Thai Chili Shrimp N’ Grits

Ahoy there mateys!

Alright here we go! I knew this had to be one of the dishes I would submit to Food Network. For one thing we have a dish on our brunch menu at work called Adam’s Shrimp N’ Grits, and it has a lot of fans. I’ve had many people tell me its the best around; actually I got just got a comment card about it on Sunday morning, which I really appreciate!  However, you haven’t really had Adam’s Shrimp N’ Grits unless you’ve had this version.

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I love infusing exotic flavors into classic American cuisine and I’m a huge fan of Southern American, Creole, or Cajun style food. This dish has grown from humble roots as a simple southern fishermen’s breakfast to gracing many different menus at restaurants all across America. Many chefs have their own take on it. For my version, I’m remixing this classic with the spicy flavors of Thailand.

So what are grits, exactly?

They are definitely one of the more confusing ingredients out there, and the answer to that can get a little complicated. I’ll try to give the Cliff’s Notes. Corn grits are a Southern comfort staple, with Native American roots. Grits are made by cooking ground, dried corn. You can find different varieties, which depend upon the fineness of the grind, and how it’s processed. I usually get mine in the bulk section at Whole Foods where they’re labeled as cornmeal grits. I would avoid anything overly processed such as the ones sold as instant grits. Though slightly different in texture, stone-ground grits, cornmeal grits, hominy grits and polenta are all pretty much interchangeable.

(side note: WordPress wants to correct “polenta” to read “tadpole” instead. )

(side-side note: “polenta” and “tadpole” are however, not interchangeable.)

Grits can be cooked so many different ways that there are actually entire books dedicated to them.(*ahem* gift idea) Grits can be savory or sweet; they can be silky smooth or toothsome; they can be cooled, sliced and then fried; they can even be healthy or indulgent. More often than not, they go the indulgent route — they are considered a comfort food after all. This usually includes milk, cream, butter, and/or cheese. I always prefer to lighten up a dish and try to make it more healthful while still making it delicious. The good news with grits is that you can have your polenta cake and eat it too!

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What makes these grits uniquely healthy while simultaneously rich and creamy is that they are made with stock and coconut milk. I added additional flavor to the chicken stock by throwing in some lemongrass I had lying around. (no, not uncommon in my kitchen).

It’s amazing how creamy they are without any cream, butter, or cheese! They are also gluten-free and vegan assuming you use vegetable stock… but then you know, don’t add the shrimp, or whatever. Grits are so versatile, you can eat just about anything with them. I also love poached eggs with mine.

Since there are only 2 major components to this dish, they have to both be perfect. This means no skimpy shrimpies! You have to get the best shrimp available to you. Go for the largest, freshest ones you can find. You really don’t want the pre-cooked variety either. You will infuse more flavor into them if they go in the pan raw.

Time to turn up the heat a little bit.

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With the shrimp, you can really afford to kick things into high gear on the Scoville scale. Somewhere between hot and nuclear should be just right. What I absolutely love about shrimp and grits together is that you can make the shrimp devilishly spicy, but the creamy grits will save your face! (but you know…don’t go eating any whole Thai chili peppers) If you don’t like spicy, I would at least go heavy on the garlic.

For this version, I made my own curry paste. By all means, go buy a curry paste at your Asian market or an overpriced one from the international aisle of your mainstream grocer. I prefer to make mine though because some of the ingredients in the store-bought variety are suspect to me. I mean have you ever actually SEEN shrimp paste, for example? Well I have, and uh… Maki Zavelli, over and out. Bai.

Generally for curry pastes, I process garlic, ginger, chili peppers, herbs and spices, and sometimes throw in random Asian sauces and pastes I have in the fridge. Korean Gochuchang and Japanese Miso are some of my favorites to go to.

Sorry I don’t have process photos. They look terrible in my kitchen with my current equipment and I didn’t have a helper available. I’ll outline my suggested process below, but keep in mind that there is a lot of room for personal interpretation. You can use different types of stocks, aromatics, fats, and spices. I always encourage people to learn cooking techniques, but to be adaptive to their tastes in regards to ingredients and flavors.

Ingredients:

1 cup cornmeal grits

4 cups stock (chicken, fish, or vegetable)

1 can coconut milk

6-8 pieces of shrimp per serving, deveined

2 Tbsp (eyeball it) garlic, minced

1 Tbsp (eyeball it) ginger, minced

1 small onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

3 Thai chili peppers (omit if they scare you)

1 Tbsp curry paste, red, panang or home-made

lime

Grits:

Bring 4 cups of stock to a boil. Add additional aromatics if using.

(conveniently they typically come in 4 cup size)

Add 1 cup of grits. Gradually add them to the stock while whisking.

Reduce heat to LOW. Let them cook low and slow for about 15 minutes, whisking occasionally. If they seize up a bit or look a little tight, that’s ok because we are adding coconut milk as well.

Add about 1/2 to 3/4 a can of coconut milk to your preference. Some people like really creamy grits, and some like them with a little more texture. As long as they aren’t too runny or totally seized up, there really isn’t a right or wrong consistency — it’s preference. Reserve the rest of the coconut milk for later.

Shrimp:

Heat your skillet. Once hot, turn your heat down to medium. Butter is the classic fat to use here and is admittedly the best partner to shrimp, but you can also use olive, coconut, or some other good oil. You can also use a blend; I used a mix of coconut oil and butter. Add your freshly minced garlic, ginger, onion, peppers, and curry paste. Don’t forget to add some salt and any other seasonings  you might like. It’s pretty easy to make your own curry paste, but you can buy pre-made ones at the Asian market. I would suggest the Thai red or panang style curry pastes. The amount is up to preference.

Add your shrimp. Let everything brown in the pan a bit before adding the reserved coconut milk. Allow the shrimp to finish cooking in this broth and take off the heat as soon as they’re done or right before they’re done. Hit the shrimp with a little fresh lime juice. Shrimp are easy to over cook, but the big, fresh ones are more forgiving than the small or pre-cooked shrimp that turn to tiny bits of rubber if you overcook them.

1 cup of uncooked grits yields about 4-5 cups cooked. I’d figure about 1 cup per serving, but could be more or less based on preference. They are surprisingly filling though!

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Next time you make grits, you should really try using stock instead of water and coconut milk instead of cream and butter. I promise you they are absolutely de-lish! So creamy you would think they were made with cream. If you’ve never tried shrimp and grits, go find a local restaurant that is known for them, and see what you’re missing!

I attempted to work on a post for 4th of July, but it didn’t really come together. Trying to make any food naturally blue usually doesn’t… but Happy Independence Day anyway! I’m gonna go back to enjoying my day off, and I hope you have a great holiday filled with great food, friends and weather!

Until next time,

May the fish be with you!

~Maki Zavelli

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Chopped Challenge: Reuben Style Chicken and Waffles

“Magically delicious!”

Have you ever made a guest list for a party and thought “hmm, I don’t know if these two people will get along…”? Sometimes they get along famously, and other times, well not so much. This often happens in fusion cuisine as well. Sometimes, ideas are just so crazy that they work, and other times they are as bad as they originally sounded.

Chicken and waffles is the quintessential example of when it works.

Salty and crispy meets sweet and fluffy

Who would’ve thought these opposites would attract and stay together for years to come?

In the April issue of Food Network Magazine, Ted Allen issued a Chopped challenge to the readers. You’re familiar with the show Chopped, right? It’s where four chefs compete against each other, the clock, and a mystery basket full of ingredients that are often downright bizarre.

The ingredients for the challenge were peanut butter, chicken breast, frozen cherries, and sauerkraut.

…hmmm….

My first two thoughts were “ingredients that don’t belong together” and “reuben sandwich”.

That first thought made me think along the lines of chicken and waffles, because they seem like they don’t belong together but actually work. And so, after brainstorming a few ideas, I reluctantly decided to introduce the two vastly different dishes…

Chicken and waffles, I’d like you to meet my friend Reuben.

Sauerkraut made me think of a reuben sandwich which is the only time I’ve ever enjoyed sauerkraut. If you’ve never had a reuben sandwich, it consists of rye bread, corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing (thousand island), and usually swiss cheese. Because I had bought rye flour for this dish, i decided to try my hand at baking bread for the first time. I made a dark rye bread adapted from George’s recipe featured over at Simply Recipes. I was actually surprised that this turned out quite wonderful on the first try, especially since I am not typically a huge fan of rye bread.

For the Chopped Challenge dish, I decided it might be possible to make a reuben sandwich using waffles instead of bread, and fried chicken instead of corned beef. I thought maybe I could incorporate the  butter into the waffle batter, as well as rye flour and caraway seed so that the reubeness would come through. I had two ideas for how to use the cherries. One was to pickle the cherries and mince them up as part of a Russian dressing, which would really transform the ingredient in an unpredictable way. Russian dressing is made from mayonnaise, ketchup, and pickle relish. For this dressing I used mayo, hot sauce, and pickled cherry relish. The other was to make a cherry syrup which made sense with the waffles.

I fried the chicken according to my taste; brined the chicken breast, seasoned the flour with salt, pepper, and some cajun seasoning. I used buttermilk for both the chicken and the waffles. I borrowed my friend’s waffle maker, and I borrowed a peanut butter waffle recipe from Tracey over at her blog. The only major difference being that I added rye flour and ground, toasted caraway seeds, which are ingredients for rye bread.

Yes I am aware of just how odd this dish sounds…. Now the real question (besides “uh what the heck?”) is “will it taste good?”

Although I was doubtful all the way up to the first bite (well maybe the third), the answer is a resounding “yes!”

Surprisingly the component that really brought it together was the Russian cherry sauce.

I also had two friends try this, and our conclusion was “magically delicious”. None of us thought it would be good, but we all fully enjoyed a whole sandwich, which were really filling. I’m surprised that it worked, especially with the sauerkraut, but it really had a great contrast of flavors that was unexpected in a pleasant way.

I also served this wonderfully strange sandwich with sweet potato fries, which is something I have been making since before I knew how to cook. I ended up using the cherry syrup I experimented with to dip the fries in, which was pretty good, but if I had to choose just one of these cherry sauces to have I would have to go with the Russian dressing.

I don’t think I won the contest, not that I was expecting to. Although I thought the dish turned out really well, and maybe would’ve won if I was on the show, the contest was really looking for a solid recipe. I didn’t even get to share pictures, which I think could’ve helped. The problem was I didn’t really have a specific recipe, and there were too many components anyway. Recipe contests generally have accessibility as one of the judging factors. So for those reasons, and because I can’t see any probable reason why anyone would want to re-create this, I’m not sharing a specific recipe. I just wanted to share this fun experience. If not for the Chopped basket, there is absolutely no way I would’ve ever come up with this dish. Being fans of the show, my significant other has been inspired to go collect crazy ingredients and give me a mystery basket to work with. We think it will challenge me as a chef and push the limits of my comfort zone. I will post those crazy challenges on my blog as well!

Until next time,

May the fish be with you, young rainbow trout!

~Maki Zavelli, over and out <(^_^<)

Braised Pork Summer Rolls with Thai Basil Pesto

“Various cultures rolled into one — daring to be different; and daring to be dunked!”

I originally conceptualized this dish while I was writing my very first post, “Welcome to My World!”,  a somewhat poetic and metaphorical introduction to my blog and myself. After the initial idea, I knew I just had to make it, but I didn’t know what a delicious surprise I was in for.

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between spring rolls, summer rolls, and egg rolls … or is there even a difference?

To the best of my understanding, the confusion comes from a mistranslation into English, and indeed there are differences.

Summer rolls and spring rolls are both wrapped with rice paper, but in different ways. Summer rolls are fresh, soft, not-cooked, and often vegetarian. Spring rolls, on the other hand, are fried. The dry rice paper wrappers you can buy at the store are usually labeled as “spring roll wrappers”, however this is the type suited for summer rolls. Asian products have a tendency to be mislabeled (but I don’t know why they never get corrected either). The wrappers for spring rolls generally come frozen and don’t require soaking before use. If you try to fry a mislabeled “spring rolls wrapper/skin” to make a real spring roll, you will make a mess instead.

This summer roll helps define my brand because I love to fuse the flavors and ingredients used in other types of cuisine with Asian flavor and style. I also have this strange obsession for anything rolled, stuffed, layered, or otherwise filled and sealed in a cute edible package.

The first step for these appetizers is the braised pork.

I must admit I have a certain affinity for braised meats. They are melt-in-your-mouth tender, showcase bold flavors, and are a great value.  Braising usually refers to first searing meat or vegetables and then cooking it in liquid at a low temperature. This is an ideal way to cook tougher cuts of meat that have a lot of connective tissue, such as pork butt or beef chuckeye roast. For this braise, I am using pork butt, which actually comes from the pig’s shoulder. This is a one-pot, slow cooking method, which is wonderful for a few reasons. It is economical and can be done ahead of time. You can also start it in the morning, and come home to a house that smells absolutely amazing.

The braising liquid is really up to the cook. When I braise, I don’t usually follow any recipe, but there is a sort of guideline that I like to braise by. Start by cutting your meat into more reasonably sized pieces, usually two is good enough. Rub the meat with a variety of spices, and heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Sear meat on all sides until a brown crust forms, then add onions and cook until translucent. Then it is time to start building the liquid love. I generally use a stock, an acid, such as lime juice, and some sort of liquor, beer, or wine. This time I’m doing something a little different…

There is this beverage that I love called ginger beer, which is a non-alcoholic cross between ginger ale and root beer. I recently bought several varieties of ginger beer, and there was one that I found too spicy to drink, so I saved it in order to cook with it. This ginger brew will be rounding out my braising liquid.

Then I also add aromatics such as fresh herbs. For this braise, I used Thai aromatics: lime leaves, lemongrass, and ginger.

I wanted to include the flavors of various cultures in one convenient package. These summer rolls take a trip from Mexico to Thailand, with a stop-over in Italy.

The major Mexican component is not only the braised pork (aka carnitas), but also the tangy and crunchy jicama-mango slaw that it pairs with beautifully.

 

This slaw is made from julienned jicama and chopped mango dressed with lime juice, red chile flakes, and cilantro. A jicama (pronounced hick-uh-ma) is somewhere between a potato and a radish and is used frequently in Mexican cuisine. I really enjoy these raw with a little flavor added to them.

The Italian influence I mentioned comes in the form of a pesto, which is a typical Italian condiment made from basil, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, and parmesan cheese. Now the flavors of this particular pesto are decidedly Asian, but the concept behind it is Italian.

Scallions, Thai basil, cilantro, and basil

I’ve used these beautiful fresh herbs along with garlic, cashews, lime juice, and a Thai oil infused with basil and lemongrass. Cashews are a great nut to use in pestos because they lend a bit of creaminess to the mix. The scallions add some extra body as well. For this reason, I didn’t use any cheese; I rarely use cheese in Asian dishes anyway.

To make the pesto, you add all the ingredients into a blender or food processor and slowly add the oil as it is blending. Pesto is easy to adjust and season along the way; I added some sea salt and white pepper, and got the herb ratios perfect the first time.

 

This pesto. My word, this pesto. This is possibly the best pesto I’ve ever had, let alone made. This fresh, vibrant, nutty, and citrus loveliness enhances the already bountiful bouquet of flavors in these summer rolls, thus achieving the highest form of well-deserved “MmMmmmmMmm…MmmmMmmmmm..Mmm….”

But I digress. (*ahem*)

Making the summer rolls is fairly easy but takes some getting used to. You have to dampen the dry rice paper in water and make sure all the excess gets drained off. Then you put the ingredients in the center, and roll it like a burrito. The bottom goes over the  filling, the sides come in, and then you roll to finish the seal.

Admittedly my rolling technique here could use a little work…

All the flavors and textures going on in this dish work very well together. The beauty of fusion cuisine is when an original idea ends up tasting so delicious such as this. A friend of mine said this has to end up on one of my menus, and I have to agree with him. If you want more specific recipe details, leave me a comment below, and I’ll be glad to elaborate.

May the fish be with you, young rainbow trout!

~Maki Zavelli, over and out <(^_^<)

Thai Chicken Noodle Soup and Curry Puffs

“Best meal I’ve ever had.” “Can I take some with me?” “What’s the recipe?”

All comments I’ve received on this dish. And that makes me a proud papa trout.

Today, I’m putting a Thai twist on a  American comfort classic. This is one of my signature dishes that I have been working on for a few years, and this most recent batch was the best it has been to date. Speaking of which, it also just so happened to be what I served for my first home cooking date with my significant other. To great success I might add.

Thai chicken noodle and curry puffs, a match made in heaven

I’m swapping out egg noodles for rice noodles; the same kind you would use for pad thai. The best way to use these is to pre-soak them in cold water and then add them at the end of cooking process as you turn off the heat. Otherwise they may break apart and become mushy. They should be firm, but easy to chew.

I’m using chicken thigh meat which is more commonly used in Asian cuisine than American (and it’s way tastier than chicken breast). I cook these half-way in a pan, and slice them after they’ve cooled. Then I add them to the soup at the end of the cooking.

I’ve also swapped out celery for fennel, which is similar in appearance and texture. For some reason, I have always intensely disliked celery; it’s just that one thing that my palette refuses to deem acceptable. Make sure you remove the core of the fennel bulb as it is too tough to eat; though you could steep it in the broth and remove it later. The anise notes added by the fennel really compliment the other flavors, so I’ve carried that flavor through in a few other places utilizing star anise, fennel seed, and fennel fronds.

This soup has an incredible depth of flavor. It is a great way to introduce people to Thai flavors in a modern-American sort of way.  I love to pair this soup with my green curry puffs, which are flaky savory pastries with a spicy kick. There is green curry in both the soup and the pastry filling, but the green curry does not overwhelm the other flavors of coconut, fennel, lime, and lemongrass.

I knew I had a keeper on my hands (both the dish and the date) when I received the comment “best meal I’ve ever had.” This obviously made me smile ear to ear. I also received high praise from friends and family who have gotten to try this.

Both dishes are fairly easy to make, but take a little finesse to perfectly balance the fundamental “s” tastes of Thailand: sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. The best way to do this is taste along the way and adjust the seasoning. If it’s too sweet, add more lime; If it’s too sour, add more sugar; If it’s too salty or spicy, dilute it with more broth or coconut milk. After making this soup many times over the last few years, I believe to have finally perfected the recipe. Although I’m much more of a dash of this, pinch of that, technique-driven cook… I will do my best to provide an accurate recipe.

Thai Chicken Noodle Soup

  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1 fennel bulb, chopped, fronds reserved
  • sweet peppers, cut into rings
  • about 1 cup of peas
  • garlic, about 5 cloves, minced
  • 5 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cans coconut milk
  • 1 package of rice noodles
  • green curry paste, to taste (1 tbsp)
  • fish sauce, to taste (3 tbsp)
  • lime juice, to taste (3 tbsp)
  • sugar, to taste (3 tbsp)
  • 2-3 stalks of lemongrass
  • 2-3 kaffir lime leaves
  • 1-2 pods star anise
  • chicken thighs, about 5

Season the chicken thighs with salt, white pepper, marjoram, and toasted ground fennel seed, and sear in a hot pan with oil. Don’t cook all the way, remove from heat, cut into strips, and set aside.

In a large heavy bottomed pot, sweat the onions and fennel. Add the curry paste and garlic, stir and cook a few minutes. Add the broth and coconut milk, reserving some coconut milk for garnish if desired. Add all seasonings: fish sauce, lime juice and zest, lime leaves, lemongrass, and star anise. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Add the chicken, peppers, and peas. Simmer for 5 minutes, tasting to adjust seasoning, then remove from heat. Add pre-soaked rice noodles.  Garnish in a bowl with coconut milk, and fennel fronds.

I love to serve this soup with these vegetarian green curry pastries.  These can be made a variety of different ways. I have made them with wonton wrappers, baked or fried, as well as with puff pastry, baked or fried. I find my favorite version is the baked puff pastry. The fried wonton wrappers are really good too but seem very similar to Indian samosas.

Golden brown, baked curry puffs

Thai Green Curry Puffs

  • 1 sheet of puff pastry, thawed
  • 1/2 lb. cooked potatoes (really any kind works fine)
  • 1/2 cup peas
  • about 3 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • green curry paste, to taste (1/2 tbsp)
  • fish sauce, to taste (1 tbsp)
  • about 1 tbsp coconut milk

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Roll out puff pastry and cut into even squares with a pastry wheel or pizza cutter (about 9 squares). Place filling in the the center of each square, leaving enough space around the perimeter to fold. Fold one corner of the pastry to the opposite corner and crimp edges together. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 10-15 minutes.

Serve with Thai chicken noodle soup and enjoy! These taste extra amazing dunked in the soup, just sayin’.

Until next time,

May the fish be with you, young rainbow trout!

~Maki Zavelli, over and out <(^_^<)