July 15, 2011

Avateur Lasagna... with Scallion and Pumpkin Seed Pesto

This lasagna recipe, as most of the recipes on this blog, was formed on the spot from improvisation... and sheer laziness.

There was no Ricotta in the fridge. And I wanted lasagna. Simple as that.

When I buy prepackaged fresh produce at the grocery, I'm forced to find ways to store them so they don't go bad. I live alone and I simply cannot go through a huge bunch of scallions in the couple days it takes for them to wilt. So I experimented by making a batch of pesto which I would freeze in portions and use in recipes to give the same scallion flavour without the fresh cuts. I used pumpkin seeds instead of the traditional pine nuts since there was obviously nothing else traditional in this pesto. Well... there was olive oil. And Parmesan. I take it back.

Tip: In my pesto storage research, I found that if you spread a thin layer of oil over the top of the pesto before you store it, it will keep it's gorgeous green colour.

I used the pesto in pasta sauces, spread it on burgers, sandwiches and pizzas.. but my favourite application was as a substitute for the ricotta in my lasagna recipe.

The sauce for the lasagna starts with my basic bolognese. See this post.

You will need:

One (1) pound of lean ground beef.
One (1) large onion, chopped
Four (4) cloves of garlic, minced
Two (2) 28oz cans of diced tomatoes
Two (2) 6oz cans of tomato paste
One (1) tablespoon each of dried basil, oregano, parsley and brown sugar
One (1) teaspoon each of salt and pepper

Brown lean ground beef with onions and garlic in a heavy saucepan. Use a teaspoon of olive oil if the meat is very lean.
Add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, basil, parsley, oregano, brown sugar, salt and pepper.
Simmer for half an hour.

Got that? Great.

I should add here that I am a big fan of the oven ready lasagne pasta sheets. I'm sorry.. but anything that lets me skip a step and leaves me one less pot to wash is a winner in my book. If you want to make fresh pasta, more power to you. If you already have pasta that you have to cook before you assemble the lasagna, then you should go ahead and do that while the sauce is simmering away.

This is where I would usually prep my ricotta mixture. I would mix a pint of part-skim ricotta with a half cup of Parmesan and two beaten eggs. All I did for this recipe was to swap the ricotta with the pesto. I added a little less Parmesan than usual since the pesto already had plenty, and added about 3 tablespoons of chopped parsley to freshen it up. Then I folded in the beaten eggs.

I didn't mean to yell... but it must be a big deal because every lasagna recipe I have ever read has a different method to the layering. I have tried every combination of layers there are to try, I'm sure. I have finally settled on one method that suited my preference... no breakage when trying to remove a piece from the pan, nothing falling out on the spatula ride to the plate, nothing remaining in the space where the piece came from. If my layer combo doesn't appeal to you, do it however you want. It might just be me, but the way the lasagna was layered never once affected the taste of the finished dish. Call me crazy.

First, I spread about half a cup of the sauce on the bottom of the pan. I wouldn't call it a full on layer, but just enough so that the entire surface of the pan has a bit of the juices from the sauce. I continue with a layer of noodles, slightly overlapping the edges as I go. Then I put another layer of the sauce; about a third of whatever is left. Then a layer of mozzarella (yep that's in here too!). Then a layer of the pesto. Then pasta. Then sauce. Then mozzarella. Then pesto. Then pasta again. Seeing the trend? For my standard 9x13in pan, I put one more layer of sauce and top off the lasagna with a layer of mozzarella.
Stack your layers according to the depth of your casserole, and how thick/high you want the lasagna. The top layer should be the mozzarella.

Cover the lasagna with foil and bake at 350 degrees until bubbly. Then remove the foil and pop it back in the oven until the cheese on top browns a bit.

I sprinkled a little parsley when I removed the dish from the oven.

June 07, 2011

The Jamaican Cheesesteak

The traditional cheesesteak originated in the city of Philadelphia, and is crafted using thin slices of steak that are sauteed on a flat top then loaded into hollowed roll. Optional toppings are added to the sandwich, such as onions and green peppers; and the meat is usually covered with cheese, typically cheez whiz or provolone.

Having never been to Philadelphia, I haven't been able to experience a true, authentic cheesesteak. The popularity of the sandwich, however, allows people all over the United States - and, by extension, the world - to get a taste of the local favourite.

As is expected when a dish is borrowed from another culture, it is adapted to suit local tastes. This is no different in Jamaica. It's no secret that Jamaica is famous for jerked chicken -it is arguably the most well known specialty from the country. Please note the word ARGUABLY in that sentence. Good. During my vacation I was able to sample a local take of the sandwich.

Jerk Chicken Philly

A popular jerk pit serves up a classic Philadelphia Cheesesteak, made with beef; however, they also offer a variation made with juicy, spicy, succulent jerked chicken.
Everything else about the sandwich is pretty standard, and the simplicity of the ingredients only highlights the wonderful flavour of the chicken.Thin strips of grilled chicken are tossed with sauteed green peppers and onions, and covered with Provolone cheese.

June 01, 2011

The Avateur Steak Dinner

I'm back! From a MUCH needed vacation (which was only meant to be one week but somehow extended itself over last week as well). For those who follow me on twitter, I know I said that the time off from work would allow me more time in the kitchen and on the blog.. but I didn't factor in the fact that I would be returning home and spending time with friends and family I haven't seen in months. I didn't cook ONCE. Unbelievable really; but I did get the chance to eat some inspiring restaurant meals which, in true Avateur Chef style, I will attempt to recreate in my 'cozy' apartment kitchen in the coming weeks.

This dinner isn't one of them, but I was reminded of it when I was packing up some of my cookware I didn't have the space to carry when I was moving out. I am in love with my reversible cast iron grill pan and skillet. I was a Junior in college when I bought it, and the first thing I did when I got home was to make jerked chicken. In a second floor campus apartment. Since then I've used it for everything.. and I mean EVERYTHING. Pancakes, Paninis, Burgers, Kebabs and anything else that's typically grilled/BBQed. Everything, that is, except steak.

We don't eat much red meat in my immediate family. We're pork people, through and through. Notice the word immediate in there? Yeah.. My dad's side of the family doesn't eat pork and my mom's side can't get enough. I'm convinced she converted him, but I can't even begin to get into pork politics right now. This is about steak. The first time I can consciously remember having a steak is my freshman year of college. No joke. It's not that I hadn't been anywhere that served it, obviously.. it's just that I never ordered it. It was strange to me. I had always seen it in the media served medium rare, and so always saw it presented with the pink centre and very juicy (with what I thought at the time was blood.. ahh kids. -_-). Growing up we never ate anything that wasn't cooked all the way through.. WELL. I remember once when my brother and I were staying with an aunt, she made us eggs over easy for breakfast and we thought she couldn't cook. Something had to be wrong with her to give us egg yolks running all over the plate.

When I got older and started learning about meat temperatures and ordering in restaurants, I began to understand that I could have a steak cooked all the way through. It took me a while to actually do it though. The only reason I grasped the concept so willingly is probably because I love a good burger. Again, I'll leave that for another post. Fast forward a couple more years, and there I was in college; the time for experimenting with new things and doing things you never did at home. Like eating a steak. Dangerous.

The grill on campus had a special Steak Dinner every Sunday night. It was served with a baked potato and garlic toast - 2 of my fave sides. I believe they served grilled NY strips, but to be honest I know very little about the different cuts of steak. I ordered it well done of course, put A1 on it and ate it, it was a little chewy but it wasn't too dry.. and after it was done I couldn't help but think that I hadn't been missing much.

Then I became a food nerd. It changed every notion I had about steak. Like a steak that is well done in the kitchen, will most likely be overdone on the serving plate. Or that good steaks would never need steak sauce. It should melt in your mouth, not take severe chomping before you can swallow it.

To achieve all this, the ideal thing would be to order a steak at medium well; by the time it rests in the kitchen, and is brought out to you on the plate, it would be at perfect doneness. In the event that you wanted to serve a steak dinner to a family that wouldn't tolerate any sign of pink in their meat however, you would have to find an alternative way to cook the meat all the way through without drying it out.

I began by marinating T-Bone Steaks in a combination of Soy Sauce, Oyster Sauce,  Paprika and Garlic for only about 2 hours. We are used to seasoning meat overnight in my house, but I did not want the marinade to completely overpower the flavour of the meat itself. I then seared the steaks on my VERY HOT grill pan to seal in the juices and get a great colour on the meat. It took about 3 minutes on each side, turning 90 degrees about 2 minutes in to get the grill marks. I then transferred the steaks into a baking dish with 'pegs' of tomatoes, bell peppers and onions and a reserved portion of the marinade mixture that had not been used on the meat earlier. I covered the dish with foil and put in the oven at about 250 degrees. My strategy was to create a braising effect with the steaks; they would be fully cooked through but remain juicy from the sauce and juices that would be released from the vegetables during cooking. I let them braise in the oven for just about 20 minutes until the meat was just about falling off the bone.

I served the steaks accompanied with the roasting vegetables from the same pan. I also made sweet potato steak fries by roasting sweet potato wedges until they were cooked through and then frying them in a deep skillet on the stove until they were crisp. I also served baked potatoes with crumbled bacon and chives, accompanied with sour cream and butter.

My parents enjoyed it which was a HUGE relief for me. I was so nervous about cooking steaks for the first time because I know how easy it is to dry them out. 
Let me know what you guys think of this method! And thanks so much for contuing to visit the blog despite my disappearance :)

May 09, 2011

Pancake-Battered Onion Rings

For those who are reading the blog for the first time, let me quickly introduce my 'cooking style' (whatever that means)

  • I keep a well-stocked pantry because I hate having to go shopping whenever I want to make something
  • I often find shortcuts to get the finished product I want.                                                                    (Mind you, there are days when I am in the mood to be in the kitchen for hours and make everything from scratch; after 8 hours on my feet at work, weeknights just don't fall into that category.)
  • I cook based on my cravings. Which are very erratic and, quite frankly, don't make much sense half the time. 
  • I improvise in recipes ALL the time. Sometimes because recipes call for ingredients not available in my area, but mostly because I don't want to go out just for that one thing.
  • I never make anything the same way twice; again, what's in the pantry/fridge goes into the dish.
Now that we're acquainted, welcome to the blog! :)

Last week after a particularly tiring day at work, I drove home with onion rings on the brain. I seriously contemplated driving through a fast food place just to pick some up, but guilt (and frugality) dismissed the idea. After all, I had huge onions at home (described as jumbo at the grocery store, they're pretty colossal) and could easily make my own. Once I walked through the door and sat on the couch however, preparing  onion rings seemed like the most daunting task ever. I'd have to soak them in buttermilk (which I would have to make by souring milk with vinegar; I can't find buttermilk here) then prepare the batter, coat them and fry them up.

OK, so it really doesn't sound so bad when I say it now... but at the time it was just too much. :|

Then, a beacon of hope. The packages of instant buttermilk pancake mix that I have on the top self of my pantry caught my eye. Buttermilk.. batter.. who says they could only be used for hurried breakfasts on weekday mornings?

So yes, beer-battered onion rings are great. But I was making pancake-battered onion rings.

First I sliced up the onion into rings, separated them, and dusted them with flour. I use whole wheat flour at home.

I mixed the packet of instant pancake mix with water until it was combined but thicker than the typical pancake batter. I added a touch of paprika and salt to balance out the sweetness of the batter.

Deep fried the coated onion rings.

Drained the onion rings on paper towels, and sprinkled with a little sea salt. (Some look a bit burnt, but it's the picture. I'm still working on my food photography 'skills')

Onion Rings on FoodistaOnion Rings

May 06, 2011

Mac and Cheese

Please note: Mac and Cheese here does NOT refer to the stuff that comes in a cardboard box with a little packet of orange "cheese" flavoured powder inside.

No judgement - those have saved me plenty of nights when my friends and I partied a bit too hard and had a bit too much to drink.

No, this Mac and Cheese is baked in a casserole. Made with homemade cheese sauce, herbs and spices, and what I like to call a crunchy garlic bread topping. Which is always everyone's favourite part.

I first made this Mac and Cheese for an Earth Hour barbecue that my friends and I had in college.
For those who don't know what Earth Hour is, you should read about it here; but, in essence, we all pledged to turn off all our lights and devices that used electricity for one hour that night to participate in the movement. During that hour, we all head outside to the pool with a charcoal grill and torches, and hung out and ate and had an awesome time. With awesome food right off the grill, of course.

Unfortunately, I have not yet figured out a way to make my Mac and Cheese on the grill. If it wasn't for the crunchy topping I could, but the idea I had just wouldn't have worked outside, so I did it in the oven beforehand.

Start the dish by cooking 4 cups of Macaroni Elbows...

*This is the one recipe you will see me include a roux and not complain bitterly. I have diagnosed myself with RPD - Roux Paranoia Disorder. I really believe that I have some deep-set, unresolved issues with roux. I have never botched one up, but I literally am in a state of panic the entire time I'm working on one because I think I am going to mess up. I couldn't even begin to describe it - but just know, I try to stay away from them for the sake of my mental health.*

But cheese sauce any other way would just not be as good, so I suffer through my RPD attack while making Mac and Cheese because once I sit and taste it, I know it was worth the stress.

That said, start the sauce with a basic roux. Melt 5 tablespoons of butter in a heavy saucepan, and whisk in a quarter (1/4) cup of flour. Cook the mixture, while still whisking, until completely combined and you no longer smell the raw flour. Slowly, VERY slowly, whisk in two (2) and a half (1/2) cups of milk and let cook until it begins to thicken. Once the mixture start to thicken, turn the heat down to low and temper in 2 eggs. 

At this point, I add in my spices. My "secret" ingredient in my Mac and Cheese is Spicy Brown Mustard. Many people I've spoken with are shocked at this combination, a little intimidated even. But there are a few that already are privy to this unusual but brilliant (in my opinion) trick. I add a tablespoon of mustard to the mixture, along with a pinch garlic powder and salt and pepper. I use dried herbs as well, most often a teaspoon of parsley along with either a teaspoon of thyme or oregano.

Turn the heat off and begin to add the shredded cheese.. slowly. I always use sharp cheddar and pepperjack cheese because they add very distinct flavours to the dish. 1 cup of each. Of course you are welcome to use whatever kind of cheese you like. Be sure to reserve a half (1/2) cup of the shredded cheese for the topping.

Once the cheeses have melted and the mixture is completely combined, I stir in the cooked pasta and pour into a casserole dish.

Cover and bake the casserole at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. The mixture should be bubbly and gooey.

Now for the topping :)

Melt a half (1/2) cup of butter in a sauce pan, and drop in 4 smashed cloves of garlic (keep them whole so that they're easy to pull out). Cook the garlic cloves in the butter until fragrant, then pull them out and turn off the heat. When the butter cools a bit, add to a cup of breadcrumbs. I actually use panko (japanese breadcrumbs) because they have such a great crunch. toss the panko with the garlic butter and the reserved shredded cheese and use it to top the Mac and Cheese.

Place under the broiler (or if you don't have one, back in the hot oven) until the cheese on top melts and the topping browns.

When it's finished, the topping should be crispy and the casserole itself should be moist. The different textures work well together and make this a great dish for family gatherings, barbeques and entertaining.


May 03, 2011

It's Cinco de Mayo - Throw a Taco Party!

Cinco de Mayo is one of my favourite holidays to celebrate because I welcome any excuse to stuff my face with yummy Mexican food. Love it. And let's be honest - the Corona... and the Tequila.

If that doesn't sound like a party.. I dunno what does.

In my opinion, one of the best entertaining ideas is to prepare a spread of ingredients and have the guests build their own meal. Everyone gets to control what goes on their plate, all the different preferences are catered to, and it is very low maintenance for the host. Perfect for one that wants to participate in the party rather than spend the whole time fussing over the guests.

So for Cinco de Mayo, the ideal dish for a hands-free party is a Taco Bar.

One of the Blogs on my "Food Blogs I LOVE" list had a post last week detailing a Taco Party that she threw for her friends. I thought it would be a great idea to share with Cinco de Mayo being just around the corner; invite over some friends, prepare the spread, and enjoy the night!

I asked Roxy from Relaxing with Roxy to write a guest post on how she went about preparing her taco party.


I love tacos, but the closest taco restaurant I know of is 4 hours from where I live. My friend who recently moved nearby had a taco craving the other day. Since we can't readily get any, we decided to make them ourselves, invite some friends over, and have a taco party. yay!! fun! fun! fun! :).

We bought prepared taco shells, both hard and soft. Along with sour cream, iceburg lettuce, and shredded Mexican Cheese blend.
We made our own salsa by chopping fresh tomatoes and onions, and combining them with minced garlic. Half the mixture was placed in the blender on low speed for a couple seconds and then folded back into the chopped tomato mixture so it had a chunky texture.

For the taco meat, we browned minced beef and then added a can of diced tomatoes and a can of tomato paste. We then added a pinch each of: paprika, oregano, parsley, basil, crushed red pepper, sugar and salt, and simmered the mixture for about 15 minutes.

This was my first time making helping to make tacos (I must give my friend most of the credit and take the rest for myself because dicing up tomatoes and onions is no easy task...ha ha) and I cant wait to make them again!

Taco bar with taco meat, iceburg lettuce, salsa, shredded cheddar and jack cheese, sour cream and taco shells.

Beef taco topped with lettuce, salsa, cheese and sour cream

Your guests will love it!

Taco on FoodistaTaco

April 27, 2011

Chicken Salad Salad.

Yep.. you read the title right.

No, it's not a typo. You'll get it in a minute, I promise.

In my younger years, I wasn't very adventurous with food (hence my grits anxiety, see this post).
If my parents ever managed to get me to try something new, one of two things would happen:

I would love it, and would add it into my (short) rotation of meals I would eat. If it was in a restaurant I would order the same thing EVERY time.
I would hate it, and would never go near it again. No matter who makes it for me, how great it looks, whatever you wanna call it.. I'm not having it.

When I left home for college and started preparing meals myself, I found that I was starting to really enjoy cooking; and by extension.. food. Eating food and ENJOYING food are two very different things it turns out. And once my eyes were opened, so were my mind and palate. It's still a work in progress, I still haven't brought myself to trying every single thing I wrote off as a child, but I definitely am making my way down the list.

In high school, chicken salad sandwiches were one of the items on my 'will eat' list.
(Looking back, my mother must have had a hard time managing two different lists for her two very picky children.. good thing Mother's Day is coming up, she really could use some pampering)
I would only eat chicken salad sandwiches from two places, however: a caterer that my parents used for cocktail parties and gatherings, and my school cafeteria. They were very different of course; the caterer served theirs as finger foods for a crowd, the sandwiches formed a ring that looked like a bundt and the chicken sat on bread topped with sesame seeds. At school the sandwiches were made with white sandwich bread, sliced on the diagonal, and wrapped in wax paper.

Despite the difference, the two sandwiches had one thing in common. The chicken salad. Shredded chicken and mayonnaise. That's it.

Of course I loved it then... there was nothing to taste.

When I started cooking, I would think of the foods I loved to eat and try to replicate it on my own. When the chicken salad sandwich came up, I started doing my usual prep work.

The ingredient list looked something like this:


Then, my 17 year old self thought something like this:
"This can't be right.. Then why did it taste so good? They must have made it with a flavoured mayonnaise or something. Yeah right, this is a high school cafeteria we're talking about. Ugh, this shouldn't be so hard. Think... Chicken Salad.. Wait, why is it even called a salad? What defines something as a salad anyway? Shouldn't you be able to eat a salad on it's own? I wouldn't eat chicken and mayonnaise on it's own.. bleh."

So, through the subsequent years of (still ongoing) research and experimentation, my chicken salad has evolved into a meal in itself. I have served it at family brunch, packed it as part of my father's lunch to take to work, made it for friends... and everyone loves it. The 17 year old in me is dancing around with pride and joy.

Much like my tomato sauce, I never make this the same way twice. Again, what's on hand plays a big part in what goes in the salad. But the basics are always the same.

I start by shredding up some roasted chicken. My mother roasts a chicken every Sunday afternoon, so I usually make the salad on Sunday night with the leftovers so that we all have lunch to carry with us on Monday mornings. It makes a big difference if the chicken is well seasoned on it's own. No matter what you put in the salad, if the chicken tastes like cardboard on it's own, it's just going to taste like cardboard covered in a really yummy dressing when you're done.

You can use white or dark meat, whichever you prefer. I use white. To the chicken add brown (deli style) mustard, mayo, chopped sweet pickles (and just a splash of the brining liquid it is packed in), cubed apples or halved grapes (or both!), chopped tomatoes, chopped parsley, chopped rosemary, and a splash of lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.

For one serving (about half a cup of chicken), I add about a tablespoon each of the condiments, quarter (1/4) cup each of the fruits, and a teaspoon each of the herbs. This is a very rough estimation, next time I make it I will do a step by step post with precise quantities.Of course you can make the salad to suit your own tastes: use other fruits such as pears, oranges, or pineapples (love that idea, I'm gonna try that next time!); add more mayo and less mustard if you're not a fan of the taste... you can use sweet relish instead of pickles if you're tired of chopping. The idea is to make the salad full of flavour, colourful, and great on it's own.


I serve this on a bed of lettuce leaves and topped with slices of tomato and apple

April 26, 2011

Pepperoni Pizza Melts!

This afternoon, while trying to decipher my cravings for lunch, I was faced with a dilemna that I frequently encounter. I wanted two different things, and couldn't decide between them.

I LOVE grilled cheese sandwiches. As simple as they come. Gourmet versions with artisan cheeses and specialty breads are great; but there's something so comforting about the one you had when you were still missing teeth that the sophisticated restaurant versions can't deliver.

I'm talking two plain slices of white sandwich bread around a slice of American cheese; brushed with butter, and toasted until golden brown and crispy. Bonus points if the cheese oozes over the edges and crisps up when it touches the hot pan.

Wait, what was this post about again?

Right.. today I had a craving for grilled cheese, but I also have been eyeing the pepperoni I bought last week... and wasn't sure how much longer I could resist getting into it. The idea was to make pepperoni pizza but as I have been on a cooking hiatus, baking pizza dough just was not on the agenda.

So, as I usually do in a situation like this, I thought of a way that I could fulfill both cravings in one meal. The result was.. *cue lightbulb* the pepperoni pizza melt.

It would marry my favourite things from each dish.. the buttery sandwich bread and american cheese from the grilled cheese sandwich, and the pepperoni and flavourful tomato sauce from the pepperoni pizza.

I immediately stepped into the kitchen (which I am not supposed to do until May 1, but an avatar's gotta eat.. right??) Not-so-coincidentally, I already had all the ingredients on hand, so got right down to it:

Cook up the pepperoni in a skillet.. I added about half a teaspoon of vegetable oil
Drain the cooked pepperoni on a paper towel   

Mix one teaspoon each of tomato paste and water until it's almost the consistency of ketchup.

Add a pinch of each: garlic powder, parsley, oregano, basil, sugar, salt and pepper
Sounds familiar right? Remember how versatile my tomato sauce base was?

Here's where the grilled cheese comes in: spread the pizza sauce on the bread and top with the pepperoni and cheese.
Assemble the sandwich and toast in a skillet (I used the same one that I cooked the pepperoni in, just added a little butter). Use a weight - like a brick covered in foil, or a sandwich press - so the bread crisps up nicely.
And looks something like this. Gorgeous golden brown.
Slice and Enjoy!
Try this at home.. I would love to know what you think!

Note: I am not claiming to be the inventor of pepperoni pizza melts; I'm sure this has been done before. I just have never seen or heard of it.. but that's not unusual.

Pepperoni Pizza Melt on FoodistaPepperoni Pizza Melt

April 25, 2011

Shrimp and Gri.. er, Mashed Potatoes?

Now for those of you who reside in South Carolina or Georgia, Shrimp and Grits may be a staple in your diet. It may not even seem like a big deal once you've grown up around it and had it on a regular basis.

But, for me, Shrimp and Grits is very new. And a VERY big deal.

While doing my weekly troll on Food Porn Daily (I'm a masochist, don't mind me) I saw the most BEAUTIFUL picture of the dish and it brought me back to my first experience with Shrimp and Grits.

Shrimp and Grits from Simple Comfort Food

I first learned of Shrimp and Grits on an episode of "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" on the Food Network. (see the recipes from the episode here) To be honest, I couldn't even tell you who won. I was too busy wiping the drool off my face.

Think perfectly cooked, juicy shrimp.. sitting on creamy, cheesy grits.. smothered in a pan sauce using the drippings from rendered pork (the recipes used either bacon or ham).

Now I was immediately ready to begin replication of this sumptuous looking dish, but I had a problem. Apart from the fact that I had never before seen quick-cooking grits in any of my local grocery stores, I had always written it off and up to this point in my life have never tried it. It reminds me of cornmeal porridge which I REALLY dislike. Needless to say, I decided that I was not going to serve my shrimp with grits.

Once again, if you are from an area where shrimp and grits is not only a staple, but a cultural icon, it was not my intention to spoil the dish. Apologies to the creators of Shrimp and Grits.. but I decided that my take would be with mashed potatoes.

Here's what I did:

  • First I chopped up some bacon - turkey bacon, because my pork intake is already ridiculous enough - and fried it up in a skillet.
  •  Set aside the cooked bacon, but leave the drippings in the pan. It serves as the base for the gravy drizzled over the dish when serving.
  •  I cooked 3 potatoes, just cubed them up and boiled them in vegetable stock for added flavour. You can cook them however you want, bake them, nuke them in the microwave, whatever.. just make sure they're cooked through so they're easy to mash. And seafood stock would be perfect here, I just used what I had in the pantry at the time.
  •  I drained the potatoes, leaving just about a teaspoon of stock at the bottom of the pot to keep the flavour in. 
  • To the potatoes, I added about 2 tablespoons of milk, 4 ounces of sour cream, a tablespoon of butter, and half a cup of cheese. White Cheddar would be ideal here, but I used Pepper Jack.
  • Mash it all together until you feel like your arm feels like it's not there anymore... then switch arms and mash some more. By that time the residual heat from the potatoes should have melted the cheese.
  • Once you have the potatoes to a silky smooth consistency, fold in the cooked bacon pieces and chopped green onions. I also added in crushed red pepper flakes for some heat. 
  • I seasoned the shrimp with a dry spice rub containing pimento, paprika, fennel, garlic, onion, red pepper, sugar, thyme and ginger; then sauteed the shrimp in the bacon fat, until JUST pink. This also adds more flavour to the drippings in the pan.
  • For the gravy, I could tell you to use your already exhausted arms to make a roux using the drippings and stand over the stove, slowly pouring in stock and stirring until the consistency was just right.. or I could say that I deglazed the pan with some white wine, added a tablespoon of heavy cream, and made the sauce bubble away til it reduced by half. Which would you prefer?
  • For serving: I spooned the potatoes into the bowl, topped it with a few shrimp, and drizzled the entire dish with the white wine and cream reduction.

I was so excited about stuffing my face that I forgot to take any pictures, the only one I have is from my blackberry the next day when I took some leftovers in a plastic container to work. Under fluorescent lighting *shudder*. It had been reheated in the microwave, but it was still delicious. The potatoes on their own could be a meal in itself because the bacon, green onions, and cheese each impart a different kind of flavour. But with the seasoned shrimp and white wine reduction... there are no words.

Leftover Shrimp and Mashed Potatoes at my desk at work
(taken with a blackberry, apologies for the terrible quality!)
Please comment and let me know what you think... even better, try it for yourself!


April 23, 2011

Caribbean Beach Fare

Picture this:

You're lying out on the beach on a Caribbean island.. basking in the sunlight and enjoying the light breeze traveling off the gentle waves and swaying the leaves of the palm trees.. and you feel something - in your stomach. You're hungry.. but what do you eat?

I know that the perfect thing when you're lying in the sun is a fresh, colourful fruit salad. Washed down with lemonade (or rum punch). But take a stroll down the beach - just follow the faint sounds of music and chatter - and you will find a group of local beachside eateries serving up delicious, fresh caught seafood.

Snapper, Parrot fish, Lobsters or Shrimp... Curried, Escoveitch, Fried, Steamed, Stewed, Grilled... Served with local favourites referred to as 'Bammies' and 'Festivals'.

If some of that sounded like gibberish to you, not to worry. Let me break it down:

Usually when you enter one of these eateries, you will see ice chests containing whatever the fishermen caught that morning. Most often the fish will either be parrot or snapper, and there will be lobsters in different sizes (different price categories). You choose the fish/lobster that you want, and you tell the attendee how you would like it prepared.

My favourite preparation for fish (I'm a snapper lover myself), is to have it escoveitched. This preparation evolved from the traditional Spanish dish Escabeche. Escabeche is the frying or poaching of a meat that has been marinated in an acidic environment. In the caribbean, this marinade consists of vinegar, carrots, onions and scotch bonnet (same family as habanero) peppers.

As mentioned before, a popular side dish for seafood on the beach is what is referred to as a bammy.

A bammy is a (not so) flat bread made from cassava, otherwise called yucca. I have never had the opportunity to see the actual processing of the cassava and how they get it to form the disk that is then fried or steamed, but I certainly have had it alongside my fish meal.

Another side is festivals, which are fried sweet breads with the dough containing cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and sometimes a little vanilla for depth of flavour. The dough rests for a while, and then formed into cylinders which are deep fried until crispy and golden. Perfect for dipping in the escoveitch or sauce on your fish.

Fried Snapper and Festivals on the beach in Jamaica

So next time you are on vacation, and a fruit salad is just not gonna cut it, ask around (preferably your hotel information desk) on where you can get prepared local seafood.

*Notes: Unlike North American culture, whole fish are served on the plate - the head and tail still attached. Scotch Bonnet peppers are VERY hot, more than 10 times the heat of a jalapeno, so please proceed with caution. Be sure to check with your hotel's information desk or your tour guide before venturing out to local spots; security comes before your hunger.

April 22, 2011

A marinara-bolognese fusion. Saucy!

To welcome you to my kitchen I'm sharing one of my standby recipes. A standby sauce to be exact I never make it the same way every time, that's just how I cook. It heavily depends on what's currently in the pantry, what I'm going to use the sauce for, what kind of mood I'm in, the weather outside..

No matter what though, the sauce ALWAYS contains*:

  • Tomatoes
  • Garlic
  • Parsley
  • Oregano
  • Basil
  • Olive Oil
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Pepper

The base of this recipe can be used on everything from lasagna, spaghetti and chili to sloppy joes, pizzas and tacos. It's so simple and versatile I can easily say that I make a batch every week.

Now, here's where the variations come into play. For pasta dishes, I usually have meat in the sauce - Ground lean beef; and once meat is added, so are onions. This variation is more a bolognese than a marinara, but still not traditional because of all the tomato in it. Here's how I do it:

I brown the meat along with the onions and garlic in a heavy saucepan. If the meat is super-lean then I help it along with a little of the olive oil. If there's alot of fat left in the pan I suggest you drain *most* of it before continuing. Once the meat is brown I add in the cans of tomatoes. DO NOT DRAIN THEM. The juice that the tomatoes are packed in are full of flavour and help the sauce form. Along with the tomatoes I add a can of tomato paste, the herbs, and the spices and let the sauce simmer for 30 minutes.

With the addition of beans, paprika, cumin, chiles, a cinnamon stick and whatever else your heart desires, this can easily transition to a chili recipe. Or taco meat.

Or you can use less tomatoes and more beef with diced bell peppers for a thicker sauce that can be used in sloppy joes.

See how fun this is?

Now, if I'm making more of a marinara type sauce, it would be meatless. Think pizza sauce, topping for parmigiana, dipping sauce for breadsticks..
These would only call for tomato paste, not whole tomatoes. I like to add a little grated parmesan in these as well. I wouldn't usually cook this variation on it's own, as it will be topping the pizza/parmigiana when it goes in the oven.

As I continue with the blog I will post more specific recipes that will utilize this sauce base, but for now you should try your own variations. This sauce is easy to modify and very forgiving. Have fun with it!

*Notes:  I use canned tomatoes and tomato paste, extra virgin olive oil, dried spices when I can't find fresh, brown sugar, and ground black pepper or crushed red pepper flakes depending on the recipe.