Day Five-Pigeon Town Steppers and Gumbo Z’Herbes

So here we are at the Maple Leaf bar, waiting for the Pigeon Town Steppers second line to come through. It’s twenty to five and their permit runs until five and there are several other stops still to go, so the question is will they make it or will they just turn off and head for the Blue Flame Lounge where they disband? We’ve run into friends of Bill and Cindy’s and been invited over for some gumbo z’herbes, had some grilled oysters from one of the BBQ grills on pickup truck beds that seem ubiquitous at every outdoor event, and followed the rumors back and forth.

At the Maple Leaf

At the Maple Leaf

“They extended the permit until seven,” comes the latest word and suddenly, NOPD is blocking off the side streets, the crowd has grown and the brass band gets louder and louder. Continue reading

Day Four – In Which Our Hero Collides with the Local Flavors

OK, so I’ve been told I am somewhat demanding when it comes to food. I was looking forward to Vincent’s, an old school Italian place and especially the bracialoni , a roll of veal around stuffing and touted by Gumbo Tales as the New Orleans Italian dish to have. So, of course, we had some.
IMG_0810Vincent’s is old school. Green, red and white, Jerry Vale on the sound system, second generation run. All I wanted and more. The breadsticks and softened garlic-scallion butter on the table to start was a superb touch. The Rose of Sicily (a breaded deep fried artichoke heart draped with shaved parmesan in a garlic olive oil was quite tasty and the parmesan was good quality. The crabmeat stuffed mirlton (chayote) in a white sauce was also quite good and I got a sense of mirlton’s taste (subtle) and texture (like the pepper in a chile relleno). The duck carbonara was loaded with bacon and duck in a homemade wide pasta. Even the blue cheese vinegrette on the salad was good, a touch sweet from balsamic, and Gorgonzola blue cheese. Continue reading

Day Three – Lower Ninth, High-Class Dinner

Some friends of Bill and Cindy’s came by so we got off to a late start after trading lies and telling stories. Lil Dizzy’s for lunch. So far, the best meals we’ve had have been neighborhood lunch places. I’ve come to love the restaurants tucked into residential street, not all corner stores, like Lil Dizzy’s, but in the middle of the street, we’ll pass by a place that Bill or Cindy will immediately identify as a great place to eat.

Lil dizzys Fried ChickenLil Dizzy’s buffet—fried chicken, little crawfish pies in tiny throwaway pie tins, macaroni and cheese, sautéed vegetables, shrimp Creole, crab and crawfish gumbo, and bread pudding—again accompanied by giant iced teas, sweetened this time—was all that and more. Don’t know why the giant sodas in movie theaters, etc. piss me off so and the giant teas seem quite fitting here, especially on the second refill.

People who seem to think “to die for” is a good expression for food always annoy me. “Freedom is to die for; good fried chicken is not,” but I’d commit a little mayhem to get back to Lil Dizzy’s fried chicken. Nice crust, juicy, not greasy at all, I’d’ve had more if the crawfish pie and lil dizzys gumbogumbo weren’t so good. I never understood why the gumbo recipes have you cook the crab pieces for the entire hour of simmer time and then add the shrimp at the last minute, but I finally got it. The meat fell out of the crab bodies and the flavor was crab, dark roux and fish broth. Cindy thought she spotted Errol Laborde and his wife Carol, publisher of several New Orleans magazines and moderator of Lost Restaurants of New Orleans respectively at the next table so it wasn’t just this easily impressed Yankee. Continue reading

New Orleans Day Two – Empty Vessels

IMG_0682Like an empty pot, a half-empty bar waiting for the musicians can turn into anything—Ed Wills playing blues, a Buster Keaton film with accompaniment by Tom McDermott and Aurora Nealand, or a drunk trumpet player trying to commandeer a gig. It can go anywhere. Like the hexagram says, “The Corners of the Mouth. Pay heed to what a man seeks to fill his own mouth with. Perseverance brings good fortune.”

There’s been some method to Bill’s madness, trying to pack as much as he can into this trip. Everywhere we go, there is the overlay of history, his own, Cindy’s, the city’s centuries, Katrina, who is present in many stories that begin “before” or “after.” Like an empty pan, echoes of meals gone by and of meals still to come.

Gumbo at Liuzza's

Gumbo at Liuzza’s

Yesterday, we went to the Museum of Art, in whose stone lobby Bill took art lessons as a boy then to Liuzza’s by the Track, just a corner bar with fried oyster salad, gumbo, a dark turtle soup that just might be the best thing I’ve eaten so far, and glasses of unsweetened ice tea deep enough to swim in to Longue Vue gardens for the tail end of the iris show and a stop at Angelo Brocato’s for ices and gelato.

Continue reading

Day One-Wednesday in NOLA

Day One of the New Orleans trip started at 5:30 AM in Amherst, scraping frozen slush off my windshield from an mid-April snow. Landed around 11:30 in an unseasonably cold New Orleans at 11:30 AM.Paneed Rabbit

Bill and Cindy live in the Carrollton neighborhood and driving to the library in an old silent film star’s mansion where Cindy was volunteering, we drove down big streets like St. Charles and Carrollton, with old grand houses, shotgun houses, and live oaks. The air smelled a little like Far Rockaway did, when I’d go to our family’s bungalow some cold March day to get a jump on summer. The streets seemed a little like a beach town as well—the pastel colored houses, the low buildings, the restaurants on every corner as well as tucked into residential neighborhoods, one house now sporting a sign and windows papered with coming events. Continue reading

Laissez Bon Temps Rouler – NOLA Bound

Headed for NOLA in the morning. My friend Bill Ives, who spent part of his childhood there, moved back last year. He and his friend Cindy have been waiting patiently for Sarah and I to visit. Sarah is staying home for this trip, but I am headed out at first light.

Bill, being the consummate planner that he is, has a full schedule of food, music, and sightseeing. He is a world-class eater and we’ve tailored the menu to cover a range of classic New Orleans, modern Cajun, and some wildcards. Food trucks, ices, po’ boys, etc. figure prominently. Music, too, will go from blues to Cajun to brass to acoustic. I picked this week, between the French Quarter Festival and JazzFest specifically to see a little more of the city with a little less crazy. I’m very down with missing the name acts in favor of some local talent.

I haven’t been blogging regularly on this site. In fact, it’s been pretty dormant for a year or more. So, I figured I’d use the trip to get started.

Laissez Bon Temps Rouler (in case you need the translation).

The Rare and the Cooked

So what is it about rare meat? Sarah and I have been having this “discussion” forever it seems. My mother cooked steak rare, roast beef medium rare, chicken done and juicy every time. I never realized how good her technique was. She’d accompany roast beef with oven-browned potatoes that were shiny and deep gold on the outside and creamy within. The next day, their magic was gone, but you ate them anyway, to salute the memory of what they once were. It took me 20 years to approximate hers, using a Pyrex baking tray. I called them Potatoes Betsy, after my friend Betsy who showed me the technique. Mom could make hers in the same pan as the roast beef, effortlessly every time.

Steak, done in the broiler, fat crisp, meat crusty without and red and juicy within. That’s my Platonic idea of meat. We ate no pork at home, and except for bacon and sausage, rarely at a restaurant either so beef is what I come back to.

Sarah likes her meat done without pink, her chicken at 180, her vegetables a couple of touches past al dente. We agree on the crisp fat and crusty outside, but not on what is within. I admit I have been less than kind about it in the past, but I am trying to do better. I chalk that up to a disastrous vacation with a friend and his wife who, whiny and overbearing, complained about my chicken so much that I vulcanized her pieces over the grill, our chicken growing cold while we waited for hers to dry out. She loved the chicken I finally served her and kept trying to get her husband to agree that it was done right. He demurred, politely as befits a spouse, but unambiguously. Since then, criticism of the doneness of my chicken or steak explodes into a blind rage that I keep to myself until it passes. OK, so I’m not proud of it, but I am a grown-up about it. If you are complaining, I will smile, tightly, and cook it a little longer. I will refrain from announcing it’s ready with the call, “OK, it’s dry and tasteless. Time to eat.” As I say, I have matured somewhat.

I do try. I put Sarah’s steak on the grill a full 10 minutes before mine, but it is never done enough and is either returned for additional heat or eaten with a regretful, “It’s OK.” I mostly do braises, on which we all can agree need full cooking. I pull my chicken early, but I like thighs anyway, which are always juicier. Roast pork is always dry and leathery to my taste so I rarely make it and never order it out. I braise thick pork chops and that is always fine. But I have lost my edge in grilling steak and that is a pity.

Rare meat is no good reason for a divorce and none is contemplated. If this is our biggest issue, we’re doing alright. As I’ve said quite often, when Sarah is out of town, I eat a rare steak and love every bite. Such is life among the rare and the cooked.