Sunday, March 27, 2011

Honeyed Prawns, Sausage and Polenta (Faux Shrimp and Grits)

If you've ever been to the South (yes, with a capital S), then more likely than not you've heard of the wonder that is shrimp n' grits. Like most of their cuisine, it's based on simple hearty flavors....with lots of butter. No no, that's not doing it justice (not being from the South myself). There's such a richness of tradition in southern cooking that it's hard for a poor non-southerner like myself to describe it accurately. Many of its iconic dishes are based on what used to be the food of the poor- what was left over or what could be acquired cheaply. Grits, rice and beans, ham, collard greens, all these things started out as what you could make easily and cheaply. No longer. Give those people a few hundred years and you get one of the best (and perhaps most definitive) cuisines of the US.

For me, nothing represents the best of Southern cooking like shrimp and grits. Ostensibly simple, it involves a base of grits (for an explanation on this, see earlier posts lamenting its absence in England), topped with a hearty portion of shrimp/prawns and sausage cooked in a special blend of seasonings. The dish is one of my all time favorites. But alas, re-creating it authentically over in England is a bit far-fetched. So I resorted to the usual grits substitute: polenta and worked with what I had in terms of sausage (hunter's sausage in this case) and shrimp (all I could find were the tiniest little things I had ever seen).

If I ever make this recipe again (more than likely), I would search high and low to find sizeable prawns, the tiny things I could find did not do the trick. Regardless though, it was absolutely delicious and still had a tinge of the authentic to it. The sweet currants in the polenta with the spicy/savory sauce for the protein were a great combination. A great twist on the old Southern standby.


For the prawn/sausage marinade:
4 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons hot sauce
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Sea salt
1 pound large, peeled, and deveined prawns
2 links, hunter's sausage, sliced thinly

For the polenta:
1 cup polenta
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) corn kernels, fresh or frozen
1/4 cup currants
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
Sea salt
Black pepper

For the topping:
1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 tablespoons capers
Hot sauce (optional)



Preheat the oven to 400°F (204°C). Butter an 8 x 10-inch (20.3 x 25.4 cm) baking dish. Oil a rimmed baking sheet with olive oil. Set the pans aside.

To make the marinade: Combine the tomato paste, honey, lemon juice, olive oil, hot sauce, garlic powder, and a pinch or two of salt in a medium bowl. Toss the prawns and sausage with the marinade. Set the bowl aside, giving it a stir every few minutes.

For the polenta: Bring 3 cups cold water to a boil in a medium stainless-steel pot. Add the polenta. Cook seven minutes, stirring often. Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let sit for 10 minutes.
4. In a large bowl, mix the corn (completely thawed if frozen), currants, honey, butter, and thyme. Stir in the polenta, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add polenta mixture to the buttered baking dish. Spread evenly with a spatula, and place in the oven to bake for 35 minutes.

Spread the prawn/sausage mixture evenly onto the oiled baking sheet. After the polenta has baked for 25 minutes, add the prawns to the oven, alongside the polenta. Place both pans on same rack if possible; otherwise, place the baking sheet on the lower rack.

Bake the prawns for five minutes. Remove the baking sheet from the oven, and flip all of the prawns over. Return to the oven and bake an additional five minutes, until the polenta is slightly browned and the prawns are pink and firm.

Remove the prawns and the polenta from the oven. To serve, scoop individual servings of the polenta onto plates. Lay a few prawns over each serving, then top with crumbled feta, fresh parsley, and capers.

Drizzle with hot sauce.

Sautéed Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Toasted Pecans

Brussels sprouts. I think everyone can agree this is a love/hate relationship vegetable. When I was young (and wonderfully foolish), I used to think they were mini-cabbages or heads of lettuce. Not that I wanted to eat them, mind you, but I found it amusing that these things seemed fit for a gnome's table.

Anyway, enough foolishness. I was in search of a vegetable side dish for dinner a few days back and I thought of the lowly sprout, so ignored by me in cooking. Well, those days are at an end. This was (believe it or not) one of the first times I had actually cooked the things raw (rather than frozen and re-heated in a microwave). And what better way to mask a vegetable than by putting bacon with it? Always guaranteed to please.

The nuts were also an inspiration, giving just enough of a crunch and texture to the dish that made it all the better. The only time-intensive part of the dish was the endless shredding of sprouts. Unless you're handy with a mandolin (and even I won't dare to use one on these little mini-cabbages), you're setting yourself up for a lot of knife work. But worth it for the sprouts!!


2 pounds brussels sprouts
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 1/4-inch-thick slices bacon (about 6 ounces), coarsely chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
2/3 cup low-salt chicken broth
Coarse kosher salt
1/2 cup pecans, toasted, chopped


Trim root ends from brussels sprouts. Using sharp knife or processor fitted with coarse shredding disk, thinly slice brussels sprouts into shreds. 

Melt butter with olive oil in large deep skillet over medium heat. Add bacon; sauté until golden, about 3 minutes.

Add garlic; stir 30 seconds. Add brussels sprouts and broth; sauté until crisp-tender but still bright green, 3 to 5 minutes. Season with coarse salt and black pepper.

Sprinkle with pecans right before serving. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tortellini Gratinata with Mushrooms and Parsnip "Bechamel"

Baked pasta. Pasta casserole. Hot dish. All things I associate inherently with America. I swear, within each American there's some pale distant memory of a potluck at which either your mother or your neighbor's mother insisted on bringing her "world famous" tuna noodle casserole. Or baked pasta. Or...well, you get the idea. I'm fairly sure this memory never took place in reality; however, the fact that I spent my formative years in the MidWest makes the likelihood of the above even more plausible. Nothing says comfort food like some baked pasta.

Which is why, when my mother smuggled me an American copy of this month's "Bon Appetit" magazine and I saw they were doing an entire feature on the glorious American dish, I had to dust off my Midwestern genes (and jeans) and get to cooking. The promise of a faux parsnip "bechamel" sauce got me on this one. I had no idea what they were talking about but it turned out that the parsnips replaced the flour in the bechamel, keeping the thick consistency of the sauce but giving it an earthier if still starchy flavor. It was a win all around.

I also recommend getting bold with your tortellini in this recipe. The magazine called for either plain or cheese tortellini. Bah! I went with some sort of wild mushroom and stuffed sausage tortellini and in my opinion (humble as it may be), it made what can be a very bland dish (hey, we are talking about baked pasta here) into something with a little more subtlety. 


2 large parsnips, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
2 1/2 cups whole milk, divided
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
large pinch of grated nutmeg
4 1/2 tbsp butter, divided
1 1/2 lbs baby portobello mushrooms, or chestnut mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tsp. minced fresh rosemary
2 packages tortellini (of whatever kind, should be around 18-24 oz.)
6 oz. creamy Gorgonzola cheese, cut into small pieces
1 cup chorizo sausage, cut into small pieces

Cook parsnips in a medium saucepan of boiling salted water until very tender, about 20 minutes. Drain. Place parsnips in same saucepan along with 1 1/2 cups of milk. With an immersion blender, blend until smooth. Add 1 cup of milk, 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, and nutmeg to saucepan. Blend again.

Place saucepan over heat again and simmer until reduced to about 3 cups, whisking often, about
every 5 minutes. Season bechamel sauce to taste with salt and black pepper.

Melt 2 1/2 tbsp. butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, garlic, and rosemary.

Saute until mushrooms are brown and tender, 6-7 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 400F.

Butter a large, moderately deep, baking dish. Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite. Drain pasta, return to pot. Add remaining 2 tbsp of butter and toss to coat.

Stir in mushroom mixture and cut chorizo. Transfer pasta to prepared baking dish. Spread bechamel sauce over; sprinkle with Gorgonzola, then remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan.

Bake pasta until heated through and sauce is bubbling, 18-20 minutes.

Let stand 10 minutes and serve.

Apple Cake

I am not usually a baker of cakes. Muffins, bars, cookies, sure. Cakes seems like so much more of an investment. Who's going to eat a whole cake? I mean, I can handle at least a couple of cookies, but a whole cake? That just seems excessive.

Well, my non-baking cake days are apparently at an end. I have a roommate who loves cake. Any kind of cake. "They feel like a celebration!" she says to me as she pores over recipe books devoted to the subject. She herself is queen of what is now infamously known as the Guinness Chocolate Cake. More on that later though.

But my tendencies toward simplicity resulted in this- an apple cake inspired by the good ol' "Joy of Cooking". I'm a fan of apple pie but I wanted something sweeter and...well, softer. I had no idea that apple cake was even an option. And now, because of this, poor apple pie may never again find a place in our household. The absolute simplicity of this cake made the fact that it was so delicious even better. I was put on dessert duty the evening we made this and I had the batter ready for the oven in less than 10 minutes. No eggs, no beaters, just a large bowl and a wooden spoon are all you need. Well, that and the ingredients which are by no means hard to find. I also *highly* recommend the addition of rum to this cake. Talk about improving on a good thing.

Served with ice cream, this cake demands recognition amongst its more famous apple-based dessert brethren. And it deserves it.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour (or all purpose flour)
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tbsp. rum
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup chopped apples (I recommend tart green apples, with the skin left on)
1/2 cup chopped pecans


Preheat the oven to 350F.

Grease and flour an 8 inch square baking pan or line the bottom with wax or parchment paper. (I used a round spring-form pan, but honestly anything will work here.)

Whisk together in a large bowl the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and salt.

Add the buttermilk, oil, rum, and vanilla and stir together until smooth.

Stir in the apples and nuts.

Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 40-45 minutes.

Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack. This thing goes great by itself or with ice cream (because, why not?)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Spicy Stir-Fried Cabbage

Oh, cabbage. How often I forget about you and how sad I am when I realize how delicious you are. My mother never made cabbage when I was growing up so it always takes me a minute to remember this versatile fabulous vegetable. I'm not sure why, if anything Britain is the land of cabbage. Boiled, braised, baked, you'll find it in everything. And if there's one thing they're never out of at Tesco, it's cabbage.

Which brings me to this fabulously easy recipe (adapted from the New York Times' Recipes for Health section). I was slightly dubious of this dish- it seemed *too* easy, that it would taste of, well, raw cabbage.

I was so wrong. It's spicy, comforting, a perfect side dish. Heck, make enough of this and I'll eat this for my main course. It's done in literally 5 minutes and it tastes like the best kind of unhealthy Asian takeout. But it's not. It's, get this, healthy. Well, I suppose comparatively so. There's still oil (albeit a small amount), but literally, most of the delicious flavor comes from a bit of star anise, ginger, garlic, and red pepper flakes. That's it! Simple as pie.

Serves Four


4 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons minced ginger

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 star anise, broken in half

2 teaspoons soy sauce (more to taste)

2 tablespoons Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry (I've used both, they're equally delicious)

2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil

1 small cabbage, 1 to 1 1/2 pounds, quartered, cored and cut crosswise into 1/8-inch shreds

1 medium carrot, cut into julienne

Salt to taste

2 tablespoons minced chives, Chinese chives or cilantro

Combine the garlic, ginger, red pepper flakes and star anise in a small bowl. Combine the soy sauce and wine or sherry in another small bowl.

Heat a large flat-bottomed wok or skillet over high heat until a drop of water evaporates within a second or two when added to the pan.

Swirl in the oil by adding it to the sides of the pan and tilting it back and forth.

Add the garlic, ginger, pepper flakes and star anise. Stir-fry for a few seconds, just until fragrant, then add the cabbage and carrots.

Stir-fry for one to two minutes until the cabbage begins to wilt, then add the salt and wine/soy sauce mixture.

Cover and cook over high heat for one minute until just wilted.

Uncover and stir-fry for another 30 seconds, then stir in the chives or cilantro and remove from the heat.

The cabbage should be crisp-tender.

Serve with rice or noodles.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Carrot Cake Muffins with Cream Cheese Frosting

Ok, arguably, a muffin shouldn't have frosting on it. As (again, arguably) a breakfast food, one perhaps should forgo the delicious delicious topping that everyone agrees goes naturally with carrot cake, i.e. cream cheese frosting.

I completely disagree.

I know Martha Shulman, who provided this recipe as a healthy alternative to fatty muffins in her series "Recipes for Health" in (where else?) The New York Times, is probably screaming somewhere at my abuse of her new improved healthy muffin recipe, but alas, I'm sorry Martha, this muffin needs frosting.

Of course, you are more than welcome to make the muffin as Martha suggests, frosting-less, but for those secret guilt-ridden frosting-lovers out there (which I proudly count myself among), put the frosting on in copious amounts and don't you dare feel bad about it. After all, it's a healthy muffin.
And on that note, I will say that this carrot cake recipe, muffin or otherwise, is delicious. Despite the whole wheat flour, it tastes every bit as good as a standard carrot cake recipe without the dangers of dryness or mealiness. Huzzah for carrot cake and huzzah for muffins.

Makes twelve muffins, depending on the size of the muffin tins.

Ingredients (recipe for cream cheese frosting follows)

2 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour (Martha recommends pastry flour, I used standard whole wheat flour and did just fine)

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs

1/3 cup raw brown (turbinado) sugar (or light brown sugar, which I used)

1/3 cup canola oil

1 1/3 cups buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup golden raisins tossed with 1 teaspoon unbleached all-purpose flour, or 2/3 cup chopped pecans

1 1/2 cups grated carrots


1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees with the rack in the upper third of the space. Oil or butter muffin tins.

2. Sift together the whole-wheat pastry flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt.

3. In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs, sugar, oil, buttermilk and vanilla. Using a whisk or a spatula, stir in the dry ingredients and mix until well combined. Do not beat; a few lumps are fine, but make sure there is no flour at the bottom of the bowl. Fold in the raisins or pecans and the carrots.

4. Spoon into muffin cups, filling them to just below the top (about 4/5 full). Place in the oven, and bake 25 minutes until lightly browned and well risen. Cover copiously with cream cheese frosting (recipe follows).

Cream Cheese Frosting (come on, you know you want to)

8 oz. cold cream cheese
5 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp. vanilla
2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar (icing sugar)
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Beat in a medium bowl at low speed the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until just blended.

Add the sugar 1/3 at a time, and beat just until smooth and the desired consistency. Stir in ground cinnamon.

If the frosting is too stiff, beat for a few seconds longer but be careful not to overbeat.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Spinach Soup with Bacon and Thyme Croutons

My culinary life has had a bit of an upset recently. Mark Bittman, master of the minimalist cooking approach, has hung up his apron strings at the New York Times. His recipes were a source of many a weeknight dinner for me and his blog will be much missed. This doesn't mean that the Bittster is gone forever, however, he has resurfaced already with a brand new blog The point of the blog is still a bit beyond me, but as far as I can gather, he's now writing about simple hearty recipes that you can make easily. Which sounds...remarkably like his earlier blog, but never you mind. I feature here one of his newest creations (or rather recommendations). His entire entry on soup claims to show you the last four recipes you'll ever need for soup. I tend to disagree but regardless, his first item on the list, a spinach and yogurt soup is simply marvelous.

Well, marvelous if you put bacon in it. Which arguably makes everything better. The soup is ridiculously easy to make and wonderful for those late winter nights where there's still a bite in the air but you can tell spring is just beyond the horizon. When you add these croutons to it, well, here's to Bittman and here's to soup.

1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3 cups water
2 tomatoes, diced
1 tbsp oregano
2 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp achiote powder (or chili powder)
12 ounces spinach
1/2 cup parsley, chopped 
1 1/2 cups greek yogurt
3 slices bacon, cooked and chopped into bite size pieces.
salt and pepper 
Thyme croutons (see recipe below)

Put 1 chopped onion, garlic cloves, spices, 3 cups water, and salt and pepper in a pot over high heat.

Boil, cover, lower the heat and simmer until the onion is tender, about 10 minutes.

Add chopped spinach, tomatoes, oil, and parsley leaves; cook until the spinach is tender, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add Greek-style yogurt and purée. Stir in bacon pieces.

Garnish: A spoonful of Greek-style yogurt and chopped parsley and some thyme croutons

For croutons:
Tear up day-old bread into small bite size chunks. Douse with olive oil and a sprinkling of thyme. Put under grill/broiler under golden (c. 3-4 minutes).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Spicy Seafood and Bean Chowder

I miss chowders. Well, to be honest, I miss all kinds of soup that have "bits" in them. The British just don't appreciate them. Soup, on this island, is more often than not just a puree of vegetables. Delicious? Quite often. But still- I long for things like chicken noodle soup, beef with barley, even just a hearty mixed vegetable will satisfy me so long as there is more than one consistency to it!

And thus I yearn for American-style chowders. Don't even get me started on what I've seen pass for New England Clam Chowder over here. It's not right and I refuse to support it.

But, on that note, all is not lost. NPR has seen fit to publish online all that is good and right about chowders. And, more specifically, how you can create such glories at home. If there was ever a reason to support public radio, this is it. When I saw the idea for a spicy chowder, I couldn't help myself. If there was only one thing missing from the glory of this soup-based food, it was spice. And now, here I was, presented with a happy remedy.

My own version was sadly lacking clam juice, which I thought was unnecessary at the time but have subsequently reconsidered. I think will make the broth even better and give it that punch of salty that really evokes the sea when you have a seafood chowder. As it was though, it was enough to satisfy two non-Americans that they've really been missing something. And usually, that's all I aim for.

Serves 4-6


2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, diced (about 2 cups)
3 large ribs celery, diced (about 1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, sliced
3 leeks, cleaned and sliced
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup dry white wine
2 1/2 cups homemade or best-quality commercial chicken broth
8 to 12 ounces bottled clam juice (1 to 1 1/2 cups) (I omitted but highly recommend)
4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 fresh bay leaf
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano 
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 cup lima beans
1 cup sliced sugar snap peas
Kosher or sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups heavy cream/whole milk
1 (16-ounce) bag frozen roasted corn kernels (use regular frozen corn if you are unable to find roasted)
1/2 pound combination of fish (some suggest grouper, I used salmon and cod) , skin and bones removed, cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut in half crosswise to make bite-size pieces
1/2 cup snipped fresh chives for garnish

Using a large pot, heat to medium and add the butter to the pot. When it has melted, add the onion, celery, leeks, garlic, and fennel. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent and the vegetables have softened, 7 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and sprinkle in the flour, stirring well with a wooden spoon until it is fully incorporated and the mixture is pasty.

Gradually pour in the wine, stirring until the mixture is well blended. Add the chicken broth and 1 cup of the clam juice (if using). Stir in the potatoes, lima beans, sugar snap peas, bay leaf, parsley, oregano and the seasonings. Cover partially with a lid and let the chowder simmer gently over medium-low to low heat until the potatoes are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.

Stir in the cream and return the chowder to a simmer. Add the corn and the fish and cook for 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook 5 minutes more, or until the shrimp have turned pink. Ladle the hot chowder into bowls and garnish each serving with a sprinkling of chives. Serve immediately.

Note: The chowder may be prepared up to several hours ahead up through the cooking of the potatoes. Remove from the heat and let sit at room temperature. A few minutes before serving time, reheat the chowder to a simmer and finish the recipe as directed.

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