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!

Monday, March 18, 2013

How to Celebrate St. Patrick's Day

Forget completely that the holiday is coming, remember at the last minute.

Weigh options of celebrating vs. not celebrating. One the one hand, it's a stale, trite, Americanized drinking holiday to which you (having grown up in a party college town full of nice young lads who, come March 17th, liked to do a bit of what we call the Wearin' o' the Traditional Foam Guinness Tophats, the Reinforcin' o' the Unfortunate Irish Stereotypes, and the Harrassin' o' the Lassies) became allergic early on. Shudder a bit at the memory. On the other hand, though, potatoes are tasty.

Decide that it's a good excuse to eat lots of potatoes. Potatoes, after all, are tasty.

Make a hurried trip to the store, ducking between the sprinkling early flurries of mid-March snow (oh spring,  you mythical creature, where are you?). Purchase potatoes, kale, a leek, a parsnip, sausages, some Irish cheddar and one very large bottle of Guinness. Feel very smugly Irish as the checkout girl rings up your purchases. Tater McIrishpants, they call you. Top o' the morning.

Try to remember, rushing home with the hood of your winter coat pulled up against the now furiously flurrying 'spring' snow, if any of your ancestors were actually, at any point, Irish. Flip through all the last names you can recall and decide nope, Scottish. German. Not Irish. Still, that guy across the street wearing his 'Kiss me, I'm Irish!' t-shirt with sandals (sandals!) and a full Rastafarian headwrap probably isn't an authentic son of the old country, either.

Put on music and remove shoes, as is mandatory (I can't cook without doing either, it seems). Peel and quarter potatoes meditatively while starting to hum, da da da I wear your grandad's clothes, I look incredible dada da da dadaa--......Look up in mid-dadaa from hip hop potato reverie and wonder if you ought to be listening to something more Irish instead. Briefly consider the Pogues, then remember how much you hate the Pogues. Return to potatoes.

Chop and saute some leeks and a large pile of kale while the potatoes and parsnip are boiling. Remember that neither you nor your dining partner actually likes to drink Guinness all that much, plan to use as much as possible of the very large bottle of Guinness you have bought in the cooking of the meal. Thus the plan for dessert, mini chocolate Guinness cakes with stout-flavored crème anglaise, is born. Brilliant!

Mash potatoes and parsnip into fluffy piles with a little milk, and incorporate silky, buttery sauteed leeks and kale until the whole thing has turned into a fragrant, lightly golden and green mixture that smells like heaven. Inhale deeply, and forget about foam tophats and 'Kiss me' t-shirts, forget all about metallic shamrocks and whiskey-sticky novelty shotglasses and drinking games featuring culturally insensitive Irish puns. Just focus on those potatoes, on their good earthy smell mingling with steam and butter and the perfume of leeks and the sweet green aroma of cooked kale. Serve heaped in a pile next to crispy-skinned sausages drizzled with a Guinness reduction.

Then sit down with your dinner companion and pair it all with a nice, full-bodied Spanish rioja. After all, what do we know? We're not really even Irish.

[James Joyce, I am not. But Happy belated St. Paddy's Day!]

Colcannon with Leeks, Parsnip and Kale

4 medium sized russet potatoes, peeled and quartered 
1 parsnip (with most of woody core removed) peeled and cut into large chunks 
2 tablespoons butter 
1 leek, well cleaned and finely chopped 
3 cups of kale, finely chopped 
1/2 cup whole milk 
salt & pepper to taste

Place potatoes in a large stock pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a slow boil and let cook for ten minutes, then add parsnip pieces. Cook for ten more minutes, or until potato and parsnip pieces are all fork-tender and ready to be mashed. Remove from heat, drain and return to stockpot. Add milk and mash potatoes lightly, just until fluffy.

In a nonstick skillet, melt two tablespoons of butter over medium heat, add leeks, saute until softened. Add kale and continue to saute until kale is bright green and has wilted to about half its original size. Add leek and kale mixture to mashed potatoes, stir lightly to combine. Salt & pepper to taste.

[Also pictured, mini chocolate Guinness cakes with stout-flavored crème anglaise and dark chocolate shavings. Warm, hearty pillows of deep, dark beery chocolate flavor, paired with cool creaminess]

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Life of Pie. ;)

Celebrating 'Pi Day' (3/14) over here with two variations on pie: quiche with roasted cauliflower, caramelized leeks & Gruyère, and a mini apple tart with almond flour crust and a crumbly pecan topping.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Whooooooo Are You? Who, Who? I Really Wanna Know.

I was standing in my kitchen zesting a lemon the other day, you know, like you do for fun (actually, I had a purpose, which was making the tender, fluffy lemon ricotta scones with a touch of rosemary pictured below)......when something occurred to me. I usually have many reasons for cooking at home, but one of the major themes is that I just plain like the process of turning a jumbled pile of raw, whole ingredients into small, chopped, organized piles, and finally into a well-crafted dish. Sure, there's the odd day when the whole ordeal sounds, well, like an ordeal, and it's on those days that I reach for the cold cereal or whatever takeout menu is handy. But nine times out of ten, I'm in it for the thrill of the process, the sheer crafty joy of transformation. I have many 'personalities' in the kitchen, but my primary one seems to be 'lover of the method'. Later, I read a post on ('What Kind of Cook Are You?') that kept me thinking on this topic. Who else am I in the kitchen? Who are you? What do you love or hate most about the necessary task of preparing and eating food, and why?

(Lemon ricotta scones with rosemary (made gluten free!), heavily adapted from this recipe)

Who I am in the kitchen actually turns out to be a very complicated list of personalities.

There's the bold adventurer who researches the cuisines of countries she hasn't even visited yet (YET. I'm looking at you, Vietnam and Iceland), always hoping to glimpse something new. The one who's perpetually running late in the morning and can't be bothered to do more than put cereal in a bowl and apply milk. The sometimes-more-is-more girl who dreams up a particular what-if combination of things (possibly even ten things) and just can't rest until she brings it to life, wondering if it will taste as good in actual reality as it did in her imagination (sometimes yes, sometimes sadly no). The compulsive ass-shaker who just can't cook a thing unless there's something loud playing to get down to, wooden spoon in hand (the Beastie Boys, my classic kitchen companions, here I am looking at you). The perfectionist who just can't bring herself to serve it, give it as the intended gift, or photograph & blog it if the dish in question came out lopsided or slightly over-browned (working on getting over this one, actually). The late-night snacker too overwhelmed by a work deadline, nagging feelings of dread, the stirrings of new love, a great book or movie paused halfway through, or plain insomnia to eat anything but random slices of cheese, consumed standing up in a kitchen lit by fridgelight. The mad food scientist hellbent on creating the optimum chicken soup formula, perfecting a notorious challenge like soufflés, or re-inventing a childhood classic in gluten-free form. The comfort-craver who, temporarily indifferent to calories, wants nothing more than to whip up a large bowl of mashed potatoes or gooey macaroni and cheese and dive into it, possible even fall asleep right on top of it (and why else is it that most of the comforting foods the world over are soft, warm and pillow-like? MYSTERY SOLVED. I think we all just want to nap our cares away on top of a great big, fluffy pile of mashed carbohydrates).

The sharer, the nurturer, the striver, the competitor, the rusher, the savorer, I am all these things on any given day, sometimes I have been several of them all on the same day. And you? When you strap on that apron......who are you?