Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Shrimp and Grits

When you hear shrimp and grits in the same sentence, it doesn't sound too appealing.  Trust me, it is. One of the ways I’ve been spending my time here is cooking.  With such a minimal kitchen, it has proven a bit challenging to make certain meals.  That said, it’s always fun to try to improvise.  The other day, I was watching Food Network when I quickly saw and heard a blurb of ‘shrimp and grits’.  My mind reacted similar to when you see someone on TV eating a candy bar, and you suddenly want a candy bar.  Or more so, when you watch a movie about dancing or playing a sport, and you suddenly have the urge to do that exact activity.  Is that normal, or is it just one of my many quirks? 
Nevertheless, I decided in that instance that I would make shrimp and grits for dinner.  I surfed the web looking at incredibly indulging recipes.  Thinking twice about them, I continued on to a recipe Bobby Flay used in a cook-off.  I tweaked a few ingredients and went on my way to the store.  Side note – shrimp (aka prawns in South Africa) is as common here as McDonald’s in the U.S. However, it is very expensive. 

We spent this past weekend at Kruger National Park— a very large and prominent park where Africa’s finest animals roam free.  It was spectacular, and I will write soon about our experience.
In the meantime, here is the recipe I created for shrimp and grits.

12 oz shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 slices of lean center cut bacon, sliced into 1/2 inch pieces
6 scallions, chopped finely
½ tsp cumin
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup polenta
5 cups chicken broth
1 ½ cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
2 tbs grated parmesan cheese
3 tbs butter
½ cup low-fat milk
1 tsp crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium-sized pot, combine the polenta, and broth.  Bring to a boil on medium heat and make sure to stir with a whisk frequently to avoid clumping or burning at the bottom of the pot.  In the meantime, cook bacon in a large saucepan at medium-high heat until it are cooked to your liking.  Scoop the bacon out of the pan and place on a paper towel laden plate.  Keep stirring the polenta. Don’t forget about it!  There shouldn’t be much grease.  If you ended up using a fattier cut of bacon, pour some of the grease out. With the bacon grease still in the pan, add the scallions and let them sweat.  Add the shrimp, cumin, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp pepper, toss together and let the shrimp cook for about 3-4 minutes.  Don’t overcook them or else they will be rough and chewy.  Set the cooked shrimp aside while leaving the droppings in the pan.  Add 1 cup of broth, and let it simmer in the pan to take on the flavors of the seasoning.  Once the polenta boils lightly, take it off the heat.  Add cheese, 2 tsp salt, 2 tsp black pepper, the remaining butter, and stir.  Add the milk last so that the cheese has time to melt.  Keep stirring. It should be a loose consistency.  To plate the food, use soup bowls.  Pour a couple ladles of polenta in to the bowls.  Add the broth sauce, then the shrimp, then the bacon bits.  Top with chopped parsley for garnish and enjoy!  If you have any questions regarding this recipe, feel free to contact me!

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Short Tale of the Cooking Fail

Today, I failed.  I've had things go wrong while cooking, but I could usually improvise and fix them as I went along.  It’s really the most shameful fail I've had.  How bad could it be, you ask? Allow me to elaborate.

Lebneh (leb-nee) is a Middle-Eastern cream cheese, only not as thick as American cream cheese.  It’s served drizzled with about a gallon of extra virgin olive oil and pita bread.  If you’re like me, you enjoy it with olives, tomatoes, and Lebanese cucumbers.  Lebanese cucumbers, also known as gherkins, are petite, slender, firm, and have a delightful crisp that most English cucumbers can’t offer. This is due to the smaller seeds. Cucumbers with larger seeds tend to be softer and not ask crisp or flavorful. 

While in beautiful South Africa, I realized how much I missed Lebanese food and lebneh was a staple I decided we couldn't live without.  So here’s the deal. I initially sprung for the easy way out.  I took the closest thing I had to a cheesecloth (the kitchen is incredibly ill-equipped), a green and sad excuse for a sieve, and purchased some low-fat yogurt to be healthier.  I scraped the last bit of yogurt out of the container and into the cheesecloth allowing it to sit at room temperature for about the same amount of time I remember my parents did.  It turned out delicious but the consistency and flavor was lacking.  I guess that’s what I get for trying to have my cake and eat it too.  Fed up, I messaged my dad asking for the recipe and vouched for the real deal—whole-fat milk my friends.

The directions were easy enough—bring the milk to a boil at medium temperature while stirring frequently.  Make sure not to allow the milk to overflow.  This will literally happen the second you look away.  I know this from experience.  Once the milk has boiled, transfer it to a container to let it sit until the milk is just cool enough to leave your finger immersed for 10 seconds. Add a cup of plain full-fat yogurt then let it sit for 10-12 hours at room temperature. Add salt, place in cheesecloth and sieve, and transport it to the fridge.  Voila!

It’s a running joke between Brian and I that the most interesting and laughable step of the recipe is to stick your finger in the lebneh for 10 seconds.  It just sounds so…silly. Ironically, that was the one step I failed to do.  Immediately after transferring the hot milk to the container, I left for yoga (yes, I still routinely attend yoga!), and added the yogurt once I returned.  Crossing my fingers that the step was as useful as a spoon-full-of sugar to help the medicine go down, I did all I could—I waited. 

Photo from Herbivoracious.com.  I would normally use my own photo,
but we all know how that ended.
It was a bust, a fail, a flop, a big nosedive.  Call it what you want, but I failed to make something I always saw as exceptionally easy.  The one step I laughed at, I failed to do and in-turn, ruined an entire bowl of what could be creamy, luscious, lebneh.  A gallon of milk literally down the drain.  All I could think about is that I’m a chef, I own a business based solely on cooking, and I ruined something so simple. Disappointed in myself and distinctively remembering my dad saying “it’s not rocket science”, I shook my head. Side note— I’m aware that what I messed up was a small feat and that I am ranting about a dairy product. It’s not about the lebneh. It’s about having pride in something I do and realizing that I won’t always succeed. I was actually embarrassed.  It’s tough to swallow no matter who you are! But then it occurred to me...

It’s okay. It’s alright to fail. It’s okay to not have everything go your way 100% of the time.  You messed up. So what? That doesn't make you any less good at what you succeed in. You learned, and now you know. Try again.  When you succeed, it will be that much more rewarding. It also taught me not to be so proud. I'm always eager to learn, but there are times I let cockiness get the best of me in the kitchen.  Shame on me. This recipe put me in my place. Honestly, I believe that was the kind and gentle voice of God speaking to me. 

It turns out the reason for the finger-dipping is incredibly scientific after all.  If your finger can withstand the heat of the milk for up to but no more than 10 seconds, it’s at the exact temperature to bind the protein solids.  Now that I know that, I will never laugh at that step again—OK maybe I will. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Zimbabwe, Zambia, High Tea, and Baboons...

Only a few short minutes after we landed on the runway, we didn't move far before finding our parking space on the tarmac. The airplane doors flung open and we slowly made our way stepping down the portable stairway.  So this is what Zimbabwe smells like? I’ll take it. Delicate floral aromas mixed with dirt and hot air to make the welcome even warmer. 
View of Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side
The airport was tiny and aging. It very likely had the same signage as the day it was built, but it got the job done.  The security was incredibly disorganized and it took us nearly an hour to get through customs. Nevertheless, we were in Zimbabwe. Quickly after finding a cab (more like the driver found us), the warm and dry weather transformed itself into a strong downpour of rain. So this is how it’s going to be? I’ll take it.
The cab ride to the hotel was peaceful and pretty uneventful. Immediately upon setting my large eyes on the caution: elephant crossing sign, I peeled them back to see any site of an elephant’s trunk or ear. Nothing. Although, we did see some baboons along the road close to the hotel.  They were adorable! If our accents weren't enough to giveaway that we were tourists, my snapping pictures of baby baboons did the job.  The hotel was beautiful and had a remarkable view of the greenery that Zimbabwe had to offer.
Wasn't sure if I was going to make it...
With no time to spare, we quickly put on our hiking attire and ventured out to Victoria Falls.  Words can’t describe how amazing they were. It’s apparent why it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  God’s hand print was clearly on every square-footage of the falls.  A rainbow acted as a bridge over the gorge connecting Zimbabwe to Zambia, and could be seen from every direction.  We got absolutely drenched—it was an unbelievably freeing experience. Our child-like excitement radiated through the falls.

The following day, we arose bright and early to enjoy the breakfast that the hotel had to offer.  I must be one of the few people on this earth to pick a hotel based on the breakfast reviews. It was everything I imagined.  After stuffing ourselves with papaya, passion fruit, and other delicacies, we headed off to experience a few hours of pure adrenaline. 
Canopy zip-line tour
That’s correct, I followed through with every commitment I made and even did another activity!  Our first activity consisted of a zip-line canopy tour.  As I looked down at one of the lines resembling dental floss, I ensured that we indeed would NOT be going across that. The friendly and charming instructor said no, not until line 8. I’m sorry, what? This piece of string was stretched from one side of the gorge to the other, and it was the highest line in the tour.  Commence my panic attack. I felt a similar sensation to when I was just eight years-old and someone (whom I thought was a friend) double-dog-dared me to go off the high-dive—but this was worse.  As we made our way up the rocky path, I realized that I really didn't have much to lose and that the whole purpose of the day was to go out of my comfort zone.  We arrived at the first line and I was slightly relieved to see that it was enclosed with greenery. It felt as though I would have a cushion if for some reason my harness magically detached.  Unfortunately for me, the ladies go first is a rule followed by most men in Africa, and these instructors (TK and Sabi) were no exception.  With a light-hearted tone, TK shouted “enjoy, I’ll see you on the other side!” before zipping off into the green abyss.  The sound of increased speed on the cord made me even more nervous.  As Sabi hooked me up, he told me to let go and for the life of me, I couldn't!  I tested the harness to make sure it could hold all my weight (why wouldn't it?) and realized that I could sit comfortably and trust the tight-fitted gear. OK Christina, quit this nonsense. I said a quick prayer, let go, and traveled into the lush greenery with just a peek of the gorge before arriving to the other side. 
Victoria Falls Hotel
That was it? THAT WAS AWESOME!!!! At that moment, I realized I overcame yet another senseless fear and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the canopy tour.  It was so fun to experience it with Brian. We approached the 8th and highest line, and I was ready. Just by listening to me, you would have thought I was a completely different person.  The experience was exhilarating and not scary in the least.  When it came time for Brian to do the flying fox, I looked at the gear, and back at the line, and asked if I could take his place—he had the swing to look forward to, after all.  I was told to do a running start and just fly in the air. Pardon me? Without allowing my fears get the best of me, I did it. I flew in the air over the gorge at an elevation even higher than the line before. All I could think about in that moment was two things—1) God is good, and 2) I can’t believe I’m hanging off a line in the middle of the gorge at Victoria Falls. Is this what the crazy dude who walked across the Grand Canyon felt?  Most likely not, he was probably more collected, and he wasn't even strapped to anything! 
It was then time for the gorge zip line. My eyes told me that this was a steep drop, but TK who was sitting off to the side said it wasn't steep, basically insinuating that it was an optical illusion.  I liked TK a lot more before that zip-line.  It was absolutely exactly what I thought.  Picture being on an extraordinarily high roller-coaster about ready to drop on a steep hill (which I would never do).  Now picture going down the hill, but rather than be seated and strapped, the only thing you have to hold on to is the belt loop of your spouse.  I never missed those dinky protection bars so much. You’re not sitting, you’re not enclosed, and you’re completely free—just dangling there.  We couldn't even hold on to the line to control our speed like we could on the tour. The only way I can describe our my scream is to compare it to someone who has fallen from a cliff and expects death any second. I can’t speak for Brian, but I couldn't breathe for what seemed like a minute. I shut my eyes tight and felt our bodies fall so fast only to eventually swing up again.  At that point, I knew I could open them.  After realizing that both of us were still alive, it was a moment that made us feel incredibly close.  We were both proud of ourselves and basked in the fact that we shared such an experience. Looking for a date night to bring you and your loved one closer? Just hang off a string over a small body of water—that should set the mood for a romantic evening!
The beautiful wild mushroom ravioli
The adventure ended with Brian doing the swing.  Let me start by saying, swing is an understatement.  This isn't something I used sit on during recess as I worked to get higher than the swing-set bar.  This was nothing like that.  The swing was basically a bungee cord, but rather than being strapped to your feet, it’s strapped to a harness, and you drop—in Brian’s case you drop backwards.  You drop straight down for who knows how many meters before it decides you’ve been tortured enough, only to swing you back and forth—dangling like a tooth ripped from your mouth by the power of a door-nob.  From my perspective, it looked like he was only a couple inches from the rocks and even closer to the water.  The scream that he emitted sounded as intense as my scream on the zip line (only his was warranted).  Before Brian dropped, Sabi told us that this is what separates the boys from the men. I’ve definitely got a good man.  I don’t know whether I’m concerned or proud that he did that. No, I’m definitely proud of him.
Crocodile Salad
Tea cup and kettle...
We finished the afternoon with lunch and high tea at the famous Victoria Falls Hotel.  Known for being the hotel for the royals and celebrities, it had colonial marks all over it. This is the most luxurious hotel in the area and while we couldn't find enough pocket change to stay there, we still experienced the most important parts—the grounds, the view, and the food! While seated outside and looking out at the falls, we enjoyed our delicious meals.  I had the wild-mushroom ravioli and Brian enjoyed a crocodile tail salad.  I could tell the ravioli was made in-house.  It was stuffed to the brim with meaty mushrooms!  It was, by far, the best mushroom ravioli I've tasted. The salad was amazing as well. The crocodile was pan-fried with a texture resembling calamari and a meaty white fish.  Cubes of mild cheese were tossed in to balance the spice of the crocodile.  While looking at the dessert menu, we realized that high tea had just begun.  Why stop at the gluttony now? Instead of dessert, we ordered the high tea.  I chose the earl grey and Brian ordered the local black tea.  We each had our own silver tea-kettles and nibbled on the goodies that sat delicately on a silver three-tier tray.  At the top, finger sandwiches—cucumber, smoked chicken salad, and tiny smoked salmon rolls with a small mound of caviar on top.  The middle tier consisted of the sweets—lemon tarts, strawberry short cake meringues, and rich chocolate tarts topped with whipped cream.  The lowest tier had scones topped with thin coats of powdered sugar, served with whipped cream and strawberry marmalade.  We split half of everything only to save the rest for later.  With our eyes and stomachs beyond satisfied, we walked back to our hotel to catch the bus for the sunset cruise.  We saw many, many birds, and a few yawning hippos. 
Sunset cruise
Sunday, we ventured to Zambia to experience the falls from another perspective and got even more soaked than before.  By Sunday evening, we were back in our small apartment feeling stronger than when we left with only our memories and pictures to show for the trip.  That weekend was by far one of the best weekends we've ever had.  It was filled with gorgeous landscapes, amazing food, and exhilarating experiences. 

Until next time...Cheers!