Vegan Seared Garlic-Balsamic Mushrooms with Fresh Thyme & Creamy Polenta (Grits)

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All Photos © Christine Elise McCarthy 2016

To see images of my past posts & get links to the recipes – look on my Pinterest board – HERE.

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What you see pictured here are actually grits.  Grits are the same as polenta but more coarsely ground.  And – if you are interested, yellow grits have fewer calories than white.  I used Red Mill grits (seen below in a photo I took from Google).


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They cooked up nice & creamy in less than ten minutes.  The polenta I used for my Vegan Creamy Polenta Bowl with Roasted Beets, Toasted Walnuts, Thyme & Balsamic Glaze – seen above – took longer but I cooked that in a slow cooker, so you could argue it was easier.

I really like grits (polenta) in pretty much any form (the soupier cream of wheat style being my favorite) and leftovers bake up will into delicious & guiltless fries (below).

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But – polenta can be served soft & creamy or in harder patties & it can be topped with just about anything.  If you eat seafood – Shrimp & Grits are pretty amazing.  But this dish here is very simple & straight-forward & delicious.  It comes together in the time it takes to cook your grits – and that depends on what brand you buy.

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Vegan Seared Garlic-Balsamic Mushrooms with Fresh Thyme & Creamy Polenta (Grits)

Serves 2


Polenta for 2 (this amount is your call- based on your appetite but know packaging usually defines a serving as smaller than is realistic – so err on the side of making too much & make baked fries out of the leftovers)

Mushrooms – I’d go with 8oz per person because mushrooms really shrink – sliced

Olive oil

1 or more garlic cloves (depending entirely on your taste for garlic) – minced

1-2 TBS fresh thyme removed from stems

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar


Fresh parsley – chopped

NOTE: If you want more flavorful grits – use vegetable stock rather than water when you make them.

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Cook the grits/polenta according to instructions.  If it gets too thick – just add more water.

Meanwhile – heat 2 TBS olive oil in a pan over high heat & add the mushrooms.  Leave them in a pan a few minutes at a time without stirring to sear them.  When they are tender & browning, add the garlic & thyme.  Cook for 1-2 minutes (do not burn the garlic or it gets bitter) then add the balsamic.  It will cook off fast.  Add S&P.

Serve over polenta.  Garnish with parsley.

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Southern-Style Arancini or Fried Oklahoma Grits Balls with Creole Shrimp



All Photos © Christine Elise McCarthy 2012


Click that play button & enjoy yourself a little Big Maybelle. I have been all week.
And a BRUTAL week it has been.  Kicked off Monday morning with a root canal.  Swung into Wednesday having a broken crown drilled into, refitted for a permanent crown & I left with a numb face and a temporary crown.  I ate the inside of my face (cheek still numb from Novacaine) that night – ATE it – into a bloody mess – during dinner as I watched Obama let Romney lie his way to a debate victory.  Friday night, my temporary crown came out in two pieces as I ate an arugula & shaved Parmesan salad.  Not a corn nuts, gravel & salt water taffy salad.  Arugula.  Paper thin cheese.  Crown in my hand in two pieces on a tooth that has NOT had a root canal.  Friday night at 5:30pm.  Called my dentist, called his emergency line, emailed him.  Crickets.  Paged my root canal doctor & asked for a referral.  In an infuriating act of dentist solidarity – the only dentist’s name he would say was the dentist whose work I was holding in my hand.  I stood in the kitchen & cried.  Nobody wanted to help me & I had a tooth on my lower right that had been drilled into two outer walls & little else.  LOOK!


Look at that shit!  And that white you see is a bit of dental cement – or some other dental substance – and it was the only thing between my nerve & the world.  NOT A GOOD THING!  No way to eat because 1) pressure on the tooth was painful & 2) I didn’t want to risk fracturing those two panels of vulnerable tooth I had in there.  Friday night.  Was I really supposed to wait until Monday?  Or was I supposed to pick a dentist off a city bus advertisement?  Dentists don’t generally work on Saturdays – and I have had SUCH a prolonged & brutally unlucky dental run this year – I am completely traumatized and unwilling just to roll the dice on some random doctor out of the Yellow Pages.  That is if I even had a Yellow Pages.

Saturday morning I woke up & decided I needed a plan B – in case I really did have to live with my tooth dismembered until Monday.  I decided to make a large pot of grits because they do not really require chewing to be consumed.  Then my friends Dave & Rose announced that their dentist was working that day & agreed to see me.  His name is Dr. Vincent Katow & I think it is safe to say he will now be my regular dentist.  He was kind & gentle & got a new temporary crown in there in no time.  Six days.  Three major dental procedures.  Three different dentists.  And I am a patient who shakes all over & tends to cry (silently) in the chair.  Just brutal.  My righteous indignation & self pity ratcheted up exponentially.

Then the UGLIEST image ever screen-grabbed of me ever in history appeared on the internet (like this one – but EPICALLY worse) – from my recent appearance on Castle:

& set me off on a day filled with intermittent crying & a solid day of unprecedented self-pity.  This photo above isn’t THAT bad  – but – OK – fuck it.  LOOK!

Here are two shots from the same show – below.  Not the best look a show ever did to me but JESUS.  That Honey BooBoo pick of me above – out there on the internet – FOREVER – makes me very sad.

Here are some comparisons my ball-busting friends made of my look in that bad pic.   Funny?  Sure.  True?   Unfortunately.  😦

The fact is – the prototype for the role was one of these two – LITERALLY.   It was in the character description:

which is why my hair looks like I had recently been electrocuted and, well – I can’t explain that make-up – or why I had to wear dresses two sizes too small but – ouch.  Just ouch.

It was a bad week.  All I can say is – thank GOD for Bevmo’s 5 cent sales & credit cards.  And for the TORRENT of support I got on Facebook – some public – some private.  Bruised ego aside & waiting to be turned into a funny story – I move on.

So – anyway – now I found myself with teeth that could eat real food again – and a gigantic quantity of cheesy baked grits.


What to do with all those grits??  Then I thought of Arancini – or fried risotto balls!  Why couldn’t I make them with grits?  And – rather than a marinara for dipping – why not serve them on a bed of Creole shrimp?  Unable to think of a reason NOT to do this – I did this!  I admit – there are a lot of steps to get this done so it might be a special occasion sort of meal but it was SO FREAKING GOOD – I hope you get inspired to try it some time.  Also – the Grits balls can be served naked or with a much easier sauce – like an aioli or  jarred spicy Italian pasta sauce – like these risotto balls were served to me & my boyfriend in Louisville.


If you didn’t read the story about the carnival ride horror show experience we had in Louisville – you can HERE.  Anyway – the grits balls are pretty fantastic on their own so don’t put them off if the whole Creole shrimp thing seems overwhelming or unappetizing.   Also – the Creole shrimp recipe alone would go great over steamed rice – so – no need to get into the whole grits thing if that part seems overwhelming.  Whatever you decide to try – read each of the recipes through completely before beginning.  And if you are going for the whole shebang – peel your shrimp & start the stock before you get into any of the other parts of this amazing dish.

Also – the Creole Shrimp calls for canned tomatoes but if you can find tomatoes for sale in glass or in cartons like this:


buy those.  READ HERE about why to avoid canned tomatoes.  In the interest of simplicity – I will refer to packaged tomatoes as CANNED ones – even though I mean glass or cartoned ones.


I got the grits recipe HERE but I will spell it out here, too.


Oklahoma Cheese Grits


6 cups water

1 1/2 cups grits (fast cooking)

3/4 cup butter

1 pound grated cheese (I used a nice cheddar)

2 tsp Creole seasoning

1 TBS Worcestershire sauce

1 TBS hot pepper sauce (I used more than they called for)

2 tsp salt

3 eggs, beaten


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9×13 inch baking dish.  I used a vintage casserole dish.
  2. In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Stir in grits, and reduce heat to low. Cover, and cook 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix in the butter, cheese, seasoning salt, Worcestershire sauce, hot pepper sauce, and salt. Continue cooking for 5 minutes, or until the cheese is melted. Remove from heat, cool slightly, and fold in the eggs. Pour into the prepared baking dish.
  3. Bake 1 hour in the preheated oven, or until the top is lightly browned.  Remove from oven & eat – or cool if you are gonna make the grits balls.




Southern-Style Arancini or Fried Oklahoma Grits Balls


Oklahoma Cheese Grits – see above

1/2 pound pepper jack (or other spicy cheese) cubed

2 cups bread crumbs.   I used a combo or regular & panko

2 cups flour

4 eggs beaten

Creole seasoning

6 cups vegetable oil for frying



Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put the flour in a bowl, the beaten eggs in another & the bread crumbs in yet another.  Add about 1 TBS Creole seasoning to each & blend.  Scoop out a handful of cooled grits & create a ball.  Mine were about the size of a pool ball.  Press a piece of cubed cheese into the center & seal the ball back up.  Dredge this through the flour then the eggs then the bread crumbs.  Set aside on a baking sheet as you do this for the rest of the grits.  I ended up with about 20 grits balls.  I froze 16 of them – two each to a freezer baggy – for the future.


Heat the oil in a large frying pan.  When hot, add your grits balls & fry until golden – turning them so they color evenly.  It takes about 3-4 minutes to get them nice & brown.  Remove from the oil & drain on paper towels & set aside as you make your Creole shrimp.   If you want to eat them plain or with another dipping sauce (arrabiata anyone?) – bake them in the oven for 20-30 minutes or so – to be sure they are hot & the center cheese cube is melted.   If you are going through with the whole Creole Shrimp thing – put off the baking until you are 20-30 minutes from being ready to serve the Creole Shrimp.




Homemade Shrimp Stock


The shells & tails from 2 pounds of shrimp

1 medium onion – coarsely chopped

2 celery stalks cut into thirds

4 garlic cloves

4 bay leaves

6 sprigs of fresh thyme

1 TBS black peppercorns

1 lemon – sliced


Put 10-12 cups water in a large stock pot.  Add the other ingredients.  Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low.  Cover & simmer for about an hour.  Strain the stock through a colander of cheesecloth or a mesh strainer.  Measure out 2 cups & set aside.  Put the rest in freezer-safe containers & freeze them up for another day.   I used recycled dairy containers.





Creole Shrimp


2 lbs raw SHELL ON shrimp – use the LARGEST shrimp you can find.  Use the shells for the shrimp stock.

1 onion – finely diced

4 celery stalks – thinly sliced

1 green bell pepper – finely diced

2 TBS butter

1 TBS vegetable oil

2 TBS Creole seasoning

2 cups homemade shrimp stock – or vegetable stock (use bouillon cubes for a short cut)

1/2 cup dry white wine

5 large tomatoes – diced

2 TBS tomato pasta

Approx. 26 oz (or more) chopped tomatoes (canned or, preferably, from a carton.  READ HERE about why to avoid canned tomatoes)

6 garlic cloves – sliced

4 bay leaves

6-10 sprigs fresh thyme

1 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp white pepper

Salt to taste

Hot sauce (Tabasco or Crystal or your brand) – to taste

1 TBS Worcestershire sauce

Fresh parsley – chopped

Scallions (optional) – sliced



Peel & devein the shrimp – reserving the shells to make shrimp stock.

Heat the butter & vegetable oil in a large pan.  Add half the diced onion & saute until light golden.  Add the rest of the onion and the bell pepper & the celery.  Saute over medium heat.  Add 1 tsp of the Creole seasoning & saute until the vegetables are tender.

Add tomato paste, the canned tomatoes, 4 of the diced fresh tomatoes (reserving one diced tomato for garnish later) and 1/2 tsp salt – and stir in well.  Saute until the tomatoes begin to incorporate.  Turn the heat to high & add the white wine.  Cook for a minute or two & then add the shrimp stock (NOT THE SHRIMP), garlic, bay leaves, cayenne, black & white peppers, fresh thyme, hot sauce & Worcestershire sauce & stir in well to blend the flavors.  Let simmer on low for 30-45 minutes.


If your Creole sauce is too thick – add water or more canned diced tomatoes.  If it is too thin – increase the heat & add 1 TBS of cornstarch mixed with 2 TBS water to your Creole sauce.  This should thicken it nicely.

Taste it & add some of the remaining Creole seasoning and or salt.  Add more hot sauce if you like a lot of heat.

When you are about 30 minutes from serving – pop those fried grits balls in the oven.  5 minutes before serving – get the Creole sauce boiling.  Then – lower the heat back to a simmer & add your shrimp.  These cook pretty quickly & you want to be careful not to overcook them.  They will keep cooking even as you are assembling the dishes – so err of the side of just under-cooking them.

When the shrimp are ready – spoon out some Creole shrimp onto each plate, add a fried grits ball or two from the oven & then top with chopped tomato, fresh parsley & sliced scallions (if you are using them).




Shrimp & Cheesy Grits – My Way & On the Highway at Brenda’s French Soul Food in San Francisco



All Photos © Christine Elise McCarthy 2012

Last weekend, I went to San Francisco with my parents for a wedding.  Our first breakfast in SF was at a place I found (by Googling terms like “best breakfast in SF”) called Brenda’s French Soul Food.  It was a Friday morning, probably around 9:30am & there was a wait for a table.  Again, I loathe waiting but trying to find another spot in an unfamiliar city & then drive there & park – etc etc – would take longer -so we waited.  The interior of the room was really cool.  High ceilings, a collection of mirrors on one wall & a huge mural of a crawfish (or a lobster?) on the other.




The wait wasn’t long and, as it happened, we were seated just beneath the mural.  We were quickly served delicious coffees and we perused the menu.  Beignets seemed to be a house specialty & they had a savory one (made of crawfish) that intrigued me.  Still – I am not much of a pastry person & I very seldom eat sweets – so – I opted for the shrimp & grits.  My stepdad got the beignets, however, and they were gloriously huge & very tempting.


That front one is the crawfish beignet & it was, in fact, quite tasty.  Still – it could not hold a candle to the insanely delicious shrimp & grits – which I ordered sans bacon.


These were piping hot – too hot to eat, in the beginning.  The grits were very thin, too thin to eat with a fork (which I liked) but there was more cheese involved than I thought was ideal.  The shrimp were amazing – and I am not a crazy shrimp person.  In fact – sometimes I get a bit weirded out by the texture – as it really must be very much the same as giant grubs or some other sick thing that most of us would not dare sample.  Shrimp are really just giant ocean insects, no?  Why are we cool with eating them but not, say, THESE?   Anyway – this shrimp & grits definitely ranks as one of the finest combo of breakfast flavors I have ever experienced.

Yesterday, my newest son, a rescued pug now named Memphis, had to have a little dental surgery & got two VERY stinky teeth removed.


He is guesstimated to be three – which is quite young to have teeth in the condition his were – but a life in the sex trade as a backyard breeding dog (poor Memphis’ sad past) can take its toll.  You will be happy to know that his teeth are restored to a sparkling white & he no longer has that “what died in your mouth?” breath.  I picked him up after his surgery & brought him home.  I was supposed to head right back out & see one of my favorite musicians, Mr. William Elliott Whitmore (check out his awesomeness HERE), at the Roxy with some friends – but, as I feared, Memphis was pretty groggy & disoriented when I got him.  So – I stayed home to observe his recovery.  Look – he looks drunk even just sitting there:


So – last night I stayed in with my kids, watched a lot of bad news for Romney on MSNBC & chatted with my Arkansas-bound boyfriend on the phone like a teenager.  And – I made my first attempt at Shrimp & Grits!  And – I am happy to report – it was a 5 star success.  Do not be intimidated by the steps required.  Each step is very easy & this comes together very quickly & elegantly – once you’ve roasted the stuff that needs roasting.  This recipe should feed 4 people fairly generously.

Also – as an aside –  if you are an inexperienced cook & want to develop confidence – not only should you cook more often (duh) but do things like – put a measured teaspoon of salt or a measured tablespoon of sugar in your palm & try to get used to eyeballing what those quantities look like.  Pour a measured cup into a pan & see what that looks like in there.  I very seldom use measuring devices & it is the hardest part of this blog for me.  I am continually forgetting to measure accurately as I add things & taste & adjust – so reporting to you how I did it gets tricky.  Furthermore – we all have different tastes.  Some hate garlic others love extra spice – etc etc.  Most of my recipes have a lot of wiggle room for you to adjust things to your own palette.  In fact, MOST recipes out there in the world can, and often should, be adjusted.  The only time measuring becomes critical is in baking.  Baking is a precision thing.  So – anyway – practice eyeballing quantities & start weaning yourself off the two cooking crutches – the measuring spoons & the measuring cups.  You will learn to trust yourself far more quickly this way.



Shrimp & Cheesy Grits

Preheat the oven to 400


1 large tomato cut into big chunks.  I used half an enormous heirloom tomato

1 red tomato – diced (for garnish)

10 tomatillos, papery skin removed & halved

2 small red onions – one sliced thickly, the other sliced thin

6 garlic cloves (I used more like 15 – but this is your call)

6 oz (or more) of grated smoked cheese – cheddar or gouda work well

1 LB (or more) of the jumbo shrimp – peeled & deveined.  Any shrimp will work – but the bigger the better.

Olive oil

Smoked Paprika


1 tsp fresh lemon juice

Sliced scallions for garnish (optional)

2 cups Grits

3 cups vegetable (or chicken) stock (I had leftover vegetable broth in my freezer from when I made the tortilla soup.  It was very handy in this recipe.)

3 cups half-and-half (I used fat free)

Extra grated smoked cheese as a garnish (optional)


IMPORTANT NOTE – I used the fancy polenta corn grits that I bought at Figueroa Produce yesterday!  These grits required a ratio of 1 cup grits to 3 cups liquid.  The ones you use may differ & have different cooking instructions.  THOSE instructions should replace mine here on how to cook the grits.  Also – these grits (as I outline) came out fairly thick & I added a cup of more of water at the end to thin them.  You might like yours thick – or thinner than I did.  This is a personal call so use your own judgement.  Lastly – the grits – like most starches – will get thicker as they sit hot on the stove & you don’t want to remove them from the heat or they will cool too much before you use them.  So make the grits dead last after everything else is done & ready to go.  They cook pretty fast so this doesn’t add a lot of time to the process.



LOOK at the awesome heirloom brainy tomatoes I got a Figueroa Produce! 

Heat the oven to 400.  Line a roasting pan with parchment paper.  Or don’t.  All the parchment does is keep your pan clean & the roasted veggies won’t stick.  It is pretty useful –  but not totally necessary.  Anyway – once you have your roasting pan lined (or not) – put the large chunks of tomato (not the diced red tomato), the halved tomatillos, the THICK sliced red onion (reserving the thinly sliced one) & all but two cloves of garlic in the pan.  Drizzle with olive oil & sprinkle with salt & pepper.  Toss to coat & put in the oven for 50-75 minutes – or until the vegetables are softened & begin to char a bit on the edges.


Blend these roasted delights in a food processor or blender and add the lemon juice and some S&P.  Set aside.

Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a pan & saute the thinly sliced onion & the two remaining garlic gloves (smash the cloves with the flat side of a large knife) until the onions are caramelized.  This takes between 5-10 minutes.  Remove them from the pan & set aside.


Toss your cleaned shrimp with some olive oil, a pinch of the smoked paprika (very different stuff than regular paprika – so try to use the smoked variety) and some S&P.  Cook these shrimp in the onion pan a few minutes on each side until they are pink.  Try not to OVER cook the shrimp.  You can stop cooking & set them aside – even before they are cooked through thoroughly – as they will continue to cook from their own heat for several minutes.  Once you think they are nearly done – remove them from the heat & set aside.




Heat the vegetable stock and half & half until nearly boiling.  Add the grits & bring to a boil.  Lower heat to medium-low, cover the grits & set them aside for as long as your package directs.  In fact – cook the damned grits the way your package directs – just substitute a half veggie stock & half half-n-half mix for however much liquid they suggest you add to two cups of grits.  Once the grits are done, stir in the cheese and a solid teaspoon of smoked paprika.  Here is where you decide on the thickness.  If they are still too thin – cook them over medium-low heat until they thicken to where you want them.  Conversely – if they are too thick, add water & stir in over low heat until they thin to the point you desire.


Spoon a good amount of grits into each bowl.  Place some of the caramelized onion-garlic mix on top of that.  Arrange the shrimp atop that, spoon some of the tomatillo puree into the center & garnish with chopped red tomato, scallions & extra grated cheese – if you are using them.  Individuals can add more S&P to taste.  Serve immediately!!!