Category Archives: Food babble

The midnight special

By rights, red beans and rice should only ever be eaten after midnight. Ours still has a while to go until the magic hour, but the simmering pot on the stove has filled our house with a scent that is familiar and unnatural. This holy blend of creole spices belongs distinctly in New Orleans – not here – where it wafts from unexpected corners and has a residence I envy.

I’m not even sure at this point what all I’ve stirred into my stew. The onions, bell pepper, and celery have melted into a singular entity. Andouille sausage is clear enough, I suppose, but the mixture has darkened as it cooks and taken on a thick, sludgy consistency. It is exquisite.

My local butcher eyed me suspiciously when I presented him with my shopping list earlier in the day. He didn’t have turtle meat. Not that red beans calls for it; I had originally hoped to make turtle soup, though it seems the whole of Chicago is rather offended at the thought of it. Even the butcher, with his dripping arms and juicy cleaver, apparently has limits. He couldn’t name a single place to purchase turtle meat and only begrudgingly suggested I try a gourmet supply house (“You monster,” his eyes added) when I pressed him further.

Ham hock and tasso are also apparently not Midwestern butcher staples. (Nor are sweetbreads and frog legs, I later found, which only further convinces me that despite all the culinary accolades, Chicago is hopelessly squeamish.) I settled on smoked ham shank. Not entirely authentic, and I’m still a bit unclear on what exactly it is, but as the stripped bone bobs into view it seems to be doing just fine in the deliciously dirty bubbling muck I’ve created.

My guy adds more wine to my glass. The raw edges of winter have left us itching for the home where we are not. At times like this we cook, sometimes all day and into the night, sharing bites and memories and hopes as we create the essence of places we love or will love one day.

We look beyond the kitchen and toward the window at the far end of the living room. There are only impressions to be seen in the dark outside. So we conjure a gas lamp out of the perpetual porch light flicker and ladle heaping piles of now-ready red beans over fluffy white rice.

If we shift focus enough, at this midnight hour we could be anywhere.

 

Red beans and rice

Little bit crazy like New Orleans

Paxton carries a bent photograph of her in his wallet that he will produce with no provocation. Sylvia. He loves her tremendously and righteously and will, over drinks that he buys for strangers, quote the lyrics of songs that are applicable to their doomed love.

This is how Paxton spends his time, banking off a self-imposed $300 a day allowance of mysterious origins and commiserating with locals at a dive bar on Frenchmen Street in the Marigny. He ordered us doubles of our choice, but what the ‘tender pours more closely resembles a quadruple.

“Y’all count funny around here,” I say. He smiles, adds a splash of soda, and hands the booze over. My guy attempts to pay for the drinks, but Paxton refuses. He is, perhaps, the loneliest man in New Orleans, and two drinks are his thanks for an hour of conversation.

This kind of perpetual give and take fuels New Orleans so much that even the legacy waiters – the ones who have decades of service engrained in their hands – offer calling cards to their favorite customers. Everyone in the French Quarter counts on the transient permanence of people wandering in and out but always coming back.

My guy and I do just that, returning year after year to see the same sights in an entirely different way. It hits me the moment I enter the Quarter: A beautifully blurry meeting of cultures, where elaborate ironwork balconies rest atop dirty drinking establishments and centuries-old restaurants.

Bike bells compete with jazz notes for attention as you walk down Royal. This is my favorite street in the Quarter. The Monteleone rises at the far end with faded black letters dropping down the side of the hotel. Our first cocktail of the day comes from its Carousel Bar. We start early, of course. We laugh as we order drinks, light daytime drinks that have more fizz than punch, because the hour is still before noon. Half of the Quarter has already felt our footprints since dawn, so the drinks feel earned.

I like to wake with the Quarter. Even after three hours of sleep I will prowl the streets with the rising sun. There are few people out. Just the cooks in their striped pants and aprons or the men hosing down the sidewalks. They all smile as we walk past, greet us warmly as if they know us, and then return to their whistling, hosing, and work. Occasionally we find a line at Café Du Monde. We may head to the back then, where the waiters will take orders and bring your beignets in a small steaming bag.

There is no donut that can rival a beignet. Its fried, crispy exterior gives way to a chewy inside that tastes lightly of vanilla. The powdered sugar is heaped with a heavy hand so that it is impossible to not make a mess. I suspect that water is provided at the table for washing as opposed to drinking.

And still, even after rinsing and daubing, my fingers leave powdery prints on my drink glass at the Carousel Bar, which revolves like a dying merry-go-round. Fifteen minutes gives us one spin around the room. If I drink enough, the room will spin on its own. But somewhere before enough, there’s a pocket of just right, where the spice of my Pimm’s Cup and the bar revolutions meet in a blissful haze that makes me wonder.

I carry it with me down Royal. There is garlic and brine in the air as we walk past the Royal Oyster House. During the day, we may stop for fried alligator. A left turn takes us to Rue Bourbon, the foulest street in all of the Quarter. Deceptively sweet booze shots are hawked in doorways starting around noon on most days and giant signs proclaiming “Huge Ass Beers” and “The world’s strongest drink” lure passersby.

For every bar there is a different band. And for every band, there is a man who is not in the band but still stands in the club with a steel washboard strapped to his chest and spoons over his thumbs. He adds a zipping, rattling raucous, somehow making every song, even those without an accordion, sound vaguely like zydeco.

I would never suggest looking too closely on Bourbon. Decades of grime and smoke cake the bar walls. Palmetto bugs congregate in corners. In between it all, however, there are small, stunning respites, a holdover from the Spanish influence of the past. They always surprise me. Even the dankest bar can hide a lush courtyard behind it, complete with a wishing well fountain, wrought iron fencing, and, like at the Court of Two Sisters, a ceiling of twisted vines and leaves so old and so thick it keeps the courtyard in a state of uninterrupted dimness.

We’ll spend a few hours on Bourbon, starting in the light and returning again after dark. When the crowds become too thick, we will follow Orleans Street back to Royal. We’re looking for something more quiet now, more moody and dark and suited to the evening.

The back of the St. Louis Cathedral marks our turn toward Pirate’s Alley. We stumbled on it once by chance, which is how most people find it, and now follow its cobblestones to Absinthe House.

The sazerac is the “official” cocktail of Louisiana, a drink built off rye whiskey and the lightest coating of absinthe. This is my dinner drink. But for late nights I prefer a full absinthe. I admit, it is partly the ritual of absinthe that I love. I ask the bartender to see the bottles she keeps in the back and order for us. My guy leaves this to me; he knows how much I like to participate in this drink preparation.

She pours two ounces of absinthe into a glass then starts the water drip. A slow swirl begins as the oils separate, circling the glass, clouding it, then changing the liquid from murky green to milky. Three ounces of water, slowly dripped, no sugar, and our drinks are ready. We take them to the courtyard where we can watch the wind.

Tennessee Williams wrote that an hour in New Orleans isn’t just an hour but a drop of eternity. As we continue our trek down Royal Street, it feels like we do, in fact, have an eternal night before us. There are lights on the balconies over us. The faint glow illuminates sprawling greenery of palms, elephant ears, and wild hibiscus. Galleries are open late for wanderers like us. They welcome us with walking glasses of wine and theories on art. Sometimes we buy, other times we walk away with a new friend to call on. But always, we keep walking.

Eventually Royal Street runs into Frenchmen Street at the very outskirts of the Quarter and the start of the Marigny neighborhood. This street is decidedly more funky, home to many of the people we meet in the Quarter. It’s all artists and music without the touristy callouts of Bourbon Street and we eventually make our way into a red-tinged bar that doubles as a laundromat. Paxton is there, seemingly waiting for us. So we sit. We talk. And slowly, we are absorbed into New Orleans.

 

 

 

 

Sugar, spice, and everything …

“Reality” television has not been kind to me. I suppose it’s not especially kind to anyone, really. But being told at age 7 by an official representative of Ed McMahon that you’re just not good enough to be on Star Search? That stings. MTV at least gave me the thrill of a callback, although I personally feel that season six of The Real World completely sucked without me. And don’t even ask about the numerous cattle calls I attended in LA – my only excuse is that I was unemployed, hungry and bored. At least I didn’t take to the pole.

Clearly, a snarky misanthrope who shudders at the thought of a group activity isn’t exactly reality show material. This is for the best, although it does make me wish I had a more demonstrative career. Being a writer means more staring than executing, more drinking than dancing. My biggest, most dramatic performances shine from a piece of paper that must be read to be appreciated.

It is not my intention to diminish the value in writing or the excitement in having written, but for as much of an internalizing, brooding, isolationist as I am, I also have a deep, dark craving for recognition. It’s every writer’s curse, I suppose.

My favorites have all tempered the desire with drink, some more than necessary, while others found alternative outlets for expression. Bukowski became a rock star of poets; Hemingway hunted. I lack the charm and the drive to do either. But there is one thing that I can do, and do extremely well: I can cook.

There is a distinct satisfaction in cooking, in the collaboration of hand, mind and taste to create something amazing, something that can be shared. Cooking offers similar results as writing, at least in that I take the same pleasure in sharing and consuming words. Both writing and cooking require me to be fearless. But where I cannot act out the drama in my head that creates a story, I can chop, dice, sauté, and flambé my every whim in the kitchen.

Reams of rejection letters – both from reality show producers and magazine editors – have taught me several lessons, not the least of which is to know my skills. I no longer send half-cocked pitches to Cat Fancy magazine or the NY Times, and I definitely did not apply to be on So You Think You Can Dance. But when the opportunity to apply to be on a special amateur version of Chopped, the greatest cooking challenge show ever made, came up? I was all over it.

Support from my friends and family has been overwhelming, although I do find it unnerving that more than one person felt the need to clarify that the show name is not literal, and that I cannot plunge a knife into anyone. This too I accept, however, should some freakish accident happen to that smug little judge Alex Guarnaschelli, just know I had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Below I’m including a few of my more creative responses to the essay questions of my Food Network application. Here’s hoping they’re enough to maybe, just maybe, break my reality show rejection streak.

 

In a few sentences, please share your story: Tell us who you are and your current situation.

For starters, I am not a chef. But thanks in part to my mother’s advice – that the key to happiness is 1) to be a good person and 2) be an excellent cook – I am a newlywed, a stepmom, an author, and the best drinking buddy you could ask for.

Describe your background/history-where are you from?

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago that is best described as 90210-lite. At the time, I was a little too Tawny Kittean in a Whitesnake video to ever really fit in, so after graduating college in a similar suburb with a BA in communications, I sprinted across the country to try making it in Los Angeles. It took a few years, but once I realized I made a lousy PA and got tired of being unemployed, I moved back to Chicago and turned my LA mishaps into my first book.

List family members and note any that may be involved in the culinary industry.

My immediate family includes my husband and three amazing stepkids; my sister, her husband, and my niece; my mom and dad; and assorted extended family. Culinary industry experience?  My mother learned to cook by watching Julia Child on television. Does that count?

Why do you like to cook? Who do you cook for and how often?

That I am not a rock star or famous artist is unfortunate. And as a writer, I spend the majority of my day staring at a computer and willing words to happen. Cooking, however, is my art. It’s my creative outlet, my source of relaxation as well as excitement. It’s an adventure every day and a way to share tangible stories. I cook every day – for myself, my husband, my stepkids, and my friends and family. Truly, there is nothing I love more than sitting down with a great meal and talking. Food is, I hope, the one connection we have as people that will remain a constant.

Do you cook professionally? If so, where, and in what capacity?

The closest to “professional” cooking I’ve come is baking 200+ cookies (my killer brownie cookies, to be specific) for a friend’s wedding.

If you are not a professional chef, list any goals past or present regarding cooking professionally.

I once toyed with the idea of becoming a professional chef, and even went so far as to take a few courses in pastry making. But the truth is, I love cooking too much to make it my profession. I already immerse myself in words, my other passion, and it’s a constant love/hate battle. Cooking is my escape, and I’m happier keeping it that way.

What inspired you to start cooking? Where did your interest in food begin?

My mother is a wonderful cook, and since my childhood we have spent countless hours together baking, pouring over recipes, and trading tips. She always stressed how important food is: it brings people together for dinner, it makes bad days better, it’s something to be enjoyed and shared. When I was on my own after college, I took her advice to heart. Rather than giving in to the ease of ramen noodles, I sold my microwave and bought a sauté pan. Between what I knew from mom and what I learned from cookbooks and cooking shows, I taught myself to be the cook I am today.

Describe your cooking style, ingredients you love and any specialty dishes.

I love the nuances of flavor, and the way a single herb or spice can change the entire feel of a dish. My cooking style is deceptively simple: I take basic ingredients and create unexpected flavors. Cardamom is my spice of choice currently – I love it with orange in a poundcake, or with maple syrup and a touch of cayenne in a glaze. I also love to experiment with liquor – absinthe makes an excellent enhancement in mousse and chocolate tartes. I love pastry and sauce making equally because both offer so much room to develop flavors.

What are you like in the kitchen when you are cooking?

While cooking, I’m very organized, although if you were to ask my hubby, he’d suggest I am also slightly scary. I suppose this is true, because I do enjoy the chopping element of my prep work far too much and I have no problem setting things on fire (deliberately, of course). There is also a compulsive element to my time in the kitchen – and my entire family knows that the quickest way to freak me out is to rearrange my spice drawers.

How would your friends/family describe you?

I’m not entirely sure I want to know. I’m guessing the word “stabby” would be used quite a bit, and it wouldn’t be in reference to my cooking skills. However, were I to ply them with marinated mozzarella and bread baked from scratch, they’d be gently deluded into relating stories about how I volunteered for the Girl’s Best Friend Program, and would conveniently “forget” all my horrid attempts at karaoke, that one time I ditched a blind date who showed up with a bird on his shoulder, my obsession with horror movies, and the fact that to this day, I still believe The Muppets are real.

What is something that we wouldn’t know about you by looking at you?

I’m descended from a group lovingly documented as “The Red Bearded Terrors of Lithuania.”

What would you do with the $10,000 Chopped winnings?

Buy shoes. I wouldn’t just buy shoes for myself, of course. I’d buy them for my family, too. Seriously though, my husband and I love to travel, and are planning a trip to Europe. The money would enable us to expand our travels and experience the food and culture we dream about.

Describe any TV appearances.

Sigh. I knew this would come back to haunt me. In high school and college I self-produced and hosted a music video show for a cable access channel. Would you believe that all the recordings of that show were destroyed in a fire?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eat it

I’m blaming the fois gras.

It’s the in thing to do these days, in California at any rate, where tasty-tasty fattened goose liver is destroying the very moral fiber of the world. So much so that there’s an official embargo on force feeding geese to produce the delicacy, which frankly seems absurd to me, but my moral fiber is soaked in bourbon and not entirely reliable.

The geese are not my concern anyway, and after being chased through a parking lot by a goose hell bent on gnawing my kneecaps open I can’t say they ever will be. My objection to fois gras is purely cosmetic – that shit is making me fat.

(And no, thank you for asking, I don’t feel a pea under my mattress, but I’ll be sure to let you know if I do.)

At 300 calories for a mere three ounces, my favored appetizer appears to have taken residency in my hips more stubbornly than a plate of cheese fries. That fois gras is “good fat,” similar in makeup to olive oil and avocados, is perhaps the dumbest euphemism ever foisted on an appearance-conscious chick like me. It’s fat, it’s annoying, and the fact that my body “processes” it differently than it would a Big Mac means nothing when I can see excess pounds lining up like thunderclouds.

I’ve started referring to it as Anthony Bourdain fat. Don’t mistake my meaning – I don’t consider Anthony Bourdain fat any more than I truly think myself to be overweight. But there is a marked difference in his appearance from his coked-out early days as a chef and approximately the fifth season of hosting No Reservations. It’s the full look of satisfaction, of exotic meals with friends as the sun sets, of good liquor and, I’m guessing, fois gras. It is in direct contrast to say, Paula Deen fat, where brownies are leaden with bricks of Velveeta and regret.

My own appearance certainly isn’t regrettable, although I do find its evolution conflicting. Back when I was 18 and a semi-pro ballet dancer, my diet consisted mainly of air and Gatorade. I’d flirt shamelessly for the sheer conquest of it.

Today, all that’s left of my ballet career is chronic foot pain and the ability to balance on one leg for extended periods of time. I delight in being a home chef. Whiskey is my drink of choice. When I flirt, it is only with our butcher at Whole Foods, and that’s just for the free slabs of bacon he slips in when nobody is looking.

I’m not sure if I should be proud or alarmed that my looks elicit free pork. In some countries, this is probably a sign of royalty. My husband doesn’t seem especially concerned, but he clearly loves me as I am. Plus he enjoys the bacon. I suppose I should be grateful it’s being presented as a gift, and not flung in my general direction as I’m out running errands, but I have to wonder: what’s next?

My ballerina body has transformed into something far more womanly – sexy, yes – but nearing the line I established as too much. You can spare me the “love yourself, love your body” claptrap, because no one loves me more than me. And that’s why I drew that hard line: to keep my hedonism from getting the best of me.

Even Bourdain is looking trimmer in his latest season. I suppose it’s odd to use him as my litmus, but I refuse to compare myself to any other woman. Instead, I look to learn from the lifestyle I admire: good food, good company, good liquor, good health.

Unfortunately, all the sex and yoga in the world isn’t going to burn enough calories to combat the fois gras. In my lazy fantasies, I consider starting on coke. I’ll take the raging heartbeat, sweats and general mania if it kicks my metabolism into overdrive. Or maybe I can catch hyperthyroidism – it’s essentially the same as having a coke habit, minus the habit, of course.

In reality, I am forced to seek more aggressive ways to maintain my gourmet habits, and if that means visiting the gym more often, then so be it.

Because let me tell you something – I can do better than free bacon. Next time I start batting my eyes at Whole Foods, I’m going for the steak.

(S)he knows when you are sleeping

I’ve always thought serving canned cat food as the filling in homemade ravioli would make for an amusing revenge. There’s a certain elegance to it, really, more so than say, hurling a brick at someone’s head or releasing a few copperhead snakes into their car.

It’s practical, too. Assuming you know how to make ravioli, of course. But even that doesn’t require any far reaching skills, timing or acquisitions, especially considering the availability of pre-made ravioli sheets these days.

I’d make mine from scratch – that’s just how I run my kitchen. Pre-made anything in my opinion is usually subpar, and it seems it would be a nice touch to season the pasta dough to really complement the flavor of the meat and poultry by-products typically found in cat food.

I’m a bit sketchy on what exactly by-products are – I’m guessing nothing I’d personally want to eat, but nothing that would kill a person, much – so some parsley would probably be the best choice of seasoning. It’s less intrusive than oregano, but herby enough to give a subtle festive edge to dough.

Filling is a trickier choice: while the gravy-enhanced cat food options may have more savory appeal, they’d most likely prove too wet and would ultimately seep from the cooked ravioli.

Best to stick with a more pate-like selection. Fancy Feast Tender Liver and Chicken Feast seems like a good, albeit blind, bet. My experience is limited to squishing it onto a paper plate for my cat, but I can vouch for the smell (tangy, but not disconcerting) and texture. Plus, it’s one of the few meals that won’t cause The Bugaboo to hoark up a furball later.

Saucing the ravioli makes for an interesting debate. Initially, I’d be inclined to serve it with an alfredo, but in considering it further, I fear it may be too rich. A white wine reduction would certainly make a flavorful topping, but only if the ravioli were pan-fried after boiling, and frankly, for a dinner party or potluck, that’s an extra step I’d rather avoid.

What about a light lemon cream? I believe that could be the solution! Julia Child wrote a delightful lemon cream sauce recipe … Of course, she paired hers with squash, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind the liberty with it. After all, wasn’t she the one who said that a great cook must be fearless?

Or maybe I heard that in Ratatouille. Either way, when served with a side salad of mixed greens and balsamic, maybe some candied walnuts, the Tender Liver and Chicken Feast ravioli with lemon cream could be an outstanding, purposeful, meal.

I doubt dessert would be necessary, at least, not after the dozen or so empty cans of Fancy Feast can rattling out from under the sink. My cat may be fat enough to eat that amount, but she’s certainly not in possession of a can opener. I do hope that in this instance, the guest will be courteous enough to bolt from the house before yaking.

And if not, this is exactly why steam cleaners were invented.

Not that I’ve ever given this much more than cursory consideration. Still, when the holiday season and pressures of work and writing grow obnoxious, I have to admit it is a comfort to have professional pastry training and a Petco Pals discount card.