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Accidental Culinary Adventures

This is how I cook: I open up the refrigerator or pantry and say, “What’s here?” If there are enough building blocks to create a meal along the lines of something I’ve cooked before and enjoyed, problem solved.

This approach leads to occasional accidental delights (but mostly just decent supper food). Here are two that happened in my kitchen in the past month. See if you’re similarly inspired to experiment. ūüėČ

Chicken Orzo-tore

I’ve been making chicken cacciatore since I started cooking (a few days after I got married), but I learned the recipe by watching my dad make it countless times for supper. It was easy, relatively quick, and cheap – all qualities that my dad prized in his culinary endeavors

Recipe:¬†Dad’s Chicken Cacciatore

But the other day, as I eyed a small bag of orzo pasta I’d picked up at Trader Joe’s, I had an epiphany: What If I swapped out the rice I usually serve alongside cacciatore, and used the orzo instead?

The verdict: Delicious! I cooked the orzo pasta on the side and then throw the cooked orzo into the pot of cacciatore once it came out of the oven. However, I’m wondering if I should have cooked the orzo straight into the cacciatore so it would pick up more of those flavors. Dunno. May try that next time.

Post Pork-Roast Beef Stew

So last month, I made the most incredible pork roast thanks to this recipe from an Upstate cook:

Balsamic Beer-Braised Pork Roast, from She Wears Many Hats

Photo by She Wears Many Hats, where I found the recipe. Just LOOK at that pork!
Photo by She Wears Many Hats, where I found the recipe. Just LOOK at that pork!

It’s an amazing recipe. So easy; so incredibly flavorful.

I make two changes from her recipe. The first, I use rendered bacon fat (cook a couple pieces, pull out the bacon, use it for something else) to sear the pork roast in the first step. The additional smokiness of a high quality bacon adds incomparable depth of flavor. Goes without saying that you need to be using a good bacon here; I keep Trader Joe’s applewood smoked bacon in the frig at all times.

Second, once the pork roast had been seared but before adding the cooking liquid (beer et al), I deglaze the pan with some bourbon or sherry. Sometimes a little of both, in succession. Scrape up the brown bits and let the meat soak up some of the alcohol before continuing. Again, it’s a layer of flavor that makes a difference in the end.

When you’re done (follow the recipe), you have pork that just falls apart and shreds with no effort at all. It’s incredible as pulled pork sandwiches; you need no additional BBQ sauce.

But then…. there’s more magic to be had in the pot! You’ll need your favorite beef stew recipe – look it up on the Internet and pick up some cheap “stew beef” at the store on your next grocery run, along with carrots, potatoes, onion, celery, a box of beef broth, and either rice or big noodles or barley or whatever.

Let the drippings cool until the fat congeals on top. Stop being squeamish; this is part of life when cooking with meat. Scrape off and discard as much of the solid fat as you can, leaving behind the beer-broth and bits of pork from the earlier recipe.

Heat what’s left on medium in your Dutch oven till it’s going pretty hard and throw in all your chopped vegetables. If you did too good a job of removing fat, you might need to add a wee bit of olive oil or butter here. ¬†Meanwhile, brown your beef chunks in a skillet on the side and throw them in with the vegetables once they get brown on all sides. (The extra work is worth it – I promise.) ¬†Add your broth and seasonings, and throw the whole pot into the oven¬†for an hour or more, till the potatoes are completely done and the beef is tender.

If you’re going to add rice or noodles it might be easier to cook those on the stovetop and then add them at the end.

The result: Your beef stew will have this magical depth of flavor, a savory-ness that I can’t ever get when I just “make beef stew,” no matter what seasonings I add. The leftovers from the pork bring so many good flavors to the party, but nothing clashes with the traditional beef stew vibe.

I’m committed now to always making the pork recipe before I make a regular beef stew. I’m not sure I can go back to the old way…. ūüėČ

A+ Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie

Yes, you want to make this recipe. ¬†(No Jedi mind tricks needed. You should be persuaded simply by the title.) ¬†The recipe may look long, but it’s actually pretty simple.

Pecan pie is a Southern specialty, but I find most recipes sickeningly sweet. This one has always been my favorite because it somehow cuts through the sweetness. This year, I decided to adapt it with chocolate and bourbon at my husband’s request, and I don’t think I can ever go back. ¬†The dark chocolate, bourbon, and salt really pull back the sweetness of the Karo, and replacing some of the Karo with a high-quality honey with a mild flavor added a nice depth.

These pies are way better the second day, if you like a stronger taste of bourbon. If not, reduce the bourbon a little and/or eat the pies on the day you make them.

I never make my own pie crusts, but I make an exception here. You should too. The tutorial I cite below will give you the confidence to try, and this crust recipe is the perfect texture for a pie with this much sugar. I don’t think the thinner frozen pre-made crusts would compete.

Full disclosure: Base recipe can be found here, and my friend Mel suggested replacing half of the water in the crust with vodka. I don’t know why that works, but I suspect it allows the water to chill below its usual temperature – always a good thing for crust construction.

Crust tutorial: I found this post very helpful at “Eating from the Ground Up” for making a perfect crust via KitchenAid mixer. ¬†Chilling the bowl & ingredients and freezing the crusts during and after rolling & placing into the pie plates worked perfectly. My crusts were not at all soggy. I do recommend leaving the crust out for a bit before rolling, because the huge amount of butter is solid and hard as a rock otherwise. (Though I persevered via marble rolling pin, a lot of determination, and the pressure of already being behind schedule.)

Adapted from Robert Del Grande

Yield: 3
 nine-inch pies. You might squeeze this into 2 if you have huge pie plates. Crust definitely makes 3.

Pie Dough

About 4 cups all-purpose flour 
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 pound cold butter, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup chilled water + vodka (equal portions of each)

Pecan Pie Filling
8 whole eggs
4 egg yolks
2 Tablespoons vanilla
1/3cup bourbon (a good one)
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt (regular) + large granule sea salt for garnish
4 Tablespoons melted butter
2 1/2 cups light corn syrup
1/2cup honey (a quality one, not too heavy in flavor)
3 cups pecan pieces
2-3 cups chopped, very dark, very good quality chocolate

For the pie crust:
In a mixing bowl (or on a work surface), combine the flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and butter. With your fingers or the beater, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.  Add the chilled water/vodka to the flour mixture and work until a rough dough is formed. Do not over work the dough: bits of butter should still be visible.  
Turn the dough onto a floured work surface. Flatten and fold the dough several times to create layers in the dough (if working by hand). Divide the dough into 3 sections, form disks, and wrap in Saran-Wrap if not immediately rolling crusts. (I let mine chill a while.)

(Follow the tutorial I noted above throughout this process.)  
Roll each chunk into a circle with a diameter well in excess of that of the pie plate and approximately 1/4-inch thick. Fit the dough circles into the pie plates and form an edge. Chill very well in freezer until pies are ready to fill and bake.

For the Pecan Pie Filling,
Pre-heat an oven to 375¬įF.

in a mixing bowl, combine the eggs and egg yolks and whisk until smooth. Add the vanilla, bourbon, brown sugar, salt and melted butter and whisk until well blended. Slowly blend in the corn syrup and honey and mix well.

Divide the pecan pieces and chocolate pieces between the three chilled pie shells. Divide the filling between the three pies. Sprinkle lightly with large-grain sea salt, if desired. 
Place the pies on baking sheets and bake at 375¬įF for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 300¬įF and bake until the pies have set and the center puff up a little, approximately 45 to 60 minutes.

Pimiento Cheese Enchiladas

People. ¬†Stop everything and make this for supper tonight or tomorrow or whenever you need a fast and tasty meal. ¬†The household invented this on Sunday when we realized we had 1) excellent pimiento cheese (handmade by GiGi’s Gourmet); 2) leftover roasted chicken; 3) half of an onion that I found on the kitchen table; and 4) a bottle of Trader Joe’s enchiladas sauce.

Sent the husband to the store to pick up a) 8″ round tortillas; b) a container of ricotta cheese; c) some shredded cheese.

To make this:

MMMM. Cheesy bubbly goodness.
MMMM. Cheesy bubbly goodness.

You do this:

  • 8 oz high quality, preferably homemade pimiento cheese
  • 8 oz ricotta cheese
  • 1-2 cups shredded cooked (leftover) chicken
  • ¬Ĺ of an onion, sliced into half-rounds
  • fajita seasoning or your fav Tex-Mex seasoning
  • 8 large tortillas
  • 1 bottle of enchilada sauce
  • 1 cup shredded cheese – whatever you have

To prepare:

  1. Preheat oven to 375. ¬†Spray a 9×13 or 10×14 glass dish with cooking spray for your own sanity afterward.
  2. Pour just a little enchilada sauce in the bottom of the pan and swirl around. For flavor.
  3. In a bowl, mix the pimiento cheese and the ricotta cheese together so it’s light and fluffy.
  4. In a small skillet, sautee the sliced onion in a little butter until it’s golden brown. ¬†Throw in the chicken and some fajita seasoning and heat through while you’re doing steps 1-3.
  5. Prepare your enchilada making station: A flat surface for rolling, plus a stack of tortillas, the chicken & onion mixture, and the cheese mixture.
  6. Spread each tortilla with a couple tablespoons of the pimiento cheese mixture then add a couple tablespoons of chicken and onion.  Roll and place seam-side-down in baking dish.
  7. Top the enchiladas with the rest of the enchilada sauce.  Then top that with the cup of shredded cheese.
  8. Bake at 375 for about 20min or until the cheese on top is bubbly and golden brown and everything is really hot.  If the cheese browns too fast, cover with foil (I accidentally added the cheese halfway through so maybe you should do that.)




My Shrimp & Grits Recipe

This has been a much-requested recipe, so I’ll share a version of it here. ¬†No apologies for the rustic nature of these directions – the only measuring utensils you need are for the opening steps of the grits. The rest you can eyeball. ūüėČ

I will say that, made well, this recipe beats nearly every bowl of shrimp & grits you will ever find.  So invest in high-quality meat and spices, and break out the cream and butter. And true stone-ground grits. Do not EVEN think of making this with some crappy store-bought instant grit crap.

Also, don’t tell me “I hate grits. They’re gross and I refuse to eat them” until you’ve made them THIS WAY. ¬†Then, if you still hate them, you are still wrong but we can remain friends. ūüôā

RameyLady’s Shrimp and Grits Recipe
Serves 4. Scale up or down as needed.

THE GRITS – start these first.
1 cup stone ground, local grits (I use local Timms Mill grits) – follow package directions re: sifting or rinsing
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 stick of butter
1 tsp salt
1-2 cups of cream, half & half, or whole milk (or a mix of those)
1/2 cup of shredded cheese (your choice, I like sharp cheddar or maybe smoked Gouda)
more salt, pepper, dried thyme (to taste)

To make the grits:
In a large, heavy-bottomed sauce pan or pot, combine the broth and butter over medium heat to bring to a simmer. ¬†Stir in 1 cup of stone ground uncooked grits and reduce heat to medium-low. ¬†You want the grits to bubble and cook, but they turn into a nuclear meltdown of bubbling 3rd degree burn material if you let them get too hot, so don’t go more than a minute without stirring. ¬†Stir & cook carefully for 15 minutes, then pour in 1/2 cup of cream (or milk or half & half or whatever combo of those you’d like) and stir well. ¬†Add a pinch of¬†salt — not too much because the cheese you add at the end will also be a bit salty– and fresh-ground pepper, plus any additional seasonings you’d prefer, like dried thyme. Reduce heat to medium-low: you want the grits to bubble slowly but not so fast that they splutter. (Recall the nuclear warning, above.) ¬†Start making the Shrimp part, below…. ¬†As the grits continue to cook over the next 25-40 minutes, add cream a couple more times, about 1/2 cup at a time, until the grits are cooked through, not “gritty,” and thickened to your preference. ¬†Just before serving, add the cheese, stir through until melted, and check to see if you need any additional salt. ¬†Store leftover grits in the frig for several days or freeze for later.

THE SHRIMP PART – start this once you start adding cream to the grits
Start this once the grits are in their first cooking phase.

3-4 slices high quality bacon, diced and divided (I use Trader Joe’s applewood smoked)
1-2 lb fresh shrimp, peeled, deveined
1/2 lb high-quality andouille sausage (kielbasa works too)
splash of lemon juice or half a lemon
olive oil
couple tablespoons of butter
salt, pepper, seasonings*, thyme
garlic cloves – diced or use a press
cream sherry — about 1 cup total (I use Fairbanks cream sherry – see photo below)
1 onion, diced large
1-2 bell peppers, diced large
several fresh summer tomatoes, diced large
dried thyme & basil
about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of cream or half n half (or whole milk)
about 1 T cornstarch

*I rely on two seasoning blends for my shrimp and grits; both come from The Spice & Tea Exchange, and you can order them online if you don’t have a store in your area: Cinnabar Smoke Blend adds a slightly warm, Eastern flavor to the dish; Sweet Heat packs a little more punch but the sweetness offsets the heat in everything else. ¬†If you don’t have these, that’s fine – if you’re using high quality sausage and bacon, their flavors will infuse the dish.

To prepare:
Stage 1: ¬†Prepare shrimp (peel, etc) and season to taste. I use a little salt & pepper plus a splash of lemon juice and some favorite spice blends ¬†– ¬†see note above. Set aside to marinade for 15 minutes to 4 hours. ¬† Dice the bacon and if you’re using sausage, prep that as well (if the sausage is raw, I usually cook andouille as links first, then chop into pieces and return to the pan later as listed below; kielbasa can be chopped into slices without any pre-cooking).

Add 1 strip’s worth of bacon¬†and about a quarter of the sausage to a large wide pan OR tall cooking pot (large enough to hold 4 quarts of liquid – that way you won’t get spattered) over medium heat to render fat and flavor. ¬†After the bacon is 80% cooked through, add one chopped clove of fresh garlic to the pan and star. ¬†Arrange the shrimp over the bottom of the pan in an even layer. If you have too much shrimp to cook all in one batch, split into two batches (and split the bacon and garlic as well, since you’ll want to cook each batch fresh.) ¬†Flip the shrimp after about 60 seconds and cook on the other side till the shrimp are BARELY done – firmer to the touch and pink . Pour a couple tablespoons of sherry into the pan and stir. Cook for about 30 seconds, then remove everything from the pan into a dish and keep warm to add back later– pour everything in the pan out and reserve all juices. Set aside. (If making two batches of shrimp, reduce pan heat a little and start with some fresh bacon.)

You can wipe the pan if you want. I usually don’t.

The one time I break my “only use alcohol you’d be willing to drink as part of your food” rule. This sherry is meh at best, but the “sherry” flavors come through nicely once it’s cooked down. I use it in everything…

Stage 2: ¬†Add the rest of the chopped bacon (about 3 slices worth).¬†If you’re using sausage, add the rest of it to the pan here. ¬† Let the bacon render some fat, then add either 1 tsp of butter or a couple tsp of olive oil to the pan. ¬†Add 1-2 T fresh chopped garlic. Stir. Add the diced onion and¬†chopped bell pepper and cook for just a minute or two until the vegetables soften slightly. ¬†You should also season the vegetables – at least throw in some dried basil and thyme, about 1 T of each. ¬† ¬†Turn heat up to medium and pour a good half cup of sherry (up to 1 cup) ¬†into the pan. ¬†Stir well and then allow the sherry to reduce by half, which will take several minutes of boiling.

Stage 3: ¬†After the sherry has reduced by half (or so), add the diced fresh summer tomatoes. Whether you include the seeds is up to you; I don’t get too fussy here. Just chop the tomatoes & throw them in. Add another round of seasoning, like basil. ¬†Add about 1.5 cups of cream (or milk or half & half or all three) and slowly pour the cream into the pot, stirring as it hits the warm vegetable-sherry mixture. Simmer on medium for 5 minutes, until cream begins to reduce.¬† ¬†Mix 1 T of cream with 1 T¬†cornstarch in a separate bowl; stir vigorously with a fork until every bit of cornstarch is dissolved. ¬†Turn up heat a little past high and add this to the pot; allow to boil until the cream begins to thicken (because of the corn starch).

Stage 4: Return the shrimp and their juices (and bacon/sausage used in step 1) to the pan and check your grits; you’re probably ready to add the cheese. ¬†You can safely “hold” either part of the dish on low heat until the other is done, but don’t add the shrimp into its pan until you know you’re within 5 min of eating. (Overcooked shrimp is gummy and gross.)

Serve by ladling 1/2 cup or more of grits into the bottom of a wide flat bowl, then top with about a cup of the shrimp mixture.

You really don’t need anything else with this dish – it covers all the bases. ūüôā ¬† It pairs very well with beer or wine. ¬†I prefer a warm red, but white wine drinkers can find something crisp and lemony.

Enjoy! ūüôā

My shrimp and grits. Made this batch last night and enjoyed the leftovers for lunch
My shrimp and grits. Made this batch last night and enjoyed the leftovers for lunch

Recipe: Creamy Southwestern Crockpot Chicken

Notice I did not say “crackpot” chicken. *chuckle*
This recipe is adapted from one I saw online and then fiddled with, as I always do. Feel free to fiddle yourself as well…. This version came out absolutely delicious.


black_beans5-8 pieces of chicken — can be frozen, can be bone-in our boneless, skin or not, whatever. Use what you’ve got
Cooking spray OR oil (I used 1T of the oil from a jar of sundried tomatoes — yum!)
Minced garlic
Optional: chopped onion
Marinade of your choice (see mine below)
1 can corn (mine was Green Giant & had bits of chiles in it); could also use a bag of frozen
1 can black beans
1 can Rotel or other mexican diced tomatoes OR 2 cups of salsa
1 container Philadelphia Cooking Cream in the Southwestern/Mexican flavor OR use a block of cream cheese + 1 cup salsa
Egg noodles — about 1/3 of a bag (uncooked)
Some sour cream if desired for garnish

Marinade note: Instead of making a traditional marinade, I threw in the remnants of a quinoa/blackbean/edamame salad I’d made the week before — it was dressed in a vinegar/sugar/olive oil/ground mustard dressing, the same one I use for 3-bean salad. I liked the combo a lot in this recipe, but it won’t ever happen again LOL

Acceptable marinades should bring many flavors to the party — Follow the¬†Rule of Three and make your own:¬†something acidic & flavorful (like a good vinegar or citrus), something spicy or seasoning (preferably Southwestern in this case), and something a bit sweet (honey, sugar, juice, a very sweet wine, etc). ¬† ¬† Or in a pinch, just use a bottle of Italian dressing. ¬†Or whatever dressing you can find buried in your frig.

Oil the crock pot with a little oil or cooking spray (or in my case, some of the sundried tomato oil).

Add the chicken pieces, garlic, and marinade. (Can add onion too, if desired.)

Leave the crock on the counter for about 30min so chicken can marinate — if you have time.

Add the corn, beans, and tomatoes (or salsa) to the crock and turn it on to cook.

Cook on HIGH for about 4 hours, or on LOW for 5 or 6 (depends on how much chicken).

To finish (30-60min cook time):
At the end of the cooking time, about an hour before dinner: Add the contained of Philadelphia Cooking Cream (or a block of Phila Cream Cheese and some more salsa) during the last 30min of cooking. Let cheese melt into the sauce & leftover marinade.

Once the sauce has formed from the melted cheese etc, add the dry egg noodles (or whatever pasta you desire) — adjust portion according to the amount of liquid in the crock (lots of liquid? add more pasta…. not much liquid? skip the pasta & cook it separately).

Allow pasta to cook through… then stir & serve!

If you have more chicken than “sauce,” reserve the cooked chicken to be chopped & add to pasta or quesadillas or tacos. It’s fall-apart tender & very flavorful.

Recipe: Pasta with Sundried Tomatoes and Awesomeness

Definitely our favorite recipe from this week. 

Adapted from something I saw somewhere in Martha Stewart land.

Lori’s Sundried Tomato, Grilled Chicken, & Bacon Pasta, with Sweet Tomato & Onion Topping

tomatoes3 strips bacon (I used Hormel–maple)– diced (The “maple” sweetness works nicely.)
1/2 onion chopped (and more onion sliced)
half jar sundried tomatoes (in oil) — chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
pinch red pepper
1/2 cup sherry
1-2 cups of cooked chicken, diced (I used leftover)
1/2-3/4 cup heavy cream or half & half
1/4 cup grated parmasean cheese (I used the cheap stuff)
1 bag egg noodles or wide noodles

For the topping:
2-3 very ripe tomatoes (double if serving 4)
1 sweet vidalia onion, sliced thinly into rounds
Italian seasonings or fresh herbs (basil, oregano, etc)
olive oil & balsamic vinegar & sugar & salt

Put water on to boil & cook noodles according to directions, but make sure they are al dente (use the shortest recommended cooking time).

Make the topping first: ¬†Slice the tomatoes and vidalia/sweet onion into rounds and into a small bowl. Separately in a mixing cup (or just dump it all in and work it out), combine 3T balsamic vinegar, 1T white sugar, 1tsp salt, and 1-2T olive oil (a basic dressing). Add the dressing to the tomatoes & onions and toss. ¬†Set aside…. [I had a roasted garlic balsamic vinegar & olive oil “dipping oil” and I used that instead (with sugar, salt, pepper) — it was delightful.]

Saute bacon over medium heat — after it releases a little fat, add the chopped onion & saute for several minutes.

When onion/bacon are about halfway cooked, add the sundried tomatoes and cook until bacon & onion are mostly cooked through. Add garlic & red pepper, cook until garlic is fragrant (about 1 min).

Deglaze pan with 1/2 cup sherry or wine. Add the cooked chicken. Cook for about a minute or until the sherry has begun to reduce and the chicken is beginning to heat through (assuming you pulled it from the frig).

Add the cream, dried Italian seasonings, and a little grated Parmasean … and stir, cooking over med-hi heat to form a sauce. If it gets too thick, add some of the pasta water to the sauce to thin it.

After a couple minutes, add the al dente egg noodles & toss to coat. If the sauce still isn’t thin enough, use pasta water to thin. ¬†Pull the pan off the heat.

Dish the pasta into servings. Top each with a portion of the tomato salad — make sure you put some of the extra dressing over the pasta as well.

Top with fresh ground pepper & some fresh basil (if you have it).

Paired nicely with Camino del Toro Malbec (2009)

Recipe: Ramey PearPomAde


In a tall glass, combine —¬†

1/3 glass of pear nectar (like Goya)
Not quite that much ^ pomegranate juice, cranberry juice, or pom drink mixer*
A healthy shot of LIGHT rum (vodka would work great)
1/3 glass of selzer water, club soda, or sprite/7up

If pear & pom are warm, add ice.

Stir; garnish with a slice of lemon if you wish.

*Those tall bottles of drink mixes you can find near the juices. I used a pomegranite martini mix. Very nice.