Monday, February 21, 2011

A Little Southern Comfort

A lot of my cooking is dictated by a craving, something to satisfy myself or maybe to simply make a deposit
in my creative bank account. Either way, it means trying something totally new or pulling out an old favorite that will fulfill said craving while honing my culinary skills. This weekend brought more of a need to experiment with a new procedure than anything else. After record-breaking temperatures on Friday, things changed rapidly, dropping 30 degrees and winds howling at 40-50mph gusts. I thought this would be the perfect time to try out grits in a slow-cooker. A perfect comfort food for a chilly February day off.

For anyone not familiar, grits are a type of corn meal generally made into a breakfast cereal or porage, it's a southern thing. I didn't grow up with them, I didn't even taste them for the first time until just a few years ago, probably at a Cracker Barrel & those memories aside, I didn't give up on this wonderful staple. You see, corn is another one of my favorite ingredients. I absolutely love it, fresh, grilled, popped, in tamales, chowders, polenta. I could go on and on. In fact, I think I could open a restaurant or cafe & call it simply "Kernel". Grits are one of the latest additional to my ingredient palette but, they are escalating up the list fast. Now I'm just  not into them as a breakfast side even if you do blitz em with cheese. No, it's star billing all the way. For breakfast I will lace them with pork, whatever your favorite morning meat happens to be. If I have  some leftover greens hangin around, they'll go in. Season with salt and plenty of cracked pepper, then top with a poached or soft-boiled egg. With this pot in front of me, it's got me looking around for a rainbow. Yeah, I know. This time however, I'm thinking later in the day and a little more coastal, a little more upscale. Shrimp & Grits, a Charlotte, NC favorite and one of mine too. The perfect dish to try out some new grits that were just delivered a couple weeks ago from Anson Mills. This is an heirloom corn & I have been hearing about their products from chefs around the country. They are pricey however, and when you add shipping well, not quite white caviar but, not  even close to that tube of Quaker 5 minute though. Not only do they tax your wallet, they tax your time as well, you see they take at least an hour to cook on the stove top. And that's when they have been soaked overnight. I will try the slow-cooker method, recommended by the Anson web site to be simple and ultimately the best way to go, but it's gonna take over 2 hours, yikes! Which ever brand or method you use, this recipe will turn you into a  grits lover.
Shrimp and Grits... (serves 4-6 as an appetizer)
For the grits:
1 C. grits with enough water as per instructions(according to brand)
1/2 lb. smoked sausage- sliced
5-8 oz. frozen collard greens or spinach
salt & pepper to taste
1-2 Tbsn. butter
For the shrimp:
3/4 lb. 16-20 shrimp- shells removed, devained & seasoned with salt & pepper
1 Tbsn. olive oil
2 cloves garlic- minced
3 scallions- minced, keeping white & green parts separated
1/2 C. tomato- diced
1/4 C. bourbon
1/2 C chicken broth or water
2 Tbsn butter
Assembly:
Cook grits according to directions with sausage & greens. season  & stir in butter. Keep warm while preparing shrimp.
Heat oil in saute pan til med hot. Add shrimp and cook 1-2 minutes each side. Remove from pan & keep warm. Add garlic & scallion whites to pan and Cook for a minute or two then add tomato & cook for another 2-3 minutes.
Add bourbon(be careful over open flames), reduce by half then add chicken broth & reduce till thick, lower heat & add butter & shrimp back to pan & stir until butter is melted. Portion grits into serving bowls, arrange shrimp on top, spoon sauce over & garnish with scallion greens.

As for my expensive, slow-cooking variety...well, the jury is still out. I need to test & taste some more. They were very creamy and had a wonderful corn taste, just don't know if they're Worth the price yet. In the mean time I'll keep an eye out for them at the market, that way I can eliminate the shipping at least.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cooking For Two beats 200

unless of course it's a sweet catering gig. Back in the day, in my restaurant life, it was a toss-up which holiday I hated more, Valentines or Mother's Day. You see, I worked at smaller, fine-dining places with even smaller staffs. It was usually just me
and an assistant chef or cook to bust out 150-250 dinners, everybody wanting that narrow, cherished time-slot between 7-9pm. It was a slam-fest to say the least. A sweat-induced evening full of flying pans, flaming grease & alcohol, impatient servers and cursing dishwashers. On top of that there were Knife cuts, grease burns, oven rack burns and throbbing foot & leg pain to finish off the night. Sounds quite exciting doesn't it. I have to admit every once and a while I'll reminisce on those wacky holiday meals and miss that feeling of accomplishment gained after preparing food for that many people...then the sound of that dupe machine(servers order ticket) rattling away snaps that thought out of me right quick.
Anyway, cooking on Valentines Day is a lot more easy going these days. Usually just a quiet meal with my sweetie.This year, I think it's gonna be pizza. I know, that doesn't sound that romantic but, we both love it. Now I'm not talking about your favorite roof-signed, college student delivered tomato pie, I mean homemade. See  pizza is a passion for me, a work in progress so to speak, kinda like a lot of my favorite foods. Yes I love to play with toppings, different cheese blends, tweaking the sauce. That's all fun, but what really does it for me is the crust. This is the foundation, where it all begins and what I believe can make or break a pizza. Now I've been making my own dough for as long as I've been cooking but, this last year I have been working with a no-knead recipe/technique made popular by Jim Lahey, a bakery/restaurant owner in NYC.
The recipe is quite easy but takes some time to develop.
You need to have some advanced planning but, the flavor
& texture of this dough is one of the best tasting pizza crusts  I have
ever made and it makes a very good loaf of bread as well but that's
another post. This recipe will make make four 12-14" pies. I usually follow it to the letter but, lately I have been drifting slightly a bit & after the initial 12-18 hour rise, I will transfer dough to a floured surface, divide it into my 4 balls and knead it just a little to make it less wet & sticky and thus easier to work with. I will then cover it with a towel or plastic and give it another 3-4 hours to rest/rise before I start to create. As for toppings this time. Well, it is the lovers holiday, so I made my valentine's favorite, Plain and bacon/onion. For me, it was a smoked sausage with potatoes and fresh oregano. This was a last minute choice due to the fact that I didn't find any fresh
clams which was my first choice. Oh well, the potato and sausage was fantastic which I will definitely do again. As to how they were cooked well, I went with the oven apposed to the grill (my favorite way to do pizza) because I wanted to try a new technique(always tweaking) of placing my stone on the top shelf and cranking the broiler setting to high. Surely I was sceptical for this is totally opposite of my normal procedure of cranking the bake setting to 550 degrees(highest it will go) and placing the stone on the lowest shelf. The thinking is that I will get a crispy crust and not burn the top. So, how'd they turn out? very nice. Yes they did burn on the highest shelf. So after I moved it down one level, that worked well. And the best thing was that they cooked in about 4 minutes, the quickest I have ever baked pizza. Then there was the crust, it was crispy but with a soft, airy inside very similar to Indian Naan without the tandoor oven. All in all, a good meal, the Black Chocolate Stout went especially  well with the sausage & potato pie.
With the mercury predicted to hit in the 60's tomorrow, looks like I will be getting back to that grilled pizza sooner than I thought.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Love Is In The Air...

...on the contrary, frozen white particles are in the air,
and to be quite honest as much of a four-season kind of guy that I am, turkey season and an elevated mercury
level cannot come fast enough. But Valentines Day is
just around the corner, so thoughts of chowing down on something very tasty, most likely expensive, sipping a full-bodied Imperial Stout or a luscious Zinfandel all by fire-side is gonna have to keep me going till the spring thaw arrives or at least for a long weekend.
For the stout, my choice, or should I say my sweetie's choice fit the bill perfectly. A full-bodied, dry beer with a finish of dark, high % cacao from Brooklyn Brewery
A sipper for sure with a 10% ABV. Not gonna be knocking back a bunch of these guys. This  Black Chocolate Stout will definitely warm the bones and I wouldn't mind enjoying one with really good bleu cheese.
As for my wine selection, I've chosen a nice fruity red from a relatively new winery in Winslow twp. Sharrot Winery has only been open for few years and seems to be keeping busy making very good wine, winning awards and a constant barrage of tastings. In fact, they are taking part in a Valentines Wine Trail this weekend that  I  am sure will have plenty of  chocolate and wine to taste. This 2007 Chambourcin is a bottle I picked up at one of their summer festivals and has been laying on my rack waiting the perfect time to crack. Ok, I've got my drinks, now I just have to come up with some food to go with them. 
To be continued...

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Hello And Welcome

"How To Put Off Writing A Blog". That should have been my title because it has only taken about 18 months since the initial spark of desire to write a a blog til today. Better late than never, as they say...hopefully! Anyway, welcome to my journey down the trail of something totally new and exciting for me and my hope is that along the way, there might be a tidbit or two that you will find interesting, helpful or amusing. I have this incredible passion for all things food related. I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite food and when asked what my specialty is, it's difficult to answer. I do however, lean toward South East Asian & Spanish cuisines for making my palette really sing.
The past couple of years I have had a fast-growing interest in products produced locally. I particularly enjoy shopping at Farm Markets & especially if they are in the neighborhood. I also hunt & fish and when I am successful, you can't get much more local than that!
And then there is wine & beer. The past 10-15 years has seen an amazing growth in the Wineries of New Jersey. We have close to 35 wineries when it doesn't seem that long ago there were under a dozen. The Brewery & Brewpub scene is not as grand but it is getting better. Being a hobbyist homebrewer, this is close to my heart.
So this is what this blog will be about. I'm gonna have fun, I hope you will enjoy the ride with me.
Thanks for stopping by.