Sunday, June 5, 2016

Cheesy Shrimp and Grits with Tasso

Shrimp and Grits is one of those dishes that I’ve always wanted to try, but somehow just never got around to (I know…seems impossible right? J ). I’ve had a lifelong love of grits thanks to my Army brat cousins; growing up in New England they weren’t exactly a common breakfast item, but the girls brought them to Maine one summer and I came home absolutely hooked. Warm, comforting, doused with plenty of butter, salt, and pepper…like a warm hug for your stomach. What’s not to love?

The addition of spicy shrimp to the buttery goodness of grits might seem a little strange at first, especially to Northern palates. Shrimp and Grits actually started as breakfast food in the Lowcountry marshes of the southern coast of the US; as these states had both of these items in plentiful supply, it would make sense to combine them into a hearty breakfast to fortify a day of farming or fishing or what have you. Over the last few decades, the dish has become standard dinner fare; first in the South, then moving slowly northward to places like…Kansas City. Yes, it was on a trip to KC (sadly, for a memorial for a dear friend) that I finally ordered myself some Shrimp and Grits; after a  4 AM start in Boston and no food until about 2 in the afternoon, I was in desperate need of breakfast and lunch all at the same time. Shrimp and Grits seemed like it would fit the bill; the version I ended up having at the Classic Cup Café was the perfect introduction: loads of juicy, perfectly cooked shrimp flecked with andouille in a spicy tomato broth over creamy, delicious grits. Kind of a mashup between jambalaya and grits, really; absolute heaven. I left there fortified for my sad task ahead…my stomach, at least, was happy.

Happier stuff…so, when I went to recreate this dish at home I had a few requirements. One was that I really wanted to use some tasso that we had picked up on a road trip a few months back. Tasso is a Louisiana version of ham; Cajun spiced, super flavorful, and a common ingredient in New Orleans versions of shrimp and grits. I also wanted a dish that would fit into my new healthier way of eating; from the basic components I knew it wasn’t something that was going to need a lot of fat or high calorie ingredients to bring the flavors out, a few quick swaps that no one would notice and reasonable portions of cheese and pork and I’d be able to keep the calories and fat under control.  Third is that I really wanted to use my slow cooker; I knew it wouldn’t make sense to slow cook shrimp all day, but I figured the grits at least could come to creamy nirvana in the old crockpot. And did they ever…I have to say, I am SUPER proud of how this one came out on my very first attempt. Sometimes it even looks like I know what I’m doing in the kitchen.

A few last notes…for those who count WW points, I ran this through MyFitnessPal’s recipe builder to get the nutrient totals and then plugged that data into the WW recipe builder to come up with 10 SmartPoints per serving…long story, but ever since the plan change I’ve been more of a calorie counter than a point counter, so I needed the full nutritional data.  If you come up with a different point value I encourage you to use it; always do what works for you. 10 points works for me. I also always encourage you to make substitutions; this dish would be delicious with andouille sausage or even hot Italian if that’s what you have, can find, or like; if you have fresh tomatoes to use up throw them in instead.   Remember, it’s your kitchen!!

Cheesy Shrimp and Grits with Tasso

Makes 8 servings, 1 ½ cups per serving

1 ½ cups old fashioned grits (not instant)
6 cups chicken stock, lowfat if available (I actually used Knorr’s bouillon cubes; the only kind I do use!)
6 ounces tasso ham or andouille sausage, diced
1 small onion, chopped
1 medium red pepper, chopped
Old Bay seasoning, to taste
¾ cup fat free half and half
2 pounds shrimp, shells removed and deveined (large or extra large work best)
1 can fire roasted diced tomatoes
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar, 2%
Chopped scallions, for garnish

Combine grits and chicken stock in slow cooker; cook for 2 ½ hours on HIGH, or 5 – 6 hours on LOW until just about done. 

Sauté the tasso in a large frying pan over medium heat for a couple of minutes, or until you can really smell it and some of the fat has escaped out into the pan. Add the onions and pepper and cook for 5 -10 minutes until they start to get soft.  If you are using raw shrimp add them at about 5 minutes in; if your shrimp are already cooked, add them at the end (they only take about 5 minutes to cook). Season the contents of the pan with Old Bay and cook another minute; then add the contents of the pan to the slow cooker along with the cream, cheese and tomatoes. Stir well, and cook on LOW another 30 – 60 minutes until everything is well heated through. Garnish with scallions. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Two Books That Changed My Life – and Andie Mitchell’s “Pad” Thai

Normally, I’m not one for any kind of book that even vaguely resembles “self help”…not that I don’t think I’m in need of help, of course; I’ll take all the help I can get ! It’s just that I’m naturally skeptical and tend not to believe everything I read, and while I very much enjoy reading other people’s stories I don’t automatically find relevance to my own life in them (I’m secretly convinced everyone is more fabulous and together than I am; definitely a sort of “imposter syndrome” .) There are some books, though, that are the exception to that rule; here are two that have profoundly changed my life over the last year. Maybe because they’re not really self help…more memoirs. Whatever you call them, they both really, really spoke to me – so I’d like to share them here.

The first one – the one that really set me on my journey – was Brittany Gibbons' “Fat Girl WalkingBrittany Gibbons is a blogger (I’ve followed her for a long time;, body image advocate, and basically all around gorgeous hella-cool chick; I devour every word she writes like it’s going out of style. Her first book came out a few weeks after I had joined Weight Watchers…of course, I already had it on pre-order since well before my decision to join WW. As soon as I got it I immediately stayed up late to read it, alternating between tears, exclamations, and not a small amount of smiling. Here was someone who had gone through so many of the same things I had – not feeling good enough or worthy enough, sabotaging my own health and happiness to do what I thought other people wanted just so they would (I hoped) love me and accept me. Things that I thought I was the only person that did…turns out it wasn’t just me. It was a revelation, and a wake-up call, and - I firmly believe - a huge reason I was successful in my weight loss journey.

At first, it seems like it would be counter-intuitive – how could a book about learning to accept my body at the size it was help me on the path I had chosen to lose weight ? Well, funny thing about that…it turns out that was exactly what I needed in order to make it different this time. I needed to learn to love myself at any size; to know that even as big I as I was I was beautiful, sexy, and deserving of love (especially - and most importantly - from myself.) That even if I never lost another pound I was worthy of being out there in the world (in a bikini if I wanted, a la Brittany) and that I didn’t have to compare or compromise myself to anyone. There were people in my life that already loved me like I was; time for me to join their ranks. And as a result of this massive bit of self-introspection I allowed enough love into my life to carry me through the past year of weight loss; it was so strong that it finally helped me to make my health a priority in a meaningful way. Not to improve my looks – because I now truly understand that my looks were perfectly fine before, and I’ve loved how I look every step of the way – but my health. I feel confident enough to have picked a goal weight well above the WW range (with my doctor’s input and approval), because it’s the right weight for me – it’s where I feel the most beautiful. Plus, I still get to eat the food I love (in moderation)…which brings me to the next book.

The second book that changed my life – the perfect bookend to Brittany’s, at least for me – was Andie Mitchell’s “It Was Me All Along”. Like Brittany, Andie is a blogger (; however, in her case I read her book before discovering her blog. The book had been mentioned in my WW meeting and I had dutifully written it down and forgotten it – until I happened upon it by chance at a bookstore in the Detroit airport during a layover this past February. Once again, I found myself reading this whole book immediately, then reading it again…because, like Brittany’s, this book spoke to my life. Very similar upbringings (only the Boston suburb was different) and relationships – and pretty much EXACTLY the same relationship with food; a love of not only eating it, but cooking it in large quantities (especially, rich, indulgent, sigh-inducing foods) as a way of showing my love for other people. This whole blog is a love letter to that very principle; the idea of a Culinary Orgasm. My appreciation of good food – and love of sharing it with others – was such an ingrained, treasured part of my personality; I was so scared of changing it long-term in order to maintain my weight loss...not just could I do it,  but did I truly want to ? I was also incredibly disappointed with the changes to the WW program (not to bash them here, but the new SmartPoints retool is just AWFUL for me, anyway; I lost my first 75 pounds under PointsPlus without ever gaining, so I know that one works; I’ve lost only a few since and have actually gone up a few times. SmartPoints is just not for me.)  I was despairing of getting through the last couple of pounds to my goal, and maintenance didn’t sound nearly as doable with the flexibility of the program now shot (anything remotely like a treat is now so high in points that it’s nearly impossible to fit in – at least not regularly, like you could before. Occasional treats are so important- it makes it a lifestyle, not a diet. And eating them works for me – see above. But I digress…)

And then…like magic, just when I needed her…enter Andie Mitchell.  Andie had lost 135 (!!!) pounds by basically changing her relationship with food…she had started on WW, but then transitioned to basically calorie-counting, which sounded much more reasonable (to me, anyway!) – at the end of the day weight loss is really about more calories out than in. Just math, really…which WW seems to have lost track of in their push to get us to make better choices. So I started counting calories in addition to points, to make sure I was really in the range I needed to be to continue losing weight…and wonder of wonders, it started coming off again and I’m now less than five pounds from goal. (Short version of why I’m doing both; I really want to get to Lifetime WW Status so I can go to meetings for free; while I don’t love the plan, I LOVE my meeting and my leader, and can’t see how I’d maintain without that support. Basically, with the calorie counting I don’t freak out about using weekly / activity points or coming in under my point total for the day as long as I stay within my calorie goal for healthy weight loss. I won’t track both forever, but it works for now...I’m hoping to get to the point where I just mentally tally without having to physically track. Unless I start to gain, of course –then I’ll track everything until I get back to where I need to be. That’s my plan, anyway…I know, it wasn’t really the short version !)

Anyway – Andie’s “Pad” Thai – I’m getting there! Andie still enjoys good food in moderation, which is exactly what I wanted to be able to do too. Her website / blog ( ) and just released cookbook, "Eating in the Middle" are both chock full of delicious recipes; some for everyday eating, and some once-in-a-while treats. Exactly the way I want to live my life. The first dish I made from the website was the Tamale Chicken Pot Pies -  these were so insanely delicious that we wolfed them all down before I could take a picture and blog them. (You should definitely go make them NOW. I’ll wait J ) )

I paused long enough with the second dish in order to get a picture for you. Believe you me; it took a lot of restraint!

The magic of this dish is in the “noodles” – there are actually no noodles in this dish. Andie substitutes shredded cabbage, which is absolutely brilliant; cabbage is super low in calories / has zero SmartPoints, so it makes this dish super helpful when you’re trying to take in less. I love Pad Thai and was stoked to find a way for it to easily fit my plan. Andie actually has two versions of this, one on her website and one in her book; I basically mashed them together, taking the parts I liked from both. I’m linking to both below; I have no doubt that each recipe exactly as written would work perfectly, so do what works for you. (I’ll also note exactly what I did at the bottom – mostly so *I* remember !! ). Basically, I used the technique from the website version as it was simpler, but incorporated some of the ingredients from the cookbook version as I liked those better (as well as working in my beloved Sambal Oelek chili paste, which just makes everything yummy.)  I’ll also note that I used preshredded cabbage (like for coleslaw) as I was in a rush – which worked, but next time I’ll chop my own so I can get it longer and thinner and more noodle-like. I topped mine with some cooked shrimp to up the protein content and make it more of a main dish; this is not noted in my directions, but any cooked protein would work on this if you want to go that route (traditional Pad Thai often has shrimp, tofu, and/or chicken. As always, use what you like – or just go with the veg.)


Website Version:

Cookbook Version (from Oprah’s website, actually. I KNOW.) :

Andie Mitchell’s “Pad” Thai – Culinary Orgasm’s Mashed Up Version

Serves 2

1 ½ T soy sauce
1 ½ T fish sauce
2 t sugar
2 large eggs
1 t (or to taste) Sambal Oelek (or your favorite chili paste)
1 very small onion, thinly sliced
1 very small green bell pepper, seeded, ribs removed and thinly sliced
2 – 4 garlic cloves, minced
5 cups finely shredded green cabbage (about half a medium head)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro or Thai basil, chopped
2 T finely chopped peanuts
Lime wedges, for serving


In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, fish sauce and sugar

In another small bowl, beat the eggs.

Heat a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and spray with cooking spray or oil (or add a small amount of vegetable or peanut oil.) Add the onion and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until tender but still crisp, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer the vegetables to a plate.

Spray or oil the skillet again, and add the cabbage and cook, stirring frequently, until tender but still crisp, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs and cook, stirring constantly, until just set, about 2 minutes (scramble them right into the cabbage)

Add the soy-sauce mixture and stir well to combine.  Stir in the onions and peppers. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the fresh cilantro.  Top with the chopped peanuts and additional Sambal, if desired.; serve with lime wedges.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Potato, Ham, and Bell Pepper Frittata

Frittatas have to be one of the most wonderfully adaptable and forgiving of all foods.   They are good for any meal from a casual breakfast to a fancy dinner party; they are delicious hot or cold; and they cheerfully accept just about anything hanging out in your fridge or pantry that needs a good home. They’re like a less-fussy quiche, or an omelet that serves everyone at the same time instead of having to bother with individual breakfasts. They also store well; make a frittata all for yourself on a Sunday and not only will you have a special weekend breakfast, you’ll have a few weekday ones as well.  Got a pile of people to feed but only a few eggs, odds and ends? Make a frittata. Your victims guests will think you’ve gone to all kinds of effort, when in reality you’re basically feeding them leftovers because you were too lazy to go shopping. That’s what we call a win-win.

One of the other great things about a frittata is that it’s very easy to lighten up, if you find yourself wanting or needing to go that route. By decreasing the number of eggs, using a measured amount of higher-calorie, flavor packed ingredients (meat, cheese), and increasing the proportion of lighter components (i.e. vegetables) you can tweak it so that it fits your needs and still tastes amazing. You just want to make sure you have enough eggs to almost cover your solid components; eggs will puff up during cooking so you don’t need to bury them, you just need enough to stick everything together so you can slice it.

The proportions I give here work well for six whole extra large eggs. If your eggs are smaller you may want to add an extra egg, or a few egg  whites;  you can also cut down on the number of whole eggs by substituting 3 eggs whites for each whole egg, or supplementing with EggBeaters if that’s your thing.  

Consider the ingredients here a jumping-off point; whatever kind of meat, cheese and vegetables you have can all be successfully incorporated into your frittata. How about cubed chicken, feta cheese, and spinach? Or shrimp, Monterey Jack, and salsa Verde? The sky’s the limit!  

 A few notes for my WW friends; I ran this one through the WW Recipe Builder and came up with 3 SmartPoints per serving (if cut into 8 servings); your mileage may vary depending on what ingredients you use, always check for yourself (I definitely do NOT work for WW).  I would recommend serving something else along with it if you’re really serving eight; fresh fruit (0 SP) and toast (varied SP) would be divine.  Otherwise you’ll probably want two servings; well worth the 6 SP.


Potato, Ham, and Bell Pepper Frittata
8 small or 4 large servings

Ingredients : 

Cooking spray
½ small onion (or 1 large shallot) chopped
1 cup red potato, raw, diced 
4 oz cooked lean ham, diced
1 small bell pepper, diced (I used half red, half green)
6 extra large eggs, beaten
¼ cup 2% milk
½ cup (2 oz) reduced fat cheddar cheese, shredded (I used Cabot 50% reduced fat)
Salt and black pepper to taste

Optional: a few pinches of your favorite fresh or dried herb(s), to taste (dill is especially nice; tarragon is also nice, but potent – be careful!)

10 inch ovenproof skillet (oven proof is important here as it will actually be going into the oven!)

Directions : 

Preheat oven to 375

Heat the skillet over medium-high heat; spray with cooking spray. Add the onion and sauté for a minute or so, then add the potato. Reduce heat to medium; let cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until potato is almost tender (dicing the potato quite small will help it cook quicker). Turn the heat back up to medium-high and add the ham and pepper and cook for two more minutes, until everything is heated through and peppers start to soften a little. Season with a little salt and black pepper.

While the potatoes are cooking whisk the eggs and milk together until smooth, then stir in half the cheese along with some more salt and pepper (and herb[s] if using.).  Pour the egg mixture into your skillet and check to see that everything is more or less distributed. Let cook on the stovetop undisturbed for about two minutes, or until the edges start to set. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top of the frittata and pop the skillet (uncovered) into the oven. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until eggs are completely set and frittata is beginning to lightly brown. Remove from oven ; cut into wedges and serve.