Born on a Bayou

It isn’t too terribly often (or ever) that Chris gets so excited about something  in the kitchen that he whips out his iPhone, snaps a quick photo, and Facebooks it. But when he does, I know it’s going to be an extra-special meal.

These are the meals that can’t go long without a mention here, for fear that I’m leaving you out of something really awesome. I’d feel really bad if I did, you see.

My somewhat long commute has led me to develop a cooking tradition, of sorts. Weeknights are now reserved for meals that take less than 1 hour to make, from start to finish. I used to tackle arduous meals on any day, be it Friday with a nice glass of wine at my side, or Tuesday with silence in the house, other than the sounds of my knife tapping the board, piles of vegetables slain and piled high as mountains, and an oven heating up to 350.

Things are different now. Driving 2 hours each day is enough to make you ten times more tired when you get home, no matter how stressful or boring your actual day in the office was. I have to fit in exercise too, (who am I kidding; this is once-a-week endeavor at best right now) writing here, and last but certainly not least, finishing the last season of Castle on Netflix.

This leaves the weekends for the hefty meals, the labors of love, the ones your gramma used to make every day like it was her job. Probably because it was her job, at least it was in my family. This is one of those meals: two hours from start to finish, and every minute is well worth it. And one more thing: the cost of groceries is, too.

This here, my friends, is a gigantic pot of goodness that will feed your whole block, or building, or the two of you for at least a week. And that’s the beauty – all that time is a bargain, when you sit right down and do the calculations. Check it out: 2 hours of work + 10 servings of the most amazing jambalaya on the west coast = 12 minutes per serving. If you roll like I do, and choose to use this dish for another dinner and a couple of lunches, you’ve also cut some kitchen time outta the work week too, which some would consider a bonus.

Now let me tell you about this slice of heaven before you. For starters, there is so much meat in this recipe that you won’t be able to take a bite without it, even if you tried. It is so spicy, in a good way, that you want to pack your bags, hop on a plane, and fly straight to New Orleans to eat everything Creole in sight because you just can’t get enough. It’s more than plenty to feed a crowd, if you want to share, but the leftovers heat perfectly, and I can attest to that wholeheartedly, as evidenced by the bowl I just emptied 4 nights later.

And probably (probably) most importantly – it will make you the most wonderful mammal in your house for at least a couple of hours afterwards. That is, until you start nagging about the dishes…

Chicken & Sausage Jambalaya
Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2011; serves at least 10

time commitment: 2 hours, half of which is active

printable version

12 oz applewood-smoked bacon, diced
1 1/2 lbs linguiça (or other smoked, cooked sausage), halved lengthwise, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick semi-circles
1 lb andouille sausages, quartered lengthwise, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 lb smoked ham, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 1/2 lbs onions, chopped (4 to 5 cups)
2 large celery stalks, chopped
1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 lb skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 T paprika
1 T chopped fresh thyme
1 1/2 T chili powder
1/2 t cayenne pepper
1 28-oz can fire-roasted diced tomaties
1 small can diced green chiles
2 1/2 c beef broth
3 c (19 to 20 ounces) Basmati rice, uncooked
8 green onions, chopped (about 2 cups)
salt and pepper
Chopped fresh Italian parsley

Position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 350 F. Cook bacon in very large pot over medium-high heat until brown but not yet crisp, stirring often, 8 to 10 minutes. Add smoked sausage, andouille, and ham. Sauté until meats start to brown in spots, about 10 minutes. Add onions, celery, and bell peppers. Cook until vegetables begin to soften, stirring occasionally, 10 to 12 minutes. Mix in chicken. Cook until outside of chicken turns white, stirring often, 5 to 6 minutes. Mix in paprika, thyme, chili powder, and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne. Cook 1 minute. Add diced tomatoes, chiles, and broth; stir to blend well. Add more cayenne, if desired. Mix in rice.

Bring jambalaya to boil. Cover pot. Place in oven and bake until rice is tender and liquids are absorbed, 45 minutes. Uncover pot. Mix chopped green onions into jambalaya and season with salt and pepper to taste; sprinkle jambalaya with chopped parsley and serve.


Feelin’ Lucky

I’ve never been a superstitious person. I like black cats (except my mom’s), and I far from freak out when they cross my path. I walked under a ladder tonight and didn’t think twice about it, but maybe that was because we were being handy and using our newly procured drill – I was overcome with excitement. I’ve broken a couple of mirrors in my lifetime, and most certainly have not had 7 years of bad luck.

In fact, there have been quite a few good years. Luck or not, I specifically think 2010 has been a pretty good one.

Speaking of luck, I’ve never been a big fan of black eyed peas. Word on the street, at least down South, is that a black eye pea-containing dish on New Year’s day will bring good luck for the rest of the year. My mom was (probably still is) an annual cowpea eater; the plastic bag of dried peas sat in the door of our fridge, opened but half-full, for months. I never ate them – for whatever reason, a saucepan of peas never looked, or smelled, appealing to me.

But this year, I figured what the hell. I came across a recipe that sparked my interest, and rather than making the dish at the end of November, I decided I may as well make it at the end of December, and eat the leftovers New Year’s Day. I mean, I’m not superstitious or anything, but still – may as well eat them on the “right” day, no?!

Meanwhile, I plan to open a few umbrellas indoors, step on a couple of cracks, spill some salt (but not in someone’s shoes), and maybe even go to sleep with my hair wet.

Despite all of those things, I have a good feeling about 2011. It’s gonna be somethin’, that’s for sure. So stay tuned ;).

Hoppin’ John (or Skippin’ Jenny, depending on when you eat it)
loosely adapted from Cooking Light, December 2010; serves 8

time commitment: 1.5 hours (30 minutes active time), plus soaking the beans overnight

i added a little more liquid than was needed, and my hoppin’ john was a little, er, soupy, but i actually liked it. however, once the liquid disappeared, I have to say it was better without, so i’ve adjusted below to reflect that. i also upped the spiciness a little (ok, a lot) and tossed in some butternut squash, because I had some. feel free to leave it out if you want.

printable version

1 1/2  c dried black-eyed peas
2  t olive oil
1/2 large onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 small poblano pepper, diced
3  garlic cloves, minced
1  serrano pepper, minced
1/2  t smoked paprika
1/2  t ground cumin
2 1/2  c reduced sodium chicken/turkey broth
3/4 t dried thyme
1/2  t freshly ground black pepper
1/4  t salt
2 T hot pepper sauce (Frank’s), plus more at end to taste
6  oz (~2 links) andouille sausage, cut into thin slices
1  (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
1  bay leaf
2 c butternut squash, cut into 1/2″ cubes, optional
1 c uncooked long-grain  brown rice
1/4  c thinly sliced green onions

Wash black eyed peas, tossing peas that appear discolored; place in a large bowl. Cover with water to 2 inches above peas; soak for 8 hours or overnight. Drain.

Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion and next 4 ingredients (through serrano); sauté 7 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Stir in smoked paprika and cumin; saute 1 minute. Add peas, broth, and next 7 ingredients (through bay leaf), stirring to combine. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 50 minutes or until peas are tender. Toss butternut squash, if using, into pot at the end, for about 5 minutes. Discard bay leaf.

Meanwhile, make rice according to package instructions. Fluff rice with a fork, and stir into pea mixture. Top with green onions and more hot sauce, if desired.

Kiss My Grits

As it turns out, my pops was going green long before any of us were toting our own recyclable bags to the grocery store or biking to work. When we were wee little tikes, he had a job requiring a commute of about an hour or two (yes, even in the rural South), and he and one of his best friends, ‘Mr. Donald’, carpooled. Come summertime, my brother and I would hop, sluggishly, into the cab seats of pops’ 1985 Nissan pickup promptly at 6 am, and off to gramma’s we went for the day. Getting up with the roosters’ crows was not something I looked forward to, but going to gramma’s certainly was.

The commute wasn’t bad, either. My pops let me get coffee from the corner store on most days, but every so often we’d skip the corner store and stop further along, near Skinners Bypass, to get a hot breakfast. To this day, I can’t remember what I used to get (probably a cheese biscuit, or maybe some pancakes if I wanted to push my luck with making a mess…), but my brother, he always got grits.

He loved grits so much that Mr. Donald stopped calling him Matt, and early on in our commuting days he began calling him Grits. “Guh mornin’, Heather n’ Grits”. “Goin’ to gramma Maggie’s today?”. Man, those were the days. I don’t think my bro minded the nickname one bit though, as long as he could continue getting grits on the regular.

Me though? I was never a fan of the grainy, mushy, corn. The way I was schooled, you were either in the grits camp, or the oatmeal camp. Matt & I were polar opposites on the matter, and in that pickup truck, I was most certainly the odd man out. To this day, I’d choose oats over grits, and quite honestly, the grits and I are still not on the best of terms.

But with my sis and niece in town last weekend, I’d promised to cook one night. I’d sorta planned a homemade ravioli dish, but I could be easily coerced into something else, I figured. Early on in their visit, my sister made one of her random comments (she gets that from my mom):

“do yuuuu know whut theyyy stopped servin’ baaack home? shrimp n’ griyts. i caaayn’t fin’ ’em anywhayre. i suuure wood luv to git sum shrimp n’ griyts.”

Irony of coming from the South to the Midwest for shrimp and grits aside, rather than taking a trip for sushi away from my niece, I quickly decided that I’d save the ravioli, and conquer this dish once and for all. Sure, I could have submitted an exotic Indian dish for this challenge, or perhaps made crepes, but I was challenged here, not because of the cuisine itself, but for other reasons: I was making a Southern/Cajun dish for someone who is a ‘grit’ herself, and I was making a component I tend to stray away from. I wanted to prove myself wrong about grits and their textural shortcomings, and I wanted to show my sis that you don’t have to live in the South to make Southern food, and you don’t have to rely on a restaurant to provide for ya.

While I rarely admit fault (ask the hubs), I will happily do so here. I could have eaten this dish for the rest of the week, and instantly regretted having to share this meal with visitors because that meant the leftovers would be scarce. The grits were mushy, which is to be expected since they are in fact, grits, but the texture was offset by the shrimp and peppers. Heat? Whoa Nelly – that sauce is the meal ticket, and I happily doused more than my fair share into my bowl. My sis? I think she said less during the course of that meal than she typically says in a minute – a true sign that she was satisfied, hankering cured.

I’m still not sure if I’ll ever find myself ordering grits at 6 am like my bro used to, heck – I hope to not order much of anything at 6 am, but for the time being, oatmeal can certainly kiss my grits.

Cajun Shrimp & Grits
Adapted from The Boathouse in Charleston, SC via; serves 6

this is a great recipe even if you aren’t in the grits camp, but you have to enjoy a lil’ spice in your life! alternatively, you could omit the hot sauce on top, but to me, that’s the best part :).

printable version

hot pepper cream sauce
1/3 c hot sauce (preferably Frank’s)
1/4 c dry white wine
1 shallot, chopped
1 T fresh lemon juice
1 T rice vinegar
1 c half & half (divided, half is for grits)

5 c water
3 c 2% milk
1/4 c (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
2 c corn grits (not ‘quick cooking’ grits)

everything else
1/4 c olive oil
8 oz smoked andouille sausage*, casings removed
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 c minced onion
4 garlic cloves, chopped
30 uncooked large shrimp, peeled, deveined
4 plum tomatoes, chopped
2 t Cajun seasoning
2 t Old Bay seasoning
chives, minced, for garnish

Combine hot pepper sauce, wine, shallot, lemon juice and vinegar in heavy medium saucepan. Boil over medium heat until reduced to 1/2 c, about 15 minutes. Stir in 1/2 c half & half. Cover and refrigerate (can make in advance).

Bring 1/2 c half & half, 5 cups water, milk and butter to simmer in heavy medium saucepan. Gradually whisk in grits. Simmer until grits are very soft and thickened, stirring frequently, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in heavy medium skillet over medium heat. Add sausage, both bell peppers, onion and garlic; sauté until vegetables are tender, about 8 minutes. Add shrimp, tomatoes, Cajun seasoning and Old Bay seasoning and sauté until shrimp are opaque in center, about 6 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bring hot pepper-cream sauce to simmer. Spoon grits onto 6 plates, dividing equally. Spoon shrimp mixture over grits. Drizzle hot pepper-cream sauce over and serve.

*andouille sausage is is spicy, smoked pork & beef sausage. I get mine from the sausage case @ Whole Foods, but if you can’t find it, you can substitute any other spicy sausage and either slice it thinly or remove the casings and use it ground.

Sweet Tater Soulmate

pie and apple salad

Let’s have an immensely important discussion here today. Let’s pretend that we find ourselves stranded in a land far, far away (you know, like Lost, but hopefully without all the drama). And let’s say that you, being your overparanoid pessimistic self (remember, we’re pretending – I know you are all eternal optimists and only see the absolute best in everything and everyone – much like myself….) packed your bag in preparation for the stranded-ness and have brought along your very favorite item of nourishment. Enough to hopefully last until the rescue squad arrives after you’ve written “SOS!!” and “Help Me!!” in the sand a zillion times with that long skinny stick lying on the beach.

Are you with me? If so, then tell me: What would that item of nourishment be? Food only please – I don’t want to hear that you’d bring a picture of your cat or something…

pie dough

This question reminds me a little of the study abroad trip I took to Italy a few years ago. I was stranded in one of the most gorgeous countries in the world and forced to eat things like pasta, gelato, and pizza, as well as drink wine and espresso for four weeks straight. By week 3, I was in desperate need of some French fries (with ranch dressing, of course because 8 years ago I ate everything with the stuff). I managed to finally get my fix at the Hard Rock Cafe in Rome, scarfing down fries as if I were in a fry-eating contest. Thinking about this now tells me two things: first, that I was totally stupid and can’t believe I was thinking of french fries amidst the plethora of some of the best food on earth and second, also how stupid I was to have wasted an entire meal on the Hard Rock Cafe. Lesson learned. Next time, when in Rome, I will be more clever.

fork pricks in pie

Since then I’ve matured a little bit and have a new favorite stranded island food. Sweet potato. I could eat sweet potatoes any way imaginable: pureed sauce, mashed potatoes, ice cream, baked or fried ‘fries’ or ‘chips’, roasted, boiled, biscuits, pancakes, casseroles at Thanksgiving, and last but certainly not least – pie form. And get this: In the US, North Carolina is the leading state in sweet potato production, having provided 38.5% of the 2007 US production of sweet potatoes. Clearly, myself and these tasty tubers were meant to be.

"pie weights"

In addition to the taters, I also have quite the affinity for anything reminiscent of ‘Cajun cuisine’. So when I saw a recipe for a sweet potato and andouille pie, I felt like an old lady on the beach – one equipped with a yard sale metal detector that just beeped with unflagging resolve as a result of the shiny Rolex watch buried beneath the sand. Jackpot!

sweet potato puree

The pie comes together as any regular pie and isn’t a dish with quick preparation. I prepped the dough and sweet potato filling the night before so I could quickly throw it together the following night. I’m actually glad it isn’t a quick dish or else I’d be tempted to make it once a week and just eat that every night for dinner. I recommend that you absolutely, positively do not substitute another pie crust. The cornmeal crust provides an added comfort to the pie that I’m afraid would be less than perfect if left out. I also recommend serving the tangy apple salad alongside, as suggested. The tangyness of the buttermilk vinaigrette (yes, vinaigrette – milky without the artery clogging thickness) is a great pairing with the robust spicyness of the pie. And really, do you need an excuse to make buttermilk vinaigrette?

ready for final baking

Oh, and did I mention just how wonderfully good for you sweet potatoes are? Check it: One baked sweet potato (3 1/2 ounce serving) provides about twice the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A, yet it contains only 141 calories making it valuable for those of us with tendency towards curvaceousness. This nutritious vegetable provides 42 percent of the RDA for vitamin C, 6 percent of the RDA for calcium, 10 percent of the RDA for iron, and 8 percent of the RDA for thiamine for healthy adults. It is low in sodium and is a great source of fiber and other important vitamins and minerals. A complex carbohydrate food source, it provides beta carotene which may be a factor in reducing the risk of certain cancers.

What’s not to love about these little buggers?

pie slice

Andouille & Sweet Potato Pie w/ Tangy Apple Salad
Adapted from Food & Wine, May 2009; serves 6

1 lb sweet potatoes, pierced w/ a fork
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup AP flour
1 t salt, plus more for seasoning
1 stick unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
1/4 cup plus 2 T ice water
1 T olive oil
1/2 lb andouille sausage, cut into 1 inch pieces
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1 T minced garlic
1/2 t dried sage, crumbled
1 cup 1/2 and 1/2
fresh ground pepper
3 egg yolks

Preheat oven to 350. Place potatoes on rack and bake until soft, about 45 minutes. Let cool. Meanwhile, in food processor, combine flour, cornmeal, salt by pulsing a couple of times. Add chilled butter and pulse until mixture is coarse. Add add water and pulse until dough comes together. Turn out onto clean surface and knead a few times, until smooth.

Lightly flour work surface and roll out dough to 13-inch round, about 1/4 inch thick. Ease into 9-inch pie plate. Trim overhang to one inch and fold under and crimp to your liking. Prick the bottom w/ fork, several times. Line dough with foil and pie weights (or coins…). Bake about 30 minutes, remove foil and weights and bake another 10 until crust is light brown.

Meanwhile, in large skillet, heat oil over high heat. Add sausage and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add onion, garlic, sage and cook about 5 minutes longer. Let cool slightly.

Peel sweet potatoes and transfer to food processor. Add 1/2 and 1/2 and process until smooth. Season w/ salt and pepper. Add egg yolks and process until incorporated. Transfer to large bowl and mix in sausage mixture. Pour filling into cooked pie shell and bake ~45 minutes, until custard is set.

Tangy Apple Salad

2 T cider vinegar
pinch of sugar
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 canola oil
salt and pepper
2 large Granny Smiths, peeled and cut into matchsticks (julienned)
2 6-oz bunches watercress, thick stems discarded

In large bowl, whisk vinegar w/ sugar and buttermilk. Gradually whisk in oil and season mixture with salt and pepper. Add apple and watercress. Serve immediately.