Sunday, May 29, 2011

Baked Hominy and Green Chile Casserole

Hominy? Seriously? I'm not eating that stuff!

Let's get Mikey. He won't eat it. He hates everything!

When Grant invited Kristen to her first holiday dinner with our family, it was Easter, and they hadn't been dating very long. I asked him what she liked to eat. But, of course, he didn't know. So I asked Kristen what her family served for holiday meals that she especially liked. The answer came back immediately - cheesy rice. I asked how to make it.  But, of course, she didn't know. She didn't cook. Her aunt or mom always made it for her, she said.

I still wanted to have something familiar to make her feel comfortable at our dinner table, so I asked her what vegetables she liked. Hominy, she said. Now that was just plain weird! In all my years of cooking for family, friends and even strangers, no one had ever said they really liked hominy. It definitely is not a mainstream vegetable on restaurant menus, in cookbooks or in many homes, for that matter. So I went back to cheesy rice and probed a little more about that.

Turns out, cheesy rice was the same rice, cream of something soup, cheese and broccoli casserole from the 1950s. I was familiar with it -- except Kristen liked hers without the broccoli. That makes it Cheesy Rice! Kristen's family dinners and holidays always included a separate dish of Cheesy Rice just for her -- hold the broccoli, please. Easy enough, I thought, so I made her some Cheesy Rice. Only it was "not exactly" like the one her aunt and mom made. It seems Cheeze Whiz makes it real Cheezy Rice. Now I remember!

So, soon after that, I bought a couple of cans of hominy to keep in the pantry. I showed Kristen where I kept them and told her they were always there, if she preferred it to whatever else was on our dinner menu. To her credit, she has always been more than willing to try new things and has added many new foods to her list. The hominy languished in the pantry for quite some time.

I guess we all remember foods we hated as kids, but later have come to enjoy -- or even love. My list includes Chinese food, most seafood, beets, Brussels sprouts, ham -- and hominy. I remember tasting hominy once or twice as a kid and finding the flavor not at all to the liking of my timid palate. Giant corn that didn't taste exactly like corn!

When I tasted hominy again after all these years, I recognized the flavors of masa, grits, corn tortillas and tamales. Imagine that! Now that I've made the flavor connection with other foods I eat, I like hominy now too.

Not long ago, I came across a recipe for a hominy casserole, and decided to make it for Easter dinner. Kristen and I liked the simple version well enough, but since then I've reworked the recipe with a few ideas of my own, playing up to Mexican flavors. I loved it and MFH said it was good too! Another hominy convert!

I can't wait to have Kristen try this new version of my hominy casserole, although the green chiles might be a deal-breaker for her. We'll just have to wait and see. Who knows -- hominy with green chiles today, maybe broccoli in Cheezy Rice Casserole tomorrow!

He likes it! Hey Mikey!

Baked Hominy and Green Chile Casserole
2 cans hominy (white and/or yellow)
8 oz. sour cream
1 ½ cups shredded cheddar cheese
½ cup yellow corn meal
4 tbsp. butter, melted
¾ cup milk
1 egg, beaten
1 small can chopped green chiles
½ tsp. ground cumin
several dashes Choulula (or favorite hot sauce)
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Coat inside of baking dish with cooking spray. Pour mixed ingredients into baking dish. Sprinkle lightly with more shredded cheddar cheese, if desired. Bake for about 25-30 minutes, until lightly golden brown on top.

More recipes with hominy from food blogs:
Mexican Beef, Hominy and Green Chile Soup from Soup Chick
Green Chile Hominy Casserole with Chorizo from Homesick Texan

Friday, May 27, 2011

Colossal Shrimp Cocktail - A Starter With Big Flavor

Ahhh ... shrimp cocktail. 

So special. So simple. Well, simple if you don't mind peeling and deveining a few shrimp. And I don't.

If I can't buy fresh shrimp, right off the boat -- impossible to find in Southern Illinois, by the way -- I prefer to buy them individually frozen in the shell.

That's why I choose such large frozen shrimp when cooking for a small group. Fewer shrimp to prep, much easier for me to handle and quite a statement on the plate.

Thaw the shrimp overnight in the fridge or under running water at the last minute. Place the frozen shrimp in a bowl and fill with cold water. Leave the water running just enough to keep it moving in the bowl and the shrimp should thaw in a few minutes.

To prep the shrimp, grasp the little legs and pull them off. Then lift a corner of the shell and peel it off the shrimp. I like to leave the last bit of shell and tail on the shrimp. Using the tail like a little handle makes eating them with your fingers a bit more ... uh ... dignified.

After removing the shell, run the tip of a small, sharp knife down the back of the shrimp and pull the vein out. You don't have to remove the vein, but I'm not so fond of seeing a stripe of digested plankton running down the back of my shrimp. I use a damp paper towel to assist with the process.

To boil shrimp, fill a pot with plenty of water to cover them. Add a generous amount of salt -- 2 to 3 tablespoons -- you know, like the ocean. Bring the water to a boil and add the shrimp. Lower the heat, so when you cover the pot it won't boil over. (Raise your hand if you've ever made that mistake!) 

Cook shrimp for a few minutes -- 6 or 7 minutes for big shrimp, less if they are smaller. They should be pink and white striped on the outside and opaque white all the way through when done. Cut one in half, if you can't tell. Do not overcook, or you will be chewing rubbery shrimp and wondering why everyone thinks shrimp are such a treat.

Immerse the shrimp immediately in a bowl of ice water to stop cooking, then drain, cover and refrigerate before serving. Chilling the serving dishes is a nice touch too.

Serve with cocktail sauce and/or a lemon wedge -- that's all you need for shrimp cocktail.

If you are a really, really nice person and find yourself making shrimp cocktail for a crowd, you don't have to be a hero too. Serve the shrimp cooked in the shells and let everyone peel his/her own. Pile them on top of a big bowl of crushed ice, with small bowls of cocktail sauce and an extra empty bowl for the shells. More time talking, laughing and peeling = fewer shrimp needed per person. 

I used extra jumbo U16, that means 16 shrimp per pound. Big! Two or three bites per shrimp!

The square paisley appetizer plates came from T.J. Maxx. Absolutely perfect for three paisley-shaped shrimp and a tasting spoonful of cocktail sauce. Sometimes the plate chooses the food.

A twisted lemon would have been the obvious garnish for the plate, but not quite so easy to squeeze little drops of juice on the shrimp. I opted for the heftier finger-sized wedge. You've got to think of these things!

Shrimp cocktail was the first course for our dinner that began with the Romaine Lettuce Soup I posted last week. 

What do you want to bet that the next post will be the main course?

I wonder what could it be? Oh, wait! I already know.

More recipes for shrimp cocktail from food blogs:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Romaine Lettuce Soup

The first time I tasted lettuce soup was at my cousins' home in Florida. Ruth, who was married to my mother's cousin Tom, served snapper throats and lettuce soup with croutons for lunch one day. Hot lettuce soup? I wasn't sure the flavor of pureed lettuce would be appealing, even with the homemade croutons I'd watched Ruth make, but she was an accomplished cook and I was curious, so I dipped my spoon into the bowl with an open mind.

The flavor was subtle and creamy with a bit of a peppery bite in the finish. The crunch of the croutons and the raw silk-like texture of the soup had a very satisfying appeal. A few more spoonfuls. Lettuce soup was an inspiration! More please!

When I asked for the recipe, Ruth readily admitted the soup came from a can. Shock and dismay! Soup from a can served with those pricey Gulf snapper throats? Granted, it was some kind of good, but ... canned?

Ruth told us the soup was a specialty of Chalet Suzanne, a popular restaurant and inn in Lake Wales, FL, and after so many requests for recipes, a line of canned soups was created with the Chalet Suzanne label. In fact, the romaine soup was so popular that the Apollo 15 and 16 astronauts took it with them into space and it was christened Moon Soup! I was married to a young AF pilot whose palate was sophisticated enough at that time to know that brown was gravy and red was ketchup, so I wasn't sure astronauts were any more capable of knowing good food. Still, I had to trust NASA's scientific expertise to choose the very best for those cream-of-the-crop astronauts, and to know that a little bit of comfort food is a good thing so far from home.

Well, of course, I made a beeline for the little market near Ruth's house that sold Chalet Suzanne soups. I have a long history of returning from trips with cans, bags, boxes and bottles of local specialty food!

After we finished off those few cans carried home in my luggage, I knew there would be no more Chalet Suzanne soup for me until my next trip to Florida. Dinky little Air Force commissaries, like the one at our NC base, were not likely to carry anything as exotic as soup that had been to the moon.

At that time in my culinary life, I only had a handful of cookbooks -- the little Italian cookbook that was the first of my collection, the classic 1970s red-orange Betty Crocker ring binder and The Joy of Cooking. Then one day, an offer arrived in the mail from Book-of-the-Month Club. I was enchanted by the allure of books coming from the outside world directly to my mailbox. Biographies, best-selling novels and ... cookbooks! My order for four free books, along with my promise to purchase two more within the year, was dispatched posthaste! And so the cookbook collection began.

Weeks passed before my books arrived. To my way of thinking, there is still something to be said for the build up of excitement that comes with waiting for something in the mail. Don't get me wrong, I love the convenience of supermarkets with racks of best-sellers tempting me at the checkout, and bookstores large and small, and 24/7 Internet stores with overnight delivery, but there was something magical about waiting for a special package via snail mail.

The New York Times Cookbook, published in 1961, was a 700-page collection of over 1500 recipes taken from The New York Times newspaper food columns of Craig Claiborne. The minute it arrived, I sat down to devour it cover to cover. And what did I stumble upon on as I turned the pages? There it was, right on page 70 -- Romaine Lettuce Soup -- with Craig's notes declaring it "a highly creditable soup."

As you can see, my copy of the cookbook shows signs of frequent use, especially page 70, with its stains and moisture ripples. My own version of the recipe has evolved through the years. I no longer use the egg yolks and I also go back and forth between using half-n-half in place of the cream, depending on my flexible relationship with fat. Even though I don't miss the egg yolks, I must say, the body and mouth feel of the soup made with heavy cream is ever so much nicer. I've even been known to use a half-cup of each, when I just can't decide, and it is nice too.

I love this soup. It makes me think of my cousins and how kind they were to share their home, their beach house on Longboat Key and Ruth's gourmet meals with a couple of young married kids who couldn't afford a "real" vacation. And it makes me remember the thrill I've always found in a new cookbook, a new recipe and sometimes just a can of good soup with an interesting history.

2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 quart chicken broth
2 quarts chopped romaine lettuce
2 cups heavy cream (or half and half)
Several dashes of Tabasco
Salt and pepper

Melt butter in large heavy saucepan, add onions and cook until tender. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add romaine and cook over low heat until lettuce is tender - about 10 minutes. Cool lettuce mixture before putting in blender.

Put half of the broth and lettuce mixture into blender and process on medium speed until lettuce is finely chopped. Pour into a bowl and repeat with second half of broth and lettuce mixture.

Return blended broth mixture to saucepan. Add cream. Season with Tabasco, salt and pepper to taste. Heat soup thoroughly, but do not boil. Serve hot with homemade croutons on top. Makes 10 - 12 servings.

Note: This soup is also good refrigerated and served cold. Garnished with julienne romaine lettuce and croutons.

3 cups Italian bread cubes
1/2 cup good olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
garlic salt - optional

Melt butter and oil in a large heavy pan over medium heat. Add bread cubes and sauté until golden brown, tossing to brown on all side. Remove and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle immediately with garlic salt, if desired. Use as garnish to top soups or salads. Store leftovers in an airtight container and use within a day or two.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Life’s A Beach ... Sometimes


(My food column for Heartland Women
a free, monthly newspaper published for 
women in Southern Illinois)

April 2011

My Favorite Husband and I have recently returned from the first vacation we’ve taken together in a few years. His first choice for the perfect vacation is almost always – the beach. My idea of a good beach vacation is a big stack of books and lots and lots of air-conditioning. This time it was my idea to go to Seaside, FL. We made it work!

Beach vacation at Seaside, FL

There is one requirement we do share for a good vacation – no flying – he, for obvious reasons, and me, just because a vacation should not begin and end with a tedious, time-consuming, contest of rules seemingly designed to cause frustration and cramped discomfort. Not if I have to pay dearly for it! Thanks, but no thanks! But I digress.

View of the beach just over the dune

I can’t believe it took six years of Midwestern winter blahs before I caught on to the brilliant idea of the mid-winter Florida escape. This year though, I finally embraced the sun and warm weather get-away as an absolute winter necessity, much like a warm coat in the Midwest. And, you guessed it; Florida is full of beaches and warmer weather, so that’s where we’ve been.

Honeybee Cottage

Seaside, our Florida destination, is a planned community built along the Gulf Coast of Florida’s Panhandle. Designed and built along both sides of Hwy. 30-A, it is reminiscent of the time, just a generation or two ago, when people lived in homes with front porches, knew their neighbors, watched kids ride bicycles up and down quiet streets and walked to the town square to shop and socialize.

Our porch and hammock at Honeybee Cottage in Seaside

Seaside’s developers constructed a new town with an old town feel and created an ideal community for year-round residents and beach vacationers. What may look like a place that time forgot is really chock full of fun things to do for everyone in the family – art galleries, bike riding, Camp Seaside for kids, croquet, tennis, pools, fitness center, spa services, charming shops, a bookstore, casual dining, movie night under the stars, a concierge service to arrange things like deep-sea fishing excursions or golf outings, and … the beautiful beach and clear blue waters of the Gulf, of course! A week might not be enough time to spend in Seaside – whether you want to do it all, or just watch the waves roll in from a hammock on your porch.

The living/dining room of Honeybee Cottage on the beach in Seaside

We had a lovely time in Seaside. Our cottage was charming and offered everything we needed, in a compact and efficient design. Our rental package included an insulated Seaside beach tote bag stuffed with travel mugs, a bag of coffee, soda can holders, plus a bottle of wine. Also included in our rental were two bicycles to use for the week, passes for the pools, tennis courts and fitness center and free DVD rentals. We didn’t have nearly enough time to try it all, but I did discover that I haven’t forgotten how to ride a bike and I really enjoyed being able to ride around town!

Bike riding is the best way to get around Seaside

So what about the bookstore, restaurants and shopping? Well, the bookstore was very nice and had a nice selection of children’s books, magazines, books by Southern authors, as well as classic and contemporary fiction. Upstairs was a music store with a generous selection of vintage LP’s – which are kind of like big -- kinda like big, black CD’s for those of you born after 1975.

Sundog Books downstairs and Central Square records upstairs

The other shopping was eclectic and beach-y, without being tourist-y or souvenir-ish. Art galleries, clothing shops for the whole family, beachwear, jewelry, furniture and home interiors were all located on the square or along the beach just across the street.

The beach at Seaside

And the food? Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that had more of something for everyone, within easy walking distance. Everything from coffee and tea, frozen yogurt, fudge, hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza, tacos and seafood is served at the inside and outside tables, all just a few steps from the beach. Most places offer beer and wine, but Bud & Alley’s Rooftop Bar was the best place for a drink and sunset views over the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunset with clouds over the Gulf of Mexico

The most interesting and unique eateries were a row of vintage Airstream trailers outfitted for food vendors, sitting along the sidewalk at the base of the town square and Hwy. 30-A. Frostbites served Hawaiian shave ice, frozen custard and homemade lemonade. The unmistakable aroma of smoky barbecue drew us to Barefoot Barbecue Airstream for lunch one day. They served pulled pork with great smoke. The pork is also hormone/steroid/antibiotic free - and they even offered a decent version of my favorite eastern Carolina vinegar and pepper sauce to splash on the pork.

Airstream Row was the place of great outdoor dining

ooey, gooey classic and creative grilled cheese sandwiches – I loved my Brie and Bacon on Cranberry Walnut Bread.

Brie and Bacon on Cranberry Walnut Bread at Meltdown

My favorite breakfast was from another Airstream food vendor. Raw and Juicy was the place for fresh, organic fruit and vegetable juices and smoothies. The woman in front of us in line ordered a Green Goddess Smoothie. All that green vegetable froth was more could take first thing in the morning, so I went with the more traditional Steel Cut Oatmeal with Apples, Bananas and Almond Milk. Yum! A wonderful way to warm up to the idea of a cool spring morning.

Modica Market

We also enjoyed looking around at all the gourmet grocery items at Modica Market. Dinner the first night was panini sandwiches from Modica deli, plus a huge piece of the tallest chocolate cake I've ever seen. It took both of us two days to eat the whole piece. Now that's a cake!

Lunch at Great Southern Cafe

My favorite meal in Seaside was also my favorite of the whole trip. Lunch at Great Southern Cafe was a perfect combination of fresh vegetables, good seafood, a little comfort food and a light dessert – all with a modern twist on some classic Southern favorites. My entrée was Red Snapper with a Pecan Crust, the cheese in the Grits was Smoked Gouda, the Hush Puppies were sweet and spicy and the Collards – insert smiley face here! – were the most amazing blend of tender, sweet, salty, spicy, hot and tart vinegar deliciousness I’ve ever tasted.

Scene of the failed 90-degree turn

So that’s it! Our 2011 farewell-to-winter beach vacation. I’ve left out the part about MFH’s 24-hour bug that kept coming back every couple of days, his temporary crown that chipped one day and broke off entirely the next, the cottage mix-up on our first day that meant moving on the second day, or my fall down the 90-degree turn on the stairs that twisted one knee and skinned the other. All in all, we had a good time, but we did come home two days early just to keep it that way.

Sunset pier watch at Dewey Destin seafood restaurant

As long as I can look out at the ocean, see a beautiful sunset, read an interesting book and enjoy a good meal or two, the beach is a good place for a vacation. This time, I also brought home some good recipes to remember the best of my vacation food finds. That takes it up a notch to deliciously good.

Home again, home again, jiggity jig!

(my version of Bonefish Grill’s finest, 
which I enjoyed at our first stop in Hoover, AL - mmmmm!)
2 parts blueberry-infused vodka
1 part blueberry liqueur
squeeze of lemon juice
garnish with fresh blueberries
chilled martini glass
lemon juice

Place blueberry vodka, blueberry liqueur and lemon juice in a shaker filled with ice. Shake to blend for 20 seconds and pour into chilled martini glass dipped in lemon juice and rimmed with sugar. Garnish with fresh blueberries.

6 oz. country ham, diced
1 small onion, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, diced
4 cups water
2 cups chicken broth
2 bunch fresh collard greens, cleaned and chopped OR 4 lbs. frozen
2 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 – 2 tsp. hot sauce (or to taste)
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper

In a large, heavy pot, place country ham, onions and red bell pepper – add some cooking oil or bacon grease, if ham is very lean. Cook over medium heat until onion is translucent. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. If the collards won’t all fit in the pot, add them in batches and cook down before adding more. Cook over medium heat until collards are tender - about 1 to 1 ½ hours. Add more water or broth, if necessary, to keep them covered in liquid. Serve in small bowls with pepper vinegar and more hot sauce. Dipping cornbread or hush puppies to sop up the pot liquor at the bottom of the bowl is highly recommended.

(adapted from White Lily)
peanut oil
2 cups White Lily Self-Rising Cornmeal Mix
½ cup White Lily All Purpose Flour
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk
2 – 3 drops hot sauce
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 tbsp. finely chopped red bell pepper

Heat oil in deep fryer or very deep, heavy pot to 365 degrees. Combine cornmeal mix, flour, sugar and baking soda in medium bowl. Whisk together egg, buttermilk, hot sauce, onion and bell pepper in small bowl. Add to dry ingredients, stirring just until moistened. Carefully drop batter by rounded tablespoonfuls into hot oil, allowing some space between the hush puppies. Fry 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown, turning once. Remove hush puppies with metal tongs or metal spoon; turn onto paper towels to drain. Allow oil to return to temperature before frying next batch.

all-purpose flour
panko Japanese bread crumbs
4 tbsp. finely chopped pecans
1 cup buttermilk
2-3 dashes hot sauce
peanut oil
salt & pepper
4 – 6 fish fillets (tilapia, flounder, snapper or similar flat white fish fillet)
lemon wedges

Heat oven to 200 degrees and turn off. Place flour in a shallow dish. Combine panko and chopped pecans in a shallow dish. Combine buttermilk and hot sauce in a flat bowl or pie pan. Heat peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Wash fillets and pat dry; season on both sides with salt and pepper. Take one fish fillet at a time and dredge in flour, dip in buttermilk and then coat with panko-pecan mixture. Place 2 – 3 fillets at a time in the skillet. Cook about 3 minutes on each side, or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Place cooked fish fillets on a baking sheet lined with a brown paper bag and place in warm oven while cooking remaining fish. Repeat procedure, adding more oil if necessary, until all fillets are cooked. Serve with lemon wedges.

9" graham cracker pie crust
14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks (reserve whites for meringue)
1 tsp. grated lime zest
3 egg whites
¼ tsp. cream of tartar
¾ c. superfine sugar
*option – top with whipped cream, instead of meringue

Combine milk, egg yolks, lime juice and zest. Blend until smooth. Pour filling into piec rust and bake at 350º for 25 minutes. With mixer on high, beat egg whites and cream of tartar in a bowl until soft peaks form. Slowly add sugar, one tablespoon at a time, while continuing to beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Pour meringue over pie and smooth to edges, leaving some peaks. Place pie back in the oven and bake for about 7-8 minutes, until top begins to brown. Remove and let pie cool before serving. *If the weather is humid or rainy, whipped cream may be a better choice than meringue for the topping.