So, let me admit upfront: I love cookbooks more than cooking. My library is lousy with them and, though I often entertain the notion of cooking a four-course meal from scratch, I’m more in love with the romance than the reality. In other words, takeout rules in the Johnson household. That’s what makes this new SideDish feature—Test Kitchen—such a delicious challenge. I’ll dust off a local cookbook or published recipe, attempt to prepare it (please note the word “attempt”), and blog the results plus a photo of the finished product. You, dear SideDishers, get to discover which local recipes are winners and losers. I, your foolish amateur chef, get to sharpen my knife skills while documenting my culinary shortcomings for the blogosphere to read. So, see? It’s a win-win. For my inaugural outing, I tackled Top Chef season three contestant and local fave Tre Wilcox (formerly of Abacus) and his episode seven winning bacon-wrapped shrimp with cheese grits and chipotle-tomato butter sauce. It’s from Top Chef: The Cookbook and I have a new respect for sauciers after this back breaker.
Lets be clear: it’s obvious that money means nothing to the producers of Top Chef. Tre’s recipe calls for 18 large black tiger shrimp, serving six. Since I was cooking this just for myself and my partner in crime, I cut the order in half. Have you ever bought large black tiger shrimp? I hadn’t. Nine shrimp and $48 later (just for the shrimp!), my bank account was emptied but at least I was ready to cook. I’m not good at timing courses. I get frantic. My brow sweats. I curse. Much wine is consumed. I curse some more. Happily, Tre’s recipe broke down into three parts that could easily be tackled one at a time.
THE SAUCE: The chipotle-tomato butter sauce was the most time consuming of the three. I don’t see how sauciers do this. It took me nearly an hour between all the chopping (onion, garlic, plum tomatoes, chipotles, cilantro), simmering, whisking (four tablespoons of butter—nice!), blending, and straining. Handling hot liquids is not my forte so much splashing and pain ensued. Oh yeah. And I didn’t have a fine-mesh sieve handy. Not good. Luckily, my plain old wire strainer did the trick. Battling back the tears and chugging much wine, I was happy with the resulting sauce, a rich and velvety blend with a fiery punch. Tre obviously loves him some heat. Be warned: A little of this sauce goes a long way.
Time spent in kitchen thus far: One hour
Wine consumed: Three glasses
THE GRITS: While my sauce cooled, I tackled the grits. Tre said I could use the instant variety so I did. (Quaker, I love ya.) Later my partner in crime would declare these some of the best grits he’d ever tasted. They certainly were the richest: whole milk, chicken stock, aged white cheddar cheese, and—once again—four tablespoons of butter combined with diced poblano, cilantro, and grilled corn kernels. (Okay, let’s be honest—I used frozen corn. So sue me.) My grits thickened up a bit too much so I added a little extra stock like Tre suggested. This was by far the easiest step of the recipe. I barely had time to drink.
Time spent in kitchen thus far: One hour, 20 minutes
Wine consumed: Four glasses
THE SHRIMP: Here’s where I stumbled. Hard. When things start to pop, splatter, and sizzle, I get nervous. And nothing splatters more than bacon frying in a pan. I downed a quick glass of Pinot and cinched my apron. Tre had me wrap each shrimp with half a slice of bacon, sprinkle with black pepper, and cook until the bacon was crisp and shrimp opaque. Looking back, I would have used toothpicks to keep the bacon wrapped securely around the shrimp. Alas, the bacon kept falling off the shrimp and my tongs slipped into the frying pan. Repeatedly. Eight minutes and several flesh burns later, I had beautiful shrimp with smoky, fatty bacon hanging on for dear life. I rewrapped them and acted like nothing bad had happened.
Time spent in kitchen thus far: One hour, 35 minutes
Wine consumed: Five 1/2 glasses (which might explain the tong slippage)
THE FINAL VERDICT: The dish was delicious and a huge hit. Smoky with a nice Southwestern kick. Though gulf shrimp would have been cheaper, the tiger shrimp were meaty and beautiful. I might use less chipotle in the sauce yet a little more poblano in the grits next time. My lone quibble is the deceptive nature of the dish. Shrimp and grits should be easy. Tre’s complicated sauce makes this winning recipe labor intensive though worth the effort. Oh and one last thing: For this episode of Top Chef, contestants were to create a late-night snack for Miami partiers. Bacon? Butter? South Beach? Hardly.