Cajun Shrimp & Grits

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I’ve recently noticed that the progression of life-relationships, career goals, family obligations, personal goals-leads to more and more tasks that occupy my time and energy. Playing back the video of my life, I’ve allowed my professional goals to call the shots throughout most of my early years. Granted, this choice was out of necessity as I was striving for self-improvement. But, as I reflect on how my life has been up until this point, I realize that I do not wish to be remembered only as a “good worker.” I want to live my life fully and spend my time engaging in activities that bring me joy, not just money and more lines on my resume. In my clinical work with older adults, I have learned invaluable lessons that many of us do not realize until we experience life-and-death situations or “wake-up calls.” These patients have taught me that later on when I reflect on how I’ve lived my life, I will never wish that I had worked more or that I had gotten better grades or purchased another car or house. Ironically, that is how many of us live our lives. My life has focused on getting the grade, adding another spot on my resume, getting the job, and reaching financial security. Most people expect mental health workers to have it all figured out and to have life perfectly in balance. The reality is that we are all struggling with figuring out our values and living a life that is consistent with those values. Knowing what I know about what brings people true happiness, I still get caught in the capitalist narrative like a hamster spinning on a wheel. Sometimes I’m not sure how to get off. That may be why I chose to start this food blog in the first place. It was finally a project for which I did not expect a grade or some kind of monetary or tangible return. It was something that I did for me. It is my way of expressing and sharing my love of the magic that can happen in the kitchen when you have a creative mind and inquisitive palate. Even now, I struggle to find time to post on this blog, but I am trying to make a commitment to be more consistent. So here is something that I made for a sunset picnic with my partner today. He and I have not had much time to ourselves lately, and I wanted to make our picnic extra special. So, my mind automatically went to comfort food.

Without further ado, here is my recipe for Cajun shrimp and grits. I remember eating delicious vibrant foods when I visited New Orleans. The loud, bombastic flavors tantalized my taste buds and left me satisfied and happy. I believe that THAT is the essence of comfort food. I wish I could make another trip to New Orleans or the South for some real southern food. Short of that, I opted to bring the South to me. Hope you enjoy this recipe for a Sunday brunch or decadent dinner.

Cooking tips:

Overcooking shrimp is a common kitchen mistake. It leaves the shrimp with a dry rubbery texture. For this dish, you only need to sear both sides quickly and then finish off the cooking in the sauce. That way the shrimp will not overcook.

When sautéing in butter, always add a splash of olive oil or other oil with a higher burning point. Butter burns at lower temperatures, which makes it unsuitable for sautéing or frying on its own.

Leek, garlic, and shallot are seafood’s friends! I use these aromatic veggies in almost all the Italian and Cajun seafood dishes that I make because its pairing takes away from the stench that seafood can exhibit.

As a shortcut for the grits, I bought pre-made polenta. Otherwise, cooking grits from scratch can take 45 mins to an hour. If you have the time, be my guest. =) But time-savers are always welcome in my kitchen.

 

Recipe

Serves 2
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes

½ lb Shrimp
Cajun rub (below)
½ lb shrimp
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp red pepper flake
½ cup thinly sliced leek
1 thinly sliced shallot
¼ red bell pepper, diced
¼ green bell pepper, diced
¼ onion, diced
1 bunch scallion, sliced
½ head garlic, minced
1 tsp flour
1 tbsp water

Cajun Rub
¼ c brown sugar
2 tbsp barbecue rub (½ tbsp cayenne pepper, ½ tbsp black pepper, 1 tsp salt, ½ tbsp garlic powder)
½ tbsp chipotle powder
½ tbsp garlic salt

Grits
1 cup pre-cooked polenta
2 cups low sodium chicken broth
½ cup heavy whipping cream
1 tbsp butter
½ cup grated white cheddar
salt to taste

Directions:

Grits
Heat chicken broth and polenta in a pot. Bring to a boil and then lower fire to low heat. Cook for 15 minutes until polenta has softened.

Then add cream and grated cheese. Mix well into grits. Use a handheld immersion blender to work out any clumps and ensure that the grits are smooth.

Continue cooking until the grits have thickened and the excess liquid has evaporated. The desired texture should be that of runny mashed potatoes. When your grits have reached this stage, check for seasonings and add salt to taste.

Shrimp
Devein, clean, and pat dry shrimp. Then mix with Cajun rub and set aside.

Heat a large skillet on high heat. Add in butter and oil. Then add aromatic vegetables: leek, shallot, garlic, red and green peppers, and onion. Add red pepper flake. Sauté and sweat until the vegetables have just softened. Remove from pan.

Add more butter and oil to the pan to sear shrimp. Sear shrimp until both sides are just golden brown and the inside is still uncooked. Add in sautéed aromatic vegetables and cook together for 1-2 minutes.

Then add ½ cup of water to deglaze the pan. Allow to cook for 2-3 minutes until the sauce reduces. Then mix flour with 1 tbsp water and work out any clumps. Add this mixture to the shrimp and cook until slightly thickened –another 1-2 minutes. Check for seasoning and add salt, pepper, and/or red pepper flake as needed.

Take off of heat and serve on top of grits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creamy Pasta with Chicken, Tomato, and Spinach

IMG_7727For the majority of my meals, I am watching my refined carbohydrates and trying to reduce starches in my diet. I have come a long way in the realm of healthy eating and weight management-an achievement of which I am incredibly proud. But, every once in a while, I completely give in to my love of pasta. Soaking in tomato sauce, kissed by basil, swimming in broth, how I love pasta. Let me count the ways. I can’t help it-I just love food in all shapes and forms. And pasta, whether dressed up in a bow tie, slenderized in fettuccine, or rolled thinly and svelte as papperdelle, never disappoints. And the cherry on top? The delicious sauce that comes as its partner! Whenever I eat pasta at restaurants, I always indulge in a nice creamy sauce because I usually limit myself to tomato-based sauces when I cook at home. However, some foods are made to nourish the body and some have been designed to nourish the soul.

Today, I was inspired to make this dish because I needed to nourish the body and soul of my brother-in-law. My sister recently gave birth to her first child- my niece Jamie. I am so thrilled to finally be an auntie! She is absolutely adorable and I can’t wait to see what kind of person she becomes. We all know it takes a village to raise a child. So I’ve begun delivering meals for my brother-in-law because my sister has been occupied with caring for her new bundle of joy. I asked myself: what would I want to eat if I were completely exhausted an in need of a pick-me-up? Pasta was the first thing that came to mind.

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Cooking Tips

When cooking pieces of chicken breast in a sauce, it is important to be strategic about how big the chicken breast pieces will be. Cut them too small and the chicken will become dry after cooking for a short amount of time. If they are too large and thick, the cooking process may render the outside layers overcooked while the inside remains undercooked. If you are cooking a whole chicken breast, consider the butterfly technique and using a meat mallet or a large knife to flatten thickness. This will cut down on cooking time and create evenness in the cooking process of the chicken.

Red pepper flake and shallots may be difficult to pinpoint and isolate in an Italian dish, but when they are missing, it is similar to the foundation being cracked in a structure. Unstable and shaky, the pasta dish cannot stand without the fundamental building blocks of flavor.

If you like pasta to be “al dente”, purposely undercook the pasta by a minute or two in boiling water. When the pasta is added to your sauce, you can cook it to its desired consistency and texture. Please, please, please never drain pasta and then serve after topping it with sauce! The pasta needs to be cooked in the sauce to create a complete pasta dish-it allows the pasta to soak up and stick to the sauce.

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Servings: 4-6
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients
½ package dried penne
½ package bacon or pancetta, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 diced shallot
2 chicken breasts
1 tsp garlic salt, or to taste
pinch of red pepper flake, to taste
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tsp dried basil
¼ c sherry wine
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 cup grated Parmigianno Reggiano
1 bunch spinach
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 bunch basil

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Boil pasta according to package directions (approximately 7-10 minutes).

While pasta is cooking, sauté pancetta in large skillet. Heat skillet on medium high and place pancetta in the pan. When the bacon begins to crisp up showing a nice golden brown color, add onion and garlic. Saute for another 2-3 minutes, then set aside.

Thinly slice chicken breast into ¼ inch thick pieces. Season with garlic salt, red pepper flake, black pepper, dried basil. Set aside for 10 minutes to marinate. When chicken has finished marinating, heat large skillet and drizzle with oil. Sear chicken until both sides are golden brown (approximately 3-5 minutes). Then add pancetta, garlic, and shallot mixture.

Add wine and heavy whipping cream, and Parmiggiano Reggiano into the chicken. Allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce thickens.

Drain the pasta and add into chicken and cream sauce. Add a splash of pasta water to adjust consistency of the pasta sauce. When the pasta sauce has thickened to desired consistency, add spinach and tomato. Allow to cook for 2-3 minutes.

Turn off the fire and add in fresh basil. Adjust seasoning as needed: add garlic salt, red pepper flake, Parmiggiano Reggiano, and black pepper to taste.

 

Vegan Basil Almond Pesto

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Before you click “x” out of this blog, give me a chance to explain. Just because the name of this recipe has the word “vegan” in it, doesn’t mean this recipe is necessarily meant to be healthy. My version of pesto leaves out Parmigianino Reggiano, not out of a vendetta against cheese and dairy. I adore pesto recipes that include this amazingly full-bodied and complex cheese. The only issue is I typically do not have good quality Parmigianino Reggiano on hand. As a resourceful cook, I try to make do with what I have. I think it builds creativity and problem solving skills when you have to whip something up in a pinch using only the ingredients that are already in your kitchen. Try it out. You’d be surprised what you come up with! That is how this pesto recipe came about: I used what was available and ended up with something quite delicious.

Summertime brings about one of my favorite food seasons-I love the basil, the tomatoes, the berries, the melons….oh my goodness, the sweet sweet nectar of perfectly ripe yellow fuzzy peaches. Summertime usually means grilling, salads, and all things fresh to contrast the hot weather. Tonight for dinner I made a simple appetizer comprised of ooey gooey burrata cheese, splashed with balsamic vinegar, and served with heirloom baby tomatoes and my homemade pesto. That is going to the star of this post. I love love love pesto of all kinds, but my favorite is the Genovese style basil one. Traditional pesto uses pine nuts as the nut of choice. However, pine nuts are considerably more expensive than almonds, walnuts, and other nuts that I tend to have in my pantry. My version is a variation of the traditional basil pesto.

Cooking Notes/Tips:

I hate it when my pesto turns brown due to oxidation from exposure to air. A quick tip is that I use a good splash of lemon juice in my pesto recipe to prevent browning. Not only does the lemon juice preserve the vibrant green color of the basil, it also adds a note of brightness that uplifts the pesto and rounds out its symphony of flavors.

I would advise against cooking the pesto or heating it up because that also threatens the integrity of the delicate basil. If you’d like to mix it into pasta, I’d recommend tossing the pesto with the pasta in a cool bowl, or drop it into your pan for a quick few seconds before serving. To me, there is nothing worse than oxidized pesto. Yuck!

Since making pesto creates such a mess in my kitchen, I like to make this stuff in larger batches. Place into a sealed container and cover with saran wrap. Place it in your freezer and you’ll always have pesto ready to go for yummy Italian recipes.

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Suggested uses: You can add pesto to your pasta, use it as a base for a vinaigrette, mix it with mayonnaise to create a delicious aioli, serve it with fresh tomatoes on bruschetta, spread it with your favorite soft cheese, or just eat it by the spoonful.

 

Ingredients
2 cups fresh basil leaves
2 cloves fresh garlic
juice of ½ small lemon
1 cup toasted almonds
½ c olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

 

Directions

  1. Place basil, garlic, lemon juice, almonds, and olive oil into a food processor and allow the mixture to blend until it becomes a smooth paste. You may need to mix things up with a spoon to get the mixture going.
  2. Drizzle more oil if necessary
  3. Season with salt and pepper to taste

 

Yogurt & Berries

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Sometimes we just need to keep things simple. Looking at my former posts, I realize that I must seem like a carnivore. While I am definitely a meat and potatoes/rice kind of girl, I also work in a field where I preach a healthy lifestyle. So in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions and health goals, I thought I’d start with some lighter and healthier meals. I’ve been meal prepping for the past 3 years, and it has transformed my lifestyle and relationship with food. I’ve noticed that my waistline has gotten smaller and I’m happier and more comfortable in my own skin. Meal prepping makes healthy food easy, convenient, and fast. One of my favorite meals to prep ahead of time is yogurt and berries for breakfast. In this yogurt and berries breakfast, I often use frozen berries which are easy and delicious. Fruits that are frozen are often picked at the peak of ripeness and frozen immediately, often making them incredibly sweet and tasty. If berries are in season (AKA summer), then definitely use fresh blueberries, strawberries, and any other berries that you like. If you need just a touch of sweetness, try drizzling a bit of honey on top. This doubles as a delicious light dessert if you have a sweet tooth and want to stay away from ice cream.

I like to refrigerate this dish overnight because it allows the berries to thaw. When I get to work in the morning, I then mix the berries into the yogurt to create my lighter version of fruit on the bottom yogurt. One of my co-workers used to eat this everyday in the morning. Rather than adding sugar or honey, she would add a generous pinch of cinnamon for extra flavor. Eating it this way always reminds me of her.

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Servings : 1
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 0 minutes

Ingredients
1 cup non-fat plain Greek yogurt
(optional) 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
(optional) 1/2 tsp dark brown sugar
1/4 cup frozen berries
1 tsp honey

Directions
(Optional) Mix vanilla extract & brown sugar into yogurt

Place yogurt into a container and top with berries

Drizzle with honey

Refrigerate overnight and berries should be thawed and ready to eat in the morning

In the morning, mix berries into the yogurt and add additional honey as needed