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.

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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.

One Good Meal

What is it about one good meal? Lately, everything I eat tastes tired. I am tired of my old standbys, tired of the places where I eat lunch. Sarah has been cooking some new dishes and they are good, but not exciting. I want to taste food that makes me want to cook it, makes me wonder how they got that flavor, and makes me admire the control the chef had over the ingredient. Sarah and I disagree on when something is done and I end up cooking to please her. I want something done the way I want it without a discussion or a compromise.

I had the swordfish over potato puree and Swiss chard with an orange au jus at Chez Albert tonight. Sitting at the bar, eating alone, tasting the food and identifying the ingredients. Cilantro over the swordfish? The saffron aioli was nowhere to be seen, perhaps melted over the swordfish, but no matter. The fish was done au point–perfectly. Cooked, juicy, even a little creamy, it was the swordfish you always think you’re ordering before the dry piece of meat is placed in front of you.. I tasted every bite, swirling it in a little orange au jus, chewing slowly.

I love to eat alone, especially at a good restaurant. I am alone with my words and the memories they evoke. Chez Albert brings out the Francophile so I thought about Jake’s dinner with a poule in Paris in the Sun Also Rises, and remember Laurie’s poet friend Doug, now dead, ordering a simple glass of pinot noir while we sat in a small restaurant in Paris waiting for Laurie and Greg so we could start dinner, I looked at the bottles behind the bar and thought that in Paris, there would be more Scotch, more Martinique Rhum. I sat, overhearing the various conversations, drinking in the friendships. acquaintanceships, strangers who are sitting beside me. Without conversation, I spend my time eating and tasting. You can tell an old married couple–they eat without talking–but Sarah and I do talk, about things great and small. But the simple pleasure of tasting food without a book, a companion, or any other distraction, is a rare and delicious thing.

I recommend it.

No Feast at the CIA

I’ve taken a number of classes at the Culinary Institute of America—a four day Italian Boot Camp that was incredible, and one-day Spanish Tapas and Butchering classes whose only disappointments were that they were only one day long. I could have spent a week in the meat cutting room, happily breaking down large cuts of beef, lamb, veal, and pork and getting my airplane cuts of chicken down pat. (Who needs spatchcocking—it’s just a word that sounds obscene which is why it is so much fun to say—when you can remove the backbone from a chicken and make any number of sautés and pollo al mattones?)

Last Saturday, I took the Feast of India class. It’s one I’ve been eyeing for a while. When I lived in Cambridge in the late Jurassic, my housemate, Riaz, a Pakistani doctoral student, taught me the basics of Indian spicing. When his mother came to live with us for a month, she showed me Riaz’ childhood favorites and how to cook spices in oil until they smelled the right way. Since then, I always go to Indian spices whenever food seems dull and unadventurous. But that was many years and a couple of lifetimes ago and I was thinking a CIA class would catch me up on making those wonderful smells and tastes. No one can approximate Riaz’ mother, but professional teaching chefs can take you a long way.

From the opening meeting, I began to have some doubts. Listening to the chef instructor, it was clear to me he was a seasoned (so to speak) cook and practiced instructor from the words he used—product, fabrication, etc.—and how he always spoke in the plural—”we want this to taste in a certain way.” He explained the differences between powdered gelatin and sheet gelatin as the difference between bakers (sheets) and cooks (powdered) in a way no one in the class is ever going to forget. Continue reading