And Jessica Throws the Gauntlet… Iron Chef Challenge: Country Grits, Y’all

Jessica Says…

Alright, alright, it’s my turn to throw the gauntlet and for this challenge, I am doing an homage to my little sister’s new home… we are going to make some good ol’ country grits, y’all!

I figure my little sister is going to have to have a few good grits recipes in her back pocket now that she and her new husband have made Kentucky their home, so here we go!

Now a bit of honest disclosure… I have never made grits before, ever. However I found (what I think could be) an amazing recipe for Shrimp n’ Grits on the Martha Stewart website. I know what you are thinking – what could Martha-freaking-Stewart know about making grits? Well hold onto your uvula, folks because I am going to say something else that is going to rock your country socks off…

Not only am I making a Martha Stewart grits recipe, but the recipe calls for quick cooking grits. I know, it’s a sacrilege.

However, I am a northern-er so I figure why not? If a northern-er can’t make a recipe with quick cooking grits than no one can, right? I also figure that with all the yummy goodness that will go into this recipe, you will never know they are instant grits.

So here I go, off to make some grits for the first time, confident that this recipe will make me victorious over all of Grit-dom!

Yes, I totally made ‘Grit-dom’ up. Come on, work with me here.

And Cassie must say…

Instant grits?!  You don’t have to watch My Cousin Vinnie a dozen times to know that this Kentucky-girl will certainly not be headed to her local grocery to brave the walk of register shame with a box of instant grits.  While I admire my sister’s trust in Ms. Stewart, I doubt that her time in the clink was long enough to make a true hill-billy out of her, (though I enjoy the thought that she made friends).  God speed my love…. God speed.

Cheddar grits are a staple in Kentucky, and I have enthusiastically jumped on the wagon, (quite unlike the more disturbing staple of copious amounts of Mountain Dew).   I am quite surprisingly filled with Appalachian pride to prepare them.   Game on!

The Tuna Noodle Casserole of Mere Mortals. The Mediocre Ones.

Okay, let’s first talk about the 900 lb. gorilla in the room. Yes, I did wait almost three months to finish this challenge. I could blame it on the fact that I have been insanely busy (because I have), or that the past three months have been filled with the details and the minutia of helping my sister – and blogging companion – plan her wedding (because it was). But no, the real reason it simple. I truly do not enjoy tuna noodle casserole and could not bring myself to get excited about making it. Period.

I finally got so sick of this hanging over my head that I decided to go to Whole Foods and purchase my upscale ingredients for my upscale tuna noodle casserole. Why upscale, you ask? Because if upscale ingredients can’t make it good, it never will be.

I found a recipe that fit my specifications on Food Gal’s blog that called for Gruyère cheese, imported tuna in olive oil and a béchamel. I figured if these weren’t the staples for an upscale tuna noodle casserole, then nothing was.

So after a little prep work, I got all my ingredients together and measured. It included:

The béchamel:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup minced onion or shallot
1 small dried red chile (preferably Japanese), whole
1 small bay leaf
Kosher salt
2 1/2 cups whole milk

The casserole:
1/2 pound calamarata or elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons olive oil from tuna
Two (6-ounce) cans imported tuna packed in olive oil
4 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated (1 cup tightly packed)
3 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 cups (2 ounces) fresh bread crumbs
1 1/2 ounces Parmesan cheese, freshly grated (1/3 cup tightly packed)

I am not going to detail all the instructions because the ones on Food Gal’s site are amazingly perfect, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think I had come up with that brilliance or accuse me of plagiarism. So again, here is the link to the recipe, and below are the pictures of my tuna noodle casserole experience!

Onions, bay leaf and chilies added to the roux

This is after I added the onions, bay leaf and chilies to the roux but before the onion softened and the raw onion smells dissipated. After adding the salt, the popcorn smell then dissipated, my the roux thickened and then loosened up after 3 minutes.

The Bechamel, SimmeredAfter whisking in the milk, and continuously whisking until the mixture simmered, this is what the béchamel looked like as it was slowly simmering. It took my béchamel a full 20 minutes to lose its flour taste, rather than the 15 minutes stated in the recipe. I think ‘gently simmered’ a little too gently!

After draining my pasta, I assembled the casserole as the directions stated. Everything came together beautifully, except I forgot to retain a ladle of pasta water, which was too bad because I really could have used just a pinch of it. I combined the ingredients for the topping and got ready to put some tin foil on it and shove it in the oven!

After 30 minutes, I tore off the tin foil and set my timer for an additional 15 minutes so the top could brown. About halfway through I checked and noticed the casserole was browning unevenly, so I gave it a quick turn. Good thing I did, because it browned beautifully. Check it out!Just out of the oven

Once it stopped bubbling, I dished into bowls and forced it upon served it to my family. And the neighbors. The final verdict? Overall it was good, something you would get in an upscale restaurant. The only real criticism was from the hubs who thought it was on the dry side. But both kiddos ate it, and I even had the neighbor kids enjoying it too! So overall, I think it was a good ‘upscale’ recipe, but I remain a un-lover of tuna noodle casserole. Maybe I missed the ‘homestyle’ aspect of it that was lacking in this version. Hey, what can I say… I gave it a shot!The Finished Product

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