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every dish has a story

Shrimp and Cheesy Grits With Poached Eggs and Glazed BaconMay 13, 2011

I'm not too familiar with how to make grits; in fact, before today my only instructions came from My Cousin Vinny. Despite being a California kid, I have eaten grits several times. These days, they aren't too hard to find on brunch menus even out here on the West Coast, but even as a child I managed to get my hands on a few bowls, though I had to travel far.

The first time I tried grits was on the backside of a racetrack. In a past life, I was obsessed with horses, and when I was thirteen, my dad arranged every little horse-loving girl's dream vacation. On the way to a business trip in Washington, D.C., we stopped in Kentucky where we got a private tour of Claiborne Farms (where racehorses like Secretariat, Ferdinand, and Easy Goer were retired) and the granddaddy of all racetracks, Churchill Downs. Of course, it was late July, so racing season was over, and the Kentucky Derby was a distant memory. But that afforded us the opportunity to get a real behind-the-scenes look at daily operations.

We arrived at 6am, and our guide led us behind those famous twin-spired grandstands and out to the dining hall where we rubbed shoulders with jockeys and trainers while they fueled up after the morning workouts. The menu was short — there may have been only one option, for all I know. But that first bite of hominy goodness was like unwrapping the first gift on Christmas morning. The biggest surprise: they weren't at all gritty. Just buttery, creamy, and the perfect accompaniment to my fried eggs and bacon.

As it turns out, San Francisco grocery stores aren't too familiar with grits, either, because they only seem to carry the quick-cooking kind. According to My Cousin Vinny, "No self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits." But I'm a California kid, and given my lack of experience, this may have been a fortunate turn of events. And in the end, we cleaned our plates! For the recipe, read on.

Tennessee Whiskey Pork LoinMar 01, 2011

My Grandpa was from Tennessee. I think my dad mentioned something about the Blue Ridge Mountains and that he lived in Nashville for a time. Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to visit the state of his birth (funnily enough, my dad and my husband visited Knoxville together for the Cal-Tennessee football game...they said the people were unbelievably welcoming but that stadium full of orange was the scariest sight they have ever laid eyes upon), but maybe I have a little bit of Tennessee in me because I read this recipe in my BBQ cookbook and had to make it.

Now, I have no qualms about cooking with alcohol: a splash of brandy in lobster risotto or shao xing rice wine in dumpling filling, a half-cup of sake in miso sauce for fish or wine in my duck ragù -- heck, a bottle of wine in my shortribs. But by the time these porky suckers were ready to go on the grill, I had used nearly 2 cups of JD. If I drank that amount instead of letting it burn off over the flames, I would be hanging out the car window on my way to the emergency room. Needless to say, I was daunted.

Some learnings from this effort:

  1. Get yourself a good grill man. In our household, I don't touch the grill. The hubby might be afraid of the stove, but he is a whiz kid with the grill (just don't let him watch the NBA Finals and grill at the same time...sometime ask him about the $40 Porterhouse Disaster of '10).
  2. Be prepared to get messy. When it comes to cooking, I'm kind of like Phil Hartman's Anal Retentive Chef. All waste materials have their own place (compost, recycling, trash); everything gets wiped up as I cook. By the time I had trussed up these piggies, I was up to my elbows in rub and fillings, and some had even dripped over the side of the counter and down my legs. As soon as you fold over the other half of the pork, everything gushes out the sides, so make sure you have a large, contained work space.
  3. Make your own BBQ sauce. It's sooooo worth it.
  4. I'm not sure if it was the whiskey or the 10 other ingredients, but this pork loin was BAD ASS (all caps and expletives required). It's sweet, spicy, tangy, and smoky all in one bite. The author of my cookbook (Steven Raichlen's BBQ USA) merged together a few different recipes he gathered on his travels throughout Tennessee, and if this is the end result, then I'd better buy some bigger pants before my first visit.

For the recipe, read on.

Mac and CheeseOct 25, 2010

Another straight-from-Food Network find is this mac and cheese recipe, courtesy of Barefoot Contessa. I pretty much love anything Ina Garten concocts, but there are certain classics -- such as roasted chickens, salad dressings, soups, and baked pastas -- where you really can't go wrong with her recipes. This mac and cheese recipe is one such example. Aside from burning your roux, I don't think there is a single thing you can do to ruin this dish, and there are so many iterations: throw in some chicken, cooked broccoli or spinach, Spam (yes, I love the stuff), bacon, or anything else you have lying around your fridge, and you have a complete meal. Here, I prepared it as a side dish to sauteed pork chops, so I kept it simple with just a topping of tomatoes and bread crumbs.

Red Velvet Cupcakes With Cream Cheese FrostingOct 25, 2010

I can never turn down a good cupcake. However, ask me to choose, and I will always pick red velvet above any other flavor (even chocolate). My first experience with red velvet cupcakes came a few years ago when my cousin Janelle made them for a dinner we hosted at our house. She used the Paula Deen recipe which to this day is my favorite. I think it has to do with the fact that Mrs. Deen uses vegetable oil (remarkably, instead of her signature stick or two of butter) which keeps the cakes super moist, even when making mini cupcakes as I did here. The first time I made red velvet, I didn't add enough red food coloring, so my cupcakes ended up being a weird skin color (I called them "flesh muffins"). No one seemed to mind once they tasted them.

One note I would like to pass along: when making mini cupcakes, I reduce the baking time to 15-18 minutes which guarantees that they will be as moist as promised.


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