Nearly a week ago today, I attempted murder. I stalked my victims, desperately, in two separate locations across town, only to be thwarted at every turn. And I'm not sorry. In fact, I plan to try again, and the next time, I will be successful. There will be blood on my hands, as well as on my conscience.
Put down your phone. Before you call the police, you should know that it will be the clear blood of crustaceans that I will have on my hands. And if all goes deliciously, all over my plate and my happy, smiling face as well.
This post, however, isn't just about failed attempts, but also about an eventual major kitchen success. Let me back up and explain a little. You see, last week I was eliminated from the online cooking challenge known as Project Food Blog, and while I'm proud of the efforts I put forth and satisfied to have made it through several eliminations, on the day I was cut from the contest I was feeling..........a little less than zen about the whole thing. Emotional, shall we say. Turbulent. Murderous.
I wanted to kill something for my dinner.
An image swam up suddenly in my memory. I recalled the plastic bucket of lively, crawling crawfish--crayfish?--that I'd seen just a few days' previously at the local Asian market when I was stocking up on tiny baby octopus. They look like sweet little wee baby lobsters, crawfish, and I have a major weakness for anything that crawls or wriggles forth from the sea in a shell. I'd already been somewhat prepared to do some Major Cooking that evening, just in case I made it through the latest round of PFB eliminations, and I'd had crustaceans on my mind. Surely fate had decreed these tiny lobsters to die for my supper. Yeah, fate, that's it. Fate. I headed to the Mekong Market, fork in hand and crustacean bib in place. But the crawfish, they were gone! Not a single claw left behind. Undeterred, I chased my intended victims south to my old favorite haunt, Lee Lee Market, usually the home of many still-living sea delights. And found.........nothing. Not one crawfish. I cursed and raged at having, apparently, missed crawfish season by a few poorly-timed days. Nothing would die for my dinner that evening, at least, not by my own hand. I settled, grumbling something about bloodlust, for a pound of truly tasty-looking giant whole prawns instead. I had some serious shrimp and grits on my mind.
'You were supposed to be a wriggling, living, sacrificial crawfish! My bloodlust must be satisfied!'
Just look at him. He's speechless with fright.
Classic shrimp and grits in a bowl are a fine thing, and I've been served more than one outstanding bowl of them in my lifetime. I remembered one version in particular that was sweetly smoky and spicy, flavored gently with bacon and possessing subtle heat. That was the taste I was after. Still I wanted to try something I'd never seen before, to see how far I could change up the form without getting too far away from the fact that this was, in essence, delicious shrimp and simple sweet ground corn on a plate. I decided to go with an uptown cousin of 'cheese grits,' a smooth slab of polenta infused with smoked provolone cheese. Sliced, baked until crispy-edged and stacked with a creamy shrimp filling in between each layer, towering high above the plate with a whole cooked creature perched on top, this is what I was picturing. Surrounded by a sprinkling of whole corn kernels browned lightly in butter, dressed with a smoky roasted tomato, chipotle & bacon concoction. Are you racing to the kitchen? Are you cooking this yet?? You should be.
Start with a few oven-roasted whole tomatoes. I baked a few pieces of bacon right alongside these, at 350, because I love the way bacon turns out in the oven instead of the stovetop. Press tomatoes through a wire mesh sieve to leave behind skins and seeds. Add a few chipotle peppers (your level of heat preference may vary) and the crumbled bacon, pulse briefly in food processor until sauce is combined but still chunky. Set aside.
Make polenta, adding plenty of grated smoked provolone cheese (smoked Gouda would also be amazing here). Pour into a pan, making sure that you get a layer at least 3/4" deep, for maximum interior-creaminess-to-exterior-crispiness ratio. Cool polenta. Slice polenta. Bake polenta at 425 degrees on a pan well coated in olive oil, for 40 minutes or until both sides are lightly browned (turn once, halfway through). This step takes the longest, but you can do everything else while waiting on the polenta to get crispy.
Prepare a pot of boiling water, salted lightly. If you've got a glug of white wine and a bayleaf handy, so much the better, get them in there. Take your giant prawns--wait, you bought those suckers in Chinatown with the heads on, right?? I sure hope so, fella, because there's nothing better than sucking the scalding hot head fat and brains out of these once they're cooked, believe me. You're going to suck on those things like something out of a George Romero movie. Say it with me now.......Fat Is Flavor. Good. Now take your giant, whole prawns and boil them briefly until cooked. Reserve one whole prawn per serving, then shell the rest and add to food processor along with softened cream cheese, making sure to squeeze the contents of each head into the mixture. Add a small amount of chipotle (I used one half of one pepper, subtle heat is what you're after here), pulse to combine but don't over-blend ('shellfish mousse' is not what you're after here), make sure there are still decent-sized pieces of shrimp visible in the mixture. Set aside.
Once your polenta squares have browned up nicely in the oven, lower heat to 350, then smear a little of the shrimp mixture on each square and stack to your desired height. Crown each stack with a very dignified-looking whole boiled prawn. Hint: a well-placed bamboo skewer applied here is an amateur food stylist's best friend. Place in warm oven for about a minute or two to re-warm everything and let flavors combine. While this is happening, quickly brown a small amount of butter in a skillet, place corn in butter and saute until done. Salt and pepper to taste. Remove plates from oven and place a ring of caramelized corn around each stack. Drizzle lightly with tomato-chipotle-bacon dressing. A handful of fresh, barely chopped basil is essential for finishing this off--the bright green herbal zing balances the heavier flavors perfectly.
A sprig of fresh basil also makes an ideal garnish. When I first dreamed up making this dish with a whole crawfish perched on top, I imagined him clutching a mini sprig of fresh herbs in one stiff, reddened claw, bouquet-style. Because really, what's more inviting than a dinner that says, 'Eat me! And here....I also brought you some flowers'? Shrimp not having claws and all, you'll kind of have to use your imagination here, but I think the effect is still charming.
Enjoy with the one you love, or at least the one you love well enough to share some reasonably expensive shellfish products with, and some nicely chilled white wine. Before long, your plates will look like this:
This was an amazing meal, a lot of work, certainly, but perfect for those time when you feel like doing some Major Cooking indeed. And it's proof of two things. One, that it's possible to elevate a relatively lowly or simple concept to something much more artistic and delicious without destroying it completely--in fact in this case, I think it's better than the original. And second, it's possible to dream up a meal and execute it more or less perfectly, even when your original plans go somewhat awry. Often times, it all works out in the eating.
And speaking of 'execute.' Hmmmm.
I may have missed crawfish season by a narrow margin, and my fever may have been temporarily quenched by this wonderful, satisfyingly pretty meal. But. But. This bloodlust never sleeps. Sooner or later, I will have the chance to murder again, and I'm planning it now. I saw some lively crabs scrambling around in a bucket at the market, after all, and it just might be their turn.............
Muaah hahh hahh haaaaaaahh.