Polenta & Parmigiano Crusted Cauliflower Slabs

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I really love cauliflower. I can’t say that I always did. As a kid, my mom used to disguise it by slathering the entire head with buttery bread crumbs. It gave the soft cauliflower a much needed texture and provided a yummy, crunchy flavor before hitting the softness of the veg. That crispy texture was everything. Maybe that’s where my need to crunchy foods emerged. Ah ha, case solved.

I have grown to love cauliflower more and more over the years, and have cut it up, roasted it up, spiced it up a few different ways. My famously easy Faux Creamy Cauliflower Soup launched this blog and is an all time favorite among my readers. I Spiced & Roasted it. I’ve made it into a cheesy dip and even put it in a vegetable soup. This cruciferous, nutritious vegetable is a versatile little bugger.

On this cauliflower adventure I traveled back to my youth, and that first encounter - cauliflower with a crunch. I decided to take the encrusted idea to a new level. As you know, I can’t eat bread, which means the crunch would have to come from something other than bread crumbs. But what? I dug into my Italian heritage looking for crusty, gluten free ideas. Voilá, aka Ecco in Italian. Not one thing Italian. 2 things Italian would do the trick. Polenta and Parmigiano Reggiano.

And I’m not kidding when I say that this is truly an easy, roast veg dish. As some of you have said, “oh, easy for you.” But this, my friends, is ridiculously easy.

Ingredients

1 large cauliflower head
1/4 c polenta
3/4 c Parmigiano Reggiano
1/4 t salt
1/8 t pepper
Olive oil

You can either cut the cauliflower head into small florets or slice big slabs. I did both since you can really only get 3-4 slabs then little florets naturally fall off.

For this test run, I only used a 3 main ingredients. Call it the getting my feet wet before I dove in deep.

All this white will turn a beautiful golden brown.

All this white will turn a beautiful golden brown.

Instructions

  1. Wash, dry then cut the cauliflower into slabs

  2. Arrange the pieces on a baking sheet and drizzle them with oil, salt and pepper and bake at 425 degrees for 30 minutes.

3. Meanwhile grate the cheese and set aside.

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Combine the polenta and cheese together.

Combine the polenta and cheese together.

4. Once the cauliflower is browned, flip them. Once flipped, douse them with the crunch factor, aka Polenta and Parm mix. Drizzle with more oil and back in the oven until browned and crunchy.

See those nicely browned spots. That equals yum.

See those nicely browned spots. That equals yum.

Make sure you coat all the surfaces. You’ll want that crunchy goodness everywhere.

Make sure you coat all the surfaces. You’ll want that crunchy goodness everywhere.

Up close and looking good.

Up close and looking good.

The polenta really adds the crunch factor. And I just loved that golden color. I kept it simple for this first revival of crunchy cauliflower, but I think you can imagine how easy it would be to spice these up and change the flavor profile. You could add turmeric and cumin for more Indian flavors. Or oregano and basil to amp up the Italian theme. Go for 5 spice or Caradom for an earthy flavor with a hint of sweet. Sky is the limit, my friends.

These make a perfect side dish for any meal. Or enjoy a slab with a large salad for lunch.

5 Appetizers That Impress & Relieve Stress

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Let’s face it, it’s not only during the holidays when we need easy appetizer ideas. Handy dandy, simple offerings are in demand throughout the year. These 5 appetizers can certainly be used anytime, but will surely be useful right about now.

Now when it comes to navigating entertaining, we can be the driver of our own roadmap. It’s up to us to take control. It can be as elaborate as a sit down plated meal with several courses. Or as simple as making a salad, a vegetable and protein. Or even simpler (and better!) a huge bowl of pasta. But it is up to each host/hostess to decide whether to make it complicated or easy. Admittedly, there are times when entertaining calls for a little more pizzazz. And I would venture to say that the holidays definitely require a little more brio. Believe it or not, adding an appetizer to any meal can elevate an evening. I always want my guests to feel special, whether it’s a weeknight meal, an weekend dinner or a big party celebration, and I’ve found that serving appetizers somehow ups the ante and makes any event feel special. But please, let’s not confuse special with hard and stressful.

How I plan out what appetizers I will serve depends on my mood, and it can swing full pendulum, from easy breezy all the way to ones that require a day of prep, cook time and time in plating. For me, it all comes down to how much experimenting I want to do, and how much time I have to play. But that’s just me. I like trying new things and being adventurous. But sometimes, I need speed and simplicity. Luckily, in my experimenting I have come up with a few apps that don’t take a ton of effort, and really please my guests.

Here are Apps that impress AND relieve stress.
(Disclaimer: In no means are these appetizers magical or medicinal in their ability to relieve stress. It’s soley their ease, and delicious impact that creates a stress free zone! Well, I might consider that magic.)

Shaved Parmigiano with Roasted Peppers & Hazelnuts

This is as easy as using a flick of the wrist. That is, one that is holding a vegetable peeler. Simply shave slices of Parmigiano Reggiano. Roll roasted pepper strips up into rosettes or twirls. (A good jarred kind is the way to go. Even I admit, roasting your own peppers is more work than it’s worth. This is definitely one time when homemade doesn’t make sense!) Arrange the platter as you like. I like all the peppers in the middle with the cheese acting like a moat. Then generously sprinkle with chopped hazelnuts. It seriously could not be simpler.

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Platter of Crunch - Fennel Bites & Cucumber Carrot Roll Ups

I always like having a platter with a fresh offering. Not only does it help to refresh the palate but it’s a satisfying treat for the vegetarians. Create a platter full of fresh vegetables. You can use whatever you like but I love big chunks of fennel drizzled with olive oil, course sea salt and pepper. Ribbons of English cucumber plain or rolled up with carrot shreds. The carrots were marinated in a basil balsamic vinaigrette. Check out the recipe here.

My method for platter arrangement is color blocking. I think this looks inviting. Do what pleases your eye and your palate.

Fresh fennel, cucumber and carrots are refreshing and crunchy.

Fresh fennel, cucumber and carrots are refreshing and crunchy.

Fresh Ricotta with Herbs & Oven Roasted Tomatoes

Well, if you took my advice in late summer and roasted a bunch of tomatoes and stored them away, then this one is as easy as opening that container. (Now you understand why I suggest this because the tomatoes can be used in so many ways.) But if you don’t have any roasted tomatoes in your freezer, making a fresh batch is not difficult. Click for The Great Tomato Caper post. For the rest of the dish, simply buy fresh ricotta and spoon it into a bowl creating a nice mound. Generously sprinkle course sea salt, freshly cracked pepper, chopped basil and drizzle with good olive oil. Arrange the roasted tomatoes around and serve with crusty bread.

This combo of sweet tomatoes with fresh creamy ricotta is one that will keep your guests coming back for another smattering.

This combo of sweet tomatoes with fresh creamy ricotta is one that will keep your guests coming back for another smattering.

Sauteéd mushrooms & polenta chips

This one takes a bit more time, but you can actually do some of this ahead of time. I’ve served this appetizer several different ways. Click here for the recipe. In this version I made the polenta squares thinner so they act more like a cracker. Your guests can make their own little bite with as much or as little sauteéd mushrooms as they want. Heck, if you also serve the Ricotta dish, guests can top their polenta squares with mushrooms and a bit of ricotta!

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Dry Cured Meat & Arugula Platter

This seriously could not be simpler than buying and arranging. Pick up your favorite dry cured meat and serve it up with some spicy baby arugula. Guests can roll up the meat with some zest greens for a crisp, salty bite. I love keeping it simple and rustic by serving it right on a wooden board.
Some dry cured meats that I like to serve: Bresaola, Prosciutto or Serrano ham, Capacollo, Mortadella, Coppa.

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I hope these few ideas help keep your stress levels down this holiday season. I really don’t like that I keep repeating that, but it is true that the holidays, and entertaining can be just that - intense. I’m here to help in any way I can, because for me, gathering together with the people you love, serving them food you all love is a glorious thing. And something for which we can all be grateful.

Stirred with love, these apps are just as easy as the ones we download on our phones!

 

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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Polenta Stuffed Peppers

Some people call it grits, some say cornmeal, others call it porridge. But in Italy they call it polenta, and it's one of those versatile grains that can be used for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  Heck, I've used it as an appetizer, that's just how useful these golden kernels are.  For those who haven't made polenta, it is ground cornmeal. You can make it creamy, or more solid which you can then cut into small pieces and fry, grill or bake to create a perfect delivery vehicle for various toppings.  This time around I asked more from my polenta by using it as a stuffing.  

Last week I found some yellow peppers (among other goodies) at the farm stand and asked my niece if she liked stuffed peppers.  Since her answer was yes, I grabbed a few knowing that I would evidentially figure out what to stuff them with.  

My bountiful picks of the week. Yes, I got cauliflower and made 'Faux Creamy' Cauliflower Soup. Plus I created another topping for the white eggplant. That will be coming soon. (P.S. It was my niece, Gabrielle's idea to take our abundant finds and photograph them outside. Good idea

My bountiful picks of the week. Yes, I got cauliflower and made 'Faux Creamy' Cauliflower Soup. Plus I created another topping for the white eggplant. That will be coming soon. (P.S. It was my niece, Gabrielle's idea to take our abundant finds and photograph them outside. Good idea

My mom used to stuff peppers with ground beef, rice and tomatoes, but I don't eat meat, so toss that idea down the drain.  All week long I had different ideas ruminating in my head .  Among them...

  • Potatoes/Peas/Carrots

  • Chicken pot pie in a pepper (but I don't eat chicken either)

  • Rice and something else??

  • Something and something else...

None of those had any real chance of winning a spot as the stuffing. Then when JC used the fresh English peas for another dish, peas were no longer an option either.  However, when I discovered some mushrooms in the fridge I knew just how well polenta cozies up to them.  A real earthy combo. My niece, Gabrielle, suggested adding spinach, which I thought was a great idea but I already had kale in the house, so why buy something else. Remember what I always say; recipes can be followed exactly or used as a guidelines. So USE what you have and don't fret, which is exactly what I did.  The plot thickened, as did the polenta.  Here is the plan to stuff some peppers with polenta.  Say that 3 times fast!

INGREDIENTS

6 yellow, red or orange peppers
3 c mushrooms, cut into small pieces
2 c Kale, chopped
5 T chives, chopped
1/2 t crushed garlic
1 c polenta
2/3 c Feta cheese
4-5 T milk or cream (optional)
Magic 3 (olive, salt, pepper)

Instructions

Cut the tops and seeded middle out of the peppers, wash, and let dry. In a skillet, sauté the mushrooms in oil. Do not salt them until they are cooked as doing so early on releases their liquid and they become mushy.  Add 3 tablespoons of chives and salt toward the end of the cooking process. Once nicely browned, remove from the pan and set aside.  In the same pan, sauté the kale quickly.  You just want to wilt this but not overcook it. Remove and set aside. 

Nicely browned mushrooms with garlic and chives.

Nicely browned mushrooms with garlic and chives.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook the polenta according to the package. You want a creamy consistency.  Remove from heat and stir in the milk or cream.  Once combined add the feta, mushrooms, kale and the rest of the chopped chives.  

Fill each of the peppers with the stuffing mixture placing them in a baking tin and bake for 45 minutes or until the peppers are tender and slightly browned.

If you like a bit more cheese, about 5 minutes before they are done crumble some feta on top and let brown. Serve them warm.  

(Since I was also preparing a few other items for this dinner, I cooked these ahead of time and then warmed them right before serving.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see these are quite big and filling, so for a more proportional serving size as a side dish to your meat, fish or chicken, cut them in half. That was the case the night I originally made these.  We had so many other yummy offerings that there were left over peppers.  Do you hear me crying?  I think those are cheers of joy because...

 ...the next night we warmed them up and enjoyed the stuffed peppers with the left over roasted veggies and a fresh salad for dinner, and that was plenty.  Any way you cook it polenta pulled off another useful way to serve it up.