Kitchen Sink Shrimp and Grits with Corn, Bacon and Rhubarb

I must admit that I am a bit embarrassed to post about grits so soon after I waxed poetic about polenta, as the two foods are so similar. On top of that, the ingredients in this dish will look a little bit repetitive if you have been following what we’ve been cooking the past few weeks. I promise we’re not totally boring people who eat the same thing over and over again. This time, at least, there is a good reason for our redundancy; our cooking this past week was influenced heavily by the need to clear out our fridge in preparation for a trip to Barcelona (!!!). I find the week before a trip kind of frustrating in terms of cooking, as while it’s all very well and good to try and use what you have, what you have always seems to consist of random odds and ends that don’t really go together, leaving one, at the end of the day, with a whole lot of hot dogs for dinner. And pierogi. Etc.

I was therefore pretty pleased with myself when I pulled this dish together the other night, combining some staples we had in our freezer (bacon, shrimp) with some produce that needed to be eaten (rhubarb, lime, corn). I am always kind of excited when I use our stone ground grits, too, as we only recently discovered them. For a long time, I had been obsessed with the idea of grits because I, like every other person on the planet, am totally enamoured of Southern U.S. cooking. But they are seemingly impossible to find north of the border, so for a while they were this elusive mystery to me. Luckily, I have wonderful culinary accomplices. At first, a dear friend literally mailed us some from the U.S., with strict instructions from her very southern mom on how to cook them. And so I was hooked. I have since taken to bringing some back I have travel down south myself. And even my mom is in on it–whenever she goes to the condo in Florida she comes back with a package of stone ground grits for me. She has no idea what they are, exactly, but she knows I always need some!

Anyway. I wasn’t sure this dish was going to work out at first, and indeed, Graeme looked at me skeptically when I plunked a savoury dish involving rhubarb down in front of him. I was a bit worried that I was going out on too much of a limb for myself (I am generally not very courageous when working without a recipe), in a feverish attempt to not let my precious rhubarb go to waste, but we both should have had more faith: it was AWESOME. Pairing flavours like bacon with sweet things is hardly a new idea, and rhubarb particularly lent itself beautifully to such a combination. I made a simple compote that I kept nice and tart so that it added just a little bit of sweetness, and a lot of lovely tartness to brighten up what could otherwise feel like a bit of a heavy, muddled plate of food. This dinner was a victory over the oftentimes humdrum nature of week-before-vacation eating.

If you’ve got any leftover rhubarb and you are tired of baking, I really recommend throwing together the compote; the recipe  below made far more than was necessary to accessorize this dish, and we therefore ate it with everything we could think of for several days. It was most notably delicious for breakfast one morning, when I prepared an open-faced sandwich of toast, arugula, bacon, a poached egg, and a little bit of  compote. It worked ridiculously well and was one of the most interesting/exciting breakfasts I have prepared in a long time! (And I love cooking breakfast.)

Kitchen Sink Shrimp and Grits with Corn, Bacon and Rhubarb
Serves 2 (hungry, hungry hippos) – 4 (birds).

Ingredients:
1 cup stone ground grits
5 1/3 cups water
1 ear’s worth of corn
5 stalks of rhubarb, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup sugar*
1 lime, zested
2 slices of bacon chopped into strips
1 onion, chopped
A glob of butter
1/2 cup of cheddar, grated
A dozen frozen shrimp, thawed
Salt and pepper to taste

Bring 5 cups of the water, salted, to a boil. Once it reaches a boil, turn the heat down low and stir in the grits carefully, making sure to avoid clumps. Cook this way, stirring often, until the mixture is creamy, thick and pulls away from the sides of the pan a bit, about 35-45 minutes.

In the meantime, put the compote on. In a small saucepan, combine the rhubarb, 1/3 cup of water, and sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and let it simmer until the rhubarb is nice and soft and the mixture has thickened a bit.

When the grits look like they’re almost done, get started on the topping. Over medium-high heat, saute the bacon pieces and onion until they both start to brown. Add in the corn, and stir for a couple of minutes until it cooks a bit. At the very, very end, throw in the shrimp, and cook for just a couple of minutes longer, to let them heat through and get a little crispy. Season the mixture.

At the same time, once the grits seem just about done, stir in the cheddar and a generous glob of butter, and season (be generous with the salt!). Remove from the heat.

Serve grits with shrimp mixture on top and a little bit of rhubarb compote. Enjoy!

*As I previously stated, this ratio of sugar to rhubarb made for a pretty tart compote, which I loved, but if you prefer things a little bit on the sweeter side, then definitely up the sugar!

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Polenta and Me

I feel like I have been trying to master polenta for years; like most traditional Italian foods/ways of cooking, polenta is at once incredibly simple (just cornmeal and water, at its base!), but at the same time it takes patience and experience to make a really great one. I am embarrassed to admit that I used to cook up a polenta in about 10 minutes, and I could never figure out what the big deal about it was since it was kind of bland in taste and texture. Yeah. Sorry polenta, it wasn’t you, it was me. I have since seen the error of my ways.

In the summer, when we are in hardcore BBQ-ing mode (and we BBQ probably at least 3 times a week in hot weather; so much nicer than being stuck in the kitchen!), grilled polenta makes a frequent appearance on our dinner plates. The soft, fresh-off-the-stove hot stuff is perfect stick-to-your-ribs eating in winter, while solid, lightly grilled wedges make the perfect starchy accompaniment in summer. It is not difficult (and also inexpensive!) to whip up a giant batch that will satisfy a group, and it is awesome with whatever extra BBQ-related sauce you have sitting around. I love the varying textures that you can find in a grilled polenta: a little bit charred, a little bit melty, and at its best nice and creamy.

Last weekend, we had a couple of Graeme’s colleagues and their families over for dinner, and we served some grilled polenta alongside freshly-made Italian sausage, an arugula and grilled squid salad, some grilled asparagus, and this unbelievable tasty and pretty rhubarb cheesecake from Nami-Nami. This is literally the best cheesecake I have ever made; I urge you to go make it immediately. In fact, I will be making it again this weekend.

One of our guests is not a big meat eater, so Graeme and I were conscious that the polenta should be the kind of thing that could stand on its own such that it could be someone’s main course, rather than being relegated to a side dish. As such, I packed it with cheese and roasted garlic to give it more flavour and richness, and Graeme whipped up (off the top of his head, because he’s awesome like that!) an accompanying grilled corn and roasted tomato salsa. Probably the least “fancy” part of the entire meal, this pairing was lovely and fresh and textured and we devoured the leftovers the next day. Simple, when done with thought and care, can be so damn good. There are a million ways to enjoy polenta on and off the BBQ, and we are happy to share what we did this time as but one drop in the tasty bucket.

Grilled Polenta with Grilled Corn and Roasted Tomato Salsa
Serves 8-10 people.

Ingredients:
For the Polenta:

2 cups cornmeal (I like it as coarsely ground as possible)
10 cups water
lots of salt, pepper and some dried red chili flakes
1 head of garlic
1 cup ricotta
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan (or other similar hard cheese)

For the Salsa:
3 ears of corn, shucked
4 or 5 tomatoes
A generous amount of fresh oregano, basil, or whatever other herbs you have on hand
Olive oil

To make the Polenta:
Preheat your oven to 400F. Take your head of garlic, and chop off the top of it so that the tops of all of the cloves are exposed. Place it on a piece of tin foil and drizzle a bit of olive oil on top, and sprinkle a little salt and pepper. Wrap up the garlic in the tin foil, and roast it in the hot oven for approximately 45 minutes, til the cloves are good and soft. Take it out of the oven, unwrap and let it cool so that you won’t burn your fingers when it’s time to squeeze the garlic out!

Bring the water to a boil with some salt, then drizzle in the cornmeal while stirring vigorously to avoid clumps. Reduce the heat to low (seriously, as low as you can possibly go and still have the thing be cooking). Stir it. For a long time. At least 45 minutes. Don’t go more than a minute or two during this process without stirring. If it’s gotten super thick but still isn’t very creamy, add a bit more water. Stir it until it’s nice and thick and CREAMY. When it’s about done, add in your ricotta, Parmesan, and remove the garlic cloves from their skins and mix it all in. If you want, smash some of the garlic against the side of the saucepan to make it distribute more evenly, but don’t do that too much–it is an awesome surprise to discover whole cloves of sweet roasted garlic in your polenta! Then season to taste. I just used salt, pepper and some dried chili flakes, but you could add whatever you’d like. Be generous with the salt. Pour the polenta out into a lasagna-sized baking dish and refrigerate for at least one hour, until it is nice and solid.

Once you’re ready to grill, cut the polenta up into generous pieces; I like to cut it into squares and then cut those in two into triangles. This batch got me about a dozen such triangles. Either brush the polenta or your grill with a bit of oil to keep it from sticking. Grill until it’s nice and hot throughout, the skin is a bit charred and crispy, and it smells awesome. Serve with sauce.

To make the Salsa:
Preheat the oven to 350.  Lightly brush the tomatoes with olive oil, put them on a baking tray, and put them in the oven until they are soft.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Once they’re cool enough to touch, peel the skins off the tomatoes, roughly chop them, and put them in a bowl.  In the meantime, fire up the grill and roast your corn.  Once it’s cooked, slice the kernels off the cob and add those to the tomatoes. Chop up generous amounts of fresh herbs and toss those with the tomatos and corn.  Check and adjust the seasoning, and serve spooned over grilled warm polenta wedges.

The First BBQ of the Year, Soul Food-Style

Montrealers may remember that last summer was one of the hottest, stuffiest summers in recent memory. We don’t have air conditioning in our apartment, and so for much of the summer, cooking in our kitchen was pretty much unbearable. Luckily, we had just purchased a new BBQ, as well as the awesome veggie grilling basket pictured above, and so we spent months eating perfect dinners of grilled proteins with vegetables–whatever we had in the fridge just thrown on a the grill with a little bit of seasoning and oil–and loving it. It was about as much as we could handle “cooking” in that heat. And it ruled. As the weather has been warming up in recent weeks, I am looking forward to another summer of simple, tasty, hearty BBQ-ing.

This weekend we fired up the BBQ for the first time this year, and we were instantly nostalgic for last summer, and excited for this one. We kicked off the first BBQ of the season with a soul food-style feast. I have, in the past couple of years, become obsessed with soul food, which is a problem since this is a pretty much nonexistent cuisine in Montreal. Whenever we go to the U.S. I gorge myself and discover what I can, while back home, I have relied on a couple of cookbooks to show me the ropes. It is a pretty strange thing to cook dishes at home that you’ve never actually eaten before, so that you’re not quite sure if you’re getting them right. Last winter, for example, I was fixated on trying to make chicken and dumplings, and scoured a million websites to find the perfect recipe to introduce me to this traditional dish; the result was absolutely delicious, but who knows how it compared to the real thing!

One book that has been teaching me about soul food is Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South:

source

Sheila Ferguson wrote Soul Food when she moved to the UK with her British husband and felt cut off from her community and access to traditional recipes. She is a fantastic writer who takes great pains to introduce the reader to the origins of the food, its cultural significance, and why she loves it. She manages to be funny and colloquial without coming off as kitschy. Chapters of the book include, for example, “The High and Mighty Breakfast”; “Fine Feathered Fowl”; “The Almighty Pig”; “If You See It, Shoot It”; and “The Glorious Sweet Potato”; among others. I had been pouring over this book since I bought it months ago, savouring her writing on the evolution of this style of cooking, but it was not until this weekend that I finally tried a recipe. Many reviews online mentioned that Ferguson’s BBQ sauce recipes were amazing, so I thought that a fitting place to start. Often, when we BBQ, we use the Smoked Chipotle BBQ Sauce from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie cookbook, which is seriously so ridiculously flavourful that it surprises us every time, but I thought it  might be nice to add another sauce to our repertoire. And Ferguson did not disappoint. For whatever reason, I was especially drawn to the BBQ sauce in her recipe for spareribs, so I stole that and used it for a couple of chicken legs. We grilled some new potatoes, asparagus and nectarines alongside the chicken, and as a further accompaniment I decided to try my hand at another soul food perennial that I had never actually tried (or even seen) in real life: spoonbread.

The result was a literally finger-licking plate of food that could not have made a more beautiful kick-off to our summer cookery. The BBQ sauce was really simple but full of flavour: a little bit sweet, a little bit spicy, a little bit acidic, it complemented the char of the BBQ perfectly. I will absolutely be making it again; it strikes me as the perfect base sauce to experiment with, or just to use as is because it is so solid. The spoonbread was like a perfect cross between cornbread and bread pudding. We often do some kind of corn-based accompaniment when we grill–cornbread, grilled polenta, corn on the cob–and this is a great addition to our repertoire. Light and fluffy, and nice and moist, it really added to the succulence of the BBQ-ed chicken and also made for awesome leftovers; we had some for breakfast the next morning with butter and a fried egg.

What a lovely way to kick of BBQ season; I hope we will have many more such meals to share with you over the coming months. In the meantime, here are Sheila Ferguson’s recipes for Spoonbread and BBQ Sauce, slightly adapted by me.

Spoonbread
Adapted from Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South. Serves 6.

Spoonbread is to my mind a gourmet’s delight. You should be able to spoon it out onto your plate and eat it with a fork. To ensure this, I treat spoonbread with the respect it deserves and separate the eggs and beat the whites. Some people don’t and it comes out just fine, but I like that extra little bit of fluffiness that beaten egg whites give.

Ingredients:
1 cup yellow or white cornmeal
2 cups water
1 tsp salt [I would add a little more]
1 cup milk or buttermilk
2 tbsp melted butter
1 tsp baking powder
3 egg yolks
3 egg whites

Preheat your over to 375F. Pour your cornmeal into boiling salted water. Cook, over medium heat, for 5 minutes or until thick, stirring constantly.
When the consistency is just about right, remove the pan from the heat and slowly stir in the milk. Let it cool down a bit before beating in your butter, baking powder and egg yolks. Beat vigorously for a couple of minutes then fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites (stiff but not dry, that is).

Pour the batter into a well buttered 2 quart baking dish and bake for 35-40 minutes [it took me about 45] or until golden brown. It’s done when a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

You can serve spoonbread with just about any kind of meat — ham, pork loin or chops, spareribs, roast chicken or seafood dishes. It is also terrific for breakfast!

Spare Rib BBQ Sauce
Adapted from Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South. Again, I used this to BBQ chicken and it worked out beautifully; I am sure it would also be awesome for ribs too.
Serves 6.

Ingredients:
2 tbsp melted pork fat or bacon grease (or melted butter)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp cider vinegar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp mustard dry or prepared (not too strong though or it will take over the taste)
1 tbsp celery salt or 1 tsp celery seed
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper [I put closer to a tsp and it gave it a nice kick]
1 cup tomato ketchup
3 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
4 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 cup water or meat stock
1/2 cup beer
1/2 cup dry white wine (optional) [I skipped this]

Heat the bacon grease or butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Brown the onion, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or so. Add in all the remaining ingredients. Bring them to a boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20 minutes or so, uncovered.

Taste and adjust seasoning, and then slather all over your chosen protein!