Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cooking for One


I have a secret: I love to cook for myself. There is something so independent, so self-satisfyingly indulgent about cooking for one. My husband is an absolute treasure as far as eating what I put before him (most of the time), but sometimes I like to formulate a meal, from start to finish, based on exactly what I am craving at the moment, and taking no one else's opinions into account.

When my parents left me and my sister with babysitters, I used to beg for TV dinners. I just loved the junkiness of the fare, dinosaur chicken nuggets and all. I seem to have actually grown up, since tonight I opted for something a little more adult than Kid's Cuisine. I am in love with Indian food, but I rarely prepare it. I decided to make dal, basmati rice, mango-coconut martinis, and fresh mango for dessert.

Coconut-Mango Martinis
Makes 2 drinks

1 fresh coconut
1 fresh mango
2 shots vodka
small strips of mango or coconut for garnish

Crack coconut over a bowl with a hammer, being careful not to lose any "water" (the liquid inside the coconut). Slice mango open, minding the pit in the center.* Squeeze the juice from the pit of the mango into the bowl with the coconut juice, making sure to add bits of mango pulp. Pour mango-coconut mixture in a shaker with ice and vodka. Shake thoroughly and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with mango or coconut strips.

*The best way is with a mango slicer, a cheap and effective tool.

Amanda's Dal
Serves 1 (with leftovers)

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup lentils (not split peas)
3 cups water
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon tumeric
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 squeeze red chili sauce (such as Sriracha)
1/2 cup basmati rice
1 cup water
pita bread wedges
chopped jalapeno
chopped tomato

Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook onions and thinly sliced garlic in oil until browned, approximately ten minutes, stirring often. Pour mixture into a bowl and to the saucepan add lentils, 3 cups of water, minced garlic, tumeric, cumin, ginger and chili sauce. Bring to a boil and cook over medium low heat for approximately 35 minutes, or until lentils are soft.

Meanwhile, bring rice and 1 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan, and turn heat to low and simmer for 18 minutes or until water is fully absorbed.
To serve, put a 1/4 cup of rice in a shallow bowl. Top with 3/4 cup dal, and garnish with chopped jalapenos and tomatoes. Serve with pita wedges.

For dessert, I just cubed the remaining mango and garnished it with a few slivers of coconut that I stripped off with a vegetable peeler.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Summer Shrimp

Shrimp and grits is distinctly Southern. It is a dish of lowcountry origins, associated with the Carolinas, but has spread far and wide across the Southeast. In the past couple of months, I have experimented with several S&G recipes, all completely different. I experimented with pancetta and proscuitto, two common Italian ingredients, and arrived at bacon, specifically, Conecuh bacon.* Proscuitto didn't deliver the smoky flavor I wanted, and pancetta simply wasn't as good as bacon. I tried yellow grits but preferred the white. White grits keep the integrity of the dish, rather than transform it into shrimp & polenta.

*Conecuh bacon (named after the Alabama County in which it's produced) is by far the best bacon I've ever tasted. It is perfectly marbled with fat, and crisps up beautifully.

Best Shrimp and Grits
Serves 6

4 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 stick butter
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup grits
1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese
3 ounces goat cheese, crumbled (optional)

1/2 stick butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 pounds uncooked large shrimp, peeled, deveined
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
6 slices of uncooked bacon, chopped
1 yellow pepper, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup green onions, chopped (green and white parts)

Bring chicken stock, whipping cream, butter and garlic to boil in heavy large saucepan. Gradually whisk in grits. Return to boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to low. Simmer uncovered until grits thicken, whisking often, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt 1/4 cup butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic and sauté until tender, about 4 minutes. Add yellow pepper and bacon and saute until bacon is fully cooked and browned. Add drained diced tomatoes. Add shrimp and white wine to skillet and saute until shrimp are just cooked, pink and curled. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To simmering grits, add cheddar and optional goat cheese. Stir until cheese is melted. Spoon grits into shallow bowls. Top each serving with shrimp mixture, dividing equally. Garnish with basil and green onions and serve immediately.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Poll Time

Please take a second to vote on the poll to the right!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Brunch

Sunday brunch cocktails are a must. Usually I reach for a classic Bloody Mary (garnished with pickled okra and green beans) but Beach Brunch requires a little more panache. In the midst of my fruit-blending craze, I blitzed up a peach puree (made with fresh Chilton Co. peaches, of course) moistened with a bit of Triple Sec. Poured into ten flutes and topped with sparkling wine, the result was a beachy peachy beverage the precise color of a Gulf Coast sunrise. That was last week.

Alabama Peach Bellinis
Makes 10 drinks

1 bottle champagne or sparkling white wine
6 fresh peaches
3 tablespoons Triple Sec
Cut peaches in half and remove pits. Place peach halves in blender and blend on high for at least one minute, or until peaches are fully pulverized. Strain into a container, pushing on pulp with a wooden spoon to extract the juice. Divide into ten champagne glasses, then top with sparkling wine.

Today, my aunt prepared a verdant beverage called "Missionary's Downfall." This one was as pretty as it was potent, and lives up to its name. The family first tasted these at my cousin's bridal shower, and no one remembers the presents.

Missionary's Downfall
Makes 6 generous servings

1 small can of limeade
lots of young Kentucky mint leaves, 3 or 4 handfuls
1 limeade can of vodka
1 blender full of ice

Blend ingredients on high til green throughout and ice is crushed. Pour and serve! Also fabulous for Derby parties.

A Typical Sunday

Piña coladas are a quintessential summer libation. They're even better when served inside a hollow pineapple, topped with a ribbon of dark rum. Well, maybe I'm biased towards my own concoctions, but I don't think it could have gotten any better. Picture this: me in the beach supermarket, hankering for some coconut and pineappple magic. For a tub of cored pineapple: $4.99. A whole fruit? Same price. Equal amounts of money for the fruit and a handy serving vessel? It's a no brainer. A can of cream of coconut came next. Yes, it has about a bazillion calories per tablespoon, but if you're going to drink your calories, make 'em count. I went by the juice aisle and almost grabbed the metal can of pineapple juice, then figured, why not try to make my own? (I told y'all, it's the summer of culinary experimentation). The hardest part was the hollowing out of the pineapple. I first cut the core out with a knife without severing any fingers, then scooped out the flesh with a large spoon. Blended on the highest setting, the pineapple transformed into frothy juice. Into the blender went the can of cream of coconut, a healthy dose of white coconut rum, and a few handfuls of ice cubes. The grand finale? A floater of dark rum that just barely sank into the pillow of froth on top. The hollowed out pineapple? Much more fun than any old hurricane glass.

Fresh Piña Coladas

Makes 2-3 pineapples or 6 tall glasses

1 ripe pineapple, hollowed out and fruit set aside
1 can cream of coconut
3/4 cup rum (light, dark, or coconut)
Garnish (swizzle sticks with orange slices and cherries, paper umbrellas, pineapple wedges, etc)
Blend pineapple on highest setting for at least one full minute. Mixture should be pale yellow and frothy. Pour cream of coconut into blender. Add three handfuls of ice and rum. Blend until ice is broken up. Pour into hollowed out pineapple. Add desired garnish. If desired, pour a shot of dark rum on top of drink just before serving.

Gluten Troubles in Paradise

My sister has celiac disease, which means she cannot consume any wheat, rye, or barley. Serious bummer. So during her visit, when I had a craving for fried okra, I had a unique conundrum on my hands. How to go about making gluten free fried okra? Gluten free fried anything, for that matter? Basically, when frying, one either breads or batters. Neither one would work. I prepared a gluten free pie crust the night before that I was less than pleased about, so I wasn't exactly brimming with confidence. The gluten free flour I used was primarily composed of rice flour, with tapioca and corn starch. I didn't have much choice, and I supposed it was close to tempura, which I love, so I dredged and dunked and held my breath. The result? Divine.

Triumphant Gluten Free Fried Okra
1 pound okra, cut into bite sized pieces
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup rice flour (or gluten free flour blend)
2 cups vegetable oil
Heat vegetable oil to 350 degrees F. I used an electric skillet outside, since it's super splattery. When oil is hot, in a colander or strainer, pour buttermilk over okra and shake to coat. Then pour flour over and shake to coat. Fry half of okra for 5 minutes or so, til flour is crisped up and slightly brown. Transfer to paper towels and salt immediately while still hot. Repeat with other half of okra. Serve right away.

I am a devoted okra fan now. I cannot get enough of it. Sauteed, fried, in casseroles or jambalaya, I care not. My mom picked up some freshly harvested okra that was so fresh it looked better than any grocery store okra I'd seen, even after a week in the fridge.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


I love shrimp. There isn't a single summer ingredient that conjures more visions of perfect, beachy days than tender, ocean-salted shrimp. I like them pretty minimally prepared. Boiled in Old Bay and doused with a squeeze of lemon is good enough for me. When I ventured to our Chevron shrimp hut (that's not actually the name of the establishment, it's just adjacent to a gas station), I was overjoyed to discover they carried head-on shrimp, for only $5.99 a pound. I know, I know, shrimp heads aren't much to look at, and a bit unappetizing to eat, googly eyes, antennae and all; however, if you've ever had BBQ shrimp in New Orleans, you know what I'm getting at. Baked in an amazing sauce of staggering amounts of butter, along with lemon, herbs, spices, and other delicious things, these shrimp make you "want to slap yo mamma." Don't ask me why, it's just a saying.
Getting back on track, I bought two pounds of head-on shrimp for what seemed like pennies, and got to work trying to recreate this Big Easy masterpiece. First I sauteed some onion and garlic in a lot of butter. I mean, a lot. I actually found a recipe for BBQ Shrimp and felt compelled to cut the butter in half to avoid having a heart attack at 26. Read on.

Pretty Darn Good BBQ Shrimp

1 stick butter
1/2 cup olive oil
2 lbs raw unpeeled shrimp, heads on
1/4 cup chopped basil
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
4 cloves garlic, minced
juice of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
black pepper
lots of crusty French bread

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease large baking dish. Melt butter and olive oil in large skillet. Add all ingredients except for shrimp and bread. Bring sauce to light boil. Put shrimp in baking dish and pour sauce over. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until shrimp are pink and curled. DO NOT OVERCOOK. Watch carefully, pick a shrimp and cut open to make sure it is not translucent. Serve in individual bowls with lots of bread to soak up the flavorful sauce.

Leftovers Again?

I love pureeing watermelon. It is one of the only fruits that truly yields its juices willingly. When blended, other fruits like peaches and cherries turn into a puree rather than a juice, flecked with unattractive bits of skin and peel. Blended on high for about ten seconds, watermelon yielded a vividly pink liquid. Upon first taste, it was clean and fresh, not overly sweet. I wanted to create a “tonic”, an old-fashioned remedy meant to strengthen and revive the body.
Watermelon and ginger is a natural pair, since the spiciness of the ginger amps up the mild sweetness of the melon. Lime juice adds zing. No sugar is needed to sweeten. It isn’t meant to be a replacement for soda but rather a fresh beverage on a hot summer day. For a bit of carbonation, I added a splash of tonic water (diet or regular) to each glass right before serving. Club soda would work just as well. To make a refreshing adult beverage, I added some vodka to the watermelon tonic, which was a real hit with my sister’s friends.

Watermelon-Ginger Tonic
Makes 4 drinks

5 cups watermelon chunks
3/4 cup cold water
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
1 large piece of ginger, peeled
Ice cubes
Lime wedges
Club soda

Place watermelon and 3/4 cup cold water in blender. Puree until smooth. Add lime juice. Grate ginger over watermelon juice, making sure the grated ginger and juice falls into the blender. Strain into a pitcher, using a wooden spoon to push the pulp and get out all the juice. Refrigerate until well chilled, at least 3 hours. Serve in a glass with ice cubes and a lime wedge, with a splash of tonic.

After I made the tonic, I wanted to go further with the refreshment idea and set to work making a granita, a sort of slushy dessert. Granitas are wonderful on a hot day, and much healthier than a bowl of ice cream.

Basil-Watermelon Granita
Serves 4
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
10 basil leaves, torn and bruised with the back of a spoon
3 cups strained and pureed watermelon
1/3 cup lime juice

Boil water and sugar in a saucepan until dissolved. Then add torn basil leaves and let it steep for 10 minutes. Using a sieve, strain the mixture into a container, pressing on the basil leaves with the back of a spoon, and put it in the fridge to cool. When cool, mix it with the strained pureed watermelon and lime juice, and put it in the freezer, scraping the mixture with a fork every 30 minutes for 3 hours or until evenly crystallized. Find some pretty glasses and there you have it, homemade slush!

One Blog's Beginnings

A summer at the beach can do funny things to people. Namely, make them experiment in culinary ways of which they never dared to dream. First, I set out to simply refresh myself with various "coolers," some alcoholic and some of the "mocktail" persuasion. As you can see in the image, I began with normal, everyday ingredients such as ginger ale, and limes. With the help of my trusty muddler, I squashed the limes with some mint leaves and a dash of simple syrup. For drinks, I always advise investing the time to make a simple syrup that lasts for weeks in the refrigerator. Simple syrup dissolves instantly and sweetens evenly. Topping the drink off with gin and ginger ale makes a bubbly refreshment perfect for a day (or month) at the beach.

Two-Gin Cocktail
Substituting ginger flavored syrup would make this a "three-gin" cocktail.

1 half of a lime, cut into three wedges
1 oz. simple syrup
4-6 mint leaves
1 can ginger ale (I go Diet to reduce sugar)
1 shot gin
In the bottom of a tall glass, muddle 4 mint leaves, syrup and lime together either with the back of a spoon or a proper muddler. Add ice. Pour gin over ice, top with ginger ale, and garnish with mint leaves, if desired.