Jack Grits with Grilled Shrimp, Zucchini, Shiitake Mushrooms and Bacon Poblano Pepper Cream

DSCN5057I’ve been having one helluva summer, folks!  I am simply dripping with friends this year, and I’m loving every minute of it!  That also means I’ve been out of the house, and away from the kitchen, for some time – hence my AWOL status of the last few weeks.  But last night we enjoyed a breezy summer’s evening on ye ol’ roof deck, firing up Little Red – our trusty, 10yr old Meco electric grill – to do all the heavy lifting.  The nice cool wind allowed us the soul-warming pleasure of some stick-to-the-ribs home cooking: a bowlful of  steaming, creamy Monterey Jack cheese grits bathed in a spicy roasted poblano pepper cream studded with bacon, zucchini, shiitake mushrooms and tender shrimp all grilled to juicy meaty tender deliciousness.  Shrimp and grits – taken up a notch.

DSCN5038

Jack Grits with Grilled Shrimp, Zucchini, Shiitake Mushrooms and Bacon Poblano Pepper Cream

10-12 large tiger shrimp
4 slices bacon
2 poblano peppers
1/2# shiitake mushrooms
1 small zucchini
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup grits
EVOO, white balsamic vinegar, sea salt, cracked black pepper, crushed red pepper
snipped chives for garnish

DSCN5039This dinner relied on quart sized zipper bags as much as it did Little Red, since I wanted to do some quick prep indoors before moving completely outside to finish the food on the grill.  I started with my poblano pepper by trimming it into 8ths and removing all the seeds.  Do yourself a favor, dear reader: handle hot peppers with gloves.  Their heat is communicable and tactile – believe me when I say you touch your eyes and other orifices with fingertips more often than you realize, and pepperfingers BURN.

DSCN5041I placed each veg in a quart sized zipper bag of its own, and doused them with EVOO (about 1/4 cup), sea salt and cracked black pepper.  For the zucchini, I added a glug (2 tbs) of white balsamic vinegar and a shake-a shake-a of crushed red pepper flakes.

DSCN5042I de-stemmed my mushrooms, washed them thoroughly, and then stuck them in a bag as well with their own EVOO, salt, and pepper marinade.

DSCN5043After I peeled them, my shrimp were plump, quivering, pink sweet little morsels  of temptation just shy of perfection.  But I wanted a *perfect* presentation for this meal, so I sliced them shallowly up the length of their crest to devein them, then trimmed with my paring knife those little edges which the incision created.  It’s not necessary to devein shrimp – I usually don’t – but it does look nicer.

DSCN5044I chopped up a few cloves of garlic, which I chucked into another zipper bag with the shrimp and about 5 tablespoons of EVOO, some more sea salt, and a ton of black pepper.

DSCN5045All my little fun-bags – ready to go.  (Yes, I intended that double-entendre…)  I headed outside and fired up the grill.

DSCN5047Once the grill was nice and hot, I put my bacon directly on the rack on one side, and my sliced peppers – skin side down – on the other.  I closed the lid, and let it go for about 10 minutes.  I’d never actually made bacon on the grill before, but Little Red has always surprised me with its versatility. so I thought “What the hell?”

DSCN5048And Little Red didn’t disappoint!  After 10 minutes, my bacon was already almost fully cooked and perfectly crispy.  I flipped them for good measure and cooked for another 5 minutes…

DSCN5049Meanwhile, the skin of my peppers has already begun to blister, so I flipped them to soften the insides as well.

DSCN5050When both the bacon and peppers were finished, I removed them from the grill.  The bacon I set aside, but the peppers I put into a paper bag so the skin could steam off them somewhat, making it easier for me to remove later.

DSCN5051I next filled the grill with the remaining ingredients.  I had 3 cups of water in my small saucepan, which I sat directly on the rack, and then I laid out my zucchini sticks and mushrooms over the rest of the surface.   These sizzled for about 15 minutes (I flipped the veggies about halfway through) while the water in my pot heated up.

DSCN5052In went the grits.  These were quick cooking — 5 minutes – but since the heat on my grill isn’t too too hot, I just kept checking back to see when the grits were thickening – stirring every once in a while, and flipping my veggies so they’d get nice grill marks on each edge.

DSCN5053I assembled the rest of the stuff I’d need: the shrimp, which had been chilling in the fridge; some snipped chives; some black pepper; another small pan for the sauce; and cubed Monterey jack cheese.  I chucked this all onto a cutting board and walked it to the deck.

DSCN5054After about 15 minutes, the grits were nice and thick, so I dumped the cheese into them and gave it a stir.  In the other saucepan, I added my cream and my skinned and chopped poblano peppers, which I sort of macerated with my wooden spoon.  I piled all my zucchini and mushrooms on the coldest part of the grill surface to make room for the shrimp.

DSCN5055But before I got the shrimp going, I chopped the bacon and added it to the already thickening peppercream.  Bacon and hot peppers: love.

DSCN5056Then, there was shrimp.  Using tongs, I carefully placed them as close to the heating coils as possible, then I closed the lid for 5 minutes before turning them once, and cooking an additional 5 minutes.

DSCN5059As the sun set on the horizon, the flavors in this bowl burst onto my palette with each complex and wholesome bite.  The velvet cheesy grits were a warm corn cushion upon which a luxurious bath of spicy unctuous porky cream undulated, while tidbits of hotwetcrunchy zucchini, chewy crispy-edged mushrooms, toothsome garlicky shrimp and bites of braised grilled salty bacon danced deliciously on my tongue.  Everything I loved seemed to live on each forkful I brought to my lips, and I devoured each sensuous bite like it was my last.  If not cooking for a while makes me feel the sweet sweet pleasure of accomplishing dinner so much more acutely, perhaps I should take breaks more often?  For now, I leave you with this relatively simple but super-scrumptious recipe for your next dinner on the deck.  Let me know how it turns out!

 

Weeknight Wondermeal: Pork Chops Pizzaiola

dscn4743It’s been a while since I’ve posted a good Weeknight Wondermeal, which I characterize as having very few ingredients (less than $20 worth) and very little effort or time.  Y’see, I work at Harvard with a slew of excellent undergrads, and as they go off into the real world clutching their diplomas and dreaming of a future wealthy with either success or fulfillment (hopefully both), they need a little help transitioning.  And this is a dinner I expect any of my Harvard kids to be able to execute.  Hell, if they can do a Western blot, they should be able to figure out how to braise a pork chop in tomato sauce and boil water for pasta.  Once they do, they’ll be able to feed their bodies as much as they’ve fed their minds.

DSCN4731

Pork Chops Pizzaiola

2 6-8 ounce center cut pork chops (about 1/2″ thick)
2-3 tbs flour
1 medium/large white onion
1 can diced tomatoes in juice
8oz button or baby bella mushrooms
1 qt beef or chicken stock
4 slices provolone cheese
1 cup pasta
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
4 tbs butter, divided
sea salt, cracked black pepper, garlic powder, EVOO

DSCN4732Start by rinsing and patting dry your pork chops, before sprinkling them generously with salt and pepper.  Dust them with flour, too.

DSCN4735Get a large skillet nice and hot, and add 2 tbs butter and a glug of EVOO to the pan.  Place your pork chops on the sizzling surface and sear for about 4 minutes.

DSCN4736Flip your chops, and sear on the other side for another couple minutes until nicely golden brown.

DSCN4737After peeling and dicing your onion, and washing all the dirt from your mushrooms, chuck all that into the pan, too.  Mix around a bit to heat through.

DSCN4738Add the tomatoes…

DSCN4739… then add the broth.  Your chops should be just submerged under the broth.  Get everything to a nice simmer, then chuck the whole pan into a 350° oven to bake for 45 minutes.  (This is a little long for a Weeknight Wondermeal, but considering how little effort is required to make this dinner, I figure it still qualifies.)

DSCN4741After said time, your chops should be practically falling off the bone, the tomato sauce should be nicely reduced, and your mushrooms should be plump and pregnant with juiciness.  Lay 2 slices of provolone cheese over each chop, then throw the pan back in the oven for about 5-10 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbly.

DSCN4742This dish goes with pasta, rice, or mashed potatoes.  I like it best with pasta.  These shells have been cooked to just al dente, then tossed with butter, a little parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper.

DSCN4745Juicy, tender, unctuously delicious pork chops draped with ooey-gooey smoked cheese, and served with its sauce over pasta.  A dash of parsley to add color to the plate will make you look all fancy-pants, too.  Serve this with some crusty bread for sopping, and you’ve got a dinner worth that Harvard degree!

Wild Mushroom Risotto, Butternut Squash, Smoked Gouda, Orange Gremolata, Hazelnuts

DSCN4417Working in Harvard Square like I do means I get my pick of some pretty great restaurants for my daily lunch.  But since I’m on a tight budget, I only make it to the fancy-schmanzy places when I’m eating on someone else’s dime.  Luckily, I have generous bosses with great taste, so I get to sample the hoity-toity fare pretty often – as I did last week at Harvest.  The Harvard muckity-mucks flock to Harvest, so it’s a great powerful-people watching joint, and the restaurant is so civilized it’s hard not to feel a little muckity yourself when seated on their fine cushions in front of their roaring fireplace perusing their extensive wine list.  Yet — and meaning no disrespect to head chef Mary Dumont — although the service is impeccable, the location charming, and the food good, I’ve never really been blown away by it.  In fact, I’m usually underwhelmed by the number of menu choices, ambivalent about the way the flavors come together, and disappointed in their serving-size to price ratio (which leans heavily towards price).  I mean, everything is fresh, artfully presented, and prepared with care, but I usually tell myself I could have made the same thing if not better, certainly cheaper.  Granted, Lolita doesn’t have a staff to pay or high rent to shell out, nor do I have the training and skill of the chefs who certainly grace their kitchen.  Still – I decided to test my theory, and recreate my mini-lunch of the other day as a maxi-dinner several nights later.  The menu: wild mushroom (they used the term “foraged”, which I did – through Whole Foods’s mushroom bins) risotto with roasted butternut squash (they used delacata squash, which I could not find), smoked gouda, orange gremolata, and toasted hazelnuts.  Theirs cost my dear benefactor $16 for my dining pleasure, and although I certainly enjoyed it – more than any other dish I’ve had from Harvest – I was left hungry afterwards by the teeny-tiny portion size.  For about $25, I made the same dish for both the husbandman and myself: it looked virtually the same, tasted exactly the same, and this time truly satiated by hunger – and his as well.  So, dear readers, here’s my riff off a high-falutin’ menu item from a chi-chi restaurant prepared by haute-cuisine hands. If you prefer to pay top dollar for your fancy-schmanzy, hoity-toity, muckity-muckity, high-falutin’ haute cuisine, read no further.  But if you have a hankering for all the above on a common-woman shoe-string budget, just make it yourself.  And be both happy AND full afterwards…

DSCN4387

Wild Mushroom Risotto, Butternut Squash, Smoked Gouda, Orange Gremolata, Hazelnuts

1 medium butternut squash
8oz fresh assorted wild  mushrooms
4 tbs butter, divided
2 shallots
4 cloves garlic
1 cup arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 quart mushroom broth
1 cup smoked gouda cheese
zest from 1 orange
zest from 1 lemon
2 tbs minced fresh parsley
1/2 cup shelled hazelnuts
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper

DSCN4385Whole Foods has some decent pre-packaged blends of wild mushrooms, but I decided to hand-pick some choices through their assortment of loose mushrooms to find some really fun ones to add to this plate.  I’ve got one large portobello (the most mushroomy flavored variety), some shiitake, trumpet, chanterelle, and some weird, rubbery wood ears – which I can only imagine are called that because they truly seem and feel like the fleshy bits of the ear, and not like a fungus at all.  This assortment  represented the majority of my expense for this meal, but it was worth it.

DSCN4391After slicing and chopping my fungi, I add about a third of them to a hot skillet with some browned butter.  Too many mushrooms at once, and they’ll all steam – so cooking them off in shifts to give them the chance to breathe is the best way to do so.  Also, I resist the urge to stir them around a lot; the more they’re moved around, the more water they release, which will also steam them – and what I want here are nicely browned seared mushrooms.

DSCN4393I was surprised to see how the wood ear mushrooms acted in the heat.  They literally blew up into little balloons which popped from time to time.  I caught a decent shot of a ‘shroom-balloon above, right before it exploded, making me jump and splattering my lens with umame goodness.  The rest of the fungi acted more demurely.  I set each batch into a bowl to hold between more additions of butter and ‘shrooms, until they’re all ready.  They reduce in volume by quite a bit – more than half – since they shrink when cooked.  At this point, the house smells heavenly…

DSCN4404If you look back on previous posts of mine, you’ll see that I make risotto A LOT.  It’s really the only way I know I’ll enjoy rice, seeing as I have a Puerto-Rican prejudice against it, having eaten way too much of it way too often in my formative years.  I start by mincing my garlic, slicing my shallots, and measuring out my arborio.  On the back burner of my stovetop, I use a stockpot to heat up my mushroom broth to just simmering.

DSCN4405Using the last tablespoon of butter I measured out earlier, I sauté my aromatics over medium heat until they release their aromas – about 2 minutes.

DSCN4406In goes the rice, which I stir around well to fully coat with the hot butter.   This toasts the grain, making it more receptive to absorbing the liquids I’ll be adding shortly.

DSCN4408The first dousing comes from wine.  I lower the heat to medium low, add my cup or so of chardonnay, and stir well.  This is the beginning of the stirring; there will be more, much much more.

DSCN4407The risotto is ready for the addition of more liquid when the well-and-oft-stirred rice has absorbed all the last liquid added to the pot.DSCN4409Adding about 4 oz (a ladle-full) of mushroom broth at a time, I cook well and stir often…

DSCN4412… until my dragging spoon exposes the bottom of the pan, indicating that that batch of broth has been sucked into the grains, softening them and coaxing from them the thick, creamy sauce risotto is known for.  I keep adding stock in increments, stirring all the while, until it’s all gone.

DSCN4413After about 30 minutes, my risotto is rich and silky.  I test for doneness by tasting a grain; it should be just al dente, a little firm (but not chalky) in the center of the kernel, but otherwise it should be a tender bite.

DSCN4415At this point, I add my mushrooms and my shredded smoked gouda to the risotto, which I mix well and let heat through for about 5-8 minutes to incorporate all the flavors and melt the cheese.

DSCN4403My squash has been roasting whole for the last hour or so, and it’s now soft and ready to carve into.  Harvest’s plating was lovely; the squash formed a sort of angled demi-bowl, out from which the risotto seemed to spill.  I approximated that as much as I could, but not wanting to waste perfectly good squash just to create a pretty form, all the flesh I scooped out of the bowl I layered on the plate below the rice so I could enjoy more of its sweetness and texture than the vessel alone provided.

DSCN4398The last two garnishes were very simple.  First, I took my handful of hazelnuts and threw them into a bare pan, which I set over medium high heat.  A few minutes and a few stirs (to toast them evenly throughout), and they were ready.  I cracked them with a mallet to provide more texture.

DSCN4400A gremolata is a wonderful condiment for all sorts of preparations, and it’s usually made from parsley, garlic, and lemon zest.  In this case, I substituted orange zest for the garlic, and mixed everything well.  This imparts a bright flavor to my otherwise rich dish.

DSCN4418A sweet cutaway silo of butternut squash partially encases an earthy, creamy cascade of wild mushroom risotto, sitting on a simple puddle of extra virgin olive oil.  The crunch of the hazelnuts and fresh zip of the gremolata provide textural and tasty complexity to the plate, which oozes warmth and goodness in each rich bite.  Perfect for a cold night, or an elegant dinner party, this dish takes a little effort – both at the grocery store and in the kitchen – but its worth is evident in every grain of rice, from the first to the last.  Enjoy!

Crispy Fried Pork Chops, Sweet Potatoes, Dark and Creamy Umame Gravy

DSCN4332I have been obsessed with frying things ever since I read SeriousEats.com’s tutorial on Korean Fried Chicken.  The technique they describe worked with chicken wings perfectly, so I wondered if I could do the same thing with other fryables.  It worked very nicely with shrimp – creating something of a tempura-type crackling coating – but how about something really substantial?  I mean, chicken wings are pretty small, and shrimp only get so big, too (to wit, at 4’10” am I perpetually addressed as ‘shrimp’ or ‘shortie’, neither of which makes me particularly happy).  How’s about a meaty pork chop?  My days in the south exposed me to the wonders of a perfectly fried chop, coated with a buttermilk batter and pan fried, served usually with a white gravy and some collards.  I decided to work up my own version of a fried pork chop, using a simple flour/vodka slurry as the breading, some sweet potatoes and mushrooms as the complements, and my favorite soy sauce cream gravy (click here to see a variation on the theme).  The results were fantastic!

Crispy Fried Pork Chops, Sweet Potatoes, Dark and Creamy Umame Gravy

2 thick, center-cut pork chops
3/4 cups corn starch
1 tsp baking powder
black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup gin or vodka
vegetable oil for frying
EVOO
8-10 button mushrooms
2 medium sweet potatoes
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup heavy cream
snipped scallions/chives for garnish

DSCN4305I love pork chops, especially when they look like little T-bone steaks, like these.  This cut includes both a little of the tenderloin as well as the regular rib meat, which provides some textural variety on the plate.

DSCN4307I start by mixing my cornstarch, baking powder, and some spices in a large ziplock bag.

DSCN4308In go my chops, and I shake the bag vigorously to coat them with the cornstarch mixture.

DSCN4310I place the chops uncovered in my fridge on a rack so they can dry out a bit — about 30 minutes.

DSCN4311Meanwhile, I remove the stems from my mushrooms, reserving them to use later.

DSCN4312I get 2 tbs of butter and a glug of EVOO nice and hot in my large fry-pan…

DSCN4314… and I layer my mushrooms in the hot fat, sprinkling them with a little salt and pepper.

DSCN4315I make sure they cook fully on top…

DSCN4317… and on bottom.

DSCN4319While these are simmering, I pull out my chops, on which the cornstarch/baking powder has gummed up a bit – just the way I want it.

DSCN4321In a large bowl, I’ve whisked my flour, water, and gin together to make a very thin batter.

DSCN4323Holding the chops with tongs by clipping it on the T-bone allows for me to dunk all the meaty bits into the slurry to thoroughly coat each piece.

DSCN4323aI add enough vegetable oil to a deep-sided pan to just cover the chops, and I bring this to a medium high temperature – about 350°F.  Of course, I don’t have a thermometer to help me gauge this, so I just drip a little flour batter into the pan periodically until the drop immediately sizzles and starts to brown upon hitting the surface of the oil.  It’s ready for my chops at that point.

DSCN4325I slide both chops carefully into the oil, making sure not to splatter myself like I usually do.  (Thank God for OxyClean, or just about all my clothes would have constellations of oil drips on them.)  Since these chops are thick, I let them fry for about 10 minutes on each side.

DSCN4329While this happens, I add my soy sauce and heavy cream to the mushrooms in the pan, which I bring to simmer on low heat, stirring regularly so the flavors can blend.

DSCN4325aWhen the chops are a nice golden brown on the bottom, it’s time to flip them carefully to the other side. Another 10 minutes or so will do it.

DSCN4326I’ve been baking my sweet potatoes all along, by the way.  After an hour on 350°, I can easily squeeze them with my oven-mitted fingers, so I pull them out…

DSCN4328… remove their bright orange insides to a bowl, where I mash them with my remaining butter.

DSCN4331These savory pork chops have a cracking, super-crunchy, egg-shell thin coating are super-tender and juicy.  The simple sweet mash is offset by a rich, dark, silky and fragrant soy cream gravy, and each button of mushroom bursts with flavor on the tongue.  Not only is this a very easy recipe, but it presents itself elegantly on the plate, and can satisfy even the pickiest of eaters.  Now, what else can I fry?

Steak Tips, Savory Mushroom Sauce, Cheddar Mashed, Arugula Salad

After many helpings of leftover Thanksgiving turkey, it was high time for Lolita to feed her inner barbarian by diving into a steaming hot plate of RED MEAT.  Steak, baby — that’s what I wanted.  The husbandman suggested “beef tips and gravy over rice,” reminiscing as he was about similar meals made in his childhood redneck home, but if you read my blog often enough you know I’m not really a rice fan.  Risotto?  Sure!  Sticky rice?  Certainly!  Chicken and rice?  OK!  But rice rice, ala Uncle Ben’s or Minute or some such derivation I just don’t ever feel a hankering for.  Perhaps it’s because my childhood Puerto Rican home saw rice and beans on every lunch and dinner plate throughout my *entire* youth, and I just got plumb sick of it.  In particular, “rice and gravy” just sounds bland, boring, and blech to me – even more so now that some big-time soup comany has been advertising what a “great meal” spilling a hot can of their Vegetable Beef soup over rice can be for the “working mother”.  The commercial, which is supposed to draw me in and make me crave this fare, frankly turns me off – for various food-snob reasons I best keep to myself.  So I compromised and suggested beef tips in gravy over mashed potatoes.  Since no food would be made or consumed in our household if I didn’t make it, he was rather compelled to agree – if he wanted to eat, that is.  And eat we did: perfectly tender morsels of medium-rare sirloin bathed in rich beef gravy studded with button mushrooms and cippolini onions, served over steaming cheddar-enriched mashed potatoes, accompanied by a fresh and nutty arugula salad.

Steak Tips, Savory Mushroom Sauce, Cheddar Mashed, Arugula Salad

3/4lb sirloin tips
10oz button mushrooms
3 cloves garlic
5-6 cippolini onions
1 quart beef broth
1 lb yellow potatoes
2 tbs butter
1 heaping tablespoon flour
3 cups turkey/chicken stock
4oz sour cream
4oz cheddar cheese
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper
arugula
1 lemon
1 medium tomato
parmigiano reggiano cheese, for shaving

The potatoes will take a while to boil down, as will the gravy which will be reduced almost entirely from my quart of beef stock, so I start by washing and roughly cutting my potatoes and peeling and smashing my garlic.

The garlic gets minced, the onions peeled, and the mushrooms scrubbed.  I also cut the largest mushrooms in half, but keep the smaller ones whole.  I love whole mushrooms.

First, I bring my chicken stock (leftover from Thanksgiving) to a boil – adding enough water to raise the volume enough to cover my spuds, which I throw in and cook until they can be easily pierced with a fork — about 20 minutes.

In a large non-stick frying pan, I soften my garlic in some EVOO for a moment before adding the onions and mushrooms…

… along with about 1/2 of the beef stock.  I set this over high heat and stir often, until reduced by half, before I add the rest of the stock and do the same.  I’m trying to concentrate the flavors by removing as much water from the stock as possible, and the longer steaming time required to reduce this by halves will help the mushrooms absorb all that flavor until they’re completely cooked through.  The onions will soften nicely as well.  This takes about 20 minutes total.

Now that the glorious flavors are rich and deep, I want to thicken my sauce.  First thing I do, though, is remove most of the garlic by fishing it out with a strainer.  Why?  Because, I admit I think I added too much garlic, since the redolence of it wafting through my kitchen was so strong, so I removed the solids in the hopes this would add balance.  It did.  Anyway, to thicken, I needed something akin to a roux; this is how I do it when I’ve already got a hot liquid on the stovetop.  In a very small bowl, I add my flour and 1 tablespoon of butter…

… and using a deep spoon (I keep those plastic Japanese soup spoons in the kitchen for this reason), I fish out some of my boiling hot gravy and add it to the bowl with the flour and butter.

The heat from the gravy melts the butter, and using a fork I mix the contents of the bowl into a smooth slurry…

… before adding it to the rest of the gravy in the pan and mixing well.  This stays bubbling over high heat, which will thicken the sauce.

There was an unfortunate vein of cartilage (OK, I know I’m mixing my anatomical metaphors there, but you know what I mean) through part of one of these sirloin strips, but otherwise they were things of beauty.  I cut them into cubes and season them with salt and pepper before…

… throwing them into a very hot non-stick pan and searing them fully on each edge.

It only takes about 5 minutes to cook these tidbits, which I then add to the mushroom gravy for a couple minutes (not enough time to remove all the pink on the inside, but long enough to allow them to soak up some of the sauce.

Meanwhile, I make the husbandman mash the potatoes (perhaps an indelicate thing to do, considering he wanted rice, but he manned up).  After draining all the water/stock, he adds enough sour cream and butter to make the potatoes creamy, then shreds the cheddar cheese into the mix.  And that’s it; mashed potatoes are so elegantly easy to make.

A side salad to accompany this meal is definitely in order, but I don’t want to go overboard.  Arugula has just the right tang for savory steak, and brightening it with a squeeze of lemon, some fresh sliced red tomato, and some slivered onions is almost all it needs.  But the added bonus of some shaved parmigiano reggiano cheese, to add salt and nuttiness, brings it over the top.

I remember going to Golden Corral as a kid and thinking their all-you-can-eat salad bar and “made to order” steaks were the highest of culinary delight.  My favorite dish was always the steak tips in mushroom gravy, which were delivered to the table from the kitchen in these cool little cast-iron skillets.  I thought it was comfort food at its best.  Ah, youth!  My mother-in-law still enjoys her Golden Corral, so I daresay she’d enjoy this homage to those youthful pleasures, and I hope she’d appreciate the difference between their mass-produced stuff and my homemade version.  My bites of sirloin are crusty-seared without and shot through with pink within, and the mushrooms burst on the tongue with rich beef, garlic, and onion flavor.  The smooth gravy absolutely demands to be sopped up by the cheesy potatoes, and the fresh green salad offsets all the richness just right.  This isn’t a Weeknight Wondermeal because it calls for a decent amount of ingredients, but on the whole it’s a pretty simple dinner to assemble – and it can be pretty cheap.  After days and days of leftover white meat, this is exactly the red meat I needed to put Thanksgiving away until next year.

Steak with Drunken Shiitake Cream, Manchego Spinach, and Sweet Potato Spears

There are times in this carnivorous woman’s life when she absolutely needs meat.  Last night was one of those nights.  If I looked back over my past posts, I’m sure I’ll see a few where I’ve opened with this sentiment before, and I’m quite sure I’ll do so again.  (Check back in a month.)  That doesn’t change the fact that last night’s meatstravaganza was essentially a blue plate dinner: steak, spinach, and fries.  But since it was one of Lolita’s meatstravaganzas, the steak was a crusty seared medium-rare ribeye bathed in shiitake mushrooms drowning in brandy and cream, the spinach was melted with nutty manchego cheese, and the fries were EVOO roasted sweet potato spears — all three offerings several orders of magnitude better than one’s typical diner fare.  And all just the ticket to replenish my dwindling energy.  Today, I’m a powerhouse of cow-fueled enthusiasm.  Thanks, Bessie!  You were delicious…

Steak with Drunken Shiitake Cream, Manchego Spinach, and Sweet Potato Spears

1 nice, thick cut ribeye steak
1 small, narrow long sweet potato
4oz shiitake mushrooms
1 shallot
4-6oz baby spinach
1/2 cup shredded manchego cheese
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup milk
EVOO
sea salt, cracked black pepper

As you can see, almost all of my ingredients came from Trader Joe’s down the street, where the husbandman now has a part-time job while he goes to school (and where he was while I enjoyed this meal solo).  I never used to buy their meats, preferring to get mine from Whole Foods around the corner, but we need the discount so I’ve been trying them out lately.  I have to say, I’m pretty impressed!  This was a beautiful steak.

This could almost qualify as a weeknight wondermeal, since I had it finished within 30 minutes, but there are a few too many ingredients and cookware needed to really make the grade.  Still, it was fairly simple to make, especially considering the excellent result.  At any rate, roasting the sweet potato was going to take the longest period of time, so I started by washing it and slicing it into 8 spears.  These get tossed with EVOO, salt, and pepper, and laid out on a baking sheet.  I pop ‘em in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, during which time I make everything else.

Steak.  All I add to it is some fresh cracked black pepper.  I throw it into a medium hot non-stick pan, and I use the flip once-a-minute technique to capture all those lovely juices, and to sear it to a perfect medium rare.  This takes about 10 flips total – for about 5 minutes on each side.

When it’s almost ready, I get my spinach started by simply throwing it all into a hot pan, and tossing it until it wilts.  No water – no butter – just spinach and heat.  It actually sort of melts on its own, and releases its own juices, but I want a drier product than a typical creamed spinach which is why I’m prepping it this way this time.

As the spinach starts to reduce, and when my steak is done, I move it to a warm plate and keep it covered while I make the sauce.  I start with a minced shallot, sauteed until translucent in a glug of EVOO.

I then add my washed and patted dry shiitake mushrooms, which I’m keeping whole.  Unlike crimini or white mushrooms, which have plumper caps and take longer to soften, I throw these in whole, along with half of my brandy to get them started.  I toss this very well, distributing the heat, so that my mushrooms can wilt and soften.

Like my spinach, which is completely shrunken and dense now, instead of  leafy and voluminous.

In goes my shredded manchego cheese and my milk (which just helps melt the cheese).  I toss this well until everything is nicely incorporated, and season it with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, I add my sour cream and the rest of my brandy to my mushrooms, which I mix well again and cook over medium heat until the sauce is thick and creamy.

Finally, I pull out my sweet potato spears, which are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.

My tender, chewy mushrooms have soaked up all that brandy, scenting them with floral sweetness, imbuing the cream sauce with delightful nuances.  The bed of spinach which props up my juicy bloody steak is a delicious balance of vetegal greenness and nutty Spanish cheese, and the caramelized potato spears provide just the right amount of starch to the plate.  The perfect bite is a forkful with a bit of everything on it: ribeye, ‘shroom, cream, veg, and potato.  All the right stuff for dinner, made just the right way.  ‘Nuff said.

Brandied Cream of Mushroom Soup with Butter Poached Monkfish

Tonight’s dinner was mildly inspired by something Whole Foods did NOT have when I went for an early lunch the other day. It was barely 11:15am, and they were transitioning from breakfast to lunch on their hot bar; most of the soups were set up, but one tureen — the one labeled Cream of Mushroom Soup, which I really wanted — was empty.  Well, I wanted lunch RIGHT THEN, and darned if I was going to wait the 2 or 3 minutes it probably would have taken for the dude to bring out that soup, so I cobbled together some salad and whatnot to eat then, promising myself I’d make my own Cream of Mushroom soup for dinner.  Thinking, however, that I might need a bit more substance to my meal than just pureed fungus, I picked up a nice loin of monkfish with the vague idea that I could incorporate it somehow.  The result?  A perfect marriage of richly scented, umame laden mushroom cream and gently butter-poached and pan-seared monkfish, all topped off with cooling creme fraiche and bright cilantro oil.  The ideal dinner for an Indian summer’s evening after enjoying a riverside view of the regatta we Cambridge locals know as the Head of the Charles.

Brandied Cream of Mushroom Soup with Butter Poached Monkfish

2 lbs mixed mushrooms (these are white button, crimini, and portobello)
2 shallots
4-5 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cups vegetable broth (I used bullion cubes reconstituted with water)
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup brandy
sea salt, cracked black pepper
2 sticks butter, cold and cut into cubes
1 tb water
3/4 lb monkfish loin

I start by washing my mushrooms thoroughly (there’s nothing worse than eating dirt grit), then chopping them roughly.

I sliced my shallots and chop my garlic.

In my big stockpot, I saute my aromatics with sea salt and cracked black pepper until just translucent.

In go my mushrooms, which I toss well to heat through.  They’ll begin to soften and melt, releasing their brown liquids into the pot.

I add my vegetable stock, lower the heat to medium, cover, and let simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the volume of my mushrooms had reduced enough for them to start drowning in the liquid in the pot.

Like so.

Using my hand blender, I whirr my soup until it is almost completely smooth, leaving some of it still chunky for texture.  If you have a blender, you can work in batches to do the same thing.

At this point I drop the temperature to low, and add my heavy cream.  I whisk this in well, then keep the soup warm until service, when I’ll add the brandy for a final 15 minute simmer.

Time for monkfish – a.k.a. the “poor man’s lobster”.  It’s an ugly fish, but if prepared correctly it truly does have a very lobster appeal.

As the sun outside sets, and I lose my light (this beam is actually reflecting off of a mirrored surface in the living room, shooting a narrow shaft of light on my kitchen counter), I cut the fish into 4 roughly equal cubes, using a couple toothpicks to pin the thinnest end piece into shape.  (I do this for both presentation purposes, and to make sure each piece of fish poaches at the same speed.)

I’ve butter poached a few times before on this blog (here and here), and the technique has been popping up on hoity-toity menus all over the place.  As fancy sounding as it is, it’s totally easy.  It starts with a little water and a lot of butter.

To make the beurre monté, which is what the poaching liquid is called by the hoi-polloi, start by bringing your little bit of water and a few cold cubes of butter to a simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly to emulsify the fat with the liquid.

Like so.  Keep adding a couple cubes at a time, whisking until the last batch is completely incorporated before adding more butter.

The trick to keeping this from breaking (read: clotting, or turning back into separated solids and liquids) is to maintain very low heat – no higher than 180 degrees.  Since I’m using too little liquid here to read on a thermometer, I just have to wing it – but basically my electric range’s lowest setting is about as high as I went.

When all my butter has been added to the pot, I gently place my salted and peppered pieces of fish into the liquid.  I let them cook for about 5 minutes on this side…

… before carefully turning them over so they can just cook through.  If you look at the picture above, you’ll see how there is still a wee bit of rareness in the very center of the piece of fish — I want this translucence to fade to opacity, which requires about 5 more minutes.

I almost forgot about my croutons.  Using a fresh baguette, I make some wee rounds of bread, which I brush with a bit of the poaching liquid (it is, after all, pretty much just butter) on each side before dusting with garlic powder and baking on 350 for about 4 minutes on each side, until just toasted.

I’ve also whipped up a quick cilantro oil.  It’s about 1/2 cup EVOO, 2 tbs lemon juice, some salt, pepper, the leaves from one bunch of cilantro and 1/2 bunch of parsley (about 1 cup packed to 1/2 cup packed, respectively). I whirr all this together with my blender and set it aside.  All this for just a drizzle?  Yes, please!

Finally, the last garnish is a wee bit of creme fraiche.  Sour cream might have worked, but I felt splurgy.

Right before plating, I pan sear my monkfish to caramelize it ever so slightly on top.  I’ve removed them from the poaching liquid, and then pressed them into a sizzling hot pan.  The butter absorbed and stuck to the flesh will sear each protein in about 2 minutes.

Finally, I add my brandy to my soup, raise the heat to medium so that it can boil off a bit, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Hearty, warm, and satisfying, this thick and rich soup gladdens my soul.  The tender, juicy, buttery monkfish fall apart when touches by my spoon, and I try to enjoy a bit of fish, creme, and cilantro oil with every mouthful of mushroom puree I can.  The croutons are the perfect sopping vehicle, and a little of the foamy butter from the fish-searing pan adds a nice nutty element to all the deliciousness already in my bowl.  Although I stretched the cooking of this meal out over an afternoon, in reality it took only about an hour of active prep time, so I’m going to have to remember this for an average weeknight meal.  Because that, people, is how I roll.