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.


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!


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.


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?

Scallop, Shrimp, and Cod Skillet with Parmesan Grits and Spinach

DSCN4347Those of you wonderful people who follow my blog know I have a weakness for anything cooked in a cast-iron skillet.  There is something so old-timey about cast iron, and I love how they serve today as both cooking equipment and serving platter – as they do in my house.  Maybe it’s the weight of them; maybe it’s just the tradition of them — I don’t know, but everything seems to taste better in cast iron.  No wonder, then, that tonight’s offering is a one-pan meal: a mixed grill of seared scallops, shrimp, and cod filet, served with piping hot cheese grits and some quick wilted spinach.  Light, healthy, and warming — just the thing for a chilly winter’s night.


Scallop, Shrimp, and Cod Skillet with Parmesan Grits and Spinach

6 large shrimp, peeled
2-4 large scallops (8oz total), adductor muscles removed
1/2 lb cod filet
6 oz spinach
1 cup grits
4 tbs butter, melted and divided, plus 1 tbs butter, cold
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 lemon

This meal was inspired largely by the super-huge scallops on display at Whole Foods.  They were simply enormous, and my soul ached for them at first glance, but my pocketbook was unprepared for the hefty price-tag which came along with them.  So instead of doing without entirely, I purchased the two fattest bivalves I could find (they came to almost 1/2 lb on their own!), and augmented them with some more reasonably priced seafare — some large tiger shrimp and a nice codfish loin.  The shrimp I peeled while raw, and the fish I cut into bite sized pieces.

DSCN4333This is actually a *very* quick meal, and super-easy — it’s just  the expense that sort of knocks it out of the Weeknight Wondermeal category.  I started by melting my butter, which rather cooled back to room temperature before I started cooking in earnest, while I assembled everything else.  I wash and spin dry my spinach, grate my cheese, and get my grits all measured out.

DSCN4339I divide my melted butter roughly into 6ths, placing 1 dollop into each skillet, which I then position over hot burners.  As soon as the butter has begun to brown, I layer in my seafood, starting with the scallops and fish, which I let sear on one side for about 4 minutes, before flipping each piece carefully.

DSCN4340I then add the shrimp, with a dollop more butter on top to melt over them, which I cook for 2 minutes on each side, making a total of 4 minutes for the fish and scallops.  Y’see, the shrimp doesn’t take as long as the other stuff …

DSCN4341I remove the protiens briefly to a warm plate, which I cover with plastic wrap for a few minutes.

DSCN4338The skillets remain on the heat with their butter still bubbling hot.

DSCN4342In goes my spinach, which I sort of roll around in the butter and let wilt over the heat.

DSCN4343Meanwhile, I’ve made my grits according to the package directions (1 part grits to 3 parts water is the magic ratio), and have added my cold tablespoon of butter and most of my grated cheese, reserving a bit for garnish.

DSCN4344After only a few moments, my spinach is almost completely wilted, with some bits browning and crisping nicely on the pan’s surface.  I push all this to one side, and divide my grits between the two skillets, pouring them next to the spinach.

DSCN4345The fish, scallops, and shrimp get placed back into the skillets, with my last dollops of butter placed on top, before I throw both in a very hot oven for about 8 minutes to heat completely through.

DSCN4346A dash of salt, a sprinkling of pepper, a cross-hatching of shredded cheese, and a wedge of lemon are all the compliments needed for this rich, warm, satisfying seafood dinner.  Each protein brings something different to the plate: the cod is flaky and tender, the shrimp is fresh and firm, and the scallop is sweet and seared to a crisp.  Along with the stick-to-your ribs corn grits and helping of verdant greenery, this is a complete dinner in virtually no time at all.  Dig in and enjoy, my friends.  I sure did.

Breakfast for Dinner: Prosciutto and Green Onion Omelets with All-American Grits

There is this awesome moment in one of my favorite so-bad-it’s-good big-budget all-star-cast total-flop movies where LL Cool J waxes philosophic about the omelet.  (Here’s a clip.  In some language I really can’t identify.  So it’s surreal for me to watch this, knowing it word for word without *really* understanding what words he’s saying… yet it’s the only example of the scene I can find.) A cook, his perfect omelet recipe is the only legacy he can leave, recorded on a hand-held, leagues under the sea and being hunted by artificially intelligent vengeful super-sharks.  A classic story.

Omelets are, in so many ways, the perfect nutritional vehicle.  They shouldn’t take too long to make, or need too many ingredients to pull together.  They are simple and elegant.  But I can never find one I actually *like*.  Most I find at restaurants – from Waffle House’s to Henrietta’s Table’s, are too fluffy, too big, too browned, and with fillings not in my preferred proportions.  There was this one cook at Annenburg  who always made my omelets just the way I liked them: slender, lightly cooked, scattered with savory filling, and molten with just-enough cheese.  I miss that guy; my new job at Harvard no longer comes with Freshman Dining Hall privileges.  But I can do what he did — I just need a breakfast reason, since I generally don’t eat before noon.

This evening, on the way home, Clayton suggested “Breakfast for dinner!”, and although he had some specific menu dictations which I admittedly automatically tuned out, I did latch hold of the general theme – which I mulled over during my first apres-work beer, sorting through my mental recipe box, considering the contents on my pantry, contemplating the level of compromise husbandman  might be willing to entertain to risk reaping the fruits of my reward.  Eventually, I zoomed into some large eggs, American cheese, stone-ground grits, heady prosciutto di Parma, and fresh scallions lingering on the shelves.  I could work with that.

Prosciutto and Green Onion Omelets with All-American Grits

4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2-3 cleaned whole scallions – greens and whites
1/4 lb (6-8 slices) prosciutto di Parma
1/ 4 lb white American cheese
1/2 cup grits
1/2 stick butter
sea salt, cracked black pepper

I’m not a fan of pan-seared prosciutto; I like it tender and freshly sliced.  This comes from the super-nice Whole Foods in Dedham, and it is as good as it gets.  I roll it into a cigar, and roughly chop it.  I’ll add it to my sheath of eggs to be warmed with steam instead of searing it directly on the surface of the pan.

One of the tricks to making a good omelet is having all your ingredients chopped and ready to throw onto the egg, so that it can cook delicately and not risk burning while one futzes with chopping and whatnot.  I split my scallion whites (the solid roots) from the green (hollow tubes), then roughly chop them both.  The whites will be cooked within; the chopped greens scattered fresh atop.

White American cheese has become a guilty pleasure staple in the Fountainhouse.  It melts SO WELL, and adds the right creamy flavor to many preparations.  I admit, though, it was a stretch to use such a pedestrian cheese with such a fine Italian sliced meat – but I frankly had nothing else in the fridge so I figured I’d make it work.  As it turned out, its particular milkiness offered just the right lactic glue for the sweet cured meat and mild scallion snap.

I start my grits before I start my omelets.  They can hold.  1/2 cup grits to 2 cups salted boiling water, set to low,…

… thoroughly stirred, …

… covered, and cooked until all water has evaporated and the grits are thick.  About 10 minutes.

My perfect omelet is made with 2 eggs, not three.  No milk.  No additives to the eggs.  Only eggs – lightly whisked.

Oh.  And butter.  A really healthy pat of butter.  And a non-stick pan, set to medium high to start.  Melt the butter …

… and coat the bottom of the pan entirely with it.  A buttery base is *very* necessary for a Lolitomelet.

Spill your 2 beaten eggs into your hot butter, and swirl to spread across the entire surface of the pan.  Watch for the edges to turn opaque.

Using a plastic spatula, drag those white edges up in a few places, one at a time, flooding those areas with raw egg by tilting the pan, spreading the surface area but keeping the crepe thin.

Reduce the heat to low, allowing the thin omelet to gently cook, until the surface is just barely no longer runny.

Remove the pan from the heat, and sprinkle 1/2 of your chopped prosciutto, scallion whites, and 1/3 your shredded cheese in more-or-less of a line in the center (leaving a wide margin at the edges) of one half of the omelet.  You are aiming for a sealed half-moon huge egg ravioli.

Using that rubber spatula, slide the unladen half of omelet up the side edge of the pan opposite the handle to elevate that ‘flap'; fold it over the meatcheeseonion, lining up the edges to make a nice total package.  You should still be on low heat here — so let it simmer for a moment to melt and warm the filling.

If there was some way I could take my picture and flip my omelet at the same time to give you a real idea of how to do it, I would.  But Lolita’s is a budget-blog, people – and I only have two hands.  To describe: position your omelet with the straight edge perpendicular to the handle, and slide your eggpacket to the very edge of the pan.  Thrust the hand holding the pan firmly and confidently forward a few inches (as if you were stabbing something really stabbable) before quick-yanking-and-stopping back.  Try it; then tell me if it works.  Ideally, your omelet should flip  completely over.  It works for me 99% of the time.  The rest of the time: scrambled surprise!

Gently simmer on medium low until fully cooked and all the cheese is melted — about 3 more minutes.  Slide the omelet off the pan onto a plate, cover it, then do the whole thing again for the second omelet.  It will stay warm the 8 minutes the next plate needs to make.  Meanwhile, the grits should be perfectly thickened and cooked, so a pat of butter, some salt, pepper, and the remaining 1/3 American cheese stirred into the pan will finish the dish.

A delicate, wafer-thin, buttery omelet filled with savory salted Italian pork, creamy cheese, and sweet scallions, topped with thick, hearty, rich cheese grits and a smattering of fresh green onions.  So easy, and although not fancy, certainly not Denny’s, either.  And all pulled together from the pantry and tossed together in barely a half hour.  Clayton is thrilled (easy date), and I’m not unhappy either. After all, he got what he wanted, and I did it my way.  And that’s the equation for a happy marriage.  That, and “happy wife = happy life”.  I leave it to you to determine which holds sway as the ultimate rule…

Pan Seared Skate Wing, Molten Cheddar Grits, Wilted Spinach, and Spring Onion Hollandaise

Oh hai Spring!  It’s March in New England but my windows have been open for days, and today I rode through Brighton in a tank-top, getting some much needed sun on my oh-so-pale shoulders. This false spring, as Hemingway called it, is so alluring that I fight against the voices that whisper “global warming” and just bask in the day while I have it.  Of course, with the forecast heralding sunny low 70’s all week, it looks like we’ll be having it at least until next weekend.  To welcome the warm breezes and clear skies, I purchased two angelic skate wings at New Bedford’s seafood mecca, Fisherman’s Market. I draped them in a silky snappy golden hollandaise, and served them with some spinach and grits extraordinaire.  Light fish, rich sauce, cheesy starch, and good greens — what more could a girl want on a perfect Sunday night?

Pan Seared Skate Wing, Molten Cheddar Grits, Wilted Spinach, and Spring Onion Hollandaise

2 skinned, boned, cleaned fresh-smelling skate wings
flour, for dredging
1/2 cup grits
1 1/2 cup water
4 1″ cubes cheddar cheese
2 sticks butter, divided
1 lb fresh spinach leaves
4 egg yolks
juice of 1/2 a lemon
sea salt, black pepper, EVOO
1 large spring onion
(ignore the caperberries in the picture — I ended up not using them)

Good grits require a 1 to 3 ratio: 1/2 cup grits + 1 1/2 cups water = perfection.  While I bring my water, salted, to a boil, I liberally butter up two 6oz ramekins and measure out my grits.

After 10 minutes or so, stirred occasionally, set covered over low heat, with a tablespoon of butter – and they’re perfect.

I fill each ramekin halfway, drop a couple nuggets of a nice raw milk cheddar on top…

…. then fill to the brim with the rest of the hot grits.  These will get set into a 350 degree oven for 8-10 minutes, right before serving, to puff up and bake.

I think I’ve mentioned before how much Clayton and I love animation, cartoons, and comic books.  So we couldn’t resist getting Puss In Boots on demand recently, and we laughed our heads off.  I loved the texture of Humpty’s skin/shell — the perfect representation of an egg’s unique spherical smooth bitty bumped roundness.  My camera doesn’t get as close as I want it to; I need to upgrade.  Anyway, I need the nuclei of four of these babies.

Like so.  (I’m terrible at cracking eggs.  I never get whole yolks, and I never miss getting shell. Sigh.)  I squeeze half a lemon into the bowl and whisk very very well.

Along with a stick of melted butter, whisked over a double boiler, my lemon-juiced eggs froth and firm and double in volume.  I add tablespoons of hot water if it gets thick, and more melted better until I have it…

… just right.  Frothy and rich, I add some chopped spring onion greens, salt and pepper, and set aside until service.

The final – and easiest – component of this meal is the skate wing.  Skate is a type of stingray, a creature of which I have nightmares (as I do of most aquatic life – a mild phobia), but in which I do like to indulge when I see it.  One has to be careful with skate — it can stink of ammonia, so be sure to smell it before buying it (the fishmonger should be happy to hold a filet up to your nose).  I’ve made it before when ammonia permeated the flesh so thoroughly that I had to scrap the whole thing.  But when it’s right, it is a beautiful, delicate, and delicious fish.  All I do is sprinkle both sides with salt and ground pepper, and dredge it in flour.

A couple tablespoons of butter, and a few glugs of EVOO go into my largest non-stick fry pan, set over high heat until it froths.  (At this point, I put my two ramekins of grits into my preheated oven to bake.  They’ll need about 10 minutes – just enough time to finish the fish and spinach.

Both filets lay like angel’s wings, sizzling the second they hit my hot fats.  I recently purchased a crescent shaped spatula, which I flattened against the center of each piece when it began to buckle in off the heat.  About 4 minutes on this side…

…before flipping each to reveal perfectly toasted golden brown deliciousness.  Cook for another 4-5 minutes before moving to warm plates, reserving the leftover grease.

I press my washed spinach leaves into the pan, and turn them over a few times with tongs until they are completely wilted.  I salt and pepper them liberally.

My fish is plated, my spinach is ready, and my little bundles of cheddar and corn are popping out of their dishes.  They’re hard to flip (because they’re hot and slick), but flip them I do.

My plate is a study in swirls: the striated flesh of my skate wing shoulders a swathe of oniony rich thick fluffy golden butter cream, and a coiled nest of wilted greens, and a locus of corn grits with a sharp melting center.  In the light of the setting spring sun, Clayton and I each tuck our napkins under our chins and poise our forks above our dinners.  With a smiling look at each other, and a deep sigh — the kind only the satisfaction of spring can bring – we eat.  And we eat well, dear readers — very, very well.

Crispy Braised Pork, Manchego Grits, and Garlicky Greens with Lime Cream

It’s a brand new year!  Astute as I know you to be, dear readers, I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now, and I hope that you forgive my recent absence from the blogisphere, but for the holidays I gave myself the last few weeks off from cooking, more or less.  One of the drawbacks to being the house cook is that if I don’t make it, nobody does — and sometimes even Lolita lacks inspiration and motivation.  Hence, we became quite good friends with a troupe of delivery drivers, ate many large lunches out, and other than my spectacular Christmas dinner (which I may post for next year’s Noel), I didn’t do diddly squat.  But now that I’m back to work,  I’m back to cooking, and last night’s dinner was the perfect home-cooked meal for a first time back behind the stove.  Braised pork butt, stewed to tender and seared to crispness, served over some rich, nutty grits and wilted garlicky spinach, all topped with a cooling zesty crema.  As the temperature outside my windows dropped to the ‘teens, the warmth inside my belly grew with every hearty bite.

Crispy Braised Pork, Manchego Grits, and Garlicky Greens with Lime Cream

2lb pork butt
2 shallots
1 qt chicken stock
cumin, black pepper, sea salt, oregano
1/2 cup grits
1 bunch fresh spinach
1 head garlic
2 limes
sour cream

The dish I am essentially making here is carnitas, that savory shredded citrusy pork often found in Mexican cooking.  It is, quite simply, my favorite filling for tacos, quesadillas, and well, my mouth.  But traditionally, preparing this perfection out of  pork butt takes hours and hours and hours of slow braising, and I just couldn’t wait that long.  And I didn’t have to!  Because these little meat morsels can be relatively quickly prepared in smaller quantities with more rigorous heat, with just as succulent a product to enjoy afterwards.  I start with a nicely marbled 2lb pork butt, which I cut into largish chunks.  I also chopped my shallots, the only aromatic I’m going to add at the onset.  The citrus and garlic will come towards the end of the cooking process.

A glug or two of EVOO goes into my largest, heaviest pan, which I heat to sizzling.

In goes those perfect pink pork chunks and my shallots.  Almost immediately, the kitchen fills with the aroma of searing meat and melting shallot – and it is out of this world.

I also add about 2 tbs of ground cumin, 2 tbs cracked black pepper, 1 tbs dried oregano, and a dash of salt, which kicks the already amazing smell past the cosmos and straight to heaven.

I move everything around every once in a while, aiming for browned edges on all the sides of each meatwad, while trying not to burn the shallots.

When all my meat has been kissed by the heat, I add enough chicken stock to cover — which leaves me about a cup leftover to use in my grits later.  I lower the heat to simmer, cover my pan, and walk away for about 90 minutes.  The liquid will permeate the meat, melt the fat, and breakdown the connective tissues between the muscle, yet it takes patience.  Go drink a couple beers and watch some Bones reruns on TBS; that’s what I did.

An hour and a half later, the liquid has reduced to less than half, and two forks easily shred the meat.  Awesome, but still not quite ready.  At this point, the meat has a bit of a grainy texture; to remediate that, I remove the cover so the rest of the liquid can start to boil off, and the circulation of air through the now browned meat will tenderize it even more.

It’s the perfect time to start my grits on the back burner.  1/2 cup of ground corn, 1 cup stock + 1 cup water, all set to simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed.

The major flavors on the plate will be garlic and lime, and it’s time to get them in the pan.  I first chop about 5-6 large cloves of garlic, then zest both of my limes.

Half the garlic and half the lime zest goes into the meat and stirred around well to incorporate all those snappy flavors.  Adding the zest – instead of juice – really kicks up the deliciousness; the oils released from the citrus will blend with the oils left in the pan once the rest of the remaining stock boils off, which will permeate the pork as it crisps during the final stage of cooking.  Adding fresh garlic at this point, instead of having added it when I started the braise, will ensure its flavor and pungency while still allowing it to mellow by virtue of a few minutes sautee.

After said few minutes, I raise the heat to high to finally boil off the last of the stock, leaving nothing but the EVOO and pork fat in the pan.  This starts to sizzle, and the meat against the surface of my stainless steel starts to sear and crisp.  I scrape the pan a few times, trying not to break my largest chunks of meat any smaller while trying to add that perfect crunchy richness which offsets the fork-tender; it is the synthesis of these two textures that make carnitas so delectable.

The last cooked component is my greens, so I add the rest of my garlic to another few glugs of EVOO in my large non-stick sauté pan, and sweat this until just translucent.

In goes my washed and dried spinach.  This particular foliage shrinks up madly when cooked, so I just overload my pan and toss gently until it wilts enough to fit.

This marvelous manchego cheese was a Christmas gift (included in a basket full of awesome vittles) from the other two men in my life, bosses TT and WA – thanks boys!  After noshing on it on New Year’s day, this leftover lump of lactic loveliness was exactly the cheese my grits needed.

El Claytonious shreds about half of it for me, which I add to my now thick and rich grits, along with some salt and pepper to taste.  Beautiful!

 The final component is my crema – a simple blend of sour cream, the juice from both my limes, and the rest of my lime zest.  I mix all this together well right before plating.

A molten bed of silky grits enriched by nutty Spanish cheese; a nest of garlic-riddled, wilted spinach; a pile of perfectly tender, crisp-edged, citrus scented, and super-savory pork; and a dollop of lime crema to add coolness and contrast to this rich repast.  “Pork and grits,” Clayton queried, “where’d you get that idea?”  After snidely reminding him that bacon is pork, and we eat bacon and grits for breakfast, like, all the time, I finally sheepishly admitted that I had been somewhat inspired by a similar dish offered at the new Firebrand Saints in Kendall Square, where their porchetta plate with polenta and wilted kale set my imagination in motion.  Theirs was delicious, of course (as are their burgers and cocktails!), but my interpretation really fit tonight’s bill of fare.  Hearty and wholesome – all in about 2 hours.  If this first real meal of the year foreshadows what’s yet to come, Lolita and her lover will be eating REALLY well in 2012.  I hope, dear readers, you too enjoy as much digestible deliciousness as possible this year.  If you find yourself falling short – drop me a line and I’ll make you dinner myself!

Roasted Short Rib, Sprouts and Roots Skillet with Truffle Parmesan Grits

I hope, dear reader, that sometimes the meal you make makes you cry.  Cry for joy, that is — for weeping in ecstasy is truly one of life’s purest pleasures.  Lucky for me (not to toot my own horn or anything), but this happens for me often – and I cook because I’m addicted to the sensation.  Tonight’s meal plucked my heart-strings in an extra-special way, and now, an hour later, I’m still all verklempt.  The sumptuous flavors and soul-soothing textures are still imprinted on my tongue, still indelibly etched into my being, and my heart beats more happily now that it’s been fed by this rich feast.  This is the kind of warmth normally found only when laying in the arms of a lover on a cold, crisp night; a brand of almost spiritual fulfillment usually reserved strictly for religious experiences; a type of gastronomic indulgence rarely found outside of chi-chi celebrity chef’s kitchens that charge shocking prices after interminable waits-for-tables.  I admit — I was inspired by the Porchetta plate at Kendall Square’s newest hottest  gastro-joint, Firebrand Saints, a hopping establishment with a sexy menu, sexy staff, and good prices.  Their home-roasted porchetta over polenta with wilted greens was a great dinner;  but I admit I feel like I one-upped them here.   Polenta can be a flavor suck, whereas grits are a flavor enhancer (‘cuz they’re less gluteny…), and a concentrated gravy of braising liquids and browned beef adds that much more.  Yet this meal is something I can see being made out on the open range, by cowboys with some roots and hearty sprouts in their packs, a cast iron skillet over a campfire, and some of the last cuts of meat to tenderize with a slow and steady braise.  Honest, homey, and perfect — see for yourself!

Roasted Short Rib, Roots, and Sprouts Skillet with Truffle Parmesan Grits

2 lbs bone-in short ribs
10-16 tiny wee potatoes
10-12 medium Brussels sprouts, larger ones split in half
2-3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2″ discs
2 medium white onions, diced
8-10 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
sea salt, cracked black pepper, truffle salt, vegetable oil
12 oz dark beer
4 cups beef stock
1/2 cup grits
2 cups water
2 tbs butter
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

I headed out on Black Friday with a mind to blow some dough.  Alas, I was mostly disappointed.  Newbury Street was all “15% off your 4th item” and stuff – not the type of discounts I wanted.  But I did find these adorable little cast iron skillets at Marshall’s (#thuglife) for a pittance, and I sort of cobbled my meal together with them in mind.  After curing them fully this afternoon, before I got truly started with tonight’s meal I threw them back in my 350° oven to reheat back through thoroughly.  They’ll come into play in about 30 minutes.

These beautiful beef short-ribs are from my new bestest friend, Blood Farms.  (Holla out to Lucy+ Chris + Andrew! Friends I incessantly urged to take the drive to West Groton to visit said Blood Farm after they waxed philosophic about their tasty bits of slab bacon in my Thanksgiving Brussels sprouts.)  These boney beefy hunks of meat were purchased a few weeks ago and frozen in my sad, crappy freezer, but which were happily defrosted this afternoon in preparation of tonight’s meal.  I rinse them, pat them very dry, then bondage them like the naughty cow parts they are (um… to hold the bones in while braising.)

I’ve moved my skillets from my hot oven to my hot range, and I’ve added a douse of vegetable oil to them to heat ’til just smoking. I’ve dressed my bones in salt and pepper, and I place them, bone side up, into the sizzling frying fat.  They sear 5 minutes on this side.  Using tongs, I flip them so that each other edge sears for at least 2 minutes, until every surface has been kissed with brown.

I add equal amounts of garlic cloves,  carrot, onion to each pan.  Then I toss all this very well to coat with fat and sear with heat.

This is my new daily beer: Session Premium Black Lager.  It’s got the whole cool crisp lager thing going, with a nice malty full bodied richness characterized by the “black” eponym.  It goes great with beef.  6 oz goes steaming into each pan…

I let all that loveliness froth and roil for a few seconds, before throwing the pans into my still 350°hot  oven.  And I wait.  For an hour.

After which time, my meat has begun to tighten on to the bone (the tough stage before the tenderness sets in), and almost all my beer has boiled down to a nice thick glaze.  Nice.  Thick.  Glaze.  But it needs more time, so I decide to meaten it up…

… by adding a couple cups of beef broth to each pan, too.  Back in the oven they go, for another 30 minutes.

The last 30 minutes will turn the starting-to-fray-with-forks-but-still-tough-at-the-bone meat into succulent shreds of deliciousness.  Those 30 minutes will also finish off the wee potatoes, sprouts, and the rest of the onion.  I toss these beauties with the liquid left in the pan (it’s OK to add more beef broth if it’s too dry; the pan should be about 1/2way full of juice), then toss the pans back into the hot oven.

The final ingredient is the grits – a starchy alternative to a soppin’ biscuit, and my preference to polenta when wanting something corny on my plate. 2 cup water, 1/2 cup grits, simmered until tender.

I add my two tbs  butter and my grated cheese to the pot when the grits are just about ready.  Then I add a generous amount of truffle infused sea salt — to add flavor and savor.  Removing the lid and heat source will thicken ’em up.

The beauty of a skillet is that you serve right in it.  I sort of push my lovely caramelized veggies to one side and pour my cheesy truffled grits into the chasm that remains.  They ooze like lava under the tenderific meat bones, the bursting potato pods, the crisp-edged, silky innard sprouts, the sweet carrots and the melting onions.  The smooth corn goodness offsets the deep tones of meat and garden-fresh roasted flavor. With each bite, I ascend to some transcendental place where perfection dwells on the tines of a fork, while the dark deep smoldering heat of the iron underneath anchors me to terra firma, where lust lurks on the tongue.  I challenge you, dear readers, to dive into this delight.  A few easy ingredients, a  few tantalizing hours of house aromas, and you too can experience Nirvana by merely plucking the fruits of your fork.