Saturday, August 3, 2013

Salty & Sweet, Together in Perfect Frozen Harmony.

Some things just belong together in an obvious, together-since-the-beginning-of-time kind of way. Peanut butter & jelly. Shrimp & grits. Gin & tonic. Cotton sundresses & summer. Hall & Oates. 

Then, there are the combinations that take a while to dawn on you. Mangoes with chili & salt. French fries dipped in chocolate milkshake. Pizza drizzled with honey (my own personal kink, don't knock it). Croissants & donuts (actually, this one is kind of a no-brainer, and I can't believe it took until 2013 for humanity to invent this). 

And then there's the combination I came up with the other day while brainstorming ideas for layered popsicles. Rich,sticky, lightly salted caramel perched on top (& below) of a creamy banana layer, with roasted caramelized flavors of its own. It's surprisingly deep, and ridiculously refreshing. And if you use small popsicle molds, it's just the right size to satisfy and leave you wanting more without feeling you've overindulged too richly (I use these adorable tiny molds I picked up at--obviously, this goes without saying--IKEA. They're 4" tall and hold maybe two ounces each, in fact, I think they're for kids. Perfect). 

Salted Caramel & Roasted Brown Sugar Banana Popsicles

For the Roasted Banana Layer:

2 bananas, peeled & sliced into 1/2" chunks
1 tablespoon butter, cut into small cubes
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place banana slices in a baking dish, top with cubes of butter & brown sugar. Roast bananas for 40 minutes until they are brown and caramelized and your entire house smells tantalizingly of imaginary banana bread. While these are baking, prepare the salted caramel.

For the Salted Caramel Layers:

1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt (maybe 1/2 teaspoon)
2/3 cup milk
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon cornstarch (or tapioca starch)

Place sugar evenly in the bottom of a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat over medium-high heat. Watch your sugar very carefully (you can swirl the pan as it heats, but don't stir the sugar with any kind of utensil or it will clump), because it's VERY EASY TO ACCIDENTALLY BURN SUGAR. Not that the world will end or anything, but you'll have to wait for your pan to cool, scrub it out and start over. Trust me, I speak from bitter, bitter experience. Watch your sugar closely. Just as it reaches a deep amber color, remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter. Then carefully add the milk (it may foam or even seize up a little, just keep stirring until it calms down again). Sprinkle the salt and cornstarch evenly over the top and whisk for about a minute until clumps disappear. Transfer to bowl and set aside (or place in fridge) to cool to room temperature. Once it has cooled, pour about an inch into the bottom of each popsicle mold (reserve the remainder of the caramel in the fridge, if you can keep yourself from scooping it out onto fruit slices, ice cream, your fingers, etc) and place in freezer for about an hour to firm up.

Remove bananas, now swimming in rich & gooey brown buttery syrup, from oven and transfer everything to the pitcher of a blender. Add vanilla & milk, process until smooth. Pour into popsicle molds directly on top of salted caramel layer (which has now firmed up enough that the layers will stay separate), stopping about 1/2" short of top. Top each popsicle mold off with reserved caramel, freeze overnight & enjoy.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

A care package arrives at A Treat Grows in Brooklyn!

Do you remember back at the beginning of the summer when I was fantastizing about slushy, frozen fruit drinks and contemplating buying a set of stainless steel drinking straws? Well, a magical care package arrived in the mail the other day from a loyal fan of the blog*, containing nothing less than........8 stainless steel drinking straws! 

Obviously, I had to pull out the blender immediately and whip up something slushy.

( *okay, in the interest of full disclosure, that loyal fan was my mother.)

I chose slushy watermelon limeade, a thing that is almost as easy to make as it is to drink, and a cartoonishly pink color that can't fail to make you smile.

Frozen Watermelon Limeade

1 quarter of a whole watermelon
5 limes
1/2 cup sugar (or sweetener of choice, honey or agave nectar would also work here)

With a spoon, scoop the flesh from the watermelon into a freezer-proof container with a lid (i.e. tupperware, a lidded glass or ceramic bowl, etc). Roll each whole lime on the cutting board to release juices, then cut in half and squeeze each directly over the watermelon pieces. Sprinkle with sugar, stir well to combine all ingredients, place lid on container and freeze. Place desired amount of frozen fruit mixture in blender, process until slushy. Pour into tall glass, admire the deeply pink color, then drink through a very classy metal straw. Tiny paper umbrella (and rum) optional. :)

It's now almost August, and I feel like I'm going to survive summer! The end, even if a few months off, is in sight. And in the meantime there are icy slushes to drink, and popsicles to eat (more on that later). I may be counting the days until fall, but they're getting fewer and fewer. Now if you'll excuse me, there's something frozen somewhere that needs drinking.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Kitchen martyrs are made, not born.

Greetings from the place on the bed where I am stretched out in this damp heat, lying almost perfectly still and trying to move nothing but my eyeballs and typing fingers. July has only just begun, and it's getting to me. I'm going to be lying in this spot for a while, possibly until October....unless someone wants to pick me up by the scruff and hold me in the blasting spray of an open fire hydrant like the pup in this photo (and I promise you, I wouldn't even struggle).

Obviously, the perfect things to make in weather like this are those that require no heat at all, cooling things like slaws and yogurt dips and popsicles and fruit slushes. Or tomato salad, with the first tomatoes of the season just starting to appear, which is a thing that I could happily eat all summer long. Dishes that require nothing more of you than just a little peeling, slicing and tossing, perhaps a few hours' worth of chilling. What could be simpler?

But when you get tired of endless salads and can't justify another dinner of popsicles (although I usually can find a way), there is another way to go. A less obvious path. The path of the hero, of the kitchen martyr. It's going to require courage and sacrifice, because you're going to need to blast the kitchen with heat for a few hours for the greater good. But when it's over, you'll have ready-made deliciousness for the rest of the week, with no need to even glance in the direction of the oven or stove. Are you up to the challenge?

Very well then. Kitchen martyr, may I present you with the following options: Herb Roasted Whole Chicken, and Southwestern Turkey Chili with Vegetables.

Herb Roasted Whole Chicken

Herb-roasted chicken with parsnip-sweet potato
latkes & Greek yogurt with garlic & parsley, on a
bed of farmer's market microgreens lightly
sprinkled with lemon.

A lot of people are scared to roast whole chickens: it's 'time-consuming' (it's not), it's intimidating (I think it reminds them of turkeys at Thanksgiving), and it's unnecessary when you can just chuck some breasts under the broiler, right (well, right, except you'd be missing out on some of the most delicious chunks of the bird--namely the thighs, the fantastic crispy skin, and my favorite bits, the 'oysters')? These people are fools. But not you! You're a kitchen martyr. Onward, chicken soldier.

1 whole chicken (sizes will vary, average size about 4 lbs)
1/2 lemon (in this case, I used the other half to make a lemon vinaigrette for the salad I was serving the chicken with)
1 onion, sliced in half: Keep one half the way it is, very roughly chop the other into 1" pieces
3 sprigs each (or more! You're stuffing a chicken, go crazy man!) of Italian flat-leaf parsley, rosemary and thyme
1 teaspoon each of parsley, rosemary & thyme, very finely chopped
3 tablespoons of butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon honey
salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 375. Place chopped half of onion in the bottom of a roasting pan. Dry chicken thoroughly, inside and out, with paper towels or a very clean kitchen towel (cannot stress enough the importance of this drying step, at least when trying to achieve perfectly golden, crackling, crisp roasted chicken skin. What's that? You like soggy, lifeless, steamed chicken skin? Then by all means, disregard this step. Everyone else: PAY ATTENTION). Season inside and out with salt & pepper, rubbing it into the skin. Place chicken breast side up in roasting pan, right on top of the bed of onions.

Stuff 1/2 lemon and 1/2 (the unchopped half) onion inside chicken cavity. Poke the whole sprigs of herbs in there as well, then truss your chicken (Don't be scared. Trussing is fun! Once you've mastered it, you may find yourself trussing things recreationally! Small family dogs, beware. If you're nervous, Julia Child is pretty much the gold standard, and Michael Ruhlman has some ideas, as well). Set chicken aside, combine softened butter in a small bowl with finely chopped herbs, honey, and a small amount of salt & pepper to taste, stir well to combine.

Gently lift the chicken skin at the edges of the bird and smush about a tablespoon of the herb butter under there, working it under the skin that sits on top of the chicken breasts. This is going to melt and flavor the meat so that your chicken tastes like heaven. Take the remaining two tablespoons and rub it all over chicken, working it slightly into the skin. Place roasting pan in oven.

Roast chicken at 375 for 30 minutes, then rotate roasting pan 180 degrees and crank the heat up to 450, cook for another 25 minutes (or until skin is crackly and brown, and juices from chicken run clear when the meatiest part of the thigh is stuck with a fork or the tip of a small knife). Remove from oven and let rest for at least 10 minutes (to cool & allow delicious juices to re-circulate inside the bird), then carve & serve with a little bit of the crispy skin for everyone, a little drizzle of buttery pan juices and some of those roasted onions from the bottom of the pan. Heaven. :)

Southwestern Turkey Chili with Vegetables

1 lb. ground turkey
2 tablespoons olive oil (or cooking oil of preference)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 large yellow onion, chopped (about 1/2" pieces)
2-3 cloves of garlic (equivalent to about a tablespoon, finely minced)
1 red bell pepper, chopped (about 1/2" pieces)
about 5-6 stalks of celery (I like to use the very inner stalks, known as the 'heart', and keep the tender bright green leaves as well), chopped (about 1/2" pieces)
1 quart of chicken stock
1 can red kidney beans, drained & rinsed
1 can black beans, drained & rinsed
1 can diced tomatoes (I have also used crushed)
juice of 3 limes
salt & pepper
grated cheese (I usually use Monterey or colby jack)
cilantro, finely chopped

In a large pot, heat chicken stock, tomatoes, and both cans of beans over medium heat. In a skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of cooking oil over medium high heat, add onion & saute until softened and just beginning to brown. Add ground turkey and brown the meat & onions together until meat is fully cooked. Add cumin, chili powder and minced garlic, cook for 1 more minute then add mixture to the pot containing stock, tomatoes & beans. Bring just to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Add red bell pepper & celery, cover pot & simmer for at least 30 minutes.

Add lime juice, salt & pepper to taste. Remove from heat and ladle into bowls, garnishing with grated cheese and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro. It's also fantastic a little extra kick of hot sauce, and with tortilla chips or fresh tortillas on the side, if you happen to have any of those. Enjoy your leftover for days & days & days (this also freezes & reheats well)!!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

They call me Colonel Mustard.

This past weekend, I made my own pickles and mustard.

If that statement conjures up sweetly domestic homesteader-ish images of me standing over a large, steaming fragrant kettle of cooling pickle slices or pounding mustard seeds into a paste by hand (actually, this one I would do if I hadn't left my beloved but oh-so-heavy marble mortar & pestle in storage back in Phoenix. Someday!), maybe leaning demurely over the stove in a calico dress and Ma Ingalls-like 'do........well, don't let it. It's more likely that I'm wearing a ponytail, ripped jeans and a paint-stained t-shirt, listening to my beloved Tom Waits and balancing lightly on one foot that is almost surely bare (I like to stand in flamingo-attempting-yoga poses, and there are no shoes in the kitchen, ever). But still, it does make me feel like a homesteader, even if in some weirdly modern way. This is a re-run of a batch I made a few weeks ago (also retro: they were intended for a midcentury-themed picnic; I paired them with another vintage 1950s classic I'd never attempted before, deviled eggs) I'm not canning this batch of pickles, or any batches in the foreseeable future because I haven't yet been able to justify buying a kitchen pot large enough for the water bath necessary to the canning process. Where on earth would I keep it? Under the bed? In the bathtub? On the roof? So these are refrigerator pickles, designed to be kept cool and to be eaten as quickly as possible, not usually a problem around these parts. With a few extra hungry mouths around, the first batch disappeared within days.

Most of the makings of bread & butter pickles: cute little cukes, shallot, vinegars, spices.
Here's something else: I love mustard. I really do. You can call me Colonel Mustard. Sweet, hot & tangy, fiery Asian-style, bright yellow & acidic, mellow brown & toasty, honeyed, herbed, creamy with garlic, I love it all. But I've never made it before, and I'd venture to guess that neither have you.

Strangely beautiful, surprisingly colorful
mustard seeds, looking a bit like strange alien
pod creature larva. Or, you know, like mustard
As it turns out, mustard is surprisingly easy and non-threatening to make. The hardest step in the process you may run into is that actual finding of the mustard seeds. Some stores will have them tucked away in the spice aisle, along with the more esoteric and less frequently used items like anise pods (not so esoteric to me, I have totally bought, used & loved these on a regular basis in the past. Food-snobbery street cred achievement....unlocked!), whole vanilla beans (ditto, although terrible expensive), saffron (see previous), and epazote (say what?). Most stores won't stock them at all. Just keep looking. Try to find both yellow and brown mustard seeds, if at all possible. You'll only need yellow mustard seeds for the bread & butter pickle recipe at the end of this post, but you'll need both kinds to make the kind of coarse, grainy Dijon mustard I was experimenting with, and it's well worth it.

Bread & Butter Pickles

Makes about 4 cups of pickles

1 lb. cucumbers, sliced to about 1/4" thick* 
1 cup thinly sliced onion (I combined shallot & yellow onion for variety, but try any kind you like)
1/8 cup salt
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds (Aha! Another reason to do your pickling on mustard-making day!)
1/2 tsp celery seed

(*large, common grocery-store cucumbers will work, but if you can find smaller 'pickling cucumbers' like the ones pictured, which I scored at a local farmer's market, they are firmer and less watery and will give your finished pickles a crisper, snappier texture)

In a mixing bowl, combine sliced cucumbers & onions with salt, mix well. Cover with ice and let sit at room temperature for two hours. Now's a good time to go off and make your whole grain mustard. After two hours, drain cucumbers & onions. Bring honey, vinegar and spices just to a boil, stirring to make sure everything is fully combined. Remove from heat and pour over cucumber & onion mixture, mix thoroughly. Let mixture cool to room temperature, then place in airtight container and store in fridge. These will be good for up to three weeks, but if you've got pickle-lovers around trust me, they won't even last that long.

Protip: Try these on a homemade hamburger with a slice of barely melted white cheddar and a loving schmear of the grainy mustard you're about to make. You're welcome.

Whole-Grain Dijon Mustard

Please keep in mind: Mustard must be made ahead of time, and will need to sit for a minimum of 2 days before it is ready to eat. So if you're hosting a backyard barbecue like, tonight, and need mustard then it looks like you're headed to the grocery store. Still, trust me when I say that this mustard is worth waiting for. 

And it's so easy that you barely have to do any work at all! Just the waiting. 

Which, as we all the hardest part.

1/4 cup brown mustard seeds
1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds
1/2 cup dry white wine (necessary for that 'Dijon' flavor, although in the future I'd like to try a version using beer for a completely different result)
1/2 cup vinegar (I used the same combination as for the pickles, a blend of white & apple cider vinegar, but white wine vinegar would also be appropriate here)
1/2 tsp salt
honey, to taste

Place everything except the honey in a nonreactive bowl or a jar with a lid, stir to combine. Cover tightly with  plastic wrap or lid and let sit at room temperature for two days. During these two days, SCIENCE WILL HAPPEN.

Mustard seeds soaking in a mixture of vinegar
and white wine, which even after just about
two hours at room temperature....
.......looked like this! EXPANSION. It's SCIENCE!
Sweet, sweet, mustardy science.
After two days, place the mustard mixture in a blender or food processor and pulse until desired consistency is achieved. I like to blend it just until enough of the seeds begin to pop, release their oils and emulsify the mixture that the whole thing starts to resemble a paste, with lots of whole seeds still swirled into it. Not only are they beautiful to look at, but they pop beautifully under your teeth like flavorful mustard caviar. Yum.

Store in an airtight, nonreactive container (I like a glass jar for this task) in the refrigerator for up two three months.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


I wish I was a little bit taller.

I do not wish I was a baller*.

[No one under thirty is going to find this cultural reference funny, are they? Dag y'all, summer makes me nostalgic.]

I wish I had a tall jar of something frozen in front of me right now.The very last of the chilly weather officially faded away this week, and it feels like Summer Is Coming (dun dun DUNNN).

Today is the first ninety-degree day, and while there's still only a whiff of pleasant humidity in the air (the kind that says 'beginning of summer vacation, let's go to the beach!' rather than 'OH GOD KILL ME NOW IT'S SO HUMID I COULD SWIM TO WORK'), I can feel the first beads of sweat beginning to trickle down the backs of my knees, whether it's real or imagined. Beads of sweat I would much rather see trickling down the frosted outside of my tall glass jar of something cold and delicious. How far into summer I will hold out before dragging the old eyesore a/c box out of the closet and re-installing it in the window is anyone's guess, but I'm guessing it's directly proportionate to the amount of time I spend drinking frosty beverages.

When I was little, we drank out of jars daily (loooooong before there was a Pinterest to make them trendy), and nothing says comfort to me quite like a wide glass mouth, a threaded lip & the little embossed 'Ball' insignia. From here on out, I wish I could lounge in a hammock around all lazy summer long, doing not a whole lot more than sipping enormous cold beverages out of good old mason jars with mountains of crushed ice and a straw.

[ Is there anything lamer than using a watermarked stock photo? Sorry for being lame, but this is just a reminder to me that I need to get busy making sweet, luscious icy summertime drinks of my own!]

Giant frosty jars of freshly squeezed slushy limeade, sweet super-strength Vietnamese coffee, cool watermelon agua fresca, homemade ginger syrup over soda, cold-brewed coffee concentrate, spiced Thai iced tea, sweet & tart peach iced tea, blackberry shrubs & classic pina coladas.........I wish, I wish.

And I wish I had some reusable straws with which to sip daintily (I like the stainless steel ones, might just have to violate this week's strict, poverty-imposed 'no shopping but grocery shopping' policy and buy a few of these.....FOR THE SIPPING!!).

Because, you know.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Little Apricot Cakes (loosely adapted from Bon Appétit, June 2013)

Guys, I can't tell you what a relief it has finally been to see spring, er, springing into action. After a long (not so much frigid as....sodden? drippy?) winter and an early spring full of 'just kidding' meteorological moments, the last few weeks have finally seen the trees put out first waves of blossoms then full-on explosions of green. Breezes are warm. Coats are being put away, at last. Everyone's spirits seem lighter, mine included. There's just one thing I can't quite figure out.

What is it about spring that makes me want to go shopping?

A brightly colored new set of dishes, maybe? A flirty little spring dress, a freshly published & still crackling new read in hardcover, a cute new pair of earrings or some other little indulgence....yes, it's corny and yes, it's admittedly girly and a bit embarrassing, but there's something seemingly almost genetically encoded in wanting to emerge from one's winter cave and buy something pretty. Something soft. Something luxurious. Something so brightly colored and soul-cheering that it seems to scream SPRING!!! even as it whispers silkenly in your ear induuuuuuuuulge. Oh dear. This really is a hell of a time, and a hell of a city, in which to be financially limited by a freelancer's income. So rather than go out and indulge in a new pair of shoes or a twirly skirt, I've been fighting the battle to keep my wits about me and stay frugal. And I must admit, I've been doing a great job.

But I couldn't fight the spring urge forever. 

The other day, I bought myself a brightly colored little bit of luxury. Just look at them, aren't they beautiful? Don't they whisper something to you about warm weather, looking like little twin suns glowing at the heart of that white bowl? Okay, maybe I'm being more than a little bit precious about the whole thing, but they looked delicious, and they cheered my spring-starved soul immensely........and there was a recipe in the new issue of Bon Appétit that I really, really wanted to try. So, Mini Apricot Cakes it was!

Sweet, tart slices of apricot awaiting baking.

I promise I will not lick the bowl. I promise. No, totally.

A cramped workspace is the hallmark of a true New York kitchen. Counter space? I remember counter space. But now, I can balance a bowl on each arm and keep a wooden spoon tucked between my chin & shoulder, peering down at a recipe only mostly obscured by the cutting board, muffin pan and various sugars that dominate the counter. Please, if necessary, I could do this in my sleep*.

(in fact, I'm pretty sure that I once did. Gentle readers, remind me to tell you some day the thrilling saga of Muffin Pan & the Midnight Bread.)

As you may notice from reading the original BA recipe, I have made a few deviations in my own version, most notably that I made it gluten-free (swapping in a mix of tapioca, soy and brown rice flour for regular). Also, I substituted a sprinkling of brown sugar for the called-for raw sugar, for the usual reason, which is that I had one and not the other. Whaddayagonnadoboutit?

The little cakes turned out to be wonderful little two or three bite treats. Densely crumbed, golden and just lightly sweet, with those wonderfully crunchy buttery edges and hints of lemon zest and vanilla hidden in the interior. Sticky slices of tart-fleshed apricot melting into the sweet cake below. I'm not sure what else to call them besides 'little cakes', really. They're not exactly in muffin territory, and they're more serious and less fluffy than a cupcake, and they're smaller than either of those things, anyway. They're economical 'mini' cakes even in the original recipe and designed, I think, to be held in the hand and eaten in a few happy bites. 

And then maybe another one, why not? With a little swipe of freshly whipped cream on the side. Because it's sunny and it's that sweet spot right between late spring and early summer and, new flirty sundress or no, you're just so happy to be going outside once again after a long, long winter.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

True Grits.

[ Pictured above: shrimp & grits, a match celestially ordained in heaven, much like peanut butter & jelly. Like salt & pepper. Like fried things & ranch. Like Hall & Oates. ]

Let's talk about slow-cooked cornmeal for a moment, shall we? I may have moved basically from the bottom of the country to the top, but the place where I'm from is not exactly the grits-eating South. Rather, we're a Southwestern state whose food influences, beyond Sonoran Mexican and T.G.I. Fridays, are a little hard to pin down. We are the lovers of neon orange nacho cheese, we are the creators of pickled jalapeno-covered hot dogs. Crunchy yellow corn tortilla chips? Yes. Creamy spoonfuls of soft, tender cornmeal goodness? Well, not likely.

In fact, I'd really only ever thought of 'grits' as a punchline, some vaguely exotic food thing that they ate over down in the Real South, along with other funny and mysterious things like 'chitlins' (what were those?), 'hushpuppies' and 'red-eye gravy'. Or else I'd thought of them as one of the only two fitting ends to the expression 'Kiss My......'. For the first few decades of my life, I'll admit that nary a single grit graced my plate.

[ Ready for my Spring Awakening....any day now? ]

But two things have lately turned me around on the issue. First, that New York is a city obsessed with brunch (Seriously. More on that later), and shrimp & grits is possibly the world's best brunch dish. But having other and honestly, preferred things to do on a Sunday morning like lounge romantically in bed, leaf slowly through the weekend Times and maybe start the crossword, scavenge at a farmer's market for the ripest tomatoes like a proper, food-obsessed yuppie....I have to admit that while I like brunch, I'd just prefer to be on terms with it under another name: 'dinner'. So the brunches in my life tend to take place not out in the world, but in my kitchen around evening time. Second, it's been cold, and despite an equinox and a daylight savings time change, spring has not yet arrived. When it's mid-March and the weather still looks like the photo above, well, you too might turn to the humble cornmeal grit and its warm, comforting embrace.

Properly gussied up with sweet, buttery & smoked paprika-spiked shrimp, a little sautéed spinach, a sprinkling of chives, and one perfectly poached egg, this is the absolute pinnacle of brunch for a Southerner, a Northerner....even a displaced Southwesterner. And you can have it for dinner! In fact, I have to recommend that you should. All the better to properly enjoy that mimosa, right?

[ Before we get started, I'm going to have to throw on my pedant's hat--I always picture this hat as being tall, sharp and pointy, with a slanted and slightly judgmental-looking brim that pulls down low over one eye, if you need a mental picture of me wearing it--for a few moments and make clear that when I talk about grits, I am talking about a basic porridge made from medium or coarsely ground yellow cornmeal. In Italy, it's known as polenta. Technically, the 'grits' of the New World (including the grits widely known in the South) should refer only to hominy grits, which are made from corn that had been treated with an alkaline solution in a process called nixtamalization, before being dried and ground. This forms masa, or masa harina, which is used to make many delicious things such as tortillas, tamales, arepas, even those crunchy yellow tortilla chips so beloved by my hometown and, yes, say it with me now......classic grits.  However. As a steaming, wonderful pile of delicious food sitting in front of you, there is functionally almost no difference between a plate of polenta and a plate of grits, so the definition I'm going to go with leans heavily toward the polenta side. As do I, after two or three plates of polenta. Pedantic, David Foster Wallace-length footnote is now concluded. (whips off hat) ]

'Perfect' Grits with Smoked Paprika Shrimp

(makes approximately 4 servings)

[adapted from Marcella Hazan's excellent instructions for creamy polenta]

4 cups of liquid (I usually interpret this as 3 cups of water and 1 of milk, although for flavor I have sometimes substituted in chicken or vegetable stock for some of the water. Just keep the ratio of liquid to cornmeal at 4:1 no matter what the amount, and you'll be fine)

1 cup cornmeal/polenta (do not buy anything labeled 'instant' or 'quick-cooking')

2 T. sugar or honey

2 T. butter (at least)

1/4 c. chives, finely chopped

1 tsp. salt, plus extra (to taste)

Bring liquid, sugar or honey and 1 tsp. of salt to a boil in large, heavy stockpot. Add polenta in a thin stream, whisking constantly to prevent clumps. Reduce heat to medium and cook while whisking constantly for two minutes. The mixture will look very thin at first, then gradually thicken to a more 'porridge'-like consistency. 

Reduce heat to low and cover the pot, cooking at barely a simmer for 45 minutes. You no longer need to stir it constantly, but you do need to check on it and stir it with a long-handled wooden spoon for one minute out of every ten minutes of cooking, until it is fully cooked. The sooner you can accept the next thing I am about to tell you, the sooner you can begin to relax and just expect it--it is going to stick to your pan. Like, a lot. It's going to form a kind of crust on the bottom of your stockpot. Relax, you are not ruining your cookware. Pour yourself a glass of wine if you need to, and just keep stirring that baby every ten minutes or so. 

When all the grains have softened and your polenta seems done, remove it from the heat and add the chives and butter. Taste (carefully, remembering that this substance has the temperature and consistency of molten lava) and add salt according to preference. Let cool slightly, but serve warm.

1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined

2 T. butter

2 tsp. smoked paprika

1 clove fresh garlic, minced

Heat a skillet over medium heat and melt butter completely. Add paprika and mix thoroughly, then add shrimp, tossing to coat in the buttery mixture. Cook for a few minutes (time will vary) until shrimp is nearly all pink, then add garlic and increase the heat to medium high. Cook for thirty seconds more, or until garlic is golden and fragrant, then remove from heat. Serve immediately over warm polenta.

If you're looking to top this all with a poached egg and really, I wouldn't blame you, I like to use Thomas Keller's foolproof (truly!) method involving vinegar, which can be found here. Happy brunching!