Saturday, October 27, 2012

"The Flavor of the South" & "Deep South Staples - Grits and Grillades

Date I made these recipes:  October 21, 2012

The Flavor of the South – Delicacies and Staples of Southern Cuisine by Jeanne A. Voltz
Published by:  Greenwich House
© 1978; 1983 reprint
Recipe:  Grillades – p. 32

Deep South Stapes – how to survive in a southern kitchen without a can of cream of mushroom soup by Robert St. John
Published by Different Drummer Press
ISBN: 0-9721972-2-2
Recipe:  Garlic Cheese Grits p. 34 (Creole Seasoning Recipe p. 252)

“I’m in a southern kind of mood,” I told my husband, “so we’re having Grits and Grillades for dinner.”

“Grits and what?” said the man I married. 

“Grits and Grillades.  Grillades.  You know – grilled meats.  It’s French.  You speak French, remember?  We’re having grits and grilled meats for dinner. Sheesh.”

Actually, a quick look at Wikipedia confirms that this is a staple dish in New Orleans.  When it comes to the south, I’ve always had the impression that there’s New Orleans, a region unto itself, and then there’s everyone else.  And having been to the region and to New Orleans several times, I can tell you that there is indeed a difference in attitude, in culture and in food. (And drink but I won’t bore you with my cocktail stories from my last sojourn to that city!)

Any who…while I can appreciate and have eaten most southern and New Orleans’ specialties, I am still on the fence about grits.  My first, close encounter with them was on a family trip to Florida way back in the 60’s.  We stopped off in Mississippi and Georgia and naturally, grits were on the menu.

Shall I just tell you that I was not impressed?  Grits looked like Cream of Wheat (yum!), complete with the requisite pat of butter, but when I tasted them….ew?  And I mean ew.  So I never ate them again on the rest of the trip.

Fast forward to 1992 when my husband and I took a driving tour of the south, ending in New Orleans, when once again, we encountered grits on the menu.  This time around we ordered them at the Waffle House, a place I have to say usually gets pretty decent reviews for their food and their grits.  But again, the people spoke (“people” meaning me and Andy) and we’re back to “ew.” 

A friend of mine, Tex, who as you might imagine, is from Texas, told me that the secret is a lot of butter and a lot of salt.  I wasn’t buying it.  But once before, I made a grit recipe that called for cheese to be added and I tell you what, that just opened up a whole new grit world for me!  Because cheese is good with just about anything, grits included.

So in my search for grits to go with my grillades, I found this recipe for garlic cheese grits that was loaded with cheddar and cream cheese (a 2’fer) and thought I should try them.  And they were good.

But when I emailed Tex and another friend, Ann, who goes by the nickname, TEA, she came back with an emphatic “’No’ as in “No, no, no, no, no!”  TEA lived in the south for 5 years and never did experience grit love.  I tried to tell her that the cheese made all the difference and she responded with the statement that this was a perfectly good waste of perfectly good cheese.

Being a Libra, I always see both sides and so will let you decide for yourself whether or not these grits pass muster but I liked them and so did Andy. We’re trying to get out of our comfort zone of Great Northern Food, but this grit experience wasn’t too bad and certainly not painful like the other couple go-rounds.

Before leaving this fascinating discussion about grits, let me tell you that any time I think of grits, two things come to mind:  1) the song Grits Ain’t Groceries written by Titus Turner, covered by Little Milton and Van Morrison and 2) the movie My Cousin Vinny.  So let’s discuss.

For years, I thought the song Grits Ain’t Groceries was really “Grits and Groceries” but I was wrong.  Blame it on my ear wax.  The lyrics are “Grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry and Mona Lisa was a man.”  Hahahaha.  Well, that’s the south for you!

As to My Cousin Vinny, was there ever a funnier moment than when Vinny said “Grits?  What’s a grit?  I think not.  An even funnier exchange took place when Vinny had Mr. Tipton on the witness stand talking about grits as part of his defense of his cousin, Bill Gambini, and Bill’s friend, Stan Rothenstein.  Vinny asks Mr. Tipton how he likes his grits and Mr. Tipton says “Regular, I guess.”  Vinny then says “Regular.  Instant grits?” and Tipton gives the best line that I believe summarizes the entire Southern “grit-eating world” (as Vinny called it):  “No self-respectin’ Southerner uses instant grits.”  You shouldn’t, either.

As to grillades, well, class, these are simply grilled cuts of meat all gussied up with a sauce of tomatoes, onions and green peppers.  “Grillades” just sounds better though, doesn’t it?  And if you have any aggressions you want to get out (and you do, don’t you?), then this is your dish.  According to the recipe, you’re supposed to pound your round steak into ¼-inch thick pieces.  So okay, I did that because I follow directions but despite really taking a whack or two or twenty at the meat, I still didn’t get it as thin as I liked.  The solution, you ask?  Cook it longer!  (Might I also say that this pounding thing is kind of a messy endeavor—have a dish rag handy.)  I put the lid on my large fry pan, turned the flame down really low and went back to watching the Amazing Race for an additional half an hour until I was satisfied they were done. (Let me digress for just a moment:   Why, CBS, did you move The Good Wife to Sundays?  You know damned well that the football games you broadcast are always late, making 60 Minutes late, making the Amazing Race late therefore making The Good Wife late.  This is rude.  Stop it!)

Now most grits and grillades recipes call for putting the grillades and sauce on top of the grits but I kept mine separate so I could better appreciate the flavors.  I cannot say that I liked the pairing of these cheesy grits with this grillades recipe but that is perhaps just me and my Yankee palate.  You should also know that this dish is typically served for brunch and I would not be my mother’s daughter if I didn’t raise an eyebrow over that concept; this dish is heavy and so I decided it was best suited for an evening repast.

And that folks is all y’all need to know about that.  So give grits a chance and make this recipe and if you are so inclined, get your French Creole on and serve it up with some meat that you pounded the hell out of and y’all feel better about life as you know it.

Grillades – makes 4-5 servings
1 ½ pound sound steak, ½ inch thick (pounded to 1/4 inch thick)
1 tablespoon oil
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon flour
1 green pepper, chopped
2 tomatoes, sliced, or 1 cup canned
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 cup hot water
1 bay leaf, crumbled
¼ teaspoon thyme

Pound steak with meat mallet or edge of heavy saucer to break up fibers and flatten to ¼ inch thick.  Cut in 4-inch squares.  Season well with salt and cayenne.  Brown in oil in heavy skillet.  Remove and keep warm.  Add onion and garlic to pan drippings and cook until tender but now browned.  Add flour and cook and stir until browned.  Add green pepper, tomatoes, vinegar, water, bay leaf, and thyme.  Stir until well mixed.  Arrange grillades in sauce.  Cover and simmer until tender.

Garlic Cheese Grits – yield:  8 servings
1 T Bacon grease or oil
1 T Garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
2 cups milk
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup Grits
1 tsp Creole Seasoning (recipe page 252 – see below)
1 tsp hot sauce
8 oz sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
4 oz cream cheese

For Creole Seasoning (Makes 1 cup – 1 used scant amount of each ingredient for my recipe)
½ cup Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
2 T onion powder
2 T Paprika
1 T Cayenne pepper
1 T white pepper
1 T plus 1 tsp garlic powder
1 T black pepper
1 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp oregano, dry
1 tsp thyme, dry
Combine all ingredients and mix well.  Store in an airtight container.

Melt bacon grease or oil over low heat in a 1-1/2 quart saucepot.  Add garlic and salt and cook for 1-2 minutes being careful not to brown the garlic.  Add milk and broth and increase heat.  Bring to a simmer and slowly pour in the grits.  Lower heat and cook grits for 15 minutes, stirring often.

Add the remaining ingredients and stir until cheeses are melted.  Serve immediately.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"The Italian Table" & "Cooking with by Sisters" - Classic Polpettine (Meatballs) and Lasagna with Meat and Cheese

Date I made these recipes:  October 14, 2012

The Italian Table – Eating Together for Every Occasion by Ron Suhanosky
Published by:  Kyle Books
ISBN:  978-1-906868-56-7
Recipe:  Classic Polpettine (Meatballs) with Ricotta and Creamy Polenta – p. 98-99

Cooking with My Sisters by Adriana Trigiani
Published by:  Random House
ISBN:  1-4000-6259-4
Recipe:  Trigiani Lasagna with Meat and Cheese – p. 62-64

It’s October!  On the 8th, we celebrated Columbus Day, the day that Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa, Italy, discovered America.  Naturally, it only follows that Italian food became extremely popular with the American public, am I right? 

And on October 9th, this half-Sicilian gal celebrated yet another birthday but with a busy schedule, I was unable to get my “Italian” on until the weekend rolled around. (Truth be told, I was at my community band rehearsal, prepping for a big concert on the 23rd.  Oh yeah, we’re talking about birthday excitement!!).

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t have an inordinate amount of Italian cookbooks in my collection, probably because as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I am kind of a regional snob when it comes to Italian cooking – no white sauce, no gnocchi, no pesto.  These items are just not found in Sicilian cuisine.  But I do so love red sauce and meatballs and ricotta cheese and so these recipes fed my birthday soul.

Oddly enough, there was a Minnesota connection in both books even though neither author is from here.  So let’s start with the first book, The Italian Table.

Now, I don’t want to sound picky, but [author] Ron Suhanosky’s name does not sound like an Italian name.  For the record, neither does mine although let me assure you that it is a) Italian (it means “worm”) and b) it’s the un-altered last name of my grandfather, Arcangelo Verme.  Oh yeah, now that name works, doesn’t it??  Well, turns out Ron has street cred:  his great-grandmother’s name was Rose Carbone and grandma’s name was Rachel Gaudino.  So the guy gets a pass and that helps a lot.

But here’s what really drew my eye as I was looking at this book (sold at Common Good Books in St. Paul, owned by author and MPR radio star, Garrison Keilor):  the author’s wife’s grandfather was Joe Piazza who owned and operated Café di Napoli, an Italian restaurant (read:  institution) in downtown Minneapolis for many years.

I loved that restaurant.  I loved the leather booths, I loved the classic Italian (red-sauce) food and I loved the murals of Italy that adorned the building.  So when I saw a photo in this cookbook of the Café di Napoli booths, and read the Café di Napli story (p. 96) as I was looking at this book in the bookstore, I decided that I had to have it in my collection right then and there.  And then I decided to make the meatballs on the page following the photo because well, why wouldn’t I?  What I did not make though, was the polenta as that is just not in my Sicilian-cooking wheelhouse.  Instead, I made Adriana Trigiani’s family lasagna and had the meatballs on the side as we often did at my family table.

Author Adriana Trigiani’s Minnesota connection hits close to home:  her grandfather, Carlo Bonicelli, immigrated to New York from Italy and then decided to head to Minnesota and Minnesota’s Iron Range in Chisholm, Minnesota, to start a shoe shop.  It is often a surprise to non-Minnesotans that there are a lot of Italians up on the Iron Range but many of them went to work in the mines and if they didn’t work in the mines, they ran businesses catering to the miners and their families.

Well, never mind that I am a huge fan of Adriana’s to begin with but her latest book, The Shoemaker’s Wife, loosely based on her grandparent’s story of coming to America, made me cry.  I am a sucker for an immigrant story, and this book made me think about the similar struggles my grandparents had when they came to America from Sicily.  You should run, not walk, to a bookstore to pick up a copy of that book and while there peruse the shelves for some of her other “family” stories, like my favorite, Lucia, Lucia.

Since I was already launched on my Italian theme, I decided to throw Adriana’s cookbook into the mix, making her family’s lasagna recipe to go with my meatballs (or was it the other way around?!).  Both recipes were simply scrumptious and earned a rousing “molto benne” from me and my husband; we are now enjoying leftovers as we speak.

So I’m getting everything prepped for these recipes and damn it all, I ran out of bread crumbs for both recipes and I also realized that I forgot mozzarella for the lasagna, a near-tragedy in this household. ( Lucky for me, my husband volunteered to go to the store while I continued my prep while watching the NY Yankees, my favorite baseball team, battle the Detroit Tigers; Michigan is my home state but I just don’t have the loyalty to them like I do to New York where my father is from.  Both cookbook authors also live in Manhattan and so I felt like the circle was complete with my recipe cooking and baseball viewing!

The only warning I will give to us with regard to the meatballs, is that I needed more sauce so I added some chopped tomatoes from my panty to what I already had on hand rather than adding water as the recipes calls for.  The meatballs, with their unique filling of ricotta and Parmesan cheese, were also a little soft and crumbly, prompting my husband to call them Meatball Sloppy Joes, but they were tasty and so who cares?

By the way, there’s a group shot of Adriana’s family on the same page as the lasagna recipe with a caption:  “A party in Grandmom’s basement.  Italian-Americans love to give parties in their basements and garage.  Please don’t ask why.”  I have almost the exact same photo of my family taken in my aunt’s basement and I can tell you why—because in New Jersey in the summer it is hotter than Hades and so to the cooling basement we go. No sense packing in lasagna and meatballs and raviolis and pizza while sitting in the sizzling heat!

When it’s time for dinner in my family, we use our family battle cry to signal it’s time to start eating:  “A Mangia!”  Enjoy these recipes.

Classic Polpettine with Ricotta and Creamy Polenta – serves 6 to 8 (Makes about 16 2-inch meatballs or a whole lot of 1-inch ones!)
3 pounds ground veal
2 cups whole milk ricotta
1 cup dried unseasoned bread crumbs
2 large brown eggs
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Pinch of red pepper flakes
½ cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, finely chopped
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
Two 28-ounce cans whole San Marzano tomatoes, pureed by passing through a food mill

Creamy Polenta (note:  this requires 2 hours advance prep)
6 cups water, at room temperature
2 cups coarsely ground cornmeal (polenta), soaked in water for 2 hours in advance and drained
1 small garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
About ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

To make the meatballs:
Preheat the oven to 400F. 

Combine the ground veal, ricotta, bread crumbs, eggs, one-half of the minced garlic, the Parmigiano-Reggiano, red pepper flakes, parsley, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl.  Use your hands to thoroughly mix and work all the ingredients together.  Form and roll the mixture into somewhat firm meatballs 2 inches in diameter; these quantities should yield about 16 meatballs.

Position the meatballs 2 inches apart, so they are not touching, on a large sheet pan.  Bake until they are slightly brown and firm, 30 to 35 minutes.

Place the grapeseed oil (I used olive oil) in a heavy-bottomed casserole or cast-iron pot over high heat.  Lightly sauté the remaining garlic.  Add the pureed tomatoes and 1 tomato can of water.  Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 3 ½ hours.  The meatballs should remain submerged to braise in the tomato sauce; add a small amount of water to the sauce if necessary.

To make the polenta:
Place the water, cornmeal, garlic, 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/8 teaspoon of the red pepper flakes in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.  Whisk continuously until the ingredients are fully incorporated and a smooth, lump-free consistency is achieved.  Continue to stir.  (At this point, you may want to switch from a whisk to a wooden spoon.)  Continue to cook, while stirring continuously, until the polenta pulls away from the side of the pan, 15 to 18 minutes total.  Add the butter and the Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Adjust the seasonings, adding salt and red pepper flakes to taste.

Ann’s note:  I did not make the polenta, substituting the lasagna instead.  I don’t add red pepper flakes to my food—it’s not my family’s way of cooking and I used some of the sauce for my lasagna recipe to cook my meatballs instead of his recipe as they were pretty close in ingredients. 

Trigiani Lasagna with Meat and Cheese – makes 9 entrée portions or 12 side portions

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 ½ cup crushed tomatoes
12 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Ricotta Cheese Filing
15 to 16 ounces ricotta cheese
5 ounces shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano
4 ounces bread crumbs
½ teaspoon salt
4 to 5 sprigs of Italian parsley, finely chopped

Meat filing
1 pound very lean ground beef
Salt and pepper to taste

12 lasagna noodles, either oven-ready or precooked

Sprinkling cheese
10 ounces shredded mozzarella (use 5 ounces in the layers and 5 ounces for the topping)
5 ounces shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano

Make the sauce by combining the sauce ingredients in a medium saucepan and simmer until the tomatoes have been liquefied, 20 to 30 minutes.  While the sauce is simmering, mix the ingredients for the cheese filling.  Brown the ground beef, season with salt and pepper and dry.  Set aside.  Cook the pasta noodles.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Coast a large roasting pan with live oil, lightly.  Assemble the lasagna as follows:

Layer of pasta
Thin layer of sauce
5 ounces mozzarella
Ricotta cheese filling
5 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano
Layer of pasta
Thin layer of sauce
5 ounces mozzarella

Bake for one hour, covered.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes.  Slice into squares and serve.

Monday, October 1, 2012

"Pasta Presto" - Scallops and Mushrooms in Martini Cream Sauce

Date I made this recipe:  September 17, 2012

Pasta Presto – 100 Fast & Fabulous Pasta Sauces by Norman Kolpas
Published by:  Contemporary Books
ISBN:  0-8092-4676-7
Recipe:  Scallops and Mushrooms in Martini Cream – p. 16

Many people often dream about being a restaurant reviewer because “how fun would that be, right?”  Well, often it’s not – fun, that is.  Not only do you have to find people to go with you (not as easy as you think), but you have to make repeat visits and then, of course, you have to write about it.

Some reviewers pride themselves on waxing poetic about the food while others, like my late friend, Tall (Carol), can summarize a dish in one word for example, “goopy.”  Yes, folks, with one word, Tall told you everything you needed to know about the taste of a dish and if you want to be cool you’ll add this to your food vocabulary as well. But you should know that “goopy” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just means the dish is rich, often containing cream or cream cheese or just cheese – or maybe, if you are extremely fortunate all three.  This is the essence of “goopy” in “Tall World.”  It was oh-so-good going down but after a while, she’d feel guilty about eating it and would switch back to something healthier to “cleanse” the system.

This dish – Scallops and Mushrooms with Martini Cream - is goopy but in a good way.  I can almost see Tall downing the dish then stating she was full (as was I) and that it was “goopy” but then I hope she’d also give me her other trademark phrase:  “This is exxxxxxxxxxx-cellent.”  Just so you know “This is exxxxxxxxxxx-cellent” was high praise coming from her.  So was “I can’t believe I ate it all, but it was sooooo good!”

The reason I’m telling you about Tall’s food critic comments is that today’s book was from her collection.  She didn’t have as many cookbooks as I have, maybe a dozen compared to my 1,460 books (and counting) but they were reflective of her cooking interests. She tended to make things that she could freeze in bulk and the majority of her recipes were geared toward healthy eating.  In the summer, she grew many of her own vegetables and used them in numerous ways in various dishes. And that is why, when she was first diagnosed with cancer, she was so mad because she was always so careful about diet and exercise.  Sadly, cancer doesn’t give a rat’s rump about these things.  It was also very sad that her cancer manifested itself just outside of the stomach area making eating and drinking very difficult in the first stages of cancer and at the end of her days, impossible.  There is nothing sadder than seeing someone wanting to eat and enjoy just the smallest taste of food only to be denied that pleasure by her body.

 Without her around, I cannot ask her which of the recipes on the pages she bookmarked she actually made.  She either made Chicken with Lemon-Caper Cream on page 36 or she made Turkey with Peppers, Olives and Tomato on page 37.  On page 44, she either enjoyed Veal Sausage in Mustard Cream or the Bacon and Garlic Sauté on page 45.  And so on and so forth.  My guess is that she probably went with a healthier choice more often than not.  I do know for a fact though, that she made the Classic Basil Pesto recipe on page 88 with basil she grew in her garden.  She served it on a few occasions and it was delicious. 

And so I was all set to make one of her bookmarked items when I saw this recipe for Scallops and Mushrooms in Martini Cream and decided that this was definitely it.  When it came to imbibing alcoholic beverages Tall was first a beer drinker and then a wine connoisseur but then she was introduced to a classic martini (perhaps by me, but perhaps by one of her other friends) and we were off and running.   I must confess that my martinis are rather killer as I make them as dry as dry can be and by that I mean sans vermouth, but she adapted well to my version of paint thinner.

So “martini” cream sauce it was and how fitting was that?!  It’s like I was meant to make this dish.  That said, I do think that the cream sauce might have scared her off from making it herself because of the “goopy” factor.  I wish I could say the richness of the cream sauce was offset by the gin and vermouth but alas, no, but no matter, it was the idea of a martini that was important here.  Still, if I had to make it again, I would play around with the alcohol quantities, likely upping them just a wee bit.  And it should go without saying that I should keep increasing the booze quotient whilst sipping on my own chilled martini, no?  (Shaken, not stirred, “up” as opposed to on the rocks and with an olive or two.)

Now I also taught my husband to enjoy a good martini (and yes, there is such a thing as a “bad” martini) and he was all over the recipe and we both ate until we were stuffed.  And then of course, we paused for a moment of silence and guilt, remembering my fallen comrade and how we enjoyed something which she could not, in her last stages of cancer, enjoy along with us. 

If she had lived, I would have told her about this recipe and had she made it herself, I’m pretty sure she would have pronounced it “exxxxxxxxxxx-cellent.”  I hope you find it excellent as well.

Scallops and Mushrooms in Martini Cream – serves 4-6
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
6 ounces button mushrooms, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices
6 medium shallots, finely chopped
4 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
4½ cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons gin
1 tablespoon dry vermouth
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ pound bay scallops
Pasta – angel hair, spaghettini or vermicelli

In a saucepan or skillet, melt the butter over moderate heat.  Add the mushrooms, shallots and garlic; sauté until tender, 2 to 3 minutes.  Add the cream, gin, vermouth, and salt.  Raise the heat and gently boil until the mixture is thick and reduced by a third t a half, 15 to 20 minutes.

Stir in the scallops and simmer 2 to 3 minutes more (for larger scallops, 4 to 5 minutes more).  Serve immediately over cooked pasta.