Better Than Yo’ Mama’s (Roasted Tomato and Cheddar) Grits

July 20, 2011 § 3 Comments

I know, fightin’ words right there. But really, these are Paula-Dean-ain’t-got-nothin’-on-me kinda grits. Or, lemme-sit-down-before-I-take-a bite kinda grits. Or even, lemme-break-out-the-fat-or-(excuse me)-winter-jeans-because-Imma-bout-to-go-Rambo-on-this-casserole-dish kinda grits. I may have a slight obsession. I may also have Old Bay and grits pumping through my veins. You decide whether these are related.

In addition to my affinity for Southern regional foodways, I have a much healthier obsession with summer tomatoes. Right now my backyard is an all you can eat buffet. I once had a friend who told me he hated tomatoes. Thank god he promptly qualified his assertion with, “I realized the error of my ways and now eat them like apples,” because I was about to pull that obnoxious,

“…but, but they’resogoodhowcanyounotlikethemtheyrelikethebestvegetableever?!”

Word vomit. There’s nothing like a good, homegrown tomato. Ours are planted up against a brick wall. I don’t know what kind of magic this is, but it produces the best, sweetest tomatoes I’ve ever eaten. And we’re inundated. We’ve even got these little cuties that look like hot air balloons when you hold them upside down. Or is that just me?

Even so, I need a tomato change up–these raw tomatoes are getting old. Enter: Broiled, Roasted Tomato Cheese Grits. The trick to great grits is to slowly cooking them over a barely there flame. Cooking them this way–rather than boiling them at nuclear until it’s a thick goop–ensures that the grits are cooked tender and yet bursting with flavor.

I may have bought a case of Anson Mills grits this spring. And I may have spent hours on their website trying to decide between Antebellum coarse yellow and coarse white grits. (This was a BIG decisions, folks. Gosh.) Personally, I’m partial to the coarse grits. However, they require an overnight soak and seeing as I rarely have the foresight to preempt my Sunday evening hunger, I cooked with their quick grits instead.

“Wait, did she just say what I think she said?! Quick Grits?!”

Oh yes. Yes, she did. And unlike Cousin Vinny’s grits, these still take about 40 minutes to cook. These ain’t no magic grits. The coarse grits take an hour and a half, so I guess quick is really a relative term at Anson Mills.

The dish comes together quite nicely. After halving the tomatoes and tossing them in olive oil and salt, they roast unattended for about an hour. The grits require minimum supervision, leaving you to watch another gripping episode of Law and Order: SVU. Dun dun.

Oh, and don’t roast those hot air balloon cuties.

The fresh corn adds a nice texture to the grits–which can, admittedly, be otherwise monotonous–and the roasted tomatoes give a wonderful sweetness. Oh, and try to keep it a G-rated and not go crazy with the oohs and ahhs. Do it for the children.

Roasted Tomato and Cheddar Grits

(Inspired by TheKitchn)
1 pint cherry or plum tomatoes, halved.
2 tbs olive oil
1 cup fresh corn kernels (about two cobs)
1 cup grits
3 cups whole milk
1 1/4 cup sharp cheddar cheese
1 1/2 tbs butter
salt and pepper
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss tomatoes in olive oil and salt (to taste). Place tomatoes, cut side up, on a foil lined baking sheet. Roast until shriveled and browned.
2. In a pot, combine grits and milk. Give a stir and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently. Once simmering, drop the heat to low and continue to cook (uncovered) stirring occasionally to make sure grits aren’t sticking to the bottom of the pot. Cook for 40 minutes, or until tender and hold their shape to a spoon. You may need to taste frequently. What a shame.
3. When the grits are done add in butter, giving quick stirs until it is melted. Add in all cheese but 1/4 cup, stirring until melted and incorporated. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat, leaving the pot covered. 
4. When the tomatoes are roasted, remove from oven and turn on broiler. Place grits in an 8 inch casserole dish and arrange roasted tomatoes on top. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and place under broiler until cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown (about 1-2 minutes). Remove from oven, serve immediately.

Palak Paneer and a Sous Chef

July 16, 2011 § 2 Comments

People want to send me their children. Specifically, their girls. Relatives and friends with precocious little spawn coo at their daughters, promising to send them to Camp Erin. For many reasons (like the fact that I still live at home, can barely can keep track of my cat, and often forget to water plants, all come to mind) the idea that I should be entrusted with live humans boggles my mind. ‘Ronka deviously smiles at me and says, “Oh yeah?!” I’m freaking terrified. In fact, the only reason imagine a parent allowing their child to stay with me for an extended period of time is because they want to conveniently “lose” them. If that’s the case, Camp Erin is for them.

So, now that I’m charged with the house while the parentals are off enjoying their first extended vacation together in two decades (I know, right?) I, against better judgement, decided to hold the first ever Camp Erin slumber party. Enter: Margaux.

Margaux is not your average 10 year old. She’s smart, spunky, and leaves me in stitches. In fact, if she were 22, I’m sure we’d be biffles and maneaters together (don’t worry Margs, we can be biffles anyway). What makes Margaux even better? She loves to cook. So when she asked me to hang by the pool with her after work, I did her one better and asked her to make palak paneer with me and spend the night. Of course she was in.

Palak paneer is one of my favorite Indian dishes–though lamb vindaloo will always have my heart. The mild, creamy spinach gravy and sauteed paneer over basmati rice is a comforting weeknight meal. Even though I’ve always wanted to make it, I’d see “puree” and instantly shy away–who wants to clean a blender?! Well, I’m glad that I got over my laziness. Pureeing the steamed spinach and tomatoes was a breeze and the recipe, though it requires many ingredients, didn’t demand much brainwork. Margaux approves, too.

You know what the great part about cooking with a kid is? Instant sous chef.

I based the recipe off of ones on Indian Simmer and Paaka Shaale, and used ghee instead of oil. Make sure to soak the paneer for about 10 minutes while you are chopping and steaming before you brown it–I think it makes a dramatic difference in the texture of the final product. If you’re going to go the ghee route, make sure you actually make ghee and don’t get lazy (this seems to be a developing theme for me…) and leave milk solids in at the bottom. I did this, and while it didn’t affect taste, the milk solids burned as the onions were cooking and turned them an unappetizing brown. All was well, because, as Margaux reminded me, “It’s gonna be green anyway, right?” All’s well that ends well.

Palak Paneer

1.5 large bunches of fresh spinach
2 tomatoes
1 block paneer (mine was 400 grams), soaked for 10 minutes.
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, grated
1 1″ piece of ginger, grated
1/2 green chili, minced, with seeds
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
Ghee or Oil (about 4 tbsp)
1/8 cup half and half
Basmati Rice, cooked (for serving)


1. Puree both tomatoes in blender, set aside.

2. Steam spinach (I used a colander and the stove) and puree with a small amount of water.

3. While spinach is cooking, cut paneer into 1″ cubes. Combine coriander powder, garam masala, salt, and turmeric in a small bowl.

4. In a large saucepan, heat 2 tbsp ghee and brown paneer on all sides. (I get impatient and am usually satisfied if two sides are browned.) Drain on paper towel and set aside.

5. Heat 2 tbsp ghee over high heat and cook cumin seeds until they begin to pop. Add onion and green chili, cook until translucent (about 2 minutes).

6. Add garlic and ginger to the onions, fry over high heat for about 30 seconds.

7. Add pureed tomatoes to ginger, garlic, onions, and chili, cook for about 30 seconds.

8. Add in pureed spinach, cook for 2-3 minutes. Dump in spice mixture, stir to combine, and allow to cook for another 30 seconds. Add in paneer and half and half. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until everything is heated through.

Serve with basmati rice and naan or roti.


College Graduate Seeks Dinner for Hobos

July 10, 2011 § 3 Comments

A couple weekends ago I found myself in a drunken mass of college graduates cheering on professional cyclists as they made 10 laps around Philadelphia. Apparently, the Philadelphia Bike Race is the Preakness of Pennsylvania. Fortunately, my post-grad year has been good to me and and now I’ve been to both. I’d liken this bike race to something like NASCAR for hipsters: everyone drinks, everyone loses count of the laps, and the event devolves into an alcohol saturated riot that almost makes you forget that it’s a celebration of athleticism. (Okay, so that last part might not apply to NASCAR…) Well, luckily for me I have an amazing friend who biked across the United States last summer–that’s right, the whole thing–who showed me not only the finer points of Manayunk, but the complex world of bike racing.

When Diane told me that we’d be having a barbeque, I imagined some frozen hamburgers slapped onto a grill and some potato rolls. I should’ve known better. Waking up bleary eyed from a previous night of drinking, she hauled us to Reading Terminal to grab what we needed for “Hobo Dinners.” Uh, what? Well, I can promise you that these were way better than what any hobo would have. Provolone and broccoli rabe sausages? Organic fingerling potatoes? Shallots?! Oh, I had another think coming….

When we got back home, we immediately began chopping vegetables for what turned out to be hours. As we set a table full of bowls of potatoes, carrots, onions, shallots, garlic, squash, and eggplant, we looked at the clock and realized we’d spent over two hours choppin’ away without a care in the world. It immediately took me back to an oral history that I conducted with an old County man about stuffed ham–a dish that requires a considerable amount of fine chopping and makes kale and cabbage explode across the kitchen in a green and white confetti that is damn near impossible to clean up entirely. He looked at me and said, “The chopping took hours, but it was not drudgery; it was a party. It’s how we kept up with each other.” He nailed it.

Diane went the extra mile and added sports themed labels to every bowl.

I’d never had a hobo dinner in my life. I wouldn’t exactly say that I come from a family of mountain men. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the very reason all of my immediate family is still alive today can nearly entirely be attributed to the fact that we never, ever camped in the woods together. We would’ve killed each other.

But hobo dinners are good for groups; you take a sheet of aluminum foil, drizzle it with some oil, add in your meats, veggies, and any seasons that you’d like, seal it up, throw it on the grill (or hot coals, if you aren’t in the middle of a city…) and BAM, you’re eatin’ dinner in 15 minutes flat.

And everyone can have what they want. It’s a beautiful thing, really.

And you know what happens when you add andouille and broccoli rabe sausage to a hobo dinner? Well, it ain’t so hobo anymore.

Topanga’s Hobo Dinner

Vegetables (Choose whatever’s on hand or in season. You can add whatever you want, but potatoes, onions, and carrots are staples.)
Meat (Can be ground beef, sausage, chicken, beef cubes, I think you get where I’m going…)
Seasoning (Salt and pepper, we all added Old Bay, obviously)
1. Chop up all vegetables into even sized pieces to ensure uniform cooking. (This takes forever in a great way, find a buddy and get a-talkin’ and a-choppin’!)
2. Crank up the grill to medium-high heat.
3. Break up sausages (or whatever you’re using) into one inch pieces.
4. Rip off a sheet of aluminum foil about 14-18 inches long and drizzle with oil.
5. Pile on the vegetables and meat. Season as desired. Seal that sucker up by wrapping it up nice and tight.
6. If you got a crowd, write your name on your hobo. Throw it on the grill.
7. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, flipping halfway through. You can always check to see how everything’s looking (the potatoes always seem to take the longest to cook through) by opening up you hobo and resealing it if it’s undercooked.
8. Allow to cook before tearing into it. You don’t even need a plate!

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