Down South: Grillades and Grits

End of March and it’s cold and rainy in New York City. Even though I cannot wait for spring and summer produce (and the correlating lighter meals that I plan to create), I am still craving hearty comfort food. Add to this craving a sincere pleasure in cooking all day long on lazy Sundays, and you get a grillades and grits.
I had been planning to do a lamb-based dish in honor of Palm Sunday, but when I went to my neighborhood butcher, I discovered they were out of stock – waiting to receive the big shipment for Easter Sunday, I suppose. Looking around at the other cuts of meat, ranging from free-range chicken to pork belly and tenderloin, my eye was drawn to a bowl of beef chuck toward the front of the display. At $10.50/lb., it was right in my price range for the day. I had the butcher give me a pound of the grass-fed meat – enough for dinner for two and lunch the next day.
the meat, post-browning
Thus inspired, I gave my daddy, the meat master, a call and asked him how exactly one goes about preparing grillades. He consulted his John Folse (the Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine) and listed off the ingredients, while I tried to memorize them on my way to the store. I had most of the things I needed, just had to grab a red pepper, garlic powder, a can of crushed tomatoes, and a jalapeno. Then, within an oven-friendly pot, you brown the meat and set it aside. You bring up the roux; add the veggies, then tomatoes, red wine, stock, and the herbs. Bring to a boil and throw into a 350° oven for an hour and a half to two hours.
the ingredients
The key to good grillades, he underscored, is the roux. Unlike a gumbo, the roux for grillades is darkened, which means you cook it longer, without letting it burn. I did not realize how time-intensive the process of bringing up a roux was. After browning the garlic-powdered meat and chopping the vegetables, I added 1 part olive oil and 1 part flour to the jus of the meat. I stirred it together over medium heat…for 45 minutes. For 45 minutes, I stood over the heat of the pot, scraped down the sides, made sure it didn’t boil or burn, and caressed it into a happy and healthy roux.
bringing up the roux
Finally, when it turned a healthy shade of medium brown, I added chopped onion, garlic, red bell pepper, and celery to the roux. Dad had warned that the new additions might make the smooth roux slightly clumpy, but I didn’t end up having that issue. I let the veggies simmer for about 10 minutes, still stirring continuously, before adding stock, crushed tomatoes, jalapeno, and red wine (I used a delicious Cahors, which I ended up drinking with the meal as well – the right amount of leather, liquorice, blackcurrant, and earth). I let this come to a soft boil before adding thyme, more garlic powder, salt, pepper, 3 bay leaves, and some freshly chopped basil. I gave it a stir and popped it into the oven for 2 full hours.
browning the veggies
When the time came to serve the grillades, I prepared the grits. Mom had sent me home at Christmas with a package of stone ground cheese grits from South Carolina that were surprisingly quick – boil the water with a tablespoon of butter, added the contents of the package, reduce heat, and simmer for 12-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. When they were ready, I plated the meal, grits topped with grillades meat and jus. I was so excited that I forgot the parsley garnish, not that I missed it.
digging in…

South Africa, part II: Rust en Vrede

Friday night, I was supposed to cook dinner for Stevie for her belated birthday present, but my partner-in-crime/sous chef came down with the stomach flu. Instead of canceling dinner plans altogether, we decided instead to cook together at her place. She and Josiah would provide the sustenance, I would bring dessert and birthday wine. I won’t go into detail about how deliciously perfect the steak with bone marrow butter was, since Stevie has already done so. I also won’t talk about the dessert, since I’ve already described it before. What I want to talk about instead is the wine.

For Christmas a few years ago, my mother gave me a wine club membership, where 3 unspecified bottles showed up on my hypothetical doorstep each month. Each wine came with a distinct recipe to pair with the wine, which still proves at times to be an interesting exercise in flavor combinations that had never before occurred to me. Some of these were easy drinking, less expensive wines, while others were a bit nicer and meant for laying aside.

One of the latter was a 2004 Rust en Vrede Estate Blend. I’d earmarked this wine months ago as one I wanted to try with Stevie, and her birthday/the delicious steak dinner that she had planned/the confluence of my upcoming trip seemed the perfect occasion to pop it. And boy was I right. The wine was a luxuriant, velvety, thick, balanced blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Merlot. It was big, bold, and fruity, with subtle tannins from the bottle age that rounded it out.

Josiah, who is a sommelier, said that it was the first South African wine he’d been truly impressed with – mostly, he thought, the wines tasted like an ash tray to him. And to be fair, there was an element of ashiness to this wine, which must be representative of the terroir, but it was so beautifully counterbalanced by the depth of the Cab, the fruit of the Merlot, and snazzy spice of the Shiraz that the wine just tasted…smooth.

Rust en Vrede is a 315 year old vineyard that was founded by in 1694 by the then Governor of the Cape, Willem Adrian van der Stel. The winery specializes exclusively in red wine production, producing full-bodied reds aged in new oak. The wines coming from this estate seem to defend the notion that Stellenbosch may be the premier region for red wine production in South Africa. The 2004 Estate Blend was pure deliciousness. Even the experts approved. Happy birthday Stevie!

Homemade Chocolate Hazelnut Ice Cream

I think I have mentioned this before, but I could live on ice cream alone. And ever since I was a little kid, I have wanted to make my own, so last summer I invested in an ice cream maker. Best. Decision. Ever.

There is a serious element of patience and forethought involved in making ice cream. I have to know that I will want it a day before I can eat it, which is both a good and bad thing. It is certainly an exercise in restraint – at lease until its time to reap the rewards. Then, it’s no holds barred.

I’ve enjoyed following many recipes that have led me to some amazing flavor combinations – from Greek frozen yogurt to salted caramel – but I am getting ever more confident in my ability to forge my own personal creations. Inspired by the same August 2009 Gourmet issue, I decided I wanted to try to make my own version of a chocolate hazelnut ice cream.


  • 2 cups hazelnuts (8 ounces), toasted, cooled, and skins rubbed off
  • 1 cup sugar, divided
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/2 cups heavy cream, divided
  • 2 cup skim milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 bar 60%+ dark chocolate, such as Green & Black’s, finely chopped

equipment: ice cream maker!

Toast hazelnuts and let them cool. Once you can handle them without roasting your fingertips, rub off the skins as much as possible and place into a food processor. Pulse hazelnuts with 3/4 c sugar and salt until finely ground. Transfer to a heavy medium saucepan with 1 c skim milk and  1 1/2 c heavy cream and bring just to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let steep, covered, 20 minutes or more, depending on how deep you want the hazelnut flavor to be. Strain mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, then return to cleaned saucepan.

Return to saucepan, then boil over medium heat 2 minutes, whisking often (mixture will be thick). Remove from heat and add chocolate, stirring until melted and incorporated.

Meanwhile, bring remaining milk, cream, and remaining 1/4 cup sugar just to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, stirring occasionally. Lightly whisk eggs in a medium bowl, then add half of hot milk mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Pour back into saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard almost coats back of spoon. Do not let it boil, or your eggs will cook through.

Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl, then stir in cooled chocolate-hazelnut mixture. Chill custard, stirring occasionally, until very cold, 3 to 6 hours. Freeze custard in ice cream maker for 20 minutes. Make sure to scrape any of the hardened chocolate into the machine, as it will form little chocolate chip nugglets as the cream is churned. Transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to firm up.

 Then, DIG IN!

Adapted from the August 2009 Gourmet recipes for Salted Caramel Ice Cream and Gianduia Gelato

Celebrations: Vegetarian Birthday Dinner at Dirt Candy

Yesterday was my friend Noa’s birthday, so I decided I wanted to take her to dinner. In the four years we’ve known each other, I have set a precedent of thinking way too hard about how to feed her, either at restaurants or at home. Noa keeps kosher, so she tends to eat like a vegetarian in the restaurants that us laymen frequent. Although she is perfectly capable of taking care of her own food intake, I like to mother-hen her (perhaps a bit too much) by always making sure there’s something on the menu that she can eat.

Enter Dirt Candy. This vegetarian restaurant opened in the East Village in 2008, and I’d been wanting to try it for awhile – then repeatedly forgetting about it. While racking my brain for fun places to take Noa, the memory lightbulb went off. Take her to Dirt Candy! She can eat everything on the menu! 

The premise of the tiny 12-seater on 9th street is simple: vegetables are delicious nuggets that come from the earth. They are “dirt candy.” Chef and owner Amanda Cohen is right there to greet you when you walk in; she seated us herself when we arrived. And apparently we were lucky – they don’t usually have room for walk-ins.

The menu is small and quirky. There was one “snack,” four starters, and four entrees to choose from. All seasonal produce, and every item was named for its key ingredient.

Noa and I ordered the Jalapeno Hush Puppies to start – the soft, fried cornmeal was served with maple butter, which melted right off and onto our fingers. My only complaint is that there were five of them for two of us. Then we decided to split two entrees. Noa wanted the Corn and the Eggplant, so that’s what we ordered. And we were delighted with her choices.

There is a definite southern flair to the menu. The Corn dish was essentially gussied up grits (not that I am complaining, I adore grits,especially with cheese). These were stone ground and tasted like they’d been cooking up all day. They were speckled with full corn kernels from the corn cream, microgreens, pickled shiitakes, and huitlacoche, which is a fungus that grows on corn also known as the “corn truffle.” Served on top was a tempura poached egg, cooked to perfection. 

As delicious as these dishes were, I preferred the Eggplant. The presentation is not as beautiful as that of the Corn – there is no vibrant yellow and green to perk the eye. However, if there were to be a single dish to embody the notion of “dirt candy,” I think this would be it. Eggplant – sliced, pickled, breaded, and fried – was served a top black olive fettuccine, tossed with fresh ricotta, and served within a pool of basil broth. Eggplant jam was used as a garnish. 

If this sounds like a dark, monochromatic plate of food, it’s because it was. The dirt-colored food was even further underscored by the indigo plate it was served upon. But oh my, what amazing flavor combinations. I loved that the eggplant was pickled before it was fried, because it added an element of depth and saltiness that fried eggplant tends to lack. And the basil broth mixed with the eggplant jam was to die for. 

Though stuffed, it was Noa’s birthday after all, so we visited the dessert menu. We immediately nixed the popcorn pudding since we’d just consumed several heads of corn. Instead, we concentrated on the sweet potato puffs – served with sweet potato sorbet, brown sugar ice cream, and sour cream ice cream – and the ice cream nanaimo bar – sweet pea and mint ice cream and cream served between layers of chocolate. We mentioned both to the waitress and her reaction was immediate. The Nanaimo Bar. Hands down.

She brought it out with a candle on top – she’d caught onto the fact that this was a birthday date. I snapped this shot, the only one of the night, before we dug in (unfortunately, she’d already blown out the candle before I got to it).

The sweet pea and mint ice cream was delicate and refreshing, but I wish there had been more of it. The cream was reminiscent of the kind put in ice cream cakes from Baskin Robbins (not that this stopped me from eating my share), and the chocolate cookie at the bottom was a bit mealy. We cleared the plate, however, and ended the night with a bang – sweeping hand gestures left a bit of wine on the floor, and on me. Mazel Tov!

South Africa: Wine & History

I am gearing up for a trip to South Africa at the beginning of April to celebrate my birthday – I bought the ticket months ago and have slowly been setting up my itinerary. Everyone keeps asking me if I am planning to go on a safari and visit the lions. The answer is no. This is a wine trip.

Thus far, I am planning to spend a few days in Cape Town, hoping to wander the town, stumble upon good food, hike Table Mountain, and potentially drive down to the Cape of Good Hope to see penguins. Then, I am driving to Paarl to spend a few days visiting Backsberg, Glen Carlou, and a few others.

Then, on my birthday, I leave the solo life behind and fly to Durban to visit a good friend of mine from college, Cheryl, who moved back this past year. That part of the trip-planning I’ve left up to her :)
 see left. ignore my outfit.

I have been brushing up on my South African history, particularly as related to the wine industry, and I thought I’d share a few interesting nugglets of information here. If you are a history buff, keep reading.

1652 – the Dutch arrive at the Cape of Good Hope and set up an outpost on the Europe-India trade route

1659 – the first grapes on record are pressed

1679 – Simon van der Stel arrives and imposes the first wine-making regulations

1685 – van der Stel acquires Constantia, South Africa’s first internationally renowned winery, producing wines that were highly favored in the courts of Europe (Vin de Costance was Napoleon’s favorite wine)


1688-90 – After fleeing Europe, 200 French Huguenots establish Franschoek (the French corner, in Dutch), another wine-growing area in the Western Cape

throughout much of the 18th and early 19th c – SA establishes itself as a leading exporter of port- and sherry-style fortified wines, especially benefitting from Napoleon’s Continental System, which blockaded the British

post-Napoleon – sale crisis due to the low quality of wine, whose high yields and overproduction could not compete with the leading wines of Europe

late 19th c – phylloxera and mildew epidemics reach SA and ravage vineyards

the phylloxera louse

start of the 20th c – export trade market dries up, further decreasing production

1918 – Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging, a winemakers’ cooperative, was founded to begin establishing wine controls

1924 – KWV given legal authority to fix the price of wine used to make brandy

1925 – the Pinotage grape was created by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault (known as Hermitage in SA) by viticulturalist Abraham Izak Perold

1940 – SA government fully transferred the supervision of the wine sector to the KWV, allowing it to determine wine prices, permissable yields, varieties, planting rights, and production methods, as well as to control the surpluses

1948 – apartheid established in SA

1959 – first call to boycott South African goods, including wine exports, as a response to apartheid

1980s – boycott fully established internationally

1992 – KWV quota system abandoned, granting winemakers greater creativity and flexibility to create quality wines of various depth and complexities

1994 – apartheid officially ends with the multi-racial democratic elections won by the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela

Mandela wins!

1994-now – huge increase in international demand for SA wines, as an affordable, quality commodity; this is reflected in the increased plantings of international varietals throughout the winegrowing regions of the Western Cape

More South Africa-oriented info hopefully to come over the next few weeks. Test on Tuesday.

Sources: Andre Domine’s WINE; wikipedia; and various (see links)

From the Fridge: Mushroom Walnut Crostini

Yesterday evening, I wanted to make a quick and easy dinner after my book club. Inspired by the beautiful dispaly of winter veggies at Whole Foods, I decided on a stovetop ratatouille, with eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, and a bit of canned tomatoes (I hate buying fresh in the winter). However, I find that sauteeing eggplant is one of the more arduous processes in cooking, one that absorbs all the oil in pan, leaving precious little for the other vegetables. My alternative – a slow-cooking method that cooks the eggplant separately from the zucchini and squash, which require far less cooking time. All are brought back together when the tomotoes, oregano, thyme, and s&p is added. This in turn sits and stews in a covered pan for about 20 minutes.

In the meantime, I was a hungry girl. I didn’t get home until after 9, and dinner wasn’t getting into my belly any time soon. So, I decided I needed a little something something to snack on while I was waiting. One of my favorite combinations is mushrooms with nuts (or sausage, but that can be a bit decadent…), so I pulled the i-need-to-be-used-or-i-will-go-bad package of button mushrooms out of the fridge, chopped them up using my recently acquired knife skills, and threw them into another skillet over medium heat. As they browned, I cut my garlic into little brunois and added them to the pan – I have a hard time cooking sans garlic. I then grabbed the can of walnuts from my pantry and chopped them up coarsely. Into the mix.

As the flavors began to come together, I realized the texture wasn’t. I wasn’t looking for a crumbly mess to top my little baguette rounds, so I poked my head back into the fridge and saw a little spoonful of mascarpone (pron. mas-car-pon-ay, a personal pet peeve, if you couldn’t tell) left over from a tart I made a few weeks ago. The perfect bind, with its creamy, light consistency and slightly tart flavor. Once ready, I dumped all of the ingredients into my Cuisinart with a bit of kosher salt, deafened myself momentarily as I hit the pulse button, and then transferred the mix to a serving bowl while I waited for the toast points to toast up. It spread beautifully onto the bread, and the flavor was woodsy and nutty with a crackle of salt (I sprinkled some extra grains on top for good measure). So delicious that I ended up licking the bowl.

And with that, dinner was served.

Pizza alla Romana

Since getting over last week’s stomach plague, I have been on Italian food kick, which for me really seems to entail a lot of pizza. When I lived in Rome, pizza was my favorite (savory) thing to eat… I won’t deny that I could live on gelato alone, but I do like to throw in a good thin crust, bufala-covered pizza for good measure.

Most people have a crust preference. Some are die-hard Neopolitans, where pizza is said to have originated, with its doughy, medium-thickness crust. Others like the pizza alta, high pizza, the thick, Sicilian-style pizza that leaves a bomb of dough in your belly. It’s been translated in the US as deep-dish pizza, but I wouldn’t dare compare the cooking styles. Pizza alta is so yeast-filled that the dough rises up on its own, leaving its edges without the pan-seared edge of an American-style deep dish.

And there’s Roman pizza. Thin, crispy crust, cooked in a wood-fire oven that leaves the edge with a bit of char that complements the goo-i-ness of the cheese, whether fior di latte or mozzarella di bufala. I am obviously a lover of pizza alla romana, with a few favorite places scattered throughout the center of Rome and even out to Ostia beach.

However, I have yet to find my satisfactory pizza in New York, although I’ve been on the hunt for quite some time. That’s not to say I haven’t had good pizza. I enjoyed the saltiness of Motorino‘s pizza, although the dough was a bit too thick for my taste (I do like to be able to polish off my personal pizza without feeling sick afterwards – another point for thin crust). And I was a great fan of Gnocco‘s Emiliana – fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce, prosciutto crudo, arugula, and parmigiano – until it left me ill one evening.

I’ve even enjoyed Farinella‘s pizza a taglio, which reminds me of my many pizza meals on the go from the local farinaio (baker) in Rome – the long, rectangular baking sheets of pizza covered with all sorts of toppings, then cut with scissors and sold by weight. I love the pizza rosso more than anything, with its thin layer of tomato sauce and oregano.

There are plenty of others to try in New York, but Atlanta’s Baraonda is still the closest thing I’ve tried to what I am looking for. Maybe they’ll open a branch up here soon. Or maybe I’ll just hop a flight to Rome for a day – I’ve done it before :)