January is no more, and I am stunned by how quickly those 30 days passed by. The first month of the year is probably my least favorite of all twelve, but I can’t quite put my finger on why that is. It might be the boring January food magazine issues, with uninspiring covers focusing on post-holiday diets and low calorie foods. Perhaps it’s because of the cold that seems to set in here in northern Florida during that month. If weather is the reason why, then I should have loved this past January — out of all the days Mother Nature had to play with, only two saw temperatures drop below a high of 60 degrees. The rest of the time, we enjoyed the warmth of highs in the 60s to the low 80s, and I had to repeatedly explain to my puzzled children why they weren’t allowed to go swimming in our community’s pool yet.
Every where I look, I see trees trying to bloom, confused by the warm weather we’ve had. The young maple trees that line our side street have newborn leaves popping out on their spindly branches, and when I got in my minivan at the airport after arriving home from Birmingham on Sunday, I found my van covered in the powdery yellow pollen from the oak tree branches overhanging the lot. And, for some reason, the Bradford pears seem to be the most confused, having just lost their leaves for the winter.
My weekend in Birmingham this past weekend was a little cold weather escape for me. I was able to wear sweaters and my new puffy white coat all weekend. I was even surprised by ice on my windshield on Sunday morning, when I got in the rental car to head to the airport. I could have done without the ice, but the crisp weather was a nice change from what I’m used to.
This coming weekend, I’m in for an even bigger taste of cold weather when I head up to New York City for a medical conference. I won’t mind the 40 degree weather one bit since I’m going to one of my favorite places on earth. Born and raised in the south, I somehow manage to feel like a New Yorker every time I visit – and the feeling persists for months after I return home. My love for the Big Apple is so apparent to my husband that Sam has even asked me a couple of times whether we should consider moving up there.
Don’t worry, Mom. We’re not moving anytime soon.
None of this really relates to this recipe for Chocolate Brownie Pudding except for the fact that the dessert will certainly warm you up on a cold night. Plus, it’s so darn good that I just couldn’t keep it from you any longer. I tweaked the recipe just a bit from a recipe from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics – a great cookbook if you don’t own it already.
Now, in full disclosure, my non-chocolate loving husband was not overly impressed by this dish. It was just too rich and, well, chocolatey, for him. Which means that it is the best dessert ever to serve to someone who adores chocolate. Like me.
When you take the casserole dish out of the oven after it bakes for an hour, the top of the surface is flat and smooth, hiding the gooey goodness just below the surface. Cracking the top by pressing gently with the back of a spoon reveals the glossy inside, showing just a hint of the molten chocolate below. The dessert — not quite a brownie, and not quite a pudding, but a nice blend of the two — has a texture that makes you think it’s not been cooked long enough. A couple of spoonfuls of this, either warm from the oven or warmed in the microwave, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream will satisfy every dessert craving you didn’t even know you had.
Unless you’re like my husband.
Don’t be like him.
Chocolate Brownie Pudding
After baking, the top will look fully cooked but the center will appear to be underbaked, and this is to be expected. The texture should be like a cross between an brownie and a pudding. Serve this by the spoonful - or spoonfuls - with a scoop of cold vanilla ice cream on top.
2 sticks unsalted butter
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 2 quart baking dish. Melt the 2 sticks of butter and set aside to cool.
With an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat eggs and sugar on medium high speed until very thick and pale yellow, about 5 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the cocoa and flour and set aside.
When the egg and sugar mixture is ready, decrease the speed to low and add vanilla extract, Grand Marnier, and the cocoa and flour mixture. Mix until just combined. With the mixer still on low, slowly pour in cooled butter and mix again until just combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish and place it in a larger baking pan or roasting pan. Add hot tap water to the pan to come halfway up the side of the baking dish. Bake for 1 hour. Allow to cool some; serve warm or at room temperature.
Minimally tweaked from Ina Garten's recipe in Barefoot Contessa Back To Basics, 2008.
I’m coming down from a three-day weekend high today. The last couple of weeks have been short work-weeks, due to the holiday a week ago and a teacher workday last Friday. It’s rare for me to take a full day off to spend with the kids on teacher workdays – I’m usually buried several projects deep, and it’s hard to justify not working those days. Last week was different, though. I’m ahead of schedule on several deadlines I’ve set for myself. A couple of projects are moving forward, carried by their own momentum, and I’ve wrapped up a couple of other writing assignments. So, I treated myself – and my kids – to a Mommy Stay Home Day on Friday.
After a lazy morning at home, we had lunch at one of my latest favorite restaurants. Blue Gill is close to my work, and in keeping with my dogma of maintaining a separate work and home life, both mentally and physically, I’ve usually avoided the place on my days off. On Friday, though, my craving for their cucumber and tomato salad with pickled red onions was too powerful to resist.
Surrounded by doctors in light blue scrubs and hospital administrators in dark suits, the kids and I snacked on fried green tomatoes, and they insisted I share the cornbread that accompanied my salad. We discussed our upcoming trip to the circus – an event neither of them seemed terribly excited about, so mostly I spent the time talking up the lions! and clowns! and other fun stuff! – and since Oliver’s fried chicken dish came with a crispy wing and thigh, we reviewed chicken anatomy.
Have I mentioned how much I love talking anatomy with my kids? They love learning names of body parts, whether it’s on a chicken or on themselves. Madeline used the word “wiener” this weekend after noticing a special little part on a male squirrel we happened to see in a photo. I was shocked at the use of slang and promptly corrected her.
The children’s teachers are going to just love me, I just know it.
We finished the day with a nature walk at a local state park. Devil’s Millhopper, described on the Florida State Park’s website as a “bowl shaped cavity 120 feet deep,” is really just a big sinkhole. My parents used to take us there when my brother and I were kids, especially when we had out of town guests. My guess is that, to keep the out-of-towners from getting bored with the flat, monotonous landscape that is north Florida, my parents drove guests around to the handful of unusual places this part of the country is known for. Like sinkholes.
The kids and I trekked down the wooden stairs into the bottom of the Devil’s Millhopper, stopping to look at old limestone rock formations and pretty red leaves and tiny waterfalls along the way. On the way down, that sinkhole only seemed a fraction of the size I recalled it being from my childhood. I was puzzled as to how it could have seemed so huge back then. And then I started climbing up, the kids quickly leaving me behind as they raced to the top. They laughed and yelled down for me to hurry up. I trudged up those wooden stairs, trying to catch my breath, hiding the pain of my burning lungs with a pained smile on my face when I passed other visitors headed downward.
So, okay. It’s a big sinkhole.
The upcoming weeks are going to be a bit more hectic than these last ones have been. I’m headed out of town for the next two weekends, and the work weeks are full, with no holidays left for some time. When life gets crazy, it’s time for comfort food, and the first dish that comes to my mind (besides take-out Chinese, of course) is shrimp and grits.
I’ve been on an eternal quest to find the best recipe for shrimp and grits, and while my mission is still ongoing, I’ve finally got a recipe that comes closest to what I seek. This other version of shrimp and grits was good, but right now, this is the recipe that I’m going to stick with.
I like my shrimp and grits to have a sauce with some kick to it, plenty of sauce, enough that I can mix it in with the grits or mop it up with some crusty bread after all the shrimp have been devoured. This recipe has the perfect amount of sauce, and the addition of crumbled sausage adds some depth to the flavor. A dash or two of hot sauce and a squeeze of lemon gives the piquant dish just what it needs to send you and your guests back for seconds.
Shrimp and Sausage with Creamy Grits
I use sausage for additional flavoring in this recipe. To make it more healthful, replace the pork sausage with chicken sausage. The heat in the recipe can be increased by upping the amount of hot sauce to your liking. Also, if you're pushed for time and still want to enjoy shrimp and grits, just use quick-cooking grits (follow the instructions on the package) in place of the stone ground grits.
2 cups water
2 cups whole milk
1 cup white stone ground grits
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 pounds uncooked large shrimp, peeled & deveined
8 ounces mild Italian sausage, casings removed & chopped or crumbled into pieces
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice, drained & juice reserved
1/2 teaspoon (or more) hot sauce
1 to 2 teaspoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup sliced green onions (optional)
1. Bring water and milk to a simmer in a 2-3-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan. In a large bowl, cover grits with water and whisk vigorously. Let stand for 30 seconds, then skim off any bits that have floated to the top with a fine mesh strainer or a spoon. Drain grits well in a fine-meshed strainer and whisk into simmering milk.
2. Reduce heat to low and simmer grits, partially covered, stirring often until grits are tender and thickened (they should be like loose oatmeal) - approximately 45-50 minutes. If the grits become too thick before they are tender & creamy, thin with hot water (1/4 to 1/2 cup).
3. When grits are creamy and tender, stir in cream, butter, and salt. Remove from heat and keep warm, covered, up to 20 minutes.
1. Melt 1/4 cup butter in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and sauté until tender, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for one minute, until garlic is fragrant. Add shrimp and sauté 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove shrimp to a large bowl.
2. Add sausage to skillet and sauté until sausage is cooked through, approximately 5 minutes. Add white wine to skillet, scrape up any browned bits, and boil until wine has reduced some, about 5 minutes. Add drained diced tomatoes and simmer until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes.
3. Add the cooked shrimp and simmer until shrimp are warmed through. Thin sauce with the reserved tomato juice if desired. Add hot sauce, lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste.
Spoon grits into shallow bowls and top each with the shrimp and sausage mixture. Garnish with sliced green onions and serve.
I used to look for recipes to make that would take just a short time, maybe 20 to 30 minutes, from start to finish. Quick preparation, quick cook time, as few pots as possible – those were my criteria. Well, that plus a glossy magazine photo of the fabulous finished dish.
Of course, those recipe selection criteria existed in the Before I Learned To Cook era. Those were the days when the George Foreman grill reigned supreme, and every meal seemed to be comprised of grilled chicken. Grilled chicken on a salad. Grilled chicken over rice. Grilled chicken over beans and rice. Grilled chicken with steamed broccoli.
We don’t eat a lot of chicken now. I’m sure you understand why.
But this is a different era. My confidence in my ability to cook, though still lacking, is much better than it was. I’ve made dishes and meals that I’m proud of. Heck, I’ve put them on display here. In public! For you to judge!
And you all have been so very kind, by the way. I love you for that.
The point is, I’m no longer intimidated by a recipe that calls for more than 30 minutes, from the first chop of the knife until cooked food is on the plate. In fact, I often crave a lengthy time in the kitchen, wearing my red apron and my flip flops, moving between sink and stove and oven to prepare something amazing (hopefully) for my family to eat. And maybe it’s selfish, but a three or four hour cook time means I’m stuck at home, with nothing to do except stir a pot, flip through a magazine, read a book with Madeline, or catch up on Twitter.
I love this at-home time, with no need to go anywhere – a Stay At Home Day, as my 5 year old son calls it.
This Bolognese sauce provided me with a fantastic Stay At Home Day on Sunday. For close to four hours, I stirred this pot of deliciousness. I began sampling little spoonfuls after the first hour, and with each hour of simmering, the flavors intensified and became more rich and robust. Though not a traditional choice, I served the sauce with bucatini, mostly because I like the slipperiness and smooth roundness of the pasta. Bucatini is a pasta made for slurping. It’s fun for kids, which means that it’s also fun for me. Plus, I love saying bucatini. Boo-ka-teeeeny.
I couldn’t go anywhere on Sunday afternoon, and then I was rewarded with bucatini with Bolognese sauce for dinner. It was pretty much heaven.
Serve this meat sauce over the pasta of your choice - the classic is tagliatelle, but truthfully, nearly any pasta will work - and with a hefty grating of fresh Parmesan cheese on top.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 Vidalia or other sweet onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
3/4 cup whole milk
2 teaspoons Italian herb seasoning
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cans (26- to 28-ounces each) tomato puree
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat oil in a Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot on medium heat. Add onion, celery, and carrot, and cook vegetables until soft, about 8-10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute more, or until garlic is fragrant. Add beef, pork, and a big pinch of salt; cook, stirring with a wooden spoon and breaking up any clumps, until meat is browned and none of it is pink. Add milk and Italian seasoning, and cook, stirring often until the milk has evaporated almost completely, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add white wine; cook, stirring often, until the wine has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato puree; when the mixture begins to bubble, turn the heat down to low. Simmer for at least 2 hours (and up to 4 if you have the time). Salt and pepper to taste.