Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Big Easy, Part II

Yes, I did mean to post this while we were still in New Orleans, but so it goes!

Last night A and I did some scandalous shopping and bought a mask or two... in addition to the ones we already had. I woke up at 6 in the morning and made good use of the almost empty fitness room before taking a quick shower and making it down to breakfast just after 7:30. Some cheese grits and a healthy helping of fruit with fresh grapefruit juice set us up nicely for a morning of talks. Three hours later, without any talks of interest to us, we set back out into the Quarter for some lunch. We ended up at ACME Oysterhouse.

In line outside.
The lighting is mostly neon.
 A and I split a dozen grilled oysters and an order of fried crawfish tails. I got a hush puppy side, she got jambalaya. Her jambalaya was my favorite of all the ones we sampled on the trip. Other A ordered the crayfish po-boy. The oysters arrived swimming in a plate-sized pool of butter and cheesy oil with plenty of the soft "French" bread to soak it up. Blech. But they were delicious.

Hush puppies, crawfish and jambalaya
Oysters in their greasy glory

I promised the grill chef I wouldn't take a headshot so the Feds couldn't find him. Seriously. He asked me not to.
After making a valiant attempt at finishing all the fried food, we dragged our stuffed selves deeper into the Quarter in the sweltering midday sun to pick up some more masks. Yes, we went mask shopping again. No, I don't have a mask problem. Other A wanted to get one for his wife. A and I were just... helping him out... by buying some with him...

This is when I discovered that New Orleans has some serious masks. I mean intense masks, not like your dollar store flimsy elastic band cheap-o masks that make you look like an owl on ecstasy. We're talking masks with feather trains three feet high in the air. THREE FEET. Not very practical, unless you are already very short. Unfortunately, all the really pretty ones were also maddeningly expensive. I fell in love with some of the handmade masks made out of leather and wrought metal which were, of course, over $100 apiece. If I was in the business of attending weekly masquerade parties, I would have invested. But it does make me wonder: what occasion precipitates wearing designer masks?

Gold masks. Actually made out of gold.
Crazy ornate masks
Painted leather masks
I could use it as a decoration, you say? No thanks. That's just creepy. I don't want masks hanging on my wall staring at me with their empty eye holes.

We made it back to the conference for a full afternoon of talks, then headed back out to the Quarter for dinner with the PI and Dr. B, one of our collaborators. The PI had gone out running in the morning as he does every day regardless of where we are and what the weather conditions are. He found a place that did crayfish and crab boils by the waterfront and was set on indulging in this regional delicacy. I can't remember the name of this place for the life of me, but it was next to this other outdoor eatery:

If you're ever looking for it, print this picture and go for a walk.

We ordered two platters of the crayfish and a crab each. Lacking the foresight to understand how much food this would be, we also each ordered an entree. I got the jambalaya again, thinking of it as research so I could reproduce an authentic version for John.

The sample boil. It was in front of the street, so I assume they never use it for cooking.  I could be wrong.
I ordered a beer, sampling arguably the other half of the New Orleans craft scene. It's tough for a beer to be bad with a seafood boil. This one hit the spot.

Abita Amber. It was this, Heineken or sweet tea.
Crayfish. Spicy.
Platter o' crabs
My jambalaya. Not the best I've had. Not a fan of the sauce.
...the carnage.
A's shrimp gumbo was the best I've ever tasted, which arguably doesn't say much. I barely made a dent in my jambalaya, allowing Other A and the PI to polish it off. Which they did. Easily. I am continually amazed at how much food my PI can put away. We swung by Cafe Du Monde on the walk back and Dr. B treated us to some beignets and coffee. That place is a swinging, powdery mess, even well after dark.

The next morning we packed and checked out, dragging our bags down to the conference for our final day. A and I hit the tea and fresh fruit pretty heavily for breakfast. We met up with one of Other A's friends and her family for lunch after making a quick stop at a gift shop to pick up pecan logs, pralines and Cajun seasoning. Never buy Cajun seasoning. When I got home later that night I realized I had purchased a $5 tube of salt, pepper and garlic. I ordered blackened swordfish with vegetables for lunch, but the fish steak was rubbery and the vegetables consisted of zucchini and summer squash overcooked in a butter bath. No need to share the pictures. We each bought a hat from Meyer The Hatter's before heading back for the final conference session. A picked out a retro putty-colored Kangol that I am now regretting not also getting in blue. When I go back, this is the first thing I will do.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Big Easy, Part I

I arrived sometime yesterday afternoon after two swift flights with a layover in D. C. Our hotel boasts a few short blocks to the French Quarter and I intended to take some advantage of this. A had arrived earlier and was waking up from a cat nap. She had been for a walk and already bought a beautiful pink carnival mask. For $15? Yes please! Saturday's sessions were winding down and I didn't have to present until Sunday night, so we hit the Quarter with Other A and the PI.

The first thing that surprised me was that everyone was walking around holding open drinks, state fair-style. The other thing that surprised me was the ever-present perfume of urine... though maybe slightly less surprising considering the first observation. Since this weekend is also the Jazz Festival, the streets were well-populated and both music and visual artists alike formed little colonies on every block. A wanted gumbo and the PI wanted jambalaya. I wanted to be close to the center of the quarter so we went to the Gumbo Shop. Other A and I both ordered an Abita Turbodog ("Very heavy, very full-bodied," the server warned) and the Creole Combination Platter with Crawfish Étouffée. A got the vegetable gumbo soup and the PI got the Jambalaya. Less than five minutes after we ordered, the food arrived.

L to R: crawfish gumbo, jambalaya, creole shrimp
Vegetable gumbo
The damage done.
Although the food arrived on normal-sized plates, they were deceptively filling portions. Everything came with a "French baguette" which broke light as an Italian roll. Other A and the PI mopped up the rest of my plate with some of that bread. We split two ice cream scoop-sized bread puddings with butter rum sauce for dessert. The pudding was lightly spiced and had both raisins and pineapple in it, which I liked.

After dinner, we walked towards the French market, eyeing the art and the street performers along the way. I had a very specific destination: Cafe du Monde. Naturally, it was packed.

The arts. Winning.
Cafe du Monde.
We had just eaten, so I stood in the long takeout line to get my mixes and an order of beignets to go. The beignet mix was, of course, available practically everywhere else in any gift shop, but I couldn't pass up fresh beignets from the source. The beignets were burning hot and oily, and came three in a bag with a heaping cup of powdered sugar. Three beignets split between the four of us was the perfect size.

The takeout line.
Making beignets...
stacking beignets...
...and dumping them in a bath of cottonseed oil.
Bag of powdered sugar. There's a beignet in there somewhere.
After the cafe, we wandered around the market for awhile to walk off our singularly Creole-filled bellies. We unavoidably wound up at a praline store. Things I have noticed are in abundance in this quarter: Mardi Gras stores, places to buy and consume alcohol and praline shops. I am not a praline fan, but I did notice they sold pecan logs. And, once I saw one, I had to buy one.

The pecan coat, the nougat center.
My particular fascination with pecan logs stems from a twisted childhood experience. I read a lot in elementary school and, after exhausting all the staple series like the Little House books, the Chronicles and Anne of Green Gables, I backpedaled to the American Girl series. In one of those books (I think in the Samantha series), there is mention of this elusive confection (brought to her by her favorite uncle, I believe) alone with a thumb-sized illustration. I stopped and studied the illustration intently. It looked beautiful. It looked delicious. I had to try it. I begged my parents to buy one, but they were nowhere to be found in our corner of Pennsylvania. But I didn't give up. A few years later, my mother was preparing to embark on a trip to New Orleans for her own conference. She asked if we wanted any souvenirs and I was adamant about the log. After hearing about it for months on end, she was happy to oblige. In retrospect it was pretty impressive that I continued to pursue the log since so many of my pursuits at age 5 or 6 were forgotten in days if not hours. She brought one back and I cut a generous piece for myself, finally able to try this foreign thing that had been so ostentatiously toted in a popular children's book.

It tasted awful. I don't remember the specifics, but I started crying in disappointment. My mom was beside herself. She tried a bite and to her it tasted fine. My dad tried it. A little sweet, he said, but not bad. But my dreams were crushed. It was nothing like what I imagined it to be. I promptly forgot about it until around high school or early college, where a new thought occurred to me. Maybe, now that I am older and more of my taste buts are dead, maybe I would enjoy the pecan log now. It happened with malted things. Or maybe it wasn't the right log. Maybe I needed to diversify my log search. Either way, my interest was renewed. And now, finally in New Orleans, I find myself surrounded by them. I bought the one in the picture. It could be the same brand as the one I tried so many years earlier. I'd better buy some more just in case.

Our masks.

Toscana soup and Country Crêpes

To be honest, the only reason I am posting about these dishes instead of all the others I've made over the past few weeks is that these were the only two I could photograph during daylight hours. That statement should indicate at least two things: a) that I've been trying to document our meals with some photography and b) that we have not made it home for dinner before sunset except for 1/7th of the past two weeks. But, digressing... as soon as the weather warms up I get an unsustainable urge to chow on fresh vegetables which is not fulfilled until they start appearing at the local farm stand. Until then, plenty of vegetarian gado-gado and bagged salads with grilled chicken.

This past week I picked up a bunch of kale at the COOP. I don't mind the occasional slow-cooked kale or collard greens with flavorful fatty meat but this time of year I like a little green still in the kale when I eat it. My go-to recipe for kale under these circumstances is a simple toscana soup.

Now, my family is ethnically many things, but none of them are Italian. We started eating toscana soup at home after my mom grew addicted to it from too many soup and salad dinners at the Olive Garden. Her one complaint about the restaurant's toscana was the minimal and sometimes complete lack of toothsome pieces of kale. She eventually picked apart the dish, like my Oma used to do with so many other dishes, and created a convincing version in the kitchen with a high kale concentration. I don't think I had ever eaten kale before this soup. She taught me how to make her version some time in high school and, after comparing it to various online recipes, I have found it very similar. But, since I grew up with my mom's version, so to speak, I like hers a little better (recipe below).

I am proud to confess that I've done a little recipe development of my own and it resulted in something that I am now encouraged to make regularly with accolades from the one man peanut gallery. It started with a half-full carton of buttermilk left over from... well, I honestly can't remember, but seriously how are two people supposed to use a quart of fresh buttermilk up in a week unless they subsist exclusively on pancakes and biscuits? Granted one of my roommates in college would drink buttermilk straight up (and I subsequently never had the problem of leftovers), but that's not my style.

Anyway, at the end of the week I try to do something easy which also uses up what scraps are left in the fridge. It was going to be a breakfast-for-dinner night and I had some fresh sausage links and eggs awaiting a starchy counterpart. Pancakes were sounding a little heavy, though, so I searched around for a buttermilk crêpe recipe and found this one. Crêpes are delicate, though, and I didn't really feel like handling them (can you begin to see how meals depend largely on my mood?) so I thickened the recipe and cooked them, without flipping them, in a covered and well-seasoned pan. As they finished frying/steaming, I grated some cheddar on them and added the cooked diced sausage, folding them over as I plated. I topped them with a fried egg, the yolk still runny. The result: Country Crêpes (recipe below). Maple syrup could have been used, but I like them as is.

The remaining crêpes were slightly sweetened, stuffed with cinnamon applesauce and dusted with powdered sugar for dessert. Very yummy. Now I need to figure out what to do with a half-full 24oz jar of applesauce.

Recipe: My Mom's Toscana Soup

1 large sweet onion,diced
1 fennel bulb, finely chopped (optional)
a couple garlic cloves, finely diced
1 lb each of hot and mild italian sausage (if you like it hot, go hot all the way. Similarly for mild.)
red pepper flakes (optional)
2 lbs of well-scrubbed red or yukon gold potatoes, sliced ~1/4-1/8' thick.
3 liters of chicken stock, lightly seasoned
big bunch of kale (I use this kind over this kind or other kinds), washed, de-stemmed and roughly chopped
oil for frying (I alternate between vegetable and olive)
salt for seasoning
milk and Parmesan cheese for serving

In a large pot (big enough to hold all of these ingredients), heat the oil and sweat the onion and fennel under medium heat until translucent and soft. Add the red pepper flakes, garlic, and sausage, casings removed, and brown slightly until the meat is cooked and all the nice fatty sausage oils come out. Add the sliced potatoes and sautée for 5 minutes. You can deglaze with a cup of white wine at this point. I don't because my chicken stock usually has white wine in it. Pour in the chicken stock, enough to cover everything, adding water to make up the difference. Let the pot come to a boil, covered, then reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are just tender. Mix in the kale and simmer for an additional 5 minutes or until the kale is just cooked. Season to taste.

To serve, pour a little milk or cream in a bowl and ladle the soup in on top so the two mix well. Garnish with grated Parmesan cheese. The soup without milk can last in the fridge for about a week and even longer frozen. I steam and store the kale separately in these cases, mixing it in at the end for ultimate green-y flavor.

Recipe: Country Crêpes

Ingredients (adapted from here):
1 cup all purpose flour
2 tbsp melted butter, plus more for frying
1 and 3/4th cups buttermilk
2 tsp sugar (double this for the applesauce filling)
2 eggs
pinch of salt (two pinches if the butter was unsalted)

to fill:
cooked sausage links, diced
grated white cheddar
sweetened cinnamon applesauce

to garnish:
runny fried eggs
cinnamon and powdered sugar
maple syrup

Blend all crêpe ingredients together in a blender or combine them by mixing the dry ingredients together and adding them staggered in tandem with the buttermilk to the beaten eggs. Add the melted butter last. The goal is a lump-free batter. You can chill the batter for at least 30 minutes at this point (or overnight), but I use cold buttermilk and rigorous mixing until the batter resembles runny pancake batter and skip the chilling step. Ladle a thick amount (enough for 4 regular-thickness crêpes) onto the medium-heated greased frying pan, tilting the pan to spread it out, and cover, allowing the top to steam-cook. Once the top of the crêpe is dry, cover with grated cheese and sausage links, allowing the cheese to melt a little before folding over and sliding onto a plate. Top with fried egg and maple syrup, if desired.

For the applesauce variant, skip the cheese and sausage and spoon a few heaping tablespoons of applesauce into the center of the crêpe, folding over as you plate. Apply a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon-mixed powdered sugar and maple syrup, if desired. These crêpes can be filled with anything, but the applesauce reminds me of æbleskivers.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rosso e Marrone Release

Finally winding down from a long, but fun 24 hours. The release of Rosso e Marrone batch 3 was yet another great time at the Captain Lawrence Brewery. Jen and I actually arrived in Pleasantville, NY around 8 pm last night, so we could check out the town a bit. Turns out that Pleasantville has an excellent pastry bakery and some other fun attractions. After walking around for a bit we decided to check out Jane Eyre at the Jacob Burns Film Center. The movie theater was fairly small, but the chairs were probably the most comfortable I've ever sat in at a theater; and Jane Eyre wasn't half bad either. The story stayed fairly true to the book from what I've heard and the cinematography was well done. Worth checking out if you're a fan of Charlotte Brontë.

Jean Jacques Bakery

After the film ended Jen and I made our way back to the Captain Lawrence Brewery and picked up our tickets from the ticket dispenser outside (about 1 am if I recall correctly). With tickets in hand we jumped back into the car and crashed until about 5:30 am. Feeling somewhat refreshed with a few hours of sleep, we got up and drove to the Pleasantville Diner. I think this has been our goto place for breakfast the last couple of times we've been in Pleasantville. Pretty good food and the coffee is always strong.

Early morning @ Captain Lawrence

With food in our bellies, we headed back to the Captain Lawrence Brewery to meet up with some friends, meet some new beer enthusiasts, and of course, drink some quality brews. Here's a run down on a few of the beers Jen and I got to sample:

Firestone Walker - Abacus
Cantillon - '96 Gueuze
Hill Farmstead - Art
Captain Lawrence - Barrel Select
Kuhnhenn - Bourbon Barrel Fourth Dementia
Victory - Dark Intrigue
Minneapolis Town Hall - Port Frost
Hill Farmstead - Bourbon Barrel Earl
Goose Island - Rare Bourbon County Stout
Cantillon - '00 Vigneronne
The Bruery - Melange no. 1
Dogfish Head - Black & Red
and one sip of Chocolate Rain (Dave you should hold on to this!)

Free food!

In addition to these brews, Jen and I also got in on a Fifty Fifty Eclipse vertical tasting (huge thanks to Thorpe for sharing!), which included the following barrel variations from left to right: '08 Pappy Van Winkle, '09 Elijah Craig, '09 Heaven Hill, '10 Heaven Hill, '10 Four Roses, '10 Evan Williams and '10 Christian Brothers Brandy.

Eclipse vertical

All of the Fifty Fifty variations were excellent, but the Pappy Van Winkle vintage stole the show. One of the best, if not best, bourbon barrel imperial stouts I've ever had. After the Pappy I would rank the Elijah Craig as the clear second best variation and then the rest are a toss up, minus the '10 Heaven Hill, which was a bit rough and unbalanced.

Outside of the Eclipse vertical I was probably the most impressed with the Rare Bourbon County Stout and the '00 vintage of Cantillon's Vigneronne. I'd never gotten around to picking up a bottle of the Rare Bourbon County, because I figured it wasn't worth the $40 price tag, but damn it was tasty, and in my opinion, better than any of the other Bourbon County variations, including the regular Bourbon County. I guess Pappy Van Winkle barrels hold a lot of potential for barrel aging stouts, since both the Rare Bourbon County and PVW Eclipse used 23 year old Pappy barrels for aging.

'00 Vigneronne

As for non-stout beers, the '00 vintage Vigneronne that Chris (BearsOnAcid) shared had aged wonderfully. I actually thought it was much more enjoyable than the '96 Gueuze. The nose on the Vignerrone was filled with the classic Cantillon sour funkiness, except much more robust and developed than any fresh bottle you can buy off the shelf (note to self: cellar some Vigneronne). The taste was great as well. Quite complex, yet still well rounded and not going down hill at all. A really nice beer overall.

Rosso e Marrone b3

Oh yeah, and the Rosso e Marrone was plentiful. Jen and I each walked away with our 6 bottle limits and should be opening one soon side by side with a year old batch 2. From the small sample of Rosso I had today, it seems like this years batch is just as tasty and slightly more sour. Can't wait for the Cuvee de Castleton release later this year. Captain Lawrence knows how to work their bugs and barrels.

Friday, March 18, 2011


I had never eaten cheese curds. But, after inexplicably becoming surrounded by people from the Midwest where these succulent morsels of disguised fat are battered and deep-fried, I had to try them. We bought a plastic package of cheddar curds from the bagged cheese section of the COOP six months ago. I ate two or three, discarding the rest. Seriously, cheese curds? You were supposed to be delicious, not disappointing!

Maybe, I though back then, the only good way to eat them is at a state fair in a paper holder. I borrowed a deep fryer from a friend and was ready to test this hypothesis. Then, I discovered poutine.

as drawn by me in MS Paint.
I should qualify this picture by saying that John was wonderful and bought me a tablet for my birthday which was not used in the making of Anatomy of Poutine. I am, however, very very grateful.

Technically poutine is Canadian. The dish traditionally consists of fresh cheese curds on top of french fries, all doused in a healthy helping of (preferably thick and canned) beef gravy. I'm pretty sure I discovered this plate of disgusting awesomeness on This Is Why You're Fat, which doesn't appear to exist anymore, may it rest in artery-clogging peace. I kept my peepers peeled in our restaurant endeavors in case we should run into this snack south of the border, as it were. On our last trip to Montpelier for beer, we struck gold.

We had just returned from the farmers' market and Sean Lawson. After sampling some of his excellent beer and picking up some bottles, we were ready for an early lunch. Since Three Penny Taproom didn't open until one that day, we courted Rhapsody Cafe (which makes the best tempeh I have ever purchased in the states) and a couple of pizza joints before settling in at our old Burlington favorite, The Skinny Pancake. Before I could look at the regular menu, I spotted something on the specials list that I couldn't pass up:

Breakfast poutine.
Breakfast Poutine
Basically the same as regular poutine, but with sausage gravy and a poached egg on top. I was so excited at having found a poutine that I didn't notice the regular poutine on the menu until long after the food had arrived.
Run, yolk, run.
We also ordered the apples and brie crêpe (John and I are both on something of a soft cheese kick) and a Love Maker which, unfortunately, arrived without nutella. Probably for the best.
Brie and apples with greens.

Slightly less love making in this crêpe.
We didn't finish all of it, but the rat enjoyed some leftovers.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

City by the bay part II

We left off at the end of my first night in SF. After the unreasonably late excursions, pre-sickness and touch of alcohol it is safe to say there were many reasons I should not be feeling in top shape the following morning. A had gotten to bed a handful of hours before me and was also a little groggy, but washed up nicely and went to meet Other A at a cafe across the street where I joined them. A cruller and some soybean milk and we were on our way to a morning of talks. Even though I wasn't feeling any better than when I woke up, I managed to drag myself into a taxi with P and V and head to Chinatown for some dim sum lunch. We got there early and the restaurant, whose name escapes me, had not started cart service yet. I managed to order some of my favorites nevertheless.

Taro fritters!
Shrimp dumplings! Not my favorite, but pretty tasty.
Custard buns (favorite)! Sesame balls.
 We walked off lunch up and down Chinatown's steep streets, enjoying the scenery.

I remember those.
These melons... they is not for you...
After a quick workout and a shower back at the hotel, I was feeling a little better and spent the afternoon productively conferencing with my labmates. We all went out to a Tex-Mex chain for dinner (I won't repeat the name here out of mild disgust) and A and I turned in early to freshen up before our talks the following day.

The final day, we got up and gussied up and ran straight to the conference, arriving by eight to hear a good friend's talk. A spotted an organic coffee bar on the way and we doubled back to it during the break for much-needed breakfast. Two ham, egg and cheese bagels and some lattes later, we felt much better. I ordered an apple, orange and carrot juice that spawned raw juice cravings for weeks afterwards. I figure one can't go to California and not hit up a juice bar. For lunch we joined arms with an adjacent lab group and hopped a few blocks down to the Whole Foods. No sooner had I walked in than I noticed the massive amounts of west coast beers. A frenzy of pictures ensued.

I don't see most of you back home...
Then, of course, I saw the Russian Rivers and all bets were off. Three hours later I would be dragging my carry on-sized but solid frame suitcase back to this Whole Foods, purchasing at least 10 bomber-sized bottles and taping, wrapping, and packing them in the eating area among wide-eyed locals watching me throwing my overflow of underthings and conference clothing into a strategically-brought duffel bag. But before that, I ate lunch.

I have had Whole Foods sushi before in both Chicago and Boston and, may I say, it never tasted this good.
A shrimp and a salmon roe are missing... in my belly.
Eel, we shared.
Rainbowish roll, also shared. Could I have eaten it all? Probably.
Ironically I only got a few bites of each platter before I had to run back to the conference to proof my talk. Everyone else enjoyed them immensely. The subsequent talks went off without hitch and we returned to the disappointing Tex-Mex chain for dinner before taxi-ing back to the airport. Our flight didn't leave until late so we all claimed a table at Perry's and ordered drinks to bide the time. This is where I met the Bench Pinot Noir.
The perfect end to the trip.
I will have a story about the Bench Pinot Noir later as I am now in the possession of what was 4 but is now 2 bottles and these bottles are technically not available for purchase.