Today we spell redemption T-A-S-S-O.
To be completely accurate, we spell it “shrimp in tasso cream with green chile grit cakes,”* but that would have been way too many capital letters. So let’s just laud the flavor star of the meal, the tasso ham. After last Thursday’s Festival of The Bland, it was both needed and welcome.
*From Crescent City Cooking, one of my favorite books.
I started the grits last night so they’d have time to firm up enough to be made into cakes, something I’ve never successfully accomplished. While the milk and water heated, I got the grit accouterments ready: diced jalapeño and shredded cheddar. (It’s a well-documented fact that grits without cheese are little better than gruel.)
The green chiles were supposed to be poblanos, but neither Whole Foods nor Citarella nor PathMark nor Lee’s Vegetables had any in stock, so I was forced to choose between green bell peppers and jalapeños. God made green bell peppers solely to be vehicles that ease the passage of hummus from plate to mouth; in any case, they certainly can’t be termed “chiles,” so the choice was obvious.
I whisked the grits into my now-boiling liquid and let them blurble and spatter on the stovetop as they thickened. The sucking little mouths that form as the grits cook disturb me greatly; it’s as though tiny demons are escaping from the Grit Circle of Hell into my kitchen with every puff of steam. BEGONE, SUCCUBI.
Possibly this is a personal problem.
I whisked in the cheese and chiles, managing to do so while only searing a little cheese to the stove: success! The finished grits went into an oiled square baking pan, spent a little time cooling on the counter and were banished to the fridge to set up overnight. Then I watched a re-run of America’s Next Top Model, gave myself a killer headache trying to smize – apparently, my eyes can only convey judgment and/or disapproval – and went to bed.
After work tonight, I started the base of the tasso cream by chopping some aromatics (onion, celery, garlic) and tasso. Tasso is a heavily spiced, smoked pork shoulder that’s used as a flavor base in a lot of Cajun cooking.
The smell it sends up when you throw it into a hot pan with butter and onions is intense in the best possible way. Normally, I feel a little guilty about the endless cooking smells we produce, smells that infiltrate the common areas of my building (and probably the apartment upstairs), but NOT TONIGHT. YOU’RE WELCOME, NEIGHBORS.
Because tasso alone is not spicy enough for a real New Orleans chef, cayenne and Hungarian paprika go in, along with some thyme. The whole mess cooks together for five minutes or so, until the veg is just tender and everything is well coated in fragrant spices and porky goodness.
The “cream” in tasso cream is a combination of stock and heavy cream thickened with a bit of roux. I wholeheartedly admit that I doctored the recipe slightly here: two tablespoons of flour makes a scant cup of liquid way too thick, so I doubled the amount of stock. Normally, I would hew to the recipe to put it through its paces, but a redemption meal demands perfection.
Here’s a nasty-ass photo of the cream being added to the thickened stock. Nasty partly because of my kitchen’s terrible lighting, which makes everyone and everything look fatally jaundiced, and partly because of the substance itself. As they say, “It is what it is.” A phrase I hate, actually, so DAMN YOU SAUCE for forcing me to use it.
As the sauce came together, I shifted it back to the simmer burner so I could use the big-girl power burner to quickly sear off some shrimp that had been simply seasoned with kosher salt. Thanks go to Brian for peeling and de-veining the shrimp for us, because shrimp with legs and shit string still attached still look too much like sea cockroaches for me. That, and I’m pretty sure I would injure myself with the shrimp tool.
Is it totally sacreligious of me to note that the shrimp de-veining tool looks suspiciously like a Sikh kirpan (ceremonial daggar)? Because it does, and I hate to think we’ve been mauling our sea cockroaches with a holy object. Sorry, Sikhs!
I finished the tasso cream off with some lemon juice and Tabasco, and dumped it over the cooked shrimp.
Two grits cakes went down on each plate, topped with shrimp, a generous helping of tasso cream and some scallions to differentiate the dishes from Alpo (Beef Stew Flavor).
At the risk of sounding too much like Guy Fieri, eating this was like riding the Taste Monorail to Flavorburg, U.S.A. It was like doing somersaults on the Flavor Trampoline, or speeding around the Taste Track in a Formula One car made of pork.
Grits: smooth and creamy. Shrimp: Perfectly cooked and gently sweet. Tasso cream: Spicy, punchy. Together, they may well be the perfect bite. Explosive yet rich.
I think I need a cigarette, and I don’t smoke.
Yeah, it was that good.