Shrimp and Grits – Recipe

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ImageShrimp and Grits

Adapted from Charleston Shrimp and Grits from ChooseCharleston.com
&
Alton Brown’s Savory Polenta from FoodNetwork.com

We needed something relatively easy to make when we made dinner plans with our friends Liz and Ed and Liz’s parents, Carol and Will.  This recipe fit the bill because I made the gravy ahead of time and then took care of the shrimp and the grits after we arrived at Liz and Ed’s house (they have air conditioning, we don’t and it’s been a hot summer in Milwaukee).

The grits, or polenta (same difference as far as I’m concerned–I’m neither Southern or Italian, so don’t come after me with an angry mob of your fellow villagers, please) can be made according to the instructions on the packaging or using Alton Brown’s recipe linked above.  Don’t use quick or instant grits (this meal’s easy, but not that easy) and the real thing is much better.  Because tonight was a dinner party and I wanted to both be social and handle cooking, I used Alton’s oven polenta recipe rather than making the grits on the stovetop, so I could avoid frequent stirring of the grits and was out of the kitchen as much as possible.

Another reason I’m calling this meal “easy” is because I splurged (an extra $1 a pound at my grocery) for peeled and deveined raw shrimp.  Don’t use precooked shrimp, they’ll toughen up as you try to cook them and the raw shrimp will absorb some of the gravy’s goodness as they cook.

Finally, I made the gravy ahead of time and then made the polenta and cooked the shrimp in the gravy just before dinner.

You can make all three parts of this dish (gravy, grits, and shrimp) in parallel or make the gravy ahead of time like I did.  Read the recipe all the way through before making (though of course, you always do this, right?) because you’ll end up with a couple of pans going at the same time and you’ll want to figure out how to get everything done at about the same time.

Ingredients

For the shrimp:

For the grits:

  • 1 1/2 cups stone-ground grits, not instant or quick-cooking
  • 2 tablespoons butter (unsalted if you have it)
  • 1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheesed (I prefer white cheddar and make sure you’re using sharp cheddar)

For the gravy:

  • 6 slices thick bacon (spend the money on the good stuff, no Oscar Meyer)
  • 1 small yellow onion (not a Vidalia or other “sweet” onion), finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced (I used spring garlic because we just got some in our CSA box)
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions (the green part, not the bulb)
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (for thickening gravy, so use more or less as needed)
  • 1/2 cup beer (I used Goose Island’s Sofie, a Belgian-style farmhouse ale.  Use something with flavor, but not dark.)
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock (or use all beer if you like)

Gravy

  • Slice your bacon into lardons (1/4 -1/2 inch-wide strips cut cross-wise across the length of the bacon strip).
  • Fry lardons in a medium or large skillet.  Brown and crisp the bacon, but don’t let it get super crispy, it will continue to cook a little as you add more ingredients.
  • Add chopped onion and garlic to the skillet and sauté in the bacon fat until translucent and limp (about 5 minutes).
  • Add the scallions and flour as needed to slightly thicken and continue to sauté for another 5 minutes.
  • Add the beer and chicken broth, stir to combine, and allow mixture to slowly bubble for 5 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and wait for the grits to finish or allow to cool and cover if you’re making the grits ahead of time.  If you make ahead of time, the gravy will thicken and you may want to add a little liquid (beer, chicken broth, water, whatever is handy) when heating the gravy back up before adding the shrimp.

Grits

  • Make grits according to package or using Alton’s oven polenta recipe using water–chicken broth (even low sodium) will be too salty after you put the shrimp and gravy on top of it.  Also, if using Alton’s recipe, no need to sauté onion or garlic like he does.  We’ve already got them in the gravy.
  • After grits are done cooking (thick and creamy), add the butter and the cheese, and salt and pepper to taste.

Shrimp

  • Peel and devein shrimp if needed.  I leave the tails on, but they can come off now if you want.
  • About an hour before you want to eat, toss shrimp with the lemon juice, salt, pepper, and several generous dashes of Frank’s hot sauce and let it sit in a bowl while you make the grits and gravy (if you haven’t made the gravy ahead of time).  You could use different hot sauce, but Frank’s is the best, so just use Frank’s.
  • About 15 minutes before the grits are done, put the skillet with the gravy in it back over medium heat until it is bubbling.
  • Add the shrimp to the gravy and cook until shrimp are opaque (not see-through), turning the shrimp at least one so they cook all the way through.  This will probably take 5 to 7 minutes.

Finish

  • Spoon grits into shallow bowl.
  • Top with gravy and shrimp.  I topped with some fresh chopped parsley too.
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Beyond the Shadows – Review

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Beyond the Shadows by Brent WeeksBeyond the Shadows by Brent Weeks

4 stars (out of 5)

“For a man who denies what is essential to his being is a man who drills holes in the cup of his own happiness.”  Kylar Stern hears these words from the Wolf, the mysterious figure who greets him in the limbo between life and death.  Not only do these words help Kylar better understand his mentor, Durzo Blint, they also lay out the theme of Beyond the Shadows and of the entire Night Angel Trilogy.

The Night Angel Trilogy is primarily Kylar’s story and the theme of the trilogy is best reflected in his journey.  In The Way of Shadows, Kylar learns who he has the potential to be.  He can be the greatest wetboy Cenaria has ever seen­–the greatest killer the world has ever seen.  In Shadow’s Edge, Kylar learns who he is not.  His attempt to stop killing, to stop being the Night Angel, bring harm to himself and those he loves.  In Beyond the Shadows, Kylar accepts who he is and embraces that which is essential to his being.  Kylar is a killer, but not for hire, he is the Night Angel, the hand of retribution, mercy, or justice.  By accepting who he is, Kylar is able to find happiness and make the decisions necessary to save the world.

Beyond the Shadows is a satisfying conclusion to the Night Angel Trilogy.  The book moves at a whirl-wind pace, driving all of the characters to the site of an ancient battle where a new battle to decide the fate of the world will take place.  The final battle scene is suitably epic, answers are provided to some series-long questions, and some questions are left unanswered, leaving the door open for Brent Weeks to return to this world and these characters in future books.

I really enjoyed the Night Angel Trilogy.  The story is fast-paced and exciting and has the deep world-building and subtle foreshadowing that are essential to a great fantasy series.  If you are a regular fantasy reader and have not yet read the Night Angel Trilogy, do yourself a favor and do so as soon as possible.  Be sure to buy all three, you won’t want to wait between books.

Shadow’s Edge – Review

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Shadow's Edge by Brent Weeks

Shadow’s Edge by Brent Weeks

3.5 stars (out of 5)

Shadow’s Edge, the second book in Brent Week’s The Night Angel Trilogy, suffers from some problems related to being the middle book of a trilogy. Parts of Shadow’s Edge feel like places we’ve been before or like set-up for the final book. For a completed trilogy, like the Night Angel Trilogy, this is less of a problem because the reader can easily move on to the next book. I enjoyed this book a lot, but it does feel like a lull between the introduction of the The Way of Shadows and the conclusion of Beyond the Shadows.

Kylar Stern has fled Cenaria to live a normal life, renouncing the way of shadows. Kylar has sworn to give up killing in order to live with Elene. Kylar and Elene are pretending to be married, but both wish their pretend arrangement was true. The Godking of Khalidor has recently conquered Cenaria. (Confusingly, the Godking’s ascension to power in Cenaria is repeatedly referred to as a coup. I’m not sure how the assassination of Cenaria’s king timed to coincide with a raid by the Godking’s army can be considered “the sudden, illegal deposition of a government, usually by a small group of the existing state establishment to replace the deposed government with another body,” but, in Cenaria at least, the Godking’s method of taking power is considered to be a coup.) Viridiana Sovari is magically beholden to the Godking and has been ordered to bring Kylar to the Godking, or failing that, kill him. Logan Gyre, the king-who-should be, is trapped in the Hole, the lowest level of Cenaria’s dungeons, with rapers, cannibals, the worst-of-the-worst. Logan struggles to hold onto his honor, sense of self, and belief in the goodness of others in a place where mere survival is the only seemingly attainable goal.

Weeks’ characterization remains top-notch. His characters act believably, often frustratingly so. Characters make decisions that will be aggravating to the reader, but true to who the character is. Kylar and Elene act like a young couple in love for the first time. They are hesitant and silent when they should speak up. They assume things that they should make clear. They both try to be the person they think the other wants them to be. It all feels very believable-even the awkward love scenes. I can’t tell if Weeks makes the love scenes feel awkward on purpose (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt), but doing so gives the reader a feeling of the awkwardness that Kylar and Elene are themselves experiencing.

Kylar takes a backseat in Shadow’s Edge as compared to The Way of Shadows. This is unavoidable because Kylar and The Way of Shadows were the reader’s entry into Weeks’ world. In order to expand within that world, we need to move away from Kylar. More than being a continuation of Kylar’s story, Shadow’s Edge is about the changes experienced and decisions made by several of the trilogies secondary characters and sets the stage for the final volume of the trilogy, Shadow’s Edge.

The Way of Shadows – Review

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The Way of Shadows by Brent WeeksThe Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

4.5 stars (out of 5)

The Way of Shadows is the first volume of The Night Angel Trilogy.  The trilogy will be well-served by its forthcoming omnibus—I can’t imagine beginning the first volume and not rushing through to the end of the trilogy.  I bought The Way of Shadows as a summer vacation read.  I first read the book over a span of two days, finishing it on the beach in Hilton Head, and then talked my wife into driving across the island to Barnes and Noble to pick up volumes two and three.  My wife would tell you that I don’t leave for our summer vacation lacking for beach reading materials—in fact, I have been accused of bringing too many books and encouraged to think about the space-saving possibilities of a Kindle.  Despite being well-stocked with reading material, The Way of Shadows was so good and the hints of things to come in the next volumes were so tantalizing that I couldn’t bring myself to read something else before volumes two and three of The Night Angel Trilogy.  I’m reviewing The Way of Shadows following my second time reading the novel in the last four months, which, in a way, might be all the review really needs to say.

The Way of Shadows tells the coming-of-age tale of an orphan boy, Azoth—later to be known as Kylar Stern.  Azoth is a member of a gang of Dickensian street urchins living in the slums of Cenaria City.  Azoth seeks to apprentice himself to Cenaria’s most feared “wetboy,” Durzo Blint.  Durzo agrees to apprentice Azoth, but only if Azoth completes a task that seems audacious at best and impossible at worst.  Guilt drives Azoth to complete the task and become Durzo’s apprentice.  As an apprentice, Azoth is reborn as Kylar Stern, a poor noble from the country, and begins his training to become a wetboy, an assassin-mage of the Cenarian underworld. Layered with Kylar and Durzo’s tale are several other storylines, bits of the world’s history, and hints of looming conflicts of an epic scale.

I’m not a fan of the cover.  Something that I can’t put my finger on rubs me the wrong way about the proliferation of covers featuring a man in a dark hooded cloak.  And my prejudice doesn’t make sense, because I’ve enjoyed most of the books with this type of cover that I’ve picked up (i.e., The Way of Shadows, The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett, and Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick).

The Way of Shadows tells a deep story filled with well-developed characters.  Durzo is jaded and distant after years and years of working as a paid killer.  Durzo proclaims a nihilistic worldview, but it is never clear if Durzo himself truly believes in the philosophy that he is teaching Kylar.  Kylar sees Durzo as someone who never has to be scared and wants to feel that way himself.  As he trains as a wetboy, Kylar is exposed to life on the right side of the tracks—actually the river—in Cenaria City.  He begins to realize that there is more to life than just not having to be scared.  Kylar walks the way of shadows, but the reader can feel his doubts as to whether it is the right path for him.

Two major revelations near the end of the book rearrange both the reader’s and Kylar’s worldview.  These revelations peel back the curtain on the world Brent Weeks has created and allow the reader to fully appreciate the numerous plots layered one on top each other throughout the novel.  Words, snippets of conversation, and history lessons from earlier in the book take on new importance.  On a second read, the reader will find that some important characters, places, and items (Viridiana, the Maw, the ka’kari) are introduced much earlier than you may remember.  All of this shows that Weeks is in full control of the story.

The Way of the Shadows works on its own—telling a relatively self-contained teacher and student tale of Durzo and Kylar.  The impressive thing is that Weeks has told this tale while setting up a much larger story without overwhelming the reader with background information or infodumps that build the world but fail to advance the narrative.  The Way of Shadows is not a light read, but it doesn’t feel like a heavy read either.  It is a wonderful blend of telling the story at hand and laying the groundwork for stories to come.  The Way of Shadows is a highly recommended.

Stonewielder – Review

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Originally posted January 1, 2011 on King Fielder

Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont is a solid addition to the Malazan world created by Esslemont and Steven Erikson.  The inevitable thing to do with Esslemont’s Malazan novels is compare them to Erikson’s novels and find them lacking.  After all, most (all?) of the readers of the Malazan novels were introduced to the shared world by Erikson, so Esslemont will always have  the stigma of being the “other guy” writing in the same setting.  Is it fair to compare one to the other, knowing that Esslemont and Erikson jointly created the world, characters, and stories of Malaz?  Fair or not, for me, its inevitable, at least for the time being.

I started to write that Stonewielder is a solid addition to the Malazan world, but fails to live up Erikson’s novels.  But that’s not quite right.  If Stonewielder had Steven Erikson’s name on the cover, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it more or less than I did, but I would have regarded it differently as it compares to the rest of Erikson’s Malaz books.  Its not my favorite, its not the best written, but I’d be hard pressed to say its was the worst of the bunch.  But with Esslemont’s name on the cover, my immediate reaction is to put it behind all of Erikson’s novels.

Why then my immediate reaction that Stonewielder is solid, but fails to live up to Erikson’s novels?  Simply, Esslemont “sounds” too much like Erikson in his writing and can only pale in comparison, even when his writing is a good approximation of Erikson’s.  Stonewielder reads like Erikson-lite, which is both good and bad.  The good is the relative lack of introspective, philosophical interior monologues.  (See Tolls the Hounds).  The bad is that characters, even those not shared by the authors, don’t resonate with the depth that Erikson provides.  Which is not to say the characterization is poor, just that it can’t match what Erikson does.  Many of Esslemont’s characters fall short of three-dimensional… let’s call them two-and-a-half dimensional.  I found myself having to check the Dramatis Personae when the view point shifted between characters… was Ivanr the guy with the army of reform or was he the assessor?  A strength of all the Malzan novels is a refusal to spoon-feed back-story to the reader, but oftentimes, Esslemont is too stingy with the back-story and the characters never develop an individuality so that they can be remembered.  Instead, I found myself remembering the setting and backtracking from there to recall the characters associated with that setting.  Particularly disappointing for me was the return of a much-loved (by me, at least) character from Seven Cities.  I wanted to recognize this character from his actions and words, but instead had to rely on his association with a particular ascendant and his choice of weapons to make the identification.

All that being said, Stonewielder is a good read that builds to an exciting conclusion.  The reader is reintroduced to several characters including Greymane and Kyle and several members of the Crimson Guard following the eventsReturn of the Crimson Guard and meets several new characters.  Multiple seemingly disparate plot threads that are spread all over the previously unseen (to the reader) continent of Fist or Korel are all neatly woven into the action-packed and thought-provoking conclusion.  For fans of “stuff happening” or “stuff being explained” with respect to the overall story of Malaz, they should be happy with details about the Korelri, the Stormwall, and our old friend, the Crippled God.  But, as always with a fantasy series worth its salt, more questions are added or left unanswered than actually get answered.

3.5 stars (out of 5)

Magician: Apprentice – Review

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Originally posted October 30, 2010 on King Fielder

Hoping for a quick read before the Towers of Midnight arrives (on Monday if Amazon’s track shipment is to be believed), I picked up Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist.  I just didn’t have the time or energy this week to pick up one of the K.J. Parker books sitting in my to-read pile, knowing that I was sure to get wrapped up in it and therefore either have to put off starting the Towers of Midnight or put the Parker book on hold.

The title, the 1982 copyright date, and the fact that it is “Volume 1 in the New York Times bestselling Riftwar Saga,” all led me to believe that Magician: Apprentice would be a quick moving, but slightly dated, tale of a young boy learning to be a magician.  I was hoping (for better or worse) for something that would have appealed to me as a teenager, when I was first getting into fantasy: the Belgariad, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, something of that ilk.

I enjoy the old fantasy standby of the young boy who is destined for greatness but unaware of his special powers, ancestry, gift for leadership, etc.  There’s a reason the coming of age story is a classic.  Sure, we’ve all met this character time and again: Rand al’Thor, Luke Skywalker, Garion, Harry Potter, Kvothe, Arlen.  He’s an old friend.  We know where he’s going but its a good place to go.  He’ll get into some childish scrape, use his head or heart to get out of the situation, and soon be thrust out into the wider world where he eventually takes his place as one of the most important people (if not the most important person) of his time.

Magician: Apprentice starts strong.  We meet Pug, a kitchen boy in the castle Crydee.  He gets caught in a storm and spends the night at the cottage of Kulgan, magician to Duke Borric.  Pug is able to see a vision in Kulgan’s crystal ball, alerting Kulgan to Pug’s potential as a magician.  On the day of Choosing, when the boys of Crydee are either selected as an apprentice to a tradesman or consigned to life as a farmer or fisherman, Pug is the last boy standing unselected.  Afraid his dreams of being a soldier or woodsman are about to be swept away, Pug is shocked when Kulgan takes Pug as his apprentice.  However, Pug can’t harness his magical abilities through his studies with Kulgan.  It is only in a moment of extreme terror and stress that he is able use his magic to kill goblins attacking himself and Princess Carline.

Hokey-yes.  Simple-yes, especially when compared to Martin or Erikson or even when compared to the Eye of the World.  At this point, I thought Magician: Apprentice  was going to be Pawn of Prophecy, but with more focus on the magic and less on the sword, and with much less tromping across the entire continent.  Unfortunately, this was not to be.

Instead, Magician: Apprentice takes off in a completely unexpected direction.  A warlike alien people are appearing near Crydee through “rifts” to another universe.  The Duke and a select band (which, of course, includes Pug) must set off to warn the Prince.  And in setting off to warn the Prince, Magician: Apprentice leaves behind any focus on Pug being an apprentice magician.  The focus is still on Pug, but he seems to be less of an apprentice magician and more of a young squire learning to be a soldier.  Pug’s inability to use his magic at will seriously hampers his studies as a magician, but there is much more focus on his learning to use a sword and on the type of armor he wears than on anything that resembles magic.

Pug and company tromp across the western part of a continent, sail across a sea, and meet the Prince.  Then, they must warn the King of the alien invaders.  So, Pug and company tromp across the middle part of the continent, sail across a sea and meet the King.  Then, they must return to the west to fight the alien invaders.  Thankfully, Magician: Apprentice leaves out the return sail, tromp, sail, tromp and takes the reader directly to a war camp somewhere in the northwest. It was around this point where I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to get the story I was expecting.  I expected Pug’s story to be like Harry Potter’s or Kvothe’s but with a single master magician teaching him rather than an entire magic school faculty.  I expected magicians.  I expected a focus on the master-apprentice relationship.  And I wasn’t getting these things.  Which is a problem in a book titled Magician: Apprentice.

Now, I can’t tell you if this problem gets solved in the last 100 pages or so, because I haven’t finished the book yet.  And I’m not sure if I’m going to finish Magician: Apprentice.  The title and first 100 pages or so set up one story, a coming of age story of  an apprentice magician, and what you get in the next 200 pages is a completely different story, a story of unexpected invaders.  Maybe I’d feel differently about the story of a kingdom trying to fight off unknown alien invaders, if I had seen it coming.  The change in the direction prevents the reader from having any expectations of where the story is going.  I knew where the magician’s coming of age story was going.  I picked this book up because I thought I knew where it would go.  Instead, its going somewhere else.  And I’m not sure its anywhere I’m interested in going.

1 star (out of 5)