tart
Grilled asparagus tossed with pasta

3 ways? Oh dear asparagus, stop by the enhancement clinic any day of the week, there are an eternity ways...

 
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Amuse Bouche...That's not English, Right?

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Oh the French, they do give us some wonderful food and great phrases.  And the one that starts it all off is the Amuse-bouche.  The literal translation is mouth amuser.  In a restaurant, this is the appetizer before the appetizer. Not ordered from the menu by a customer, but given as a complimentary single bite from the chef to start your meal.  It is meant to amuse the mouth. Get it ready for the meal. Whet the appetite and get the patron excited for what is to come. 

Only the French would think of amusing your mouth. I dare say that the Italians aren't into amusing so much, but straight up satisfying from the onset.  I do love the idea of tickling the tongue with a little nosh to get you primed.  A little food foreplay, wouldn't you say?

This practice doesn't need to be limited to restaurants. As JuanCarlos and I prepare for a trip to France, I reasoned that this was a perfect time to honor their tradition and share some ideas on the subject. So go ahead,  treat your guests to an Amuse Bouche.  You like them, don't you?  So amuse their bouche.

Remember this is meant to be just one little bite not a full blown appetizer. However,  any of these can be an appetizer. (Just love when things can do double duty).  An amuse bouche can range from the elaborate to a very simple offering. 

Here are six offerings, each providing the all important combination of salty, sweet, tang, texture to get the mouth party off to the races.

Goat Cheese & Nut Topped Grapes

These are an easy, pop in your mouth kind of bite.  Refreshing and textural, and create the "more please" effect. 

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  • Use the stemmed end as the base, as this will help the grape stand up.

  • Slice a tiny bit off the top of the grape to have a level landing spot for a dollop of goat cheese.

  • Using a small spoon gather 1/2 tsp of room temp goat cheese and place it atop the grape. (I use my clean fingers to create a little dollop)

  • Dip it in the crushed/ground nuts (such as pistachios or a mix of pecans, walnuts or whatever nut you like). These can be made ahead of time, but save the nut dipping til just before serving. You don't want the nuts to get soggy in the refrigerate. NOBODY likes soggy nuts.

Prep yourself with everything at the ready. Look how simple this is. 3 ingredients. 3 steps: Slice, dollop and dip

Prep yourself with everything at the ready. Look how simple this is. 3 ingredients. 3 steps: Slice, dollop and dip

You can store in the fridge like this with plastic wrap

You can store in the fridge like this with plastic wrap

Dip right before serving.

Dip right before serving.

Salmon Topped Cucumber or Apple

Alright, this may be two bites, but satisfying ones, for sure. These deliver a creamy texture paired with a cool crisp  and salty bite.

Salmon / cream cheese roll up a top a cucumber slice.

Salmon / cream cheese roll up a top a cucumber slice.

  • Cut a 1/2" slice of cucumber.

  • Pipe a dollop of soften cream cheese on top.

  • Place a small piece of smoked salmon laid down in a crossed fashion.

  • Pipe another dollop of cream cheese in the center and top with capers and dill.
    (You can also use the Salmon Roll method. On a large piece of plastic wrap lay the salmon down, making sure to overlay slightly. Spread softened cream cheese on top. Sprinkle with capers, then roll up like a sushi roll, Refrigerate. Once chilled, cut into 1/2” rounds placing atop each cucumber slice. Adorn with dill, as seen above.)

Refreshing on a slice of apple. This is from my   Lox on What?   idea.

Refreshing on a slice of apple. This is from my Lox on What? idea.

Pea Soup Shooter

A chilled, tall drink of spring. (I have not tried these recipes but wanted to provide a few links for your reference.)
Pea Soup Shooter
Pea Shooter
Pea Soup

These were part of the offering at a catering event I did with Regina Mallon Enterprises, food by  Special Attentions .

These were part of the offering at a catering event I did with Regina Mallon Enterprises, food by Special Attentions.

Dates Packed & Wrapped

Boy, does this one get every part of your mouth ready.  It's got salty, sweet, crunch and tang.

Another 3 step method, Slice, stuff and roll.

Another 3 step method, Slice, stuff and roll.

  • Slice open a Meedjol date just enough to remove pit and replace with something better.

  • Stuff it with gorgonzola cheese and a marcona salted almond.

  • Wrap the date with Serrano or Prosciutto ham.

Simple set up of jamón Serrano, gorgonzola, marconas & dates.

Simple set up of jamón Serrano, gorgonzola, marconas & dates.

Just a little slice, yank out the pit and replace with yumminess.

Just a little slice, yank out the pit and replace with yumminess.

Cranked up Caprese Skewers

This is an amped up Caprese salad on a stick.

Ratcheted up a notch by grilling them until they are just warmed then dipped in grated cheese. Oh the melt, the sweet, the salt.

Ratcheted up a notch by grilling them until they are just warmed then dipped in grated cheese. Oh the melt, the sweet, the salt.

Another simple set up with just a few ingredients.

Another simple set up with just a few ingredients.

Once grilled, roll them in grated cheese. Want some heat, sprinkle red pepper flakes, too.

Once grilled, roll them in grated cheese. Want some heat, sprinkle red pepper flakes, too.

  • Skewer a grape tomato, a bocconcino, piece of basil and another grape tomato. (You can certainly serve them as is. But I highly recommend you go the next steps. Also, you can prepare these ahead of time and refrigerate until grilling.)

  • Coat with oil, salt and pepper and lightly grill, then roll in Parmesano Reggiano, and serve immediately.

Chorizo-Manchego-Olive Skewer

A one bite tapa mix that makes a hearty first nibble. 

Warm, cold. Savory, salty, creamy. Need I say more?

Warm, cold. Savory, salty, creamy. Need I say more?

Honestly, I feel like I could create one every week.  The options and ideas are 'to infinity and beyond'.  Just think of little bites that would get your guests ready for more.  Oh la la to the French for their playful amusement.  What a fun game of enticement. 

 
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Brunch Made Simple

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Brunch is supposed to be a relaxed, chill vibe. A time to hang with friends and family. The whole idea is rooted in the premise of sleeping in, then eating lazily in the late morning.  That is true if you are going out to eat, or to someone else's home.  But if you are hosting, it's a bit harder to sleep in. Plus it can feel a bit overwhelming, knowing there are mountains of ideas on what to serve.  I am guilty of wanting to offer up more options than are possible to consume.  (Or to make, for that matter.) The essence of brunch is that beautiful crossover of food from breakfast items to lunch or even a few heartier items. There in lies the rub.  All those choices create a mind numbing battle of what to serve when the possibilities seem endless.

That was my dilemma a while back when we hosted a brunch for our dear friends Carl and Malcolm. I had all sorts of ideas, but I was determined to keep it as simple as possible.  In the end, I felt like I accomplished that, so much so that I recreated the same menu for a Sunday brunch with our other dear friends, Nicki and Jeff. 

A little forewarning, in order to keep this post manageable, each recipe below is a hot link, bolded and highlighted in blue. Just click to be whisked away to see how to make it.

Let us begin:

There were two slight changes to the menu for Nicki and Jeff versus the original. I didn't serve the polenta cake, but did add an amuse-bouche of Ibérico ham, Marcona Almonds, olives.  It was a nice way to greet our friends and settle in a bit as we caught up on our life tales and the many moons that had passed.

Now, you've heard me say many a time that it is essential to serve warm items, room temp and chilled items. This holds especially true for brunch.  Certainly, if I were serving brunch in the winter I might lean on a few more warm plates, but this combo seems just right for the rest of the seasons. Plus, as we head into summer we are in prime time for more entertaining in general, especially outdoors.  Brunch is ideal for backyard entertaining.

 

 

After the nibbles that amused our mouths and whetted our appetites, we started off with a chilled dish, then moved on to all the other plates. Let the party begin with a refreshing and clean burst of citrus.

Citrus Salad Martini

A 'brighten your day' start to Sunday, or any day for that matter.

A 'brighten your day' start to Sunday, or any day for that matter.

Next up was a continuation of fruit, transitioning to savory with this lightly tossed salad.

GRAPED UP BOSTON SALAD

Boston lettuce with grapes, fennel, celery, scallion. It's bright and light.

Boston lettuce with grapes, fennel, celery, scallion. It's bright and light.

Something warm with...

TOMATO & GOAT CHEESE PIE

Warm and savory. The sweetness of the tomatoes balances the tang of the goat cheese.

Warm and savory. The sweetness of the tomatoes balances the tang of the goat cheese.

Something room temp and hearty...

Salmon Salad Platter, Deconstructed

Polenta Cake

Polenta cake cut into slices.

Polenta cake cut into slices.

Ingredients

2 c polenta (cook according to package)
1.5 T butter
1/4 c chives, chopped
1/3 c goat cheese
salt, pepper

Instructions

Once the polenta is cooked, remove from the burner and stir in the butter, goat cheese and chives, salt and pepper until combined.  Lightly oil a cast iron pan and pour in the polenta. Bake at 350 degrees until a crust forms. Turn onto a board or plate and cut into wedges.  Best served warm but room temp is good too.

What I love best about this meal is that so much can be done in advance. The big plus is that any of these can be served at room temp, therefore, less stress about timing and getting the plates to the table.  

Then for dessert, I kept with the same theme of simple.  Prepped ahead of time and waiting on the kitchen table, I brought out a small platter of fresh cheeses (Manchego & Ibores),  grapes, strawberries and Sweet Olive Oil Crackers. Certainly, you can go sweet at this stage of the meal, but this felt right, and I believe our guests thought so too.

So, although YOU might not be sleeping in as late as everyone else, but taking the homemade brunch route doesn't have to stress you out.  Create the perfect crossover meal.  

 
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Fried Polenta Topped with Mushrooms & Goat Cheese

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Oh, how I love mushrooms.  Oh, how I love polenta.  So, is it any wonder that, oh, how I love this appetizer.  I have made these tasty bites for many an occasion. Be it a formal dinner party, a buffet for a crowd or a simple first bite to a meal. They look impressive on a platter, but they are even more pleasing to the palate.  

You've heard me rave about polenta before.  It can dished out in an abundance of ways.  Creamy and soft, molded and fried.  For breakfast instead of grits or crumbled up on a salad instead of croutons.  As an app or a main meal. Some foods are just like that, they give and give like the famous tree in children's book, The Giving Tree.  "Here boy, take my stone ground corn and make magic with them."   I love that book, and I love polenta.  Did I say that already?  Well, I do.

Keeping with the abundant uses mode, you can top polenta with other veggies or even proteins like shrimp or pulled pork.  But today's recipe features earthy mushrooms. That's what I had available, so that's what I made.  I only had Creminis on hand but I have made this with a combo of mushrooms.  I implore you to explore and mix and match to suit your taste buds.

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Ingredients

2 c polenta
2 T butter
6-7 c mushrooms, sliced
2-3 garlic cloves, sliced
1/3 c parsley, chopped
1 T rosemary, chopped
Magic 3 (Olive oil, salt, pepper)
Lemon zest
7 oz goat cheese
 

Instructions

Cook the polenta according to the package.  Whisking as you slowly pour it in to avoid any lumps.  

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Once it is cooked and reached a thick consistency, add salt, pepper to taste and stir in the butter until melted.

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Then pour the polenta out onto a buttered baking sheet.  Using a spatula, spread the polenta evenly out.  I usually use a larger sheet pan so the entire polenta base is thinner.  But I was at my mom's house and her pan was smaller, so these were thicker.  In the end, I liked the size of these. You can choose the thickness according to whatever floats your boat.  

Since I was taking the photos, I enlisted my mom to help out with the action shots. It's fun cooking with her.

Since I was taking the photos, I enlisted my mom to help out with the action shots. It's fun cooking with her.

Spread it out to create an even layer.

Spread it out to create an even layer.

Once the polenta is evenly spread, cover it with plastic wrap and allow it to set in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, start cooking the mushrooms by adding 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan.  I like using a cast iron pan as it retains high heat and gets a good sear on the mushrooms.  The key to mushroom cooking is let them cook on one side without moving them around.  This allows them to get nicely browned.  Also, salt them when they have browned.  If you add salt too early to the cooking process it makes the mushrooms release water.

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I also cook mushrooms in batches in order to avoid crowding the pan.  Too many reduces the pan heat and they begin to steam instead of sear.  Once all the batches are done, remove the mushrooms and cook the garlic, rosemary and parsley in more oil.  Then add to the mushrooms.  I grated some lemon zest over the mushrooms which brightens the flavor.  (you can also zest more once you assemble the whole dish.) Set aside while you continue preparing the polenta.

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Once the polenta is firm, cut into squares or use a cutter.  I was going to cut these into my usual small squares using a knife, but I found a round ravioli cutter in one of my mom's drawers and thought it would be fun to use especially because it had a scalloped edge. 

This time I got my sister, Alyssa, to help with the action shots. Of course, using a square cutter or a knife will eliminate waste, but I liked the rounds.

This time I got my sister, Alyssa, to help with the action shots. Of course, using a square cutter or a knife will eliminate waste, but I liked the rounds.

And don't worry, I didn't waste all the leftover cut outs. I fried them up and added them to my salad.

And don't worry, I didn't waste all the leftover cut outs. I fried them up and added them to my salad.

Using the same cast iron pan, add oil to coat the pan and fry the polenta rounds in batches until crispy and golden brown.  These are already cooked, so you just want to get them crispy.  Remember, varying textures make food more interesting.  Crunchy outside with soft inside.

Once done, place them on a baking sheet, so you can keep them in a warm oven until all have been fried.  Then top them with dollops of goat cheese, and with a spoonful of mushrooms.

You can see that some of the rosemary from the cooking the mushrooms snuck onto the polenta. That is less of a problem and more of a blessing.

You can see that some of the rosemary from the cooking the mushrooms snuck onto the polenta. That is less of a problem and more of a blessing.

Little drops of goat cheese to add creaminess to the crunch,

Little drops of goat cheese to add creaminess to the crunch,

Make the platter look pretty by using the rosemary sprigs as adornment.

Make the platter look pretty by using the rosemary sprigs as adornment.

We had some roasted red peppers also as an appetizer.  It made a wonderful partner to this earthy, crispy bite.  

Side note:  Using a 2" ravioli cutter,  I got about 18-20 pieces.  You can get more if you cut the pieces smaller and in squares.   Also, this is an appetizer than can be prepped ahead of time.  You can make, and even fry the polenta ahead of time.  Then when you are ready to serve, pop them in the oven to warm them up and assembly.  Enjoy polenta, the giving tree of corn!

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