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

Birthday, 2012

Family PicturesMy birthday was in February. It was a round number year so I thought about a party. But a party in February–we’d all be inside and at the mercy of the weather. A July BBQ was a much better idea. I started off thinking I’d invite about 75 close friends and family, but by the time May rolled around, we had carpenters and painters, Sarah in Paris for a week, and just too much work. So I uninvited the friends and turned it into a party for my family, some of whom had already made reservations or canceled other things for me.

Needless to say, it poured, forcing us all inside. Sarah decided on no plastic cups so we served the Prosecco and microbrew beer in our flutes and pilsners and the food on our collection of plates and bowls. I made a beef brisket, ribs, salmon, and some dishes my grandmother used to make: chopped eggplant (roast till soft, chop with some onions and mild oil) and onion and tomato salad (updated to include cucumbers–seeds scooped out a la Hannah and avocado chunks) dressed only in vinegar. My cousin said it was the first time he’d had chopped eggplant since our grandmother died. The brisket–done with the Texas Crutch–was closer to  Sunday brisket than Texas smoked, but soft as butter and killer tasty. My friend Paul volunteered (!) to be my sous and without him, we just couldn’t have pulled off the food. He made most of the dips as well, which everyone loved. The playlist ran from 60s singles to New Orleans, fados to guitar, Kronos Quartet to Taylor Swift. No one got to hear it–you can either hear the music or hear the partygoers, but I’ll put it on Dropbox for the family.

What made the party so good was that my two families had not really met each other over the years. My brother’s kids had never been to Massachusetts, my cousins had never met Sarah’s kids, let alone our grandkids. Our kids had only met my sister, who visits regularly and the bro who has been to several parties. It meant a great deal to me to take my niece to the top of Mt Sugarloaf (the one in Sunderland) to show off my neighborhood. It meant a lot to have my cousin Beth Ann meet my family since she is eager for pictures and news. My Mom shone, party animal that she is. As I said, it was nice to get everyone together for something besides a funeral.

It stopped raining long enough for some group pictures, a poem by my aunt and my speech. Hey, if you eat my food, you gotta listen to my words.

Running O-Gauge Trains

Last year, I set up my old Lionel train set on the dining room table. I had the locomotive cleaned and oiled and the transformer checked out. I ran a smaller version of the layout I used to set up in my bedroom in Queens. The kids liked it, Soren got really enthusiastic, and I fell in love again with the detail and modeling. So around my birthday in February, I bought a set of modern RailKing trains, O gauge like my Lionel, and started planning a better layout than the dining room. O-gauge means I can mix my old Lionel trains with the CSX diesel I bought last month.

Now that my trains are up and running, I’ve been thinking about the layout. I’ve got buildings for a town, a yard, and a farm from my old set. I’ve got some new buildings Soren and I bought. I’ve been reading some magazines and took Soren to the train show at the Big E to see what the hobbyists do. Their attention to detail is spectacular—fully realized towns, canyons, industrial sidings. Many of them construct stories for their layouts. Some pick a time and place. Others, freelancers, simply go for a look. To me, it’s like writing a novel, a chance to invent a familiar world.

I’m thinking you’ve got to have vignettes on a small layout like mine, shade one scene into another, even if the farm is 20 miles out of town. It’s like one of the Japanese paintings where the edges of one scene blur into white and blur back into another scene. I’m just starting out. I’m laying out the pieces, not gluing anything down or caring much about scale and verisimilitude until I work out what I want. Building scale mountains, with realistic stone outcroppings and meandering streams is somewhat in the future. For now, I’m using cardboard to lay out the streets and sidewalks of “town.”

The town is called Kimball. Kimball, North America, the kind of place you could ride through in a ’47 Hudson or stumble on in a late 60’s road trip or even on modern trip with your family. There’s a school, Valentin Hall, like P.S. 82 in Jamaica, and an apartment building. There’s going to be a diner behind the town, tying the railroad yard to the town. It’ll be a 24-hour diner, the kind of place where the railroad guys eat, where kids buy a bag of potato chips and a coke and eat their bag lunch at the counter, slipping half the chips into the moist tuna fish sandwich for crunch and gourmandaise, where couples go for dinner after work or a movie, and single guys go late at night for a cup of coffee to listen to conversations. I’d love to add a small industrial building, like the laboratory on 90th Avenue around the corner from my apartment building, a low two story brick building with black marble blocks and glass brick front windows, making something like dental molds, taking in and sending out work in small packages.

There’s a rail yard, with a switch tower I built 50 years ago and an overhead trestle from the same era. “We like to build yards,” Dennis, the owner of Hobby World, told me. I figure it’s because it’s interesting to switch cars, it’s a lot of train in a relatively small space, and it’s a place to show your collection. So I’ve got a small yard in the works. I’ve got the switch tower and the crosswalk and the new set comes with some shipping containers that will stack nicely off to one side.

And then there’s the country. The barn is from my old set, with the farm animals, a farm girl, a farm hand, and two tractors. Like Kimball, it could be anywhere—upstate New York, the mythic Midwest, the Berkshires. Ultimately, that’s where the tunnel or the plateau goes, but for now, I’m adding some graduated trestles that drop off coming into the yard.