A Bunch of Wins

Every once and a while, I just want to whip up a big dinner and eat like crazy. Okay, not every once and while, more like every other night or so. But I’m not necessarily in a position in my life where I have all kinds of hours in the day to spend in the kitchen. Nor do I have an unlimited budget where I can just buy pounds and pounds of food. Nor do I have the type of metabolism where pounds and pounds of said food just disappear magically hours after consumption.

Such is life, eh?

But sometimes the stars align, and you find yourself with a free weekend night and that urge to cook whittles its way into your brain. It also works perfectly when some of your favorite people also have a free weekend night and want to partake in that same sorta thing – a lot of eating, a lot of cooking, and maybe even some booze-drinking. Alright – always some booze drinking. So that’s what we did.

Also, we learned to play euchre. We are slightly addicted – even taught the parentals how to play during a trip to NC this past weekend.

So. The shanks before your eyes – there’s a quick story. There was a restaurant I wanted to check out while in Sedona last year, but sadly the night we thought about going was a night they were closed. So my in-laws, since they are awesome and super-duper smart, they went there the first chance they got and enjoyed a tasty meal without us, making up for it by picking up a signed copy of the chef-owner’s new cookbook. It was a nice surprise at Christmas, and I’ve been thumbing through the book since, bookmarking the “must-try” recipes.

These lamb shanks won the top honor of being the first tested recipe (I had some garlic scallops picked out for Valentines day, but then I realized garlic was probably inappropriate….) and we roped Liz & Kevin into eating with us (or did we invite ourselves over, bribing them with lamb shanks and Rioja?).

I guess how it happened doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, we had a ginormous amount of food, the shanks were awesome (and easy!) as was the rest of the food, and we have yet another card game to play.

That, my friends, is a win-win. Wait. A win-win-win. A bunch of wins, fair and square.

Lamb Shanks in Adobo Sauce
Adapted from The Elote Cafe Cookbook; serves at least 4

Wine note: we got extra-fancy and did a special wine-pairing for this dish. we tried out two Spanish Rioja wines, and while I can’t remember the names of them, I’ll say this: we bought one from 2001 and one from a 2006 vintage. They were both amazing, especially the 2001, but the 2006 went much better with the food. not too rich, but plenty of heft and spice to stand up to the shanks. a nice Syrah or Malbec would also be really tasty.

one other note: I’m betting this dish would be great with short ribs instead of lamb shanks, too. Really any meat – adobo sauce is versatile like that.

printable version

time commitment: 3-4 hours (1 hour active time)

adobo sauce
12 garlic cloves, peeled, whole
3 dried ancho chiles*, stemmed
3 dried guajillo chiles*, stemmed
3 dried chipotle chiles*, stemmed
4 c fresh orange juice
2 T packed brown sugar
2 T dried oregano (Mexican oregano, if you have it)
2 T cider vinegar
2 t kosher salt
2 t freshly ground black pepper
2 t ground cumin
1/8 t ground cloves
1 stick canela (Mexican cinnamon) or regular cinnamon, about 3 in. long
2 dried bay leaves

4 lamb shanks (about 1 lb. each)
1 t kosher salt
1 t freshly ground black pepper
2 T canola oil

pickled onions
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1 T cider vinegar
2 t olive oil
2 t oregano (Mexican if you have it)

2 T sesame seeds, for garnish
cilantro, chopped, for garnish

Make the adobo sauce. In a dry, heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, roast garlic cloves, turning occasionally, until softened and speckled brown, ~12 minutes. Remove from pan. Add chiles to pan and toast, turning once, until fragrant, about 30 seconds, taking care not to let them burn.

Carefully pour orange juice into pan. Add remaining adobo ingredients, then add garlic back to pan. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until chiles are softened, about 10 minutes.

Lift out cinnamon and bay leaves and reserve. Cool adobo slightly, then purƩe in a blender until very smooth. Season with additional salt and pepper, if needed.

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Prepare lamb. Sprinkle shanks with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a heavy, large pot (preferably a 6-7 quart Dutch oven) over medium-high heat, then brown 2 shanks at a time, turning occasionally, until golden brown, 7 to 8 minutes per batch. Return all shanks to the pot, or place them all in a large enough baking dish if you don’t have a big enough pot to hold them all. Cover shanks with adobo sauce, and add reserved cinnamon and bay leaves. If the liquid doesn’t come up halfway over the shanks, add some water (or beef broth, if you want) to make up the difference. You’ll probably have plenty of liquid, but it also depends on the size of your pot.

Cover and place in oven and braise, turning shanks every hour, until meat is very tender when pierced, 2-3 hours. (If you want, you can do this part 1-2 days before you’re serving this dish. Let the shanks cool, cover, and refrigerate. Reheat over medium heat, scraping fat from the top first, and let shanks heat up, then follow the next instructions.)

Meanwhile, Pickle the onion. (Do this the day of; skip this step if you’re preparing shanks in advance.) Put sliced onions in a bowl and add the pickling ingredients. Let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

Transfer shanks to a platter and cover with foil. Pour adobo into a saucepan if you used a baking dish. Skim and discard as much fat as you can – there will be a film on the top of the pot. Boil sauce over medium-high heat until thick enough to coat meat, about 10 minutes. Uncover shanks, pour sauce on top, and sprinkle with pickled onions, sesame seeds, and cilantro.

*Find in the Latino foods aisle or spice aisle of a supermarket, or at a Latino market

On Friends & Grits

kris and me

I took a trip back to NC late Friday night to be with my bestest bud. She’d had surgery this past Thursday. Did she expect me to be there? No. Did she want me to be there? Well, maybe, but she would have never asked. But did I want to be there and know that I really did need to be there? You bet – and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Although I know we’re far in distance, I know I’m never too far to be there when I need to be.

My best friend and I for the most part, we grew up together. I’ve known her since the 4th grade and I must say, we’ve been pretty tight. We’ve been through a bunch of rough times and an overwhelmingly number of even better times. We have both changed immensely over those years and if I must say, we’ve both become people we are both pretty darn proud of. On the other hand, we’ve become radically different and of course we have a lot less in common than we did when we were wandering down the halls in high school. But through all of those changes, our love of and respect for one another has never wavered.

While we have always respected one another’s opinions and decisions, we definitely do not always agree. In particular, her recent surgery is a decision I could have never made. She’d decided months ago to undergo gastric bypass surgery. My best friend is the type of person who, when she does something, she does it with her entire heart and she never looks back. And making this choice is no exception. I think, rather I know, that we talked about it for 90% of every conversation we’ve had since Fall! It was the first thing on her mind in the morning, before bed, and every minute in between. She was totally intensely passionate about it. So you know she was dead-set on doing it. And although the thought of her having surgery worried me silly, I knew that for her to make this decision she must have known what she was doing and knew everything about what was involved. She’d researched and researched until she knew with certainty that this was right for her and that she was ready for all things that would follow. And for me this was comforting – I knew she’d be ok and I knew she was doing the right thing. The right thing for her.

Would gastric bypass surgery ever be something I’d consider? Would I ever want to make my stomach small so that I can eat less? Hell no. I have such a strong relationship with food – and it’s a bond I could never ever break. While she will eventually be able to eat most things she’d previously eaten, she can’t eat nearly as much and will essentially be limited to 2 oz portions per meal. Wowsers!! And no thank you. That’s just like a big bite per meal! Now, is food one of the most favoritist things in her life like it is for me? Well, no. Is she spending three nights a week in culinary school just because she likes food and because she can? Well, no. But still. I’m sure that nonetheless, it’s got to be hard. Although I can never imagine making this choice for my life, the simple fact that she is my best friend means that I support her no matter what decision she makes. I smile at her, I hug her, I rub lotion on her feet, I watch her sip won ton-less won ton soup while I inhale vegetable lo mein and a greasy egg roll, I watch Food Network with her (why she chooses to watch this given her situation is beyond me), and all the while I think about how strong she is and how even though I could never do what she’s doing, how much respect I have for her just knowing that she will be ok and that, if it’s possible, she’ll be even better of a person than she is today.

And so, a trip to NC usually leads me to a point where I’d talk about a tasty, fatty, greasy meal I enjoyed while I was here. Usually when I go to NC for a holiday or weekend trip, we plan visits around the food that we miss: we hit up Bojangles for some dirty rice and fried chicken, we visit my gramma at which time we also incorporate a visit to my Aunt Faye, we find some sweet tea, and if I’m lucky one day I might get to eat at Bandido’s again for my favorite black bean quesadilla. This weekend, you might imagine, was different. I stayed with her as much as possible and only left her side to get some take-out. Food was not the highlight of this trip. But something much more important was – being there for my best friend, and even if she didn’t need me I know she was happy I was there. And on a more selfish level, I needed to be there to further confirm that I knew she was ok. To stop myself from thinking about it constantly. And maybe the procedure itself is straightforward, it’s one thing to hear about someone you don’t know going through it than it is to know that the person you share all of your secrets with is going through it. It takes a lot for her to cry, and a lot less for me, and we both did when we saw each other and I knew instantly I’d made the right decision for the both of us.

So do I have a wonderful recipe of Southern foodie experience from this trip like I usually would? Nope. But I will post a recipe I made the other day that reminded me of home. It was a lovely stuffed bone-in pork chop with tomato sauce and GRITS! The grits are the southern part that made me so happy. Leftovers were even better because the sauce had really soaked in to the grits and pork. There are a lot of ingredients and lots of prep, so feel free to substitute the stuffing (or even leave it out) if you don’t love cutting and prepping like I do.

And whether you make this recipe or something else tonight, may you really savor every bite and be thankful for the day. And for your large stomach šŸ™‚ I know I am.

stuffed chops

Stuffed Pork Chops w/ Creamy Grits
Adapted from Cooking Light magazine

4 cups water
4 cups fresh orange juice
1/2 cup coarsely chopped jalapeƱo pepper (about 2 peppers)
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons fine sea salt
4 (8-ounce) bone-in center-cut heritage pork chops (such as Berkshire)
2 slices bacon
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1/4 cup finely diced apple
1/4 cup thinly sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup finely chopped peeled butternut squash
1/4 cup finely chopped Swiss chard
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
1 teaspoon minced jalapeƱo pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup fat-free, less-sodium beef broth
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup no-salt-added canned whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped

2 1/2 cups water
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup stone-ground grits
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons fat-free, less-sodium beef broth

1. To prepare pork, combine first 5 ingredients in an airtight container, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add pork; seal and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight. Remove pork from brine; pat dry. Discard brine.

2. Cook bacon in a nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove bacon from pan; crumble. Add 1/2 cup onion and next 5 ingredients (through 1 minced garlic clove) to drippings in pan; cook 8 minutes or until squash is tender and liquid evaporates, stirring frequently. Stir in bacon.

3. Cut 1 (1-inch) horizontal slit through thickest portion of each pork chop to form a pocket. Stuff about 3 tablespoons vegetable mixture into each chop. Sprinkle both sides of chops evenly with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet over high heat. Add pork to pan; cook 3 minutes on each side or until browned. Remove pork from pan; reduce heat to medium-low.

4. To prepare sauce, add 1 1/2 cups onion to pan; cook 4 minutes or until browned, stirring frequently. Add celery, jalapeƱo, and 1 garlic clove to pan; cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in flour; cook 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup broth and 1/2 cup water, stirring until flour dissolves. Add tomatoes; increase heat to medium-high. Return pork to pan; simmer 10 minutes or until desired degree of doneness.

5. To prepare grits, bring 2 1/2 cups water and 1/8 teaspoon salt to boil in a saucepan. Slowly add grits, stirring constantly. Reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed, stirring frequently. Remove from heat; stir in butter and 2 tablespoons broth. Serve with pork and sauce.