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!

 

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.

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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?

Reconstructed Deconstructed Seafood Paella

DSCN4546Last week wasn’t a great one for Lolita.  While Nemo buried us in two feet of snow, the tumultuous passage of a delightful kidney stone began its painful descent through my bowels, knocking me out for almost 4 days.  Needless to say, I missed Valentine’s Day; it passed me by in a Percocet fueled haze.  I had promised the husband-man to make him whatever he wanted for V-Day, and he requested paella – something very difficult to make in the traditional way with the crappy electric stove I’ve got. But never one to back down from a challenge, I did – in my more lucid moments – ponder how I could create a paella -type meal for the ol’ man given my kitchen’s limitations.  By Saturday, I’d both birthed that stone and had figured out this dish: a deconstructed paella construct, replete with all the flavors we’d tasted that glorious spring in Barcelona when we ate panfuls of the stuff along the sparkling Mediterranean coast.  My creation contains all the seafood I could pack into the dish — scallops, shrimp, cod, clams, and lobster – along with deep roasted peppers, a chicken chorizo risotto, and a saffron butter-cream.  With a some toasted baguette served ala pa’ amb tomaquet, each bite transported us back to our Iberian adventures in a way only good food can do.

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Reconstructed Deconstructed Seafood Paella

1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 cup arborio rice
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup minced onion
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 tbs tomato paste
1 quart seafood stock
1 large chicken chorizo sausage
chili powder, hungarian paprika, black pepper, sea salt, EVOO
2 tbs butter
1 cup heavy cream
4-5 threads of saffron
4 littleneck clams
2 lobster claws
1/3lb cod
2 large scallops
4 large shrimp

DSCN4532aBecause it takes a little while, I start by roasting my peppers.  It’s easy: roll them around in EVOO, lay them on a baking sheet, and sprinkle them with salt and pepper before throwing them in a 400° oven.  Roast for about 10 minutes, rolling them over every few minutes so the skins blacken.  Remove them from the heat, toss them and all the juices from the pan into a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap until cooled.  Then you can remove the skins very easily.  Set this aside for now.

DSCN4529I make risotto all the time — just search for it here on my blog and you’ll see several different preparations.  This one was different for me, though, since I usually aim for a white risotto and not a red one, but it still started the same: I sauté my minced garlic and onion in EVOO in a small saucepan until just translucent, then I add my rice.  I stir everything to coat well with the oil, and to toast the grains of rice a bit to make them more receptive to the liquids I’ll be adding.

DSCN4530First addition is wine: a nice glug or two of dry sherry, which I stir in well, cooking over low heat, until all the liquid is absorbed.

DSCN4531Then I start adding my seafood stock, which is simmering in another pot on the stove.  You want to use warm stock, which will keep the rice cooking instead of cooling it down with each addition.  I add about 4 ounces at a time, stirring well continually, until each batch of liquid has been absorbed by the rice.  It takes about 30 minutes to stir a good pot of risotto.

DSCN4532At about the halfway point, I decide to add a tablespoon of tomato puree.  Traditional paella always has a bit of tomato in it, and this concentrated condiment gives just the right of sweetness and acidic kick to the dish.  Oh, and I keep adding stock and stirring.

DSCN4533My risotto is almost done.  It has increased in volume significantly, and when I test a grain with my tongue and teeth it is just tender all the way through, with a slightly al dente center.  At this point, I add all the juices from my roasted peppers, which have been sweating all their delicious goodness into the bowl all this time.

DSCN4536I’ve cooked my chicken chorizo and chopped it up real good like.

DSCN4537Along with my chopped roasted peppers, the chorizo adds the unctuousness needed for a good paella – where chicken and sausage definitely belong.  I keep this warm on the back burner until I’m ready for it.

DSCN4538To prepare my seafood, I create a poaching liquid, starting with butter and saffron and the last 4 ounces of my seafood stock.

DSCN4539I whisk the contents of the pan vigorously, emulsifying the butter and stock into a rich base.

DSCN4541I then add my cream, and layer my seafood into the pan to gently poach.  My cream/butter has been tinted a thrilling yellow from the saffron threads, and the scent emanating through the kitchen is divine.  I cover the pan, shaking it from time to time to encourage the fishy stuff to swim around, before using tongs to flip each piece so it can cook through thoroughly.

DSCN4543When the clams are open, and the shrimp and scallops are opaque, everything is ready to serve.

DSCN4542Here’s where the “reconstruction” bit comes in.  I’ve been obsessing about forms these days, ‘cuz I love the idea of stacked meals.  I’m too cheap to spend the $20 or so on real cooking forms, so I have a tendency to cannibalize all sorts of stuff in my kitchen to make shapes I can work with.  This is a tea canister from some swanky over-priced tea shack, but with the bottom removed it makes a decent, entree-sized form for my purposes.  I start by laying my strips of pepper out on the plate, before spooning a layer of rice into the form, followed by bits of the cooked cod, another layer of rice, then a layer with my shrimp and scallops, before topping it off with more risotto.

DSCN4547Crowning my tower of delight is my succulent lobster claw, which is flanked by eat-me clams and standing in a rich, sweet pool of saffron butter-milk.  I’ve toasted some slices of baguette, rubbed them with garlic, and served them with a tomato half doused with EVOO, garlic, and sea salt – which is scraped across the crusty bread, leaving a swathe of tasty red yumminess to compliment the dish.  All the component parts of a paella are here: fresh, tender seafood, rich, creamy rice, roasted peppers and spicy sausage, chicken, and of course, saffron.  An elegant meal in honor of a long love affair: with both my husband, and food glorious food.

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.

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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.

Homemade Hard Tacos with Popcorn Shrimp and Poblano Queso Cream

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now: I LOVE MEXICAN FOOD.  I guess I should specify it as “Mexican-inspired”, since I’ve never been to Mexico and can’t say with authority that any food identified as South of the Border I’ve ever eaten has been particularly authentic — but my homage still remains.  I just can’t get enough of the warm/cool, meaty/vegetable, cheesy/healthy, crunchy/chewy, soul-satisfying stuff that I think of as Mexican – like tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, guacamole, salsa… the list goes on.  Now I am completely aware of the fact that hard tacos like the ones pictured above are in no way authentic, but one shouldn’t trample on Speedy Gonzales just because he’s a caricature, right?   Or let me put it this way: remember the “You think this has nothing to do with you” monologue Meryl so scathingly purrs in The Devil Wears Prada?  Where she points out to the still frumpy Anne Hathaway that the ‘blue’ sweater she wears is actually a distant low-rent cousin of a cerulean gown Oscar De La Renta debuted years earlier, that had been re-imagined and re-designed and re-marketed so often that it barely resembled its lofty parentage?  So – what has this to do with my tacos?  They’re the Casual Corner clearance bin progeny of the haute cuisine belonging to the same country that produced Freida Kahlo, Carlos Fuentes, and Diego Rivera.  But some of my favorite clothes come from the clearance bin, and I betcha a shiny nickel Freida, Carlos, and Diego would dig these fried popcorn shrimp hard tacos with fresh pico, marinated avocado slices, and homemade queso blanco sauce.  And so would Meryl – just ‘cuz she’s classy that way…

Homemade Hard Tacos with Popcorn Shrimp and Poblano Queso Cream

1 medium poblano pepper
1 ripe avocado
2 ripe roma tomatoes
1 small red onion
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch scallions
1 lime
3/4 lb small Maine shrimp (about 50 count)
2 eggs
Panko breadcrumbs (about 2 cups)
1/2 lb white american cheese
1 tbs butter
1 cup milk (divided)
1 can black beans
1/2 cup cooked, smoked meat (bacon will work, or some BBQ leftovers like I used)
12 small corn tortillas
oil for frying (about 1 quart )
sea salt, cracked black pepper, onion and garlic powder, paprika, ground cumin, cayenne pepper, ground chili, EVOO
sour cream

I didn’t take a set up shot for this meal because, well, I sort of threw it together at random, so I didn’t know exactly what was going into it until I started making it.  But I did buy this poblano pepper — the least spicy variety of hot pepper usually available on the market — with the vague thought of roasting it for some reason.  To do so, I rolled it in some EVOO, dusted it with some some salt and pepper, and threw it into a 400 degree oven (turning it every so often) until all the skin is blackened, more or less.  If I had a gas stove, I’d just burn it directly with the flames, but alas – I ain’t got nothin’ fancy like that.

See?  It took about 12-15 minutes total.  Now I throw it into a paper bag for a few minutes, which will loosen the tough, papery outer skin, and make it easier to remove.

Like so.  Sometimes I have to scrape off the skin with the dull edge of my chef’s knife, but today my fingers did the trick.  I pull the seeds out, chop up this baby, and set it aside to use it later.  (At this point, I had not yet decided where….)

Oh, and I decide to save the oil it cooked in, too — since it’s so redolent of spicy roasted pepper.  I figure I could use it later — like bacon drippings.

Next up – my avocado.  I have several friends who don’t like this blissful, buttery, bastion of vegetal delight.  You know who you are, people — yes, I’m looking at you.  It’s my mission to change their minds, as I did El Claytonioushusbandman, who initially thought of it only in terms of guacamole, which to him looked like baby sh!t.  Since he didn’t like baby sh!t, he didn’t like avocados.  That sort of free-association has always irked me, so I quashed it like the bug up my a$$ it was by adding avocado so regularly, and so prominently, to so many dinners that he finally had to try it.  Now, he LOVES it.  I aim to convert my other friends, too, so BE. WARE.  Anyway, instead of making a guac today, I merely sliced this perfect specimen of gradated greenness and marinated it in some very fine EVOO, sea salt, black pepper, mined red onion, and leaves of cilantro.  My thought was that I’d add a slice, instead of a dollop, of avo to each taco.

By the way, I got those minced onions and cilantro leaves from the batch of veggies I prepped: they, along with my diced scallion, diced salted and peppered tomatos, and a rolled-till-softer-and-juicier lime would be the rest of the fresh on my plate.

Black beans are my favorite, even though it took a while for me to get back into the bean swing of things.  My grandmother, rest her soul, lived with us while I was growing up, and she made pinto beans ALL THE TIME.  Like, daily.  I kid you not. After eating them dutifully as a child and tween and teenager, I began to fear that that if you peeled back my skin, you’d see mashed brown, sofrito flavored beanstuff instead of human tissue, so I patently rejected them for years and years after I started cooking for myself, in an effort to purge them from my being. Clayton loved beans, so – as it should be in a good marriage - he did for me and beans what I did for him and avocados: he made me try them again.  Of course, I had to cook them myself, but his incessant request for a nice rice and bean dish guilted me into making them for us one night, which I did with black beans and absolutely no sofrito whatsoever.  Since then, I’ve found I do like beans if I prepare them with the flavors I like, which, in this case, means MEAT.  This sexy nub of smoked pork belly hails from Chef Tiffany Faison’s new Boston joint Sweet Cheeks Q, a rocking new BBQ  dive in the Fenway area.  I went several weeks ago with some fantastic friends (you know who you are, you crazy kids!), and after stuffing as much deliciousness into my gullet as possible, I froze the leftover meat for just this reason.  I fished out the bag when I knew I was making beans, defrosted this tidbit in warm water in my sick (it was fully cooked, and I was going to cook it again, so I wasn’t worried about this usually unsafe shortcut), and brought it into play.

And here comes that leftover poblano roasting oil — it served as a flavored EVOO which, along with chunks of the pork belly and some of my chopped onions and scallions, formed the base of this dish.  Once the onions are softened and the fat fragrant…

… in went the beans and about a half bottle of my beer.  I set this on medium, and let it simmer and reduce for about 10-15 minutes.

The special ingredient for this meal are these super-sweet, perfectly pink, quiveringly fresh tender Maine shrimp.  I fear the season for these baby beauties is already over (and it’s so short — only about a month!), but I’m happy to say I’ve enjoyed them a’plenty this year.  I’ve made garlic scampi, shrimp waldorf salad, shrimp chowder, seafood alfredo… well, several things with ma petite crevette since they appeared at Whole Foods’ fish counter, and I am happy.  But I’ve never fried them before, so this would be something new.  I had to peel them first, which was easy peasy – their little heads fall right off, and you can coax their naked bodies out of their shells with barely a come-hither.

In a medium bowl, I whisked together my eggs, half my milk, garlic powder, onion powder, ground cumin, cayenne pepper, and paprika.

Using the same dry spices as the egg batter, I made some seasoned Panko breadcrumbs, too.

At this point, 1/2 of the liquid in my beans has evaporated, so I add about 1/2 cup short grain rice to the pot, stir once well, then cover so the rice can plump in the beery beany juice.

Right before I fry up my shrimp, I make my taco shells.  I’ve found that the coarser, thicker, and subsequently cheaper small corn tortillas work better than some of the more expensive varieties, and that – unlike previous posts – a deep fry pan isn’t really needed.  Instead, I added an inch or so of oil to my deep wok, and heated it until superhot.  Using tongs and a large flat metal fork, I dipped half each tortilla into the oil, holding it submerged with the fork, then folded the other half into the sizzle quickly catching the already fried half in the clutch the the tongs to finish the shell off.  Each only took about a minute or so.

… yielding me 6 taco shells, which I held on a paper plate and sprinkled liberally with salt.  I cut the other six tortillas into 8ths, and fried them into chips.

My tiny tiny shrimp are marinated for a few minutes in the egg wash, and then tossed with the breadcrumbs before I shake off all the excess breading through a colander onto a paper plate.
After all my shells are fried. I cook my shrimp in batches (about 1/3 at a time, so the oil doesn’t bubble over) — it takes about 5 minutes per batch.
And what, pray tell, ever happened to that roasted poblano pepper? Well, it became the star ingredient in my queso blanco sauce – my absolute favorite guilty pleasure.  Down in Georgia, there was no shortage of Mexican(ish) restaurants that all featured this white cheese dip I could drain out of a straight gallon with a straw.  And I can’t find it ANYWHERE here.  The closest thing is Bukowski’s White Trash Cheese Dip, but even that’s not quite right.  I finally broke down and recreated it for myself, finally succeeding in making it once I realized that simpler was better.  It doesn’t need Monterey Jack cheese, or cheddar, or anything fancy pants – it just needs, at its most basic, white american cheese and milk.  Before I figured this out, you would never have found american cheese in my fridge, mostly because it’s not really cheese but rather a processed amalgamation of ingredients a cook like I usually eschew, but one can’t be a snob all the time.  Besides, I’ve already thrown authenticity out the window, so why not add a little processed deliciousness if it works on the plate?  Here’s how it’s done: melt butter in pan, add some milk, whisk until incorporated and milk starts to boil, add shredded cheese, whisk until blended and smooth, and either add more milk if too thick, or more cheese if too thin.  When the texture is just right, I add my diced green chiles, and try not to break out my suck-up-all-that-cheese straw…

A slice of buttery marinated avocado. A handful of hot, crispy, tender, sweet fried popcorn shrimp. A smattering of snappy tomatoes and fresh herbs.  A healthy drizzle of fragrant and milky cheese sauce.  All layered into a crispy taco shell and served alongside a nest of meaty black beans and rice.  It might not be really Mexican, but that doesn’t stop me from facing southwesterly and making a little bow – because these are delicious!  There is very little heat (you can add some jalapenos to make that happen), but the flavors come together as a perfect synthesis of crunchy and tender and chilled and warm, with the cheese acting as the glue holding the whole mouthful together.  The tacos are light and refreshing, and the beans and rice add substance and just the right amount of stick-to-your-ribness.  ¡Gracias, amigos!  This meal was muy delicioso!

Seafood Sunday! Steamed Crab Legs and Shrimp with Molten Parmesan Polenta


Most of the time, when I want shellfish, I want it as simply prepared as possible, since it tastes so damn good just the way it is.  Shrimp and crab legs in particular (and lobster, of course) are best, in Lolita’s world, when they’ve been steamed or boiled, and then served with melted butter.  I’ve had them made in myriad other ways, too, and enjoyed it – but if I see “boiled shrimp” on a menu, I go gaga.  They can be expensive, though, and here in Boston they cost $2-$2.25 *each* when purchased at a raw bar.  That’s why I make them myself; at even $16/lb for the large 16/20 count shrimp (that means there are between 16-20 shrimp per pound), I’m saving a ton of money — which means I can buy and eat more shrimp!  On Sunday, during a foray south to the sleepy little metropolis that is New Bedford, MA, to visit their thrilling whaling museum, we foraged through the industrial waterfront area seeking a seafood market that sold to the public.  Boy oh boy, did we find one!  The perfectly plump shrimp and long, shapely snow crab legs you see above were so sparkling fresh, that they needed very little by way of accouterments other than a simple beer and spice infused steambath- but Lolita whipped together a fun and flavorful parmesan polenta overflowing with a creamy cheese sauce anyway, just to add a little starch to this swimmingly spectacular meal of fruits from the sea.

Steamed Crab Legs and Shrimp with Molten Parmesan Polenta

1lb snow crab legs
1lb 12/15 count tiger shrimp
2 cans/bottles of beer
whole peppercorns, fresh cracked pepper, juniper berries, sea salt, bay leaves
2 cups polenta
heavy cream
grated parmesan cheese
nutmeg
1 1/2 sticks butter
truffle salt

New Bedford is a rather economically depressed little town, which is sad, considering its rich history.  I betcha not many people outside of Massachusetts are really hip to it, unless they’ve been lucky enough to read Moby Dick. It’s an American masterpiece for a reason; for those of you who’ve never tried, or have tried and failed, to read the novel, I encourage you to READ MELVILLE.  I realize that, as a lifelong student and lover of literature, I’m hard-wired to read where many fear to tread, but Melville’s voice is one every person on the planet should hear in their own heads as they absorb the words off his pages.  Moby Dick may be a whale of a book, but it is a work of incredible beauty and of almost divine grace, a story which captures the motion and passions of the sea, and harnesses it for its readers to ride to dizzying heights and soulful depths.

Fleet Fisheries Fisherman’s Market might have been one of Melville’s favorite places to shop for seafood, if he weren’t at sea himself (and dead and buried these past 120 years).  Their storefront, hidden in the back of their warehouse with an unobtrusive signpost pointing the way to an unassuming single door leading in, was like the TARDIS – I expected a small counter and a cramped cooler with a couple of fish in it, and instead I was greeted by a huge white space chock full of iced shelves bursting with tons of fish in various states of deshabille - whole to gutted to filleted to cooked.  And the prices!  $14/lb for  12/15 count shrimp! (Those are usually $21-$25/lb at Whole Foods.)  $8.99 for snow crab legs!  Shut the front door!  Less than $30 later, Clayton and I had the makings of a killer seafood feast.  It may be worth the hour and a half drive down there to shop again…


Just look at that plump, beautiful shrimp.  We got about 20 from our 1.25 lb, so Clayton and I were pleased as punch.


Now those are some legs, baby!  Two clusters, each with five legs and one handsome claw.  These are, of course, not harvested anywhere near the Massachusetts coastline — they come from much farther up north, as anyone who watches “Deadliest Catch” knows — but given the major seaport that New Bedford still represents, they can bring them in in bulk and pass the savings on to voracious leg-lovers like me.

Nothing goes better with shellfish than beer.  I’ve been drinking this Session Black Lager lately with gusto, and El Claytonious has been enjoying the ubiquitous, and local, Narragansett tallboys.  I used one of each in my boil.  Why?  Because we each only had two beers left, and the day was early, and we were too lazy to head to the store for more.  I don’t recommend using a port or stout or barley wine or anything too heavy for a beer boil, but lagers do provide a surprisingly good flavor base.  It’s not the alcohol, it’s the hops and malt that infuse the tender meat inside these exoskeletons with flavah.  I pop both open and dump them in my pasta boiler/steamer pot.

I also add about 1 quart of water, some peppercorns, juniper berries, bay leaves, and a healthy amount of salt.  All this gets set over the burner and brought to a boil – which takes a little while (considering how much liquid there is, and how cold my beers were).

Shrimp and grits are standard house fare at Lolita’s, but I try to shake it up from time to time with some polenta – grits’ less ground-up cousin.  2 cups of corn meal whisked into 3 cups of boiling salted water gets me started, and I cover this and reduce the heat to low so everything can simmer and thicken.

Now that my shellfish boil is roiling, I add my shrimp to the deep pasta pan and lower them into the beerwater.


I then put my crab legs into the shallow steamer basket, fit that on top of the pot (above the shrimp), and then cover.  This only needs about 5 minutes to cook, which is good – since my polenta is almost ready.

It’s nice and stiff, the corn toothsome but no longer hard, and I add a tablespoon of butter and some parmesan cheese.  But it’s too dry for me, and I want something more creamy and flavorful.

At the last moment, I decide to whip up a quick simple parmesan cheese sauce with about a cup of heavy cream set over medium heat to simmer, about 1/2 a cup of grated cheese, and some black pepper, sea salt, and a scratch or two of fresh nutmeg.  I whisk all this together and allow it to thicken slightly.


Our assortment of weapons, and our baths of butter.  I add a few dashes of truffle salt to my butter (because I’m decadent that way), and Clayton starts banging his shellfish forks on the table, demanding his dinner.  (My favorite is the furthest fork, with the wee little tines on one end, and the lobster-clawed, inner-knife-edged cracking/splitting apparatus on the other end.)


To moltenize my polenta, I first dished it up into a buttered 6oz ramekin to set the form – which only took a moment or so.  I then carved out the center of the form, removing a wine-cork sized plug from the middle, into which I poured my parmesan cheese sauce.  The result?  A delicious and fun to eat mountain of sweet/salty corn grits spilling over and out with a creamy river of omygoditsogoodness.  My perfectly boiled shrimp and steaming hot crab legs are redolent of only the best parts of beer, with a little kick and sweetness from the juniper and pepper berries.  The truffle butter bath is the perfect dipping sauce for my firm white thumbs of shrimp, and it dribbles lazily down my chin from the threads of my hard-won crab leg meat.  I should have dashed some chopped parsley or green onions over the plate for presentation purposes, but damn it if I wasn’t too hungry for this meal to waste the time with flair.  Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that make the most wonderful in the mouth.

Sick Day Shrimp and Clam Chowder

Happy New Year!  Or, I should say, happy flu year to me… since I’ve been struck down by the vengeful finger of Jack Frost, and am all a-sniffles and body aches and dry, heaving coughs today.  But no matter!  I’m trying out a new camera this week, as well as some new lights in my kitchen, and so here I post in the hopes that I’ll see some improvement in my images.  I’ve been on strike for the last few weeks; my cooking has been awesome, but my pictures have been terrible.  Methinks my thousands of pictures taken over boiling pots of stock or through hot clouds of steam or in the maw of my open roasting oven have finally worn down the finer functions of my little Canon Eos, and I’m trying out a Nikon Coolpix S8100.  I’m not sold.  But let’s see how this little recipe goes…

SICK-DAY SHRIMP AND CLAM CHOWDER

1 lb shell-on raw shrimp (these are Gulf 22/30′s)
4 slices bacon
3/4 lb small white potatoes (these are mini yukon golds)
2 medium white onions, diced
1 can clams
1 can beer
1 bay leaf
water
3 tbs butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
sea salt and cracked black pepper
scallions


First things first: peel your shrimp, and set the naked babies aside.  Take the shells, drop them into about 10 cups of cold water in a saucepan over medium-high heat on your stovetop, add one bay leaf and a few teaspoons of salt.  Bring to a boil, skimming off any foam that forms, and simmer for about 15-20 minutes.  Strain the contents of the pan through a fine mesh into a bowl, and you’ve just made a nice shrimp broth for your soup base…

Cut your slices of bacon into small pieces and try it out to a nice crispy brown, sprinkling it with cracked black pepper while searing (to capture more of the sweet peppery pepper oils), then set aside to drain on some paper plates, reserving the grease for the next step.

Wash and dice your potatoes, then add them with your diced onions to about 2 tbs of your bacon grease in a large wok over medium heat.  Sauté until your onions are just softened, then add 8 cups of your strained shrimp broth and the brine from your can of clams.  Bring to a low boil, cover, and cook until the potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork.


Like so.  The house is beginning to smell really nice right about now.


Melt a few tablespoons of butter in a hot skillet…


… then add your shrimp, your clams, and your heavy cream to the pan, bringing everything to a bubbling boil, cooking the shrimp just through (about 5 minutes).

Add your creamy buttery shrimp and clams to your simmering potato and onion broth, add about 1/2 of your rendered bacon crisps, and mix together well.  Simmer for about 15 minutes together, adding salt and pepper to taste, until ready to serve.

My warm, bacony, shrimpy, clam-filled, onion scented and potato rich soup is just what I needed today.  My sniffly nose already feels better, and my body aches and pains are less achey and painy.  I’m not sure about this camera yet, but I am sure that I haven’t lost my touch in the kitchen.  I heat through a nice crusty loaf of French bread to serve up with my soup, and I dig into the New Year with relish.