So to celebrate Do passing his PhD exams (yes! He passed!), we spent this past weekend in Santa Cruz. Four blocks from the beach, in a 1929 Victorian house that had 5 bedrooms, 30 stained glass windows, and a giant box of Playboys hidden in the attic. I mean, there was stained glass in the stairway, stained glass in the bathrooms, stained glass on the kitchen ceiling. Not kidding. And if all that weren't deliciously random enough, we were there with a college friend we hadn't seen since 2005, my cousin, his wife, his wife's sister + beau, and five other people whom Do & I had never even heard of before we all arrived Friday night. We drove up, made introductions, and promptly began exploring all the nooks and crannies of the crazy house and giggling over the epic quantity of board games we had all brought down. It was that kind of weekend.
By the way, if you're ever in Santa Cruz, the best coffeeshop in the entire Western Hemisphere is called The Abbey. It's this renovated space behind a brick church with huge, comfy, retro couches, funky art, and some of the best coffee drinks I've had anywhere. Do & I happily spent Saturday afternoon there reading and discussing the late 20th century bureaucratization of science research. Very us.
So we read books on the beach. We ate seafood at every possible opportunity. We visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium (just as awesome as everybody claims -- Do remembered almost nothing from when he visited about 15 years ago, until we got to the ray touch pool. You get to pet Rays! Apparently that made a big impression on him back in the day. They feel like velvet, BTW.). It was a very ocean-themed weekend.
We didn't do much cooking during the weekend, partly because we were so busy running around having a good time and partly because cooking for 12 people whom you don't really know is complicated. However, at our last supper club get-together, we had a massive success with a new seafood-themed recipe: an Italian take on southern Shrimp & Grits. Massive Success.
I don't really cook with polenta or shrimp. The former is too often just a swanky cardboard-tasting filler, and the latter is a bitch to clean and/or tastes like rubber when pre-frozen. But this recipe... oh, man. Like most top-quality homemade Italian food, this recipe takes my preconceived notions of "shrimp" and "polenta" and throws them back at me with "You keep using that word. I do not think if means what you think it means."
(This weekend also involved ample quotations from Princess Bride. What better way to bond instantaneously with perfect strangers on Valentine's Day than by talking about "Twue Wuv"?)
Cook's Illustrated has an amazingly simple and delicious recipe for homemade Parmesan Polenta: creamy like grits, but much lighter (think fluffy clouds of goodness), and chock-a-bloc full of a Parmesan/olive oil/black pepper flavor. Not delicate, this one. Which goes well with the rough and ready take on the shrimp: lots of garlic, tomatoes, meaty pancetta flavor, hearty greens, and then these really delicately cooked shrimp. Think Italian. Think Addictive. Vampire deterrent served on pillows of Parmesan.
For those of you who find the thought of homemade polenta intimidating: it is so worth it. And it only takes 5 minutes total of hand time (25min cook time). Please, please, please try it.
For the vegetarians out there, I'm tagging this as "vegetarian" because the meat products are in no way critical to the dish: top the polenta with whatever you want and it'll still be awesome.
And by the way, a great use for the leftover Parmesan Polenta is to have it for breakfast, topped with fried eggs. Almost exactly three years ago, the Nytimes published a recipe for that very dish. Yes, we've had the clipping squirreled away that long and only ever fantasized about it. And I can finally assure the world that the dish is as good as it sounds.
Homemade Parmesan Polenta, from Cook's Illustrated (serves 6-8)
1.5 tsp salt
Pinch baking soda
1.5 coarse-ground cornmeal (also called "corn grits")
2 Tbs butter
4oz good quality Parmesan cheese, grated (~2 cups)
Bring 7.5 cups water to boil in heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mxture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 min. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.
After 5 min, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan). Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25min longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to continue to thicken as it cools.)
Meanwhile, cook a polenta topping (see recipe below)
Once 25min are up, turn off heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5min. Serve.
Shrimp, Pancetta, and Greens over Polenta, inspired by Gourmet Nov 2009 issue (serves 4)
Homemade Parmesan Polenta (recipe below)
1/3lb pancetta, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 - 1/2 tsp hot red pepper flakes
1 bunch winter greens, sliced into thick strips (chard, kale, whatever floats your boat)
2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 14oz can diced tomatoes in juice
1-1.5lb cleaned large shrimp
1 Tbs chopped flat leaf parsley
While polenta is cooking, heat 2Tbs oil in a heavy 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat. Cook pancetta, garlic, greens, and red pepper until garlic is golden (~2-3min). Add tomatoes in their juice and simmer until liquid is reduced to ~1/4cup (~6-8min). Add shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp are just cooked through (~3min). Season with salt.
Spoon Polenta into bowls and top with shrimp mixture. Season with pepper and sprinkle with parsley.