A Spanish Spread – Whittington Style

The Northside Sun
November 2010

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When it comes to cooking, Kay Whittington considers her husband of eight years to be the creative mastermind in the family. “I am a recipe follower,” explains Kay. “I like structure, whereas when Aven cooks, there is no recipe. He throws in a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”

Kay’s analytical thinking and Aven’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to cooking should come as no surprise considering their chosen professions – Kay is an environmental engineer for the Department of Environmental Quality. Aven is the catering manager for Broadstreet Baking Company. Because of their busy work schedules, Kay usually handles meal-preparation during the week. “My parents went through a health-nut craze when I was growing up,” explains the Alabama native. “Our weeknights are usually reserved for quick, easy, pseudo-healthy meals.” However, the couple enjoys spending the weekend hanging out in the kitchen of their North Jackson home. Adds Kay, “You would expect after working all week that we would just want a quiet evening at home. But it’s not unusual for Aven to come home and say, ‘Hey, let’s have some friends over this weekend.’”

The Whittington’s kitchen is painted a bright apple green, colorful funky artwork is displayed on the wall, and the most interesting feature are the tin tiles on the ceiling. “I can’t take credit for that,” reveals Aven. “It came with the house, but we like it.” The room sets the stage for a relaxing Sunday evening meal. Aven stirs a pot of braised pork shoulder simmering in the stove in a bright orange LeCrueset pot, while Kay helps chop ingredients for homemade guacamole. The couple’s son, four-year-old Charlie, swoops through the room dressed in a Spiderman costume just long enough to see what’s available to snack on. Two-and-a-half year old Elizabeth, a little more quiet and reserved, cautiously peaks her head around the doorway from the living room.

Raised in Greenwood, Aven has always considered good eating a way of life. “I remember eating out in New Orleans and grew up associating that with a good time,” he explains. Aven spent his summers working on his Dad’s farm outside of Schlater, MS. “I would come home for lunch and I had to eat something, so I just started throwing things together that I thought would taste good.” Aven still takes that approach to cooking today. “I go to the grocery store and start planning my meals around what looks good or what looks interesting.” He enjoys making one-pot meals such as braised meats and vegetables.

“And he makes really good chocolate milk!” Charlie chimes in.

The meal starts out with plenty of hors d’oeuvres to jumpstart everyone’s appetite. In addition to homemade guacamole, Aven prepares spicy black bean cakes with guacamole and chipotle crème. Several years ago, Kay and Aven traveled to Columbia, South America, with a mutual friend who was also a native of the country. It was there that Aven was taught to make patagones – fried plantains with garlic mash. Aven cuts the plaintains – which are a relative of the banana- into large bite-sized pieces while Kay makes a paste out of garlic cloves and salt. Aven spreads the garlic paste over the top of each plantain, then covers them with waxed paper and mashes them with the bottom of the plate. The plantain forms a small patty, which Aven fries until golden brown. Given that they look like bananas, at first bite you would expect these little patties to be sweet. However, with the addition of the garlic and salt, they are uniquely savory and delicious. Rounding everything out is a sweet salsa made of cherries, balsamic vinegar, chopped red onions, and basil served over large butterflied grilled shrimp.

Because the couple enjoys cooking such unique meals, one might wonder what kind of food they feed the kids. “We weren’t going to give up eating good food or eating at great places just because we had kids,” Aven says, just as Elizabeth creeps in and peers over the top of the butcher block, her little fingers searching for a tortilla chip to dip into the guacamole. “We’ve taken them to eat at all types of different restaurants to eat, like Alice Water’s restaurant Chez Panisse [in Berkeley, CA]. They are really adventurous eaters.”

Don’t fill up on hors d’oeuvres, because homemade soft tacos with an array of fillings and toppings are on the menu as the main course. Aven fires up his grill and shows off his latest kitchen toy – a red La Plancha Cast-Iron Griddle from William Sonoma. Aven uses the griddle to sauté chopped veggies and shrimp. On the side, he places a half a head of cabbage over the hot flame to char the outside leaves and steam the inside of the cabbage. As everyone sits down, wonderful aromas fill the air. Warm tortillas are passed and guests dress their tacos with a selection of braised Spanish pork and sweet potatoes, grilled flank steak with charred cabbage and chimichuri, or chili glazed shrimp with caramelized cipollini onions. A light dessert of Kay’s homemade mango ice cream adds the perfect finishing touch to this Spanish-inspired meal.

Adds Aven, “In my opinion, cooking is a lot about presentation and how things look. I like mixing colors. If two items look good together, chances are they are going to taste good together.”

Spicy Grilled Shrimp Skewers with Balsamic Cherry Salsa

Shrimp Skewers:

  • Bamboo Skewers
  • 1 pound large shrimp (31-35 shrimp)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon Cajun Seasoning (ex. Tony Chachere’s)
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground black pepper

Presoak skewers in water so that they don’t burn. Peel, devein, and butterfly shrimp. Thread shrimp long-ways on the bamboo skewer. Lightly coat shrimp with olive oil. Season with Cajun seasoning, paprika, and pepper. Grill quickly on a hot grill, allowing the shrimp to cook thoroughly and the seasonings to color. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Balsamic Cherry Salsa:

  • 1 medium purple onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, d iced
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 10-15 fresh basil leaves – chiffonade (stack and roll the leaves together and slice thinly)
  • 15-20 fresh cherries, pitted and diced (substitute other berries for interesting combinations)
  • 1-2 Jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced
  • 2 small sweet peppers, seeded and julienned
  • 1 Tablespoon lime Juice
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and allow to sit overnight. The sugar and vinegar will breakdown the vegetables and fruit allowing the flavors to combine. Add hot sauce for an extra kick.

To assemble, spoon the salsa onto the shrimp allowing the butterflied shrimp to act as a spoon. Garnish with basil flowers.

Serves 8-10, around three shrimp per person