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.

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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.

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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…

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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!