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.