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rainbow shrimp and grits

Is there anything quite so wonderful as the combination of shrimp and grits?  Perhaps it is the blend of sweetnesses from the shrimp and corn , or the briny taste of seafood paired so nicely with the earthy aroma of good-quality, coarse grits that makes the dish so wonderful...  the point is:  it's one of those perfect culinary combinations that begs to be explored.

I am usually disappointed in the versions I find in restaurants, often times because of the quality of corn meal I encounter.  Even the cheap, instant stuff has a satisfying "comfort food" quality to it (and don't get me wrong, I'll still eat it!  Kinda like pizza... good, even when it's bad.), but it totally lacks in complexity and depth of flavor, which the cook will often counteract by adding copious amounts of butter and cream.  If instant grits are your thing, I'm not hating on that.  I get it - they're easy.  But before you eschew forking over a little extra money for the good stuff, consider the benefits:

Traditionally milled grits still have the germ (otherwise known as:  whole grain!) so they are rich in fiber and nutrients; heirloom grains are independent from the commercial food system;  and perhaps most importantly, they taste infinitely better.

So, if you're into it, visit the Anson Mills website and peruse their many varieties of "artisan mill goods from organic heirloom grains."  Your mind might just get blown.  If you live in Denver you can find Anson Mills products at Marczyk Fine Foods (in the freezer section, which seems weird, I know, but remember that nutrient-dense germ I was talking about?  It contains oils that will go rancid over time if not kept cold).  The variety I chose for this recipe is the Native Coarse Blue Corn grits.  I'm quite sure you could get wonderful results using just about any good-quality grits in this recipe, but if you are motivated to get your hands on this particular variety I can guarantee you won't regret it.  The blue corn, which is sourced by Anson Mills from the Cherokee Nation and is grown in the mountains of the Carolinas, tasted unlike any other kind of grits I've tried.  They had a very earthy and almost chestnut-like flavor with a mildly sweet finish.  The grits look a lot like any ol' coarse grain before you add water and then, all at once, they become this beautiful lavendar-blue hue that only intensifies as you cook them.  Such a color is so uncommonly found in food that you can't help but be surprised when you see it! 

Not being from the South, I have no loyalties to any specific method of preparation for shrimp and grits.  When I encountered this innovative and somewhat atraditional recipe from the Food52 blog, originally appearing in the glorious cookbook The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, my curiosity was piqued.  I used their genius idea for making homemade, salty, buttery, boozy shrimp paste as the springboard for this incredibly flavorful and delicious dish.  Since it is springtime, I just had to incorporate some seasonal staples:  Ramps and spinach.  The ramps get blended into the shrimp paste to add a bright, pungent, garlicky flavor to the dish.  The spinach is gently wilted with sliced andouille sausage and served atop the grits.  I made some extra shrimp to place on top, but we had leftovers without the extra shrimp the next evening and I thought it was just as good and makes for a lighter meal.  Since microgreens have become newly available in the market, I've been buying a container each week and garnishing practically everything with them!  They're so beautiful and add a bright, herbaceous flavor to just about any dish.  Everything comes together in one incredibly colorful, comforting, warm bowl.  I can't think of anything that tastes more perfect on a blustery Spring evening! 

Rainbow Shrimp and Grits

serves 4

Shrimp and Ramp Paste:

1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined

about 5 ramp stalks (one small bunch)

12 T salted butter (1 1/2 sticks), room temperature

1/3 cup good whiskey

juice of 1 small lemon (I used a Meyer)

good pinch of cayenne

plenty of salt and pepper


1/2 pound Coarse Ground Grits

2 1/2 cups water

2 1/2 cups or so of shrimp stock (or more water)

about 3/4 cup shrimp paste

8-12 cooked shrimp (optional)

microgreens, for garnish (optional_

Wilted Spinach with Andouille:

1 pound baby spinach, washed and tough stems removed

2 T salted butter

2 T olive oil

2 cooked andouille sausages, sliced

2-3 T shrimp and ramp paste

First, prep your grits.  Place them in a bowl and cover with 2 1/2 cups of water.  After the grains settle to the bottom, skim off the chaff and hulls that float to the surface and discard.  If you have the time, allow the grits to soak overnight (this will dramatically reduce your cooking time but is not absolutely necessary if you don't mind tending to the grits for upwards of two hours).

Next, make the shrimp paste.  In a large pan, add half the butter and heat over medium-high.  Add shrimp (cook the optional extra 8-12 shrimp for the topping, at this point, and set aside) and season with salt and pepper.  Cook until the shrimp is just-done, about 5-6 minutes.  Remove shrimp with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Add whiskey, lemon juice, and cayenne to the pan and cook over medium-high, scraping the leftover bits of shrimp from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon, until the sauce is reduced to the consistency of syrup.  Season with salt and pepper.

Remove the shrimp tails, if they are still in tact, and add the shrimps with the reduced sauce to a food processor.  Pulse a few times to combine.  Add ramps and remaining salted butter and pulse until mixture resembles a coarse paste.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste.  Set aside the shrimp paste, keeping it at room temperature until ready to use.

Place shrimp stock (or water) in a small saucepan and keep simmering over low heat.  Add the grits, with the water in which they were soaking, to a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Stir constantly and simmer the grits until the liquid looks starchy and slightly thickened, about 8 minutes.  Cover the pan and reduce heat to low.  Stir every 10 minutes or so, making sure to loosen any grains that stick to the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.  Each time the grits become thick, add shrimp stock about 1/2 a cup or so at a time and continue cooking, adding at least 1 1/2 cups more liquid, until the grits are done.  Cooking time will be about 50-60 minutes if your grits were soaked overnight, and about 1 1/2 to 2 hours if they weren't.  You'll know when they're done when the grits are no longer starchy in the center.  The grains should be a little toothsome but fairly soft and not chalky in texture.

Once grits are cooked, remove from heat.  Stir in about 3/4 cup of the shrimp paste (or about half the batch) into the grits until combined and allow the flavors to sit together for about 10 minutes. 

While the grits are resting, cook the spinach.  In a large pan, add butter and oil and heat over medium-high.  When butter is bubbling, add your sliced andouille and cook until browned, about 4 to 5 minutes.  Add spinach (and extra 8-12 shrimp and a few tablespoons of shrimp paste and reduce heat to slightly above medium.  Stir spinach continuously until it is just-wilted and soft, about 4 minutes.  Remove from heat.

Ladle the grits into a bowl, making a little well in the center for the spinach.  Spoon the spinach and andouille into the grit wells and serve with extra shrimp on top (if using), garnished with microgreens. 



Millet and Caramelized Onion Cakes with Mizuna Salad

Whole grains.  We know we're supposed to eat them but we're not exactly sure how.  You see a lot of cereals, breads, and other packaged, grain-based products that have fancy looking labels telling you how wonderful whole grains are, so that looks like a good option.  But the full story is that they are often produced with a raw material that, while it was once a whole grain, ends up getting pulverized and processed until much of it's nutrition is lost.

I like to think about it this way:  If you want to eat healthier, cook at home as much as you can.  If you want to cook healthier, stick to buying ingredients - not food - at the grocery store.  You're probably like, "I do buy ingredients!" and I'll be like "so, did anything you buy come in a package with an ingredients list?" and then you might understand what I mean.  I'm not saying all food from the grocery store is bad.  I still routinely buy pasta, jam, hot sauce and bread, among other things.  I just try to find the best ones I can, preferably made locally, and I know I've made a well-rounded trip to the grocery store when I look down in my basket and see mostly ingredients:  produce, whole grains, oils and vinegars, cheese... you get the idea.

So, with the intent of demonstrating that starting with ingredients and ending with wholesome food doesn't have to be a daunting task, I give you a simple, wholesome, from-scratch dish.  The flavors are simple but compelling - herbaceous, toasty, corn-like millet is toasted, cooked into mush, and mixed with sweet and pungent caramelized onions.  No flours, no fillers, just a little egg and seasoning and they come together just beautifully.  The homemade buttermilk ricotta makes this dish feel really special.  You don't need any fussy equipment, just a fine sieve, some cheesecloth (or cheesecloth-like material, if you happen to be a weirdo like me and have a few spare gauze bags laying around) and a nice, big pot.  The result is creamy, mild, slightly tangy and has almost infinite uses.  If you can't squeeze the extra time in to make ricotta, I would recommend using a good-quality fromage blanc or even ricotta salata, but for heaven's sake don't buy that Miceli's ricotta in a tub.  Every time you do, an elderly Italian man sheds a single tear...

Millet and Caramelized Onion Cakes
makes about 10 cakes

1 cup millet
2 cups water
2 T butter
2 T vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 egg, lightly beaten
salt and pepper
bacon fat (optional)

Place a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and add millet.  Toast in the dry pan, stirring constantly, until it becomes fragrant, about 4 minutes.  Add water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until all of the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes to release the starches and soften the millet to a mush.  Allow to cool for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, caramelize your onions.  Add butter and 1 T vegetable oil to a large pan and heat over medium-high.  Reduce heat slightly and add sliced onions and cook, stirring often, until the onions are soft and deep golden, about 12 minutes.  Add onions and the egg to the millet and mix well until the mixture holds together.  Season with salt and pepper and mix well.  Form mixture into 3-inch balls and flatten into cakes.

In a large frying pan, add remaining vegetable oil and a couple tablespoons of bacon fat and heat over medium-high until the bacon fat melts.  Reduce heat slightly and fry cakes until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side, adding more fat if necessary.  Finish with a little salt and serve atop Mizuna and Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette, then top with ricotta.

Mizuna with Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
serves 4

about 1/4 lb mizuna
1 meyer lemon, juiced
2 T champagne vinegar
1 tsp honey
1/4 cup olive oil
salt, to taste
1/2 cup homemade buttermilk ricotta (recipe below)
2 T sliced green onions

Wash mizuna well and spin dry.  Add lemon juice, vinegar and honey to a blender and pulse until the honey is blended.  While the blender is running, pour in the olive oil in a slow, steady stream.  Add salt to taste.

Add a splash of the dressing to the buttermilk ricotta then mix in the green onions.  Serve salad with millet cakes topped with the ricotta.

Ian Knauer's Buttermilk Ricotta
makes about 2 cups

1 gallon whole milk
3 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tsp kosher salt

Place all ingredients in a large pot over medium-high heat and slowly bring to a boil, stirring frequently to prevent scorching on the bottom of the pot.  Just before the liquid starts to bubble (the mixture will thicken and curdle) remove from heat.  Pour liquid through a cheesecloth-lined sieve and allow to drain for at least 15 minutes.  Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.



Quinoa, Apple and Almond Bars

Eating wholesome food might mean different things to different people, but I think everybody can agree that we could all do with less processed food in our diet.  The difficulty is that we so often find ourselves in situations where we need to eat on the run.  I almost always have a bag of dried apples and raw almonds in my purse so I can stave off hunger between meals, but sometimes you need a snack with a little more protein and substance... Enter, Quinoa Bars!

Now, you should all know that I haven't always ridden on board the quinoa train.  Maybe I had one too many sad, tasteless black bean and quinoa salads before I decided I didn't like it.  But since the humble grain, which isn't actually a grain at all, is not only wholesome but also happens to be something that grows really well in the Southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I decided to give it another go.

The important thing to know about cooking quinoa is:  rinse it!  The tiny seeds are coated with saponin, which not only gives it a bitter, soapy taste but makes the quinoa less digestible.  Even if you purchase the packaged, pre-rinsed stuff, I would recommend rinsing (because, well, it couldn't hurt!).  These bars are just-sweet, with a nice combination of crunch and chew, and they pretty much just taste like what's in 'em.  Go figure!  No over-processed flours or sugars necessary.  Each bar has about 180 calories, so enjoy them as a light snack between meals.

Quinoa, Apple and Almond Bars
makes 18

1 cup quinoa
2 cups water
1/2 cup butter (or coconut oil)
1/3 cup honey
1 cup plus 1/2 cup almonds
4 oz dried apples (about 2 cups)
1/3 cup honey
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 T salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup Demerara sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees.  In a small saucepan, cover quinoa with water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until the liquid has absorbed, about 15 minutes.  Set quinoa aside.

Meanwhile, brown your butter (skip this step if using coconut oil) - Melt in a small saucepan over medium heat until the foamy bubbles start to subside and the fat solids begin to brown and smell toasty, about 7 minutes.  Set butter aside.

In a food processor, add apples and 1 cup of the almonds and pulse until well chopped.  Add honey, cinnamon, both extracts and salt and mix until combined.  Add 1 cup of the cooked quinoa and pulse again until mixture comes together (this helps to absorb all the honey so the mixture will come clean out of the food processor).  In a large bowl, combine the remaining quinoa with the quinoa mixture and the remaining almonds, roughly chopped or slivered.  Add butter and eggs and mix well.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and grease with a little cooking spray or butter.  Press quinoa mixture into the baking sheet and smooth the top with a spatula until even.  Sprinkle liberally with demerara sugar.  Bake until set, about 30 minutes.  Remove from oven and place on a wire rack.  Allow to cool completely before slicing into bars.



Goat Cheese Polenta with Zucchini and Chard "Ratatouille"

Ah, polenta.  The quintessential Italian comfort food!  Ok, maybe pasta is the quintessential Italian comfort food, but I feel a bit partial to the warm, creamy concoction that results from simmering frangrant, toasty cornmeal in water and mixing in some rich, tangy chevre (I used the always-delicious and Colorado-made Haystack Mt. Boulder Chevre).  Broil an egg on the top and you reach a whole new level of awesomeness!

To make this dish even more comfy-cozy, I topped it off with my take on a classic French comfort food, ratatouille.  This version is composed of all the delicious Grant Family Farms CSA ingredients I had on hand, although typically ratatouille is made with zucchini, bell pepper and eggplant.  This version packs in a healthy dose of just-cooked greens, instead, and gets a nice, bright punch of flavor from the addition of sun-dried tomatoes and freshly chopped parsley leaves.  Definitely not traditional but decidedly less fussy and totally delicious!

Goat Cheese Polenta with Zucchini and Chard Ratatouille
serves 6

6 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups polenta grain
4 oz chevre, softened to room temperature
salt to taste
6 farm-fresh eggs

2 T olive oil
3 cups mixed zucchini, diced
1/2 large red onion, diced
2 T garlic scapes, sliced
2 T sun-dried tomatoes, minced
1 28-oz can San Marzano whole tomatoes
2 cups chard leaves, chopped (about 4 large leaves)
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped

In a large pot, bring water to a boil.  Pour in the polenta in a slow, thin stream while whisking vigorously.  Switch to a wooden spoon and stir polenta until mixture returns to a boil.  Reduce heat to low and cover pot.  Cook polenta, stirring vigorously for 1 minute every 7-8 minutes or so, until grain is tender and most of the water has been absorbed, about 30 minutes.  Add chevre and salt to polenta, breaking up the cheese with the wooden spoon, and stir until chevre is incorporated, about 5 more minutes.

As your polenta is cooking, in a medium bowl, use your hands to crush the San Marzano tomatoes into rough chunks.  In another large pot, heat oil over medium-high.  Add zucchini and onion and cook until softened, about 6 minutes.  Add garlic scapes and sun-dried tomatoes and cook another minute.  Add the tomatoes with their juice into the pot and bring mixture to a boil.  Reduce heat to simmer and allow to cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture thickens, about 30 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Place your oven rack on the highest level (make sure there's enough room for your pan to fit below the burner).  Heat oven to broil.  Once polenta is cooked, spray a 9x13-inch lasagne dish (slightly smaller is OK) with cooking spray.  Pour polenta into the dish.  Crack one egg into a small cup and place the other eggs nearby.  Make a well in the polenta with your spoon and slide the egg into the well.  Repeat with remaining eggs, working quickly so the polenta doesn't solidify.  Place under broiler and cook (watching closely) until egg whites are set, up to 5 minutes.

When the ratatouille has cooked down, remove from heat.  Add chopped chard leaves and stir for a few minutes until the chard has wilted.  Allow polenta to cool and solidify (at least 10 minutes), then cut and serve with ratatouille and fresh parsley on top.



Green Polenta with Spinach and Herb Pesto

Don't get me wrong, I love a good, traditional pesto.  But sometimes I just don't feel like forking over $30 per pound for pine nuts and $20 per pound for Parmigiano Reggiano.  That's why I love this version, made with spinach leaves, garlic scapes, mint and parsley.  It's full of flavor from the pungent garlic scapes and sweet spinach and gets a nice tang from the addition of champagne vinegar.  A traditional pesto, this is not, but is it delicious?  Heck yes it is...

If you are somebody who has spent their days in fear of slow-cooked polenta, give this method a try.  It yields a fantastic result without you having to constantly stir the pot and compared with the instant stuff, the flavor is infinitely better.  My absolute favorite brand of polenta is Anson Mills Polenta Integrale, a coarse-milled heirloom flint that has a wonderful, complex flavor and toasty aroma.  If you can't get your hands on Polenta Integrale, just look for coarse cornmeal - you can find it just about anywhere.

Green Polenta with Spinach and Herb Pesto
serves 6

6 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups polenta grain
1 T salt

2 1/2 cups packed spinach leaves (about 1/2 a bunch)
1/4 cup garlic scapes (about 4 scapes), chopped
1/2 cup mint leaves (2/3 oz package)
1/4 cup parsley leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
1 T champagne vinegar (or lemon juice)
salt and pepper, to taste

1 poached egg per serving

In a large pot, bring water to a boil.  Add polenta in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly to loosen any clumps.  Switch to a wooden spoon and stir until mixture returns to a boil.  Lower heat to medium-low, cover pot, and simmer, stirring well every 5-7 minutes, until much of the liquid is absorbed and the grain is tender, about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the pesto.  Add spinach, scapes, mint and parsley to a food processor and pulse to chop.  Turn processor on and slowly pour in the olive oil.  Add vinegar, salt and pepper and pulse a few more times to combine.  Set pesto aside.

Once polenta is cooked add pesto and stir well to combine.  Remove from heat and allow to thicken, stirring occasionally, for about 5-10 minutes.  Serve while still warm, with a poached egg on top, if desired.