Queen Grits: Scallops, Shrimp, Serrano Ham, and Ouzo Cream with Chives

DSCN4681There are a handful of pseudo-cliches I could start this posting with, like “you can take a girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of a girl”, and “once a redneck always a redneck,” and “roots run deep” – but I couldn’t possibly do that, could I?  Instead, I’ll straight up admit it: I love shrimp and grits.  It’s a classic dish o’ mine, stemming from a season working at Jim Shaw’s on Vineville after college, where they serve their grits as a side dish, but where the perfect compatibility of shellfish and hominy first entered my consciousness.  A few years later, in the Florida pan-handle, I enjoyed the Boss Grits at Boss Oyster, the first time I’d seen OTHER stuff thrown into the bowl – like bits o’ pork and a sweet white sauce.  Tonight’s dinner is a variation on this theme: succulent shrimp and seared scallops atop cheddar grits with sauteed Serrano ham and my favorite ouzo cream.  The meal is warm and satisfying, steaming and buttery, fragrant and briny, unctuous and sweet: a perfect plate, in less than 30 minutes.  If you’ve never married grits to sea critters before, I urge you to correct that discrepancy in your gastronomic resume.  You’ll be glad that you did.

DSCN4665

Cheddar Grits with Shrimp, Scallops, Serrano Ham, Chives, and Ouzo Cream Sauce

1 cup grits
4 1/2 cups water, salted
4 tbs butter
1/4# slab Serrano ham (about 1/2″ thick)
4 large shrimp
2 large scallops
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup cream
1/2 cup Ouzo
3 tbs chopped fresh chives
sea salt, cracked black pepper, Adobo seasoning, paprika

DSCN4669This is, at heart, a very simple meal.  I start by getting a few tablespoons of butter melting in my largest non-stick fry pan, while I get my water boiling for my grits on the back burner.

DSCN4670Once the foam has subsided, I throw my chopped Serrano ham into the lightly browned fat to saute and crisp.

DSCN4671Moving these meat bits around often, I toast them up really good.  I add a dash of black pepper and some paprika to the pan as well, which combines with the smoked pork to make a dizzying aroma.

DSCN4672Once my water comes to a boil, I stir in my grits well, lower the temperature to simmer, and cover the pan for about 10 minutes – reaching in to stir only once or twice.

DSCN4673I wish I had a flat grill, but alas.  Instead, I’m crafty.  I push all my cooked ham to one side of my pan, which I slide off the burner and balance on the raised edge of my stove – which is at the same height as the burner itself.  This leaves an exposed half of my pan directly over the heat, and allows my pork to stay warm but without the element underneath.  When you have a crappy kitchen, you learn to improvise.

DSCN4674On the exposed surface of the pan, which is still glistening with porkypaprika-y goodness, I layer my shrimp (which I’ve peeled to just the end of the tail) and my scallops, which I’ve sprinkled with salt and pepper.  I let them sear for about 3 minutes on each side, until the shrimp is perfectly opaque, and my scallops are seared to a crispy golden brown exterior.

DSCN4675Meanwhile, my grits are cooked perfectly, so I toss in 1 tbs butter and all my shredded cheddar cheese, which I mix in well.  I also add a dash of Adobo seasoning – which has garlic and pepper in it as well as salt. This I blend well until all the cheese is melted.

DSCN4676At the last few moments, I remove my proteins from the pan, and put them aside on a warm dish.  I put the pan back on the burner, add my last tablespoon of butter until it melts, then in goes my sweet sweet ouzo.  I let this reduce for about a minute over high heat.

DSCN4677In goes my cream, which I whisk in very well, leaving the heat on high so it can bubble and boil.

DSCN4678It thickens nicely.

DSCN4679A steaming mound of warm, sharp cheddar grits are surrounded by a pool of fennel scented rich cream.  Mounded on top of this tempting pile are the buttery shrimp, sweet seared scallops, and salty crispy-edged tidbits of Spanish jamon, scattered with the mild oniony tang of snipped chives.  Wholesome, delicious, and heart-warming.  What better for a weeknight dinner after a long day’s work?

Creamed Corn Skillet with Flounder, Beets, Bacon, and Cilantro Oil

DSCN4255I get my inspiration for dinner in all sorts of random ways.  Sometimes just a whiff of something wafting through the air will remind me of a ghost of flavors past.  Sometimes a color engenders a need for the flesh of something similarly hued.  But usually, I trawl food porn websites like Tastespotting or FoodGawker (neither of which has ever accepted any of my photos for their site — a challenge I will continue to try to overcome!) for images that get my juices running.  I also skim the menus for restaurants I can’t afford and try to make what I read there, so that I can enjoy their chef’s imagination without having to pay those prices (sorry peeps, we’re on a *very* tight budget these days).  For this meal, I have The Phantom Gourmet to thank – sort of.  I often have their TV show on local Boston-area restaurants playing in the background while I’m futzing around on Sunday mornings.  Sometimes they have my complete attention, but more often than not I just hear what they’re talking about — and that’s what happened here.  I vaguely overheard something about creamed corn, and something about a skillet — and that’s all I needed.  Creamed corn is one of my favorite side dishes, hailing from my mother-in-law’s down-home redneck kitchen; she’d pick the corn herself from their garden and spent hours and hours creaming it and freezing it in gallon bags to eat throughout the year.  I never went to visit without picking up a few frosty sacks of that golden goodness, but now that we live 2000 miles away I have to make it myself.  And although I LOVE her simple Southern recipe, I have made some adjustments to mine to amp up the deliciousness to Lolita standards.  In this case, a piping hot cast iron skillet blisters a healthy serving of cheesy creamy corn, topped with some flaky pan-seared flounder, chunks of bacon, gemstones of purple beets, and an artful drizzle of bright, herbaceous cilantro oil.  A filling but also light warm winter’s night meal, wholesome and delicious.  I think Rose, my mother in law, were she here in Boston instead of down in rural Georgia, would agree.

Creamed Corn Skillet with Flounder, Beets, Bacon, and Cilantro Oil

1 bag frozen yellow corn
4 slices bacon
2 beets
1 bunch cilantro
3/4 lb flounder filets
1 cup grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
1 cup heavy cream
milk
EVOO
4 tbs butter, divided
2″ sprig fresh rosemary
sea salt, cracked black pepper
flour for dusting
juice of 1 lemon

DSCN4238My beets will take the longest, so I get them started by scrubbing them clean.  I’m really only planning to use a few little cubes — I have a vision, y’see? — but cooked beets hold well so I’ll use the leftovers tomorrow in a salad.  (I know I said I hate leftovers, but beets are an exception, since they taste as good cold as warm.)

DSCN4243They get doused in EVOO, salt, and pepper, and paired with my sprig of rosemary, then wrapped tightly in foil paper.  I throw them in the oven on 350 for an hour or so – until they are tender enough to be easily pierced with a fork.  (In all honesty, I was baking cookies in the oven at the same time, and I sort of just let these go until I’d made all 6 batches.  You can’t really overcook a beet.   But I was worried that my cookies would taste like rosemary, since the oven was so redolent with the scent … they didn’t.)  It takes beets a while to cool, so I let them do so on the counter for about 20 minutes, so I could peel them and dice them before setting them aside.

DSCN4240Next, I remove the leaves from a bunch of cilantro and throw them into my blender thingy.  I add about 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), a squeeze of lemon juice, some salt and pepper, and a blend the hell out of it until I have a thick green viscous liquid.

DSCN4241Using my mesh spoon, I strain the green oil from its solids…

DSCN4242… using a spoon to press as much flavor and color out as possible.  I pour the oil into a squeeze bottle.  The rest of the green delish mush can be frozen and used to flavor something needing a pop of cilantro paste later.

DSCN4245Time for the creamed corn.

DSCN4246It all starts with bacon.  I chop my slices up roughly, and fry the bits out with lots of black pepper.

DSCN4247I remove the bacon to a paper plate to drain, then wipe most of grease out – leaving about a teaspoon of fat and as much of the toasted black pepper as possible in the pan as well.

DSCN4250I then set the heat to medium low, add the corn, cream, and grated cheese to the pan and get everything to a low simmer.

DSCN4251As that heats, I prep my flounder.  This huge filet came from Whole Foods today.  I had to trim a bit o’ skin off one edge, but it was a beautiful piece of fish.

DSCN4252As is easiest – and often best – with flounder, I toss it with salt, pepper, and flour…

DSCN4253… and pan-sear it in brown butter over high heat for about 4 minutes on each side.

This last bit went really fast, and I didn’t get to catch the picture.  After my fish is fully cooked, I move the pan off the heat, and place my two 8″ skillets onto two hot burners on my stovetop.  Using my hand blender, I whir a cup of my creamed corn into a thick mush before returning it to its saucepan for a hearty stir.  Then I pour half of the corn into each skillet – which are now hot – bringing the liquid gold to a bursting, bubbling boil.

DSCN4256I layer my planks of tender seared flounder over my thick, rich cheese and corn gravy.  A handful of perfect ruby beet cubes provide cool bites of sweetness, while the unctuous chunks of bacon stud the dish with salt and savor.  Generous squirts of cilantro oil add green to the visual and grass notes to the palate.  The sizzling pans keep the meal hot until the last bite, which Clayton and I scraped up with some crusty buttered bread.  I  need to use these cast iron babies more often, because every time I do, magic like this happens.

Fish and Corn Chowder, Semi-Deconstructed

I have the Claytonhusband to thank for this meal; it was his idea, more or less.  Y’see, out on the farm, he digs up all sorts of lovely veggies, and sometimes they trigger his gastronomic imagination.  Potatoes are the newest crop he’s pulling from the earth, and their heirloom selves have been appropriately misshapen and deliciously ugly.  He fished out two particularly bulbous spuds and proclaimed them dinner, suggesting that something could be served in them were they to be rendered ‘bowl-like’, and wouldn’t something chowdery and fish-like be nice.  Along with two huge cobs of the season’s last sweet corn, that was all Lolita needed.  Witness my semi-deconstructed corn and fish chowder: a rich, sweet corn milk, crispy cubes of pancetta, and pan-roasted haddock piled atop a massive baked potato skin, and topped with snips of chives.  Warm, rich, and delicious – perfect for a chilly autumn evening.

Fish and Corn Chowder

2 large ears fresh corn
1/2 gallon milk
cracked black pepper
2 medium or 1 very large russet potato
1/2 lb pancetta, diced
3 small shallots
1 yellow carrot
3 cloves garlic
1 bunch chives
1 lb fresh haddock (or cod, or pollack, or schrod – any flaky white fish will do)

This picture is very suggestive.  Of deliciousness, that is!  Each of these spuds is about the size of a newborn baby’s head, and the corn the size of my forearm.  The Clayton grows some good veggies.

I start by shucking and de-silkifying my corn cobs, then using my potato peeler to scrape the kernels out.  Next time I’ll do this inside a large pastic bag instead of over a bowl; I got corn bits and juice EVERYWHERE.   The kernels I reserve for later, but the cobs get put into play right away.

I totally have to shout out to Rooftop Gourmet, who largely guided this recipe with their very similar “Pan Roasted Cod in Fresh Corn Chowder” post back in April.  In particular, the above technique of boiling corn cobs in milk really lit my fire — I’d never considered that before, although it seems so basic and natural I rather feel like a heel for not knowing about it prior to this posting.  It yielded what can only be called “corn milk” – a richly, thickly, butter n’ sugar sweet corn flavored lactic dream. I set my 1/2 gallon of milk and my two denuded cobs into a large soup-pot and simmered them together with a healthy sprinkling of black pepper for about an hour – skimming the skin off the top periodically.  Meanwhile, I rinsed, dried, wrapped in foil, and set my two potatoes in my preheated to 400° oven to bake for the same hour.

Pancetta is a wonderful thing.  It’s a smoked, spiced, and rolled pork belly – an Italian bacon.  Harvard Square’s legendary gourmet shop  Cardullo’s purveyed this healthy chunk to me, at a surprisingly (for them) reasonable price.  I dice it into chunks…

… then chuck them chunks into a pan to sear until crispy.

Once I’ve got a nice crispy sear on my pancetta, I remove the bits from the pan – keeping 2 or so tablespoons of the rendered fat in the pan and holding the rest to the side for later – and add in my diced aromatics: my shallots, garlic, and one large yellow carrot from the farm.  I had several orange carrots, too – but I thought that the yellow would work better with the color scheme of this meal.

I sauté this mix of earth-grown goodness until all the bits have started to sweat and soften.

Then I add the reserved corn kernels, stir well, and let saute for a few moments.  This is the flavorful base of the corn chowder.

Now comes the corn-milk, which has been simmering for an hour now, and which tastes just like farm-fresh corn.  I pour about 4 cups into the pan, and bring everything back to a simmer.

 My potatoes are ready, too.  I cut them in half, then scoop out the majority of their inner flesh, leaving two large bowls which I oil up with some of the pancetta drippings before throwing them back in the oven to crisp up a bit.

 The pulled-out potato gets added to the chowder.  It’s now a full-fledged soup, but I let it continue to simmer and thicken a bit, since I don’t want it too watery on my plate.  I taste it often, though – ‘cuz I can’t help myself – and adjust the seasoning with more salt and pepper until it tastes perfect.

 I didn’t really mean to, but I sort of reassembled my two haddock filets into the whole boneless fish.  This lovely lovely came from the Harvard Farmer’s Market fishmonger, Fresh Lobsters and Fish, owned and operated by Carolyn and Chris Manning.  I’ve enjoyed their excellent products before (see here and here), but this is the first time I’ve tried their haddock.

 Since these two filets are odd sizes, I trimmed them down into two roughly same-sized planks each, and chucked the scraps into the chowder to gently poach and flavor the soup.  The planks I salt, pepper, and dust with flour.

A pat of butter and the rest of my pancetta juice gets added to my small non-stick fry-pan, and heated over high-heat until the butter is completely melted and beginning to froth.

 Into the hot fat my fish planks go.  I sear them skin-side down for about 5 minutes…

 … before carefully flipping them to brown their top sides.  Oh my, but this looks delicious.

My potato skin cups are perfectly roasted and ready to go.  I salt and pepper them up thoroughly, then place them in the middle of my plates before spooning chowder all up in there.

Delicately pan-seared and balanced haddock filets top a rich, creamy, corn chowder served up in a potato bowl with crunchy, salty chunks of pancetta studded throughout.  Each bite is both familiar – as chowder is to all we New Englanders – and surprising, since the flavors don’t blend until they come together on the tongue.  The buttery crisp edges of the flaky white fish compliment the tough-tender spud skin and its pillowy soft interior, while the milky soup stays warm and hearty as it waits to be gobbled up with both fork and spoon.  Clayton’s initial idea, a fellow-blogger’s inspiration, and Lolita’s interpretation: a meeting of minds, a medley of flavors, and one absolutely marvelous meal.