Tuesday, January 29, 2013


There seems to be a conspiracy underfoot. No matter where I look, I see beautiful pictures or descriptions of the ultimate pasta dish. I think it started on January 4th, which was officially National Pasta Day. I'm starting to think there is a National Day for every food on the planet, but this one does actually deserve its own day of recognition and appreciation in my opinion. Shortly afterwards, I received the latest issue of Bon Appétit in the mail and this image graced the cover. Then Zagat started a digital battle with #ItalianWeek when they selected the 12 best Italian restaurants in New York City. That's right, a measly dozen spots. Manhattanites don't go quietly into the night when their personal favorite is left off the list, so they went to great detail online explaining why their #1 place deserved to be on the list. It was pretty much food porn. Ever since, I've been jonesin' to carb up. And when you get in that mood, it's pretty hard to convince yourself to have anything else. 

I did want to make a ridiculous meat lover's dish, like wild boar ragu, but fresh boar is pretty hard to come by in Santa Barbara. Where is my cousin when I need him?! Yes, I'm referring to my cousin who used to hunt squirrel in college and cook them in his dorm room microwave. Be thankful you were not his roommate. But I am the first in line for his deer sausage. Anyway, I was trying to keep things a little in check so recalled a recipe for a preserved lemon and chickpea pasta with parsley pesto that looked really appealing, even though it was a complete 180 from my original vision/craving. Maybe I just wanted the satisfaction without the guilt for once. What I knew I wouldn't do was sacrifice on taste and this did not disappoint.  

I'm not really a pesto fan even though I love basil. For whatever reason pine nuts make my mouth taste like dirt. I have no issue with any other nut out there, but pine nuts and I have no love affair. So I was pleased to see this pesto was made from toasted almonds and parsley. As expected it tasted as vibrant as the color. 

The addition of preserved lemons (which I happened to have and am always looking for recipes to use them, but this recipe alone is reason to go and procure—or make—a jar) really brightened the dish and added the perfect layer of acid that all dishes need. The sauteed chickpeas bring a lovely creamy dimension to the dish while the spinach delivers another pop of color, texture and nutrition, if you care about that. 

The result is a pasta very much full of life. It's still comforting and super satisfying but not so heavy. And did I also mention it comes together in probably less than 30 minutes, which is a heck of a lot shorter than any meat sauce that would need to simmer away for hours? It definitely hits the spot if you're jonesin' for pasta or are just looking for an easy, yummy and nutritious Meatless Monday dish.

I served it with a salad of roasted brussels spouts, carrots, shallots and a little bit of diced pancetta (I am far from a purist!) over a bed of frisee and radiccio with sliced, juicy pears and crumbled goat cheese (although I wanted to use blue cheese but had none) drizzled with a grainy mustard and red wine vinaigrette. Yum!  

HaHaHaHaHa!!! I just now realized that I also intended to serve a nice crusty baguette with it but flat out forgot about it! I just now recalled it as I went to type this paragraph and then opened the oven door to find the tinfoil-wrapped loaf still in there three days later! 

Good lord, am I blonde. Anyway, I guess the pasta alone gave me the carb fix I needed.  

Preserved Lemon and Chickpea Pasta with Parsley Pesto
from The Year in Food

8 oz pasta of choice (I used whole wheat spaghetti)
1/3 cup plus 2 tsp olive oil, separated
15 oz can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup toasted almonds, roughly chopped
2 cups loosely packed baby spinach
2 quarters preserved lemon, chopped (substitute zest of lemon + 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice—but it won't be as good)
1/2 cup reserved pasta water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pecorino for garnish

1. Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Add a drizzle of olive oil and cook pasta according to directions. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water and then drain. Set aside in pot to keep warm. 
2. While pasta is cooking, heat a medium skillet over a medium-low flame. Add 2 tsp olive oil. Add one clove of the minced garlic and stir for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the chickpeas and saute for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
3. Meanwhile prepare the pesto. Combine the remaining clove of minced garlic with the 1/3 cup olive oil, parsley and almonds. Puree in a food processor until a coarse paste has formed. 
4. Toss the warm pasta with the spinach to wilt. Add the pesto, chickpeas, preserved lemons and gently toss. If a little dry, add some of the reserved pasta water for creaminess. Note: I definitely had to add the pasta water. 
5. Taste to see if the preserved lemons provide enough saltiness. Season to taste with salt and pepper as desired. Shave some pecorino on top and serve immediately. 
Serves 4

Monday, January 21, 2013

Say Cheese

Probably like many of you, I resolved to eat healthier and make better food choices in 2013. We're now starting the fourth week of the New Year and also perhaps like many of you I'm already wavering in my resolve. For instance, I hosted a grilled cheese party on Saturday, the menu of which my trainer would probably not approve of. In my defense, yesterday was a very important holiday that seemed like it needed a proper recognizing. I'm not talking about Robert E. Lee's birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday, or Obama's inauguration, which were all compelling occasions observed over the weekend. No, it was National Cheese Lover's Day. And what is a more fitting way to celebrate than with a grilled cheese sandwich?! But I didn't want to have just any grilled cheese sandwich. I wanted it to be kind of over-the-top and super indulgent. I mean if you're going to fall off the healthy eating wagon, you might as well really enjoy the process. 

I love entertaining. I don't know if there's anything better than a house full of friends, family, good food and wine. I do it as often as I can, sometimes with a blow out theme party (like this one) and other times it's just a few of my favorite families coming over for a simple meal. The latter was my vision for Saturday. But to me a good party or meal isn't just putting food on the table, it's about enjoying the preparation as much as the meal itself. As such, I conceived the idea of having a "make your own grilled cheese" party. It seemed perfect for the kids but I fancied it up enough to give it adult appeal. 

I was rifting off the crostini station I did here and put out different types of breads, spreads, meats, extras and of course cheeses. People were invited to take two pieces of bread and create the grilled cheese sandwich of their fantasies. The options were pretty limitless. I honestly wished I had a bigger stomach and could have tried more versions (and unfortunately no one seemed to want to share any of their sandwiches either). Anyway, once you have your open faced sandwich ready to go, you pop it onto a baking sheet and cook for 8-12 minutes. Once the cheese is all melty, you pull them out, "close" the sandwich, and devour it. No one left a bite. 

While people were waiting for their sandwiches to cook, I served up this soup which I thought would be a perfect accompaniment to a grilled cheese (and a nice alternative to the traditional tomato soup). Yes, I did serve bourbon-spiked soup to children under the age of five, but I must say they were delightful guests after dinner and lasted until almost 11 pm before the bedtime fairies arrived to escort them home. You may want to try it sometime. I'm just saying . . . . That soup has a lot more nutritional value than benadryl. 

One of the key success factors for good entertaining is doing as much work as possible ahead of time. So often people end up slaving over dishes in the kitchen that require a lot of attention while everyone else is out in the living room having great conversation and enjoying a nice glass of wine. Not only do you miss out on visiting with your friends but you're exhausted. With this party concept, all the prep can be done ahead of time and your guests can get involved, which I personally think people really enjoy and makes for a fabulous party. 

About 60-90 minutes before the party, start taking out all the accoutrements for the sandwiches. I laid out three meat options on the largest cutting board I have and then added other sandwich "layers" in rows. 

I set out five different spreads (from pesto to jalapeño honey mustard to fig butter), three meats (rosemary ham, pulled pork and bacon), cut up tomatoes, apples and pear, along with some fresh spinach, and then provided three shredded cheese options (cheddar, mozzarella and fontina).

I did label the options to make it more fun and allow me to be more hands off. I am still a tad bit of control freak in the kitchen, so I did provide instructions on how to build your sandwich to reduce the risk of errors (if that's really possible with a grilled cheese sandwich).  

Once that was done, it was time to turn my attention to the most important part of the sandwich: the bread. I selected three different options: wheat, sourdough and cinnamon raisin. 

To create the perfect sandwich, you need to skillet toast the bread slices. This takes a little bit of time but is mindless and can actually be done as you're putting out the sandwich options. 

It was really fun to see how people personalized their grilled cheese sandwich. No two were the same and pretty much everyone felt like theirs was the best. 

This is the perfect party to host (for guests of all ages) and more importantly enjoy!

Grilled Cheese Bar
1. Pick a few sturdy bread options (whole wheat, white, potato, sourdough, walnut, cinnamon raisin, rye, pumpernickel, etc.). Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Set a wire rack inside each of two foil-lined baking sheet. Butter one side (just one side) of each slice of bread. Melt a tsp of butter in a large skillet that's been heated for at least two minutes over medium heat. Add 3 slices of bread, buttered side down; cook pressing down often with a spatula to ensure even toasted and rotating pan frequently to allow for bread to evenly toast. Don't rush the process but it will take 3-5 minutes probably for each slice. Place the toasted bread in a basket. Repeat process until you've toasted all the bread. 
2. Spread some flavor (whole grain mustard, pesto, roasted red peppers, sun dried tomatoes, fig butter, raspberry jam, pepper jelly, etc.) on two slices of bread for your sandwich.
3. Add some meat (ham, bacon, pulled pork, proscuitto, salami, smoked salmon, etc.) and any extras (sliced tomatoes, pears, fresh spinach or basil, sauerkraut, caramelized onions, dried apricots, etc.).
4. Sprinkle a small handful of shredded cheese that is meltable (cheddar, mozzarella, gruyère, swiss, fontina, etc.) on each slice of bread. The cheese is the star of the party so get the good stuff. Season with salt and pepper. 
5. Place each slice of bread on a wire rack inside the baking sheets and bake for 8-12 minutes (start checking at 8 min). Working in batches, firmly press two cheese-topped sides of sandwiches together. Let rest for 1 minute and cut in halves or quarters. Serve hot or warm. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bring It

OK, I finally feel like I've got my head above water again after the holidays. Hope y'all are ahead of me.... But I did have a really fabulous holiday in South Carolina with my family. While always special to spend Christmas with them, one of the highlights this year was a dinner with some high school friends. And since we're all still 22, that was just a few years ago. [Note: I did a terrible job photographing this event, so trust me the food is better than the photojournalism!] 

Cheers to old friends

Anyway, I extended the invitation to two friends, Caldwell and Debbie, who both live in Charleston, to come and join my family for supper. I was thrilled they accepted, but was pleasantly surprised when Caldwell (a.k.a. Pablo—but that's a whole other story) asked if he could bring something. He followed that with, "You know I can cook." Then he went on to suggest an Iron Chef-like challenge. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I was like, "Bring it!" I suggested shrimp and grits, which is a quintessential Low Country dish with the potential for a thousand different rifts. He was game and we agreed the loser had to do dishes. 

I decided to do a version of the beloved shrimp and grits that I first made here. What drew me to this particular recipe is that it's made with my favorite beverage. While I'm sure your first guess is bourbon, it's actually "Co-Cola." I mean, I'm probably splitting hairs here because I would hate to have to choose, but there is a southern tradition of cooking meats (i.e. hams, ribs, etc.) in Coke that does glorious things. Why not shrimp and grits? 

The secret ingredient

Caldwell took a very unconventional approach which scored him points in creativity—not to mention taste, playing off his interpretation of grits in the form of hominy and adding some roasted poblanos and chorizo. I think we all enjoyed the cooking and of course the eating. 

Poor Sous Chef Mark had to peel all the shrimp

I did learn a few things from the evening/competition:
1) It's always helpful when one of your friends marries a man who "spent some time working in London kitchens" and you can steal him as your sous chef.  
2) Ply your guests/judges with lots of alcohol before they eat.
3) Serve dinner at 10:30 pm when everyone is starving and is grateful to eat anything.

I think both dishes were winners because everyone ate until they moaned with a mixture of delight and discomfort. It was truly impossible to pick a winner because the dishes were so, so different (or at least the judges were so, so kind). 

Challenge Shrimp and Grits

But mine took the longest to cook and I made everyone wait to eat (in my defense, I needed a bigger pan!), so I figured I should get stuck with the dishes.

The Loser

Caldwell was nice enough to crack open the bottle of Blanton's he gave me (Indian Giver) and serve us up a few drinks while he watched me clean. Apparently there were a lot of dishes because we managed to start and finish the entire bottle between say 11 pm and 3 am. Thankfully Santa brought me a new liver for Christmas so that was immensely helpful. 

"Wow, that was a great idea to drink a whole bottle of bourbon in 4 hrs," said no one ever. 

I hope everyone's holiday was filled with as much good food and good times. May we greet the New Year with great expectations! Let's make 2013 a good one! 

Holley's Madeira-Glazed Shrimp over Parmesan Grits and Red-Eye Gravy
by Nathalie Dupree

Note: Madeira is famous in the South as the wine of choice for George Washington, who reportedly drank a pint of this fortified wine a day. The combination of the sweetness of the Coke and the richness of the Madeira bring a completely different touch to the dish. Red-eye gravy is traditionally made with country ham that had the round bone in the center, hence the name "red eye." Coke or coffee would be added at the end to soften the ham and make the gravy. 

3 Tbsp butter, divided
2 cups cooked grits, made with milk not water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 oz country ham, diced
1 1/2 cups stemmed and sliced shitake mushrooms
1 cup finely chopped red or yellow bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped onions
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup Coke or coffee
1/2 cup seeded tomatoes
1/4 cup Madeira 
2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp hot pepper sauce
1 lb peeled shrimp, uncooked
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Add 1 Tbsp of the butter to the grits and season to taste with salt and pepper. 
2. Melt the remaining butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the ham and sauté until brown, about 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms, peppers, onion and thyme and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the stock, Coke and tomatoes. Bring to a boil and boil until the liquid is reduced by half. 
3. Mix the Madeira and cornstarch in a small bowl. Add to the sauce and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat and simmer until thickened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made in advance, refrigerated and reheated before using—which apparently I forgot on this particular evening.)
4. Add the shrimp and cook until the shrimp turn pink, about 3 minutes. It may not seem like they're totally cooked through but remember they will continue to cook when you remove them from the heat. 
5. Divide grits between four plates. Spoon the shrimp and gravy over them, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, and serve. 

Caldwell's South of the Border Shrimp and Grits

Stuffing Ingredients
2 poblano peppers
1 package Jiffy cornbread mix
6 Tbsp butter
1 large sweet onion, diced
3 jalapeños, seeded, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 Tbsp dried oregano
3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 1/2 cups corn kernels (roasted if possible but canned is fine)
3 large eggs, beaten
1 12 cups chicken broth

Stuffing Directions
1. Roast poblano peppers over the stove eye until blistered. Place in a ziploc bag or tupperware container. After 10 minutes, peel the skin, remove the seeds and cut into 1 x 2 inch pieces. 
2. Bake cornbread according to package instructions and crumble in a large mixing bowl. 
3. In a skillet over medium-high heat, melt 2 Tbsp of butter and sauté the onion for about 5-7 minutes until tender, and then add the jalapeños and garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Transfer to the large mixing bowl with the cornbread. 
4. In the bowl, start adding the hominy, corn, oregano, chicken broth and beaten eggs. This will become a fairly thick, lumpy mixture. Add the cilantro last and mix well. Pour into a baking dish. You'd want the mixture to fill the dish up about 1-inch deep. Add the remaining butter, cut into pads, on top and cook covered in a pre-heated oven at 325 degrees for 40 minutes. Remove foil and cook uncovered until the top starts to brown.

Shrimp Ingredients
1 lb large peeled shrimp, uncooked
2 Tbsp fresh Mexican chorizo (or spicy bulk sausage, like Jimmy Dean's)
1/2 cup finely chopped sweet onion
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions (green parts only)
2 Tbsp mustard-based BBQ sauce (such as Carolina Treet's)

Shrimp Directions
1. In a skillet over medium-high heat, sauté the onion and chorizo until thoroughly cooked, approximately 7 minutes. 
2. Add the shrimp and cook until the shrimp turn pink, about 3 minutes. It may not seem like they're totally cooked through but remember they will continue to cook when you remove them from the heat. 3. Remove from the heat and stir in the BBQ sauce and let warm. 
4. Scoop a heaping amount of the cornbread stuffing on 4 plates. Lay a few strips of poblanos over the stuffing on each plate. Spoon the shrimp on top and sprinkle each plate with the scallions.