Sunday, January 31, 2010

New Orleans: recap

So, I promised to report on the food that Husband J and I sampled in New Orleans--here goes. Fair warning, I don't take pictures of meals. I really don't have anything against anyone who does this, since I've drooled over my share of El Bulli and French Laundry picture blog entries, but I have never been able to bring myself to take pictures of a meal before I dig in. So, I'm interspersing this post with random pictures from around the city.

On Thursday (1/28) we arrived after a series of airline mishaps. I immediately ran to a work function, while Husband J did some preliminary exploration around the city.

Jackson Square, with a view of Saint Louis Cathedral. This was part of my Schattenjäger tour of New Orleans, and if you get the reference, you are as nerdy as me.

While wandering around, Husband J tried the sandwiches at Mother's, a cafeteria style eatery specializing in po'boys and debris. For those of you who (like me) have no idea what debris is, it's basically chopped meat in gravy, sort of like creamed chipped beef (aka "shit on a shingle") but in a creole, spicy brown sauce instead of white, creamy, bland sauce. Husband J ordered a Debris sandwich (half size), which consisted of debris made from roast beef, mustard, and pickled cabbage on house-made French bread. Husband J reports that the sandwich was tasty, but messy, as the bread soaked up most of the sauce. "I had to eat most of it with my fork," he says.

After I got back from my work function, I was ravenous, having had nothing to eat for 12 hours. We took a stop by the Carousel bar (which looks like a carousel, and rotates) in the Hotel Monteleone, where we were staying, for a negroni (for me) and a sazarac (for him). This began Husband J's "sazarac tour of New Orleans," a quest to find the best sazarac in the city. (Sazaracs consist of rye, sugar and bitters, and are served in a glass rinsed with absinthe.) Let me tell you, sitting in a rotating bar is a fun novelty, unless you're on your first drink of the day, having not eaten in twelve hours. The entire hotel looked like a carousel to me after we finished our cocktails!

Finally I was able to satiate my hunger at K-Paul's, Paul Prudhomme's restaurant. The place was described to me as "very deep fried," which I hoped was a compliment. We started with cocktails (sazaracs) and ordered a house salad and fried green tomatoes to start. The salad came with green onion dressing, which was a creamy wonder. I wanted a straw so I could DRINK that dressing, for reals. The tomatoes came in a lovely spicy sauce with shrimp, and to top it all off we had a varied bread basket with jalapeno bread, molasses and corn muffins, and butter bread, all with creamy butter to spread on them. I would have been happy just making a meal of these, but our entrees had yet to arrive.

I went for the "pan fried rabbit" with jambalaya, and Husband J ordered a veal dish with shrimp, lobster, and a pernod sauce. When ordering the pan fried rabbit, I thought to avoid the deep-friedness of the place, but no dice, it came in a thick crust of fried goodness. It was lovely and tender, and the jambalaya was deliciously spicy. Husband J's veal was a bit blander, and he conceded that I "won" the dinner battle. However, his entree came with mashed potatoes that were essentially whipped butter with some potatoes added in. Delicious, but so, so filling. We couldn't handle dessert, and left feeling a little sick.

A random, beautifully decorated house that we walked past in our travels around the city.

The next morning we slept in, then embarked on an exploration of the French Quarter. We started out having beignets and cafe au laits at Cafe du Monde (touristy I know, but no less than five people told us we couldn't miss that particular pleasure). The beignets (basically a hunk of deep fried dough) were light, fluffy, and covered in a mountain of powdered sugar, and we loved them. We wandered for several hours, finding some lovely antiques (Husband J found a pair of tiki glasses dating from Walt Disney World's first tiki bar) and decided it was time for lunch, which meant a muffuletta at Central Grocery. A muffuletta, for those who don't know (like me, before I ate one), is a sandwich on round bread, with olive salad (comprised of pickled olive, cauliflower and carrot), capicola, salami, mortadella, emmentaler and provalone. We split a half-muffuletta, which was more than enough for the two of us, on a bench in Jackson Square.

Later, it was time for dinner, so we went to Couchon for a meal of salad and small plates (we were still feeling the indulgent dinner at K-Paul's). We ordered a cucumber-herb salad, pig cheek cakes, ribs, and rabbit livers on toast. All were wonderful, particularly for me the rabbit livers, which were deep fried and set on a biscuit-like toast with red pepper jelly. Husband J liked the ribs best, decked out as they were with spicy sauce and pickled watermelon. We abandoned decorum and gnawed the bones in our hands. We also shared a dessert of meyer lemon sherbet with a pig-shaped cookie, and several moonshine-based cocktails.

Our last day was a day to wander the Garden District. We looked through many antique shops and little boutiques, but the highlight was lunch at Commander's Palace, one of the most famous and best-reviewed restaurants in New Orleans. The restaurant was founded in 1880, and includes Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse among its alumni-chefs. We ate from the brunch menu, which was inclusive--a set price includes appetizer, entree, and dessert, though the price depends on which entree is ordered. I decided on the soup of the day, a spicy, shrimp, lobster and sausage cajun soup, with eggs "louis armstrong," basically eggs benedict on fried sweet potato cakes, and the bread pudding souffle. Husband J ate the turtle soup (a signature dish, served with sherry like crab soup in Maryland), beef in sazarac sauce with bacon mashed potatoes, and creole cheesecake. The meal was much better than we thought, considering what a "grand dame" the restaurant is. The pacing of the meal was the best we'd encountered, and the care that went into both the cooking and the service was exemplary. This was probably the best meal we had in New Orleans, and we enjoyed every bite.

A view of Lafayette Cemetery, in the Garden District

One last word--we had heard of the excess and wildness of Bourbon Street, but weren't prepared to experience it in person. On our last night, we decided to go see Jonathan Richman, who was playing at a club near our hotel. We started out about an hour before the show, intending to grab a drink beforehand, only to experience the full wilds of New Orleans. First, we ran across a poor girl, who was walking down the street barefoot, asking all passers by how she could get to bourbon street (which was a block to her left--it was also about 30 degrees and windy). I tried to direct her, but she wasn't listening. Next, as we tried to make our way to the club, a RANDOM PARADE broke out, right between us and the venue. After much running up and down side streets, we had to dash through the parade to make it to the venue. Finally, as we bought tickets and made our way into the club, a woman who had been weaving and spinning nearby projectile vomited into the club windows, and fell, smacking her head into the plate glass--narrowly missing my fashionable yellow coat. The Jonathan Richman show was exquisite if a little short, and a fab time was had by all.

And what about Husband J's sazarac tour--who makes the best sazaracs in New Orleans? He says it's Carousel Bar, because the drinks are so nicely balanced--not too much rye, not too much sugar.

Lessons learned: They are not exaggerating when they talk about how wild New Orleans is. But the food is awesome.

Best Phrases said to us: From a buggy driver trying to ramp up business: "C'mon, you're not that cool, get in the buggy! From a hustler outside the Hustler Club: "Nothin' says love like a lap dance--get your lady a lap dance today!" (Needless to say, we did not get a lap dance.)

Next week: Another huge snowstorm has hit the region, leaving me without the ability to shop for ingredients. I'll try again next week!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Salade d'Onglet (sort of)

Mmmm steak salad! I've been looking forward to making this dish since I got the book. Steak salad is a favorite of Husband J and mine, because it strikes the perfect balance between virtuous salad and indulgent steak, and doesn't make you feel terrible for eating it (unlike the super creamy pulled pork sandwich we had for last night's dinner). Speaking of which, I have been indulging in some pretty horrible eating habits for the past few months, due to a combination of busyness and increased appetite. Busyness means lots of takeout instead of home cooked meals; increased appetite means that I can't skip meals without thinking about it like I used to. This is all combining to an increase in the pounds around my middle, and I'm not too happy about it. So a steak salad is just the thing I need to do a restart of my diet, involving more veggies, and less takeout.

The first step in salade d'onglet is to get oneself some onglet. Which I failed at, completely. First I slept through the farmer's market this morning, then sent Husband J to Whole Foods to get the onglet. Onglet, or hangar steak, is an incredibly delicious cut of meat which comes from the diaphragm of the cow, and is tough until marinated and seared at high heat, after which it becomes very tender and flavorful. Onglet is often served in French cuisine, particularly in steak salad (duh) and in steak frites which (for the unenlightened) consists of steak, and french fries, all in a shallot/red wine sauce. If anyone reading this has never eaten onglet, I encourage you to run to your nearest bistro and get one of those dishes so that you can taste this wonderful cut of meat.

Unfortunately there was no onglet to be had at the Whole Foods this day, so Husband J got the next best thing--a skirt steak. Skirt steak is a cut from the same area of the cow, and is actually a part of the full cut from which onglet is obtained. The onglet is the more tender, "inner" cut that is near to the cow's kidneys, while the skirt steak is the outer, tougher cut, and is often used for international peasant dishes that I love, including fajitas in Mexico, and Cornish pasties in England and Wales.

Well, skirt steak it is, and no complaining about it. First, we must marinate the steak for a few hours (the recipe says overnight is best, but that two to three hours will do). I made the marinade first, grating ginger, chopping garlic, and mixing the two in soy sauce.

Next, I took out the steak and chopped it up into small, bite-sized pieces.

The pieces went into the marinade to soak for two hours while I cleaned the kitchen and made cake for dessert.

After the meat had been marinating, I started chopping and measuring for the salad sauce, which requires garlic, ginger, soy sauce, parsley, and white wine.

Then I got the meat bits out of the fridge, dried them off, and sauteed them in butter for about six minutes.

In the meantime, Husband J made the vinaigrette for the salad, and set the lettuce out on a platter.

I made the sauce once the meat had cooked--by pouring wine into the pan and scraping the fond, then added the veal stock and an ice cube of demi glace. When that had reduced by half, I added ginger and garlic, and cooked the meat in the sauce for about a minute.

Finally, we served the salad with its vinaigrette, and on top we served the steak with its sauce.

Verdict: Just outstanding. The steak absorbed the soy, garlic and ginger flavors and was tender and succulent, even as skirt steak instead of the more tender hangar steak cut. The salad with red wine vinaigrette was delicious. The combination of the two was absolutely brilliant--both halves combined to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Husband J thought that "it was very tasty--the garlic and ginger really helped the taste of the steak come out, and it was better than just eating a hunk of bloody meat at a steak house. Eating the steak with lettuce makes me feel much better than just eating a big hunk of meat."

And we had cake!

Lessons Learned: Skirt steak can be just as tender as onglet--it's all in the marinade. Steak salad is better than a big bloody hunk of meat.

Next Week: I'm taking another break. Work is sending me to New Orleans at the end of the week, so I'm taking Husband J for what will be our first trip to the city. We have reservations to K-Paul's and Commander's Palace, and are working on getting into Cochon, too. Not to mention the muffulettas and beignets I plan to feast upon between restaurant visits! So much for the diet! We'll report back on the food we get and eat next week in lieu of cooking.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Côte de Porc à la Charcutière and pommes purée

Sounds fancy doesn't it? But no! It's just pork chops with onion and mustard sauce. After another stressful week, I wanted a dish that was simple, and didn't involve any deep frying of meringue in duck fat, or wrapping quail around bits of foie gras (all that to look forward to, I promise). The pork dishes in the Les Halles Cookbook, however, are all nice and simple and straightforward. I decided to eschew the pork tenderloins with garlic confit and bacon due to their needing to be refrigerated overnight, and chose the next, simpler pork chop recipe.

Pork chops are not something I cook with much regularity. Like brussels sprouts and liver, they were something that my mother didn't like much, and so she never cooked them when she could help it. Dad, however, loves all things pork, and would ask for them at dinner from time to time. Mom had no idea about how to cook pork, though, and pork chops would invariably come out of the oven tough and leathery. My sisters and I would sing "wooooo... woo... woo... can't cut this!" Which, in retrospect was mean, but hilarious.

So, no pork chops for me, and none for Husband J either, as his parent's didn't much like pork chops. But I'm willing to give Tony a chance with a mediocre cut of meat, so let's go!

First, I made some garlic confit for a salad based off of the Ad Hoc at Home valencia salad (frisee, oranges, olives, almonds, and roasted garlic vinaigrette), which has nothing to do with the dish, but made the house smell outstanding.

Next, I peeled the potatoes, and put them in a pot to boil. Meanwhile, I seasoned the pork chops with salt and pepper.

The chops get sauteed in a pan of olive oil and butter, four minutes a side until they are nicely seared.

Once sauteed, the chops go into the oven for eight minutes to cook through. Meantime I had Husband J mash the potatoes, while I boiled a cup of cream and a metric ton of butter. This got added to the potatoes for the mashing process. (I didn't get pics of this, as it's mashed potatoes, for heaven's sake.)

While Husband J mashed, I made the sauce for the chops. I chopped an onion and dumped it into the saute pan that I'd cooked the chops in, and added some flour and white wine to scrape up the fond.

Once the wine reduced, I added some chicken stock and let that reduced. Finally, I whisked in some demi-glace, mustard, and chopped cornichons, and the sauce was finished.

I served the chops with a side of potatoes, topped with sauce:

I just need to comment how not appetizing this looks. The cookbook has some lovely pics in it, but none of them really seem to be of the finished dish. Case in point, this recipe features a lovely browned chop, with no sauce on it. The sauce in my photo is a really peculiar brown with bits of green cornichon, and looks really horrible.

The taste, however, was outstanding. The sauce was absolutely spectacular, and gave the chop a very nice tangy flavor. The chop itself was very tender, and not in the least bit overcooked, but with no pink in the middle. For sure, this is a great way to cook a chop.

The potatoes were...well... mashed potatoes. I snuck in some garlic confit while mashing, and the recipe boasts that they are "just a little bit better," but they're just mashed potatoes, nothing better, nothing worse (even for all the butter I put in). The sauce was great on top of them, though.

And a bonus pic of the salad, which went beautifully with the dish:

I have to nominate this dish "best weekday dish," since it is so easy and quick to make. It's the opposite of the extremely indulgent sea scallops, being relatively low in fat, inexpensive, and easy to cook (and doesn't make your house smell like fish for a month). It has Husband J me sold on pork chops (though I still can't wait for tenderloins, garlic and bacon!)

Lessons learned: Pork chops do not have to taste like leather; a mashed potato is a mashed potato; French food is not all that photogenic, but it sure is tasty.

Next week: Possibly some salad d'onglet!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Holiday Recap

Yup, I left y'all high and dry once again. Lashings of apologies all round as usual. The holiday season this year was especially stressful for me for various reasons that I won't go into now. Suffice it to say that the lack of postings was mainly due to a lack of having a decent camera, something that was remedied under the Christmas tree when Husband J gifted me with a shiny new digital camera, with which I hope to vastly improve my food photography skills!

Despite the lack of camera and stress, I did indeed keep cooking over the holidays, I just don't have too many photos to show for it. But, here is a quick recap of what I did manage to do, for what it's worth.

1. Roasted veal short ribs: yeah, no. The ribs were such an unmitigated disaster that I've decided tho forgo the hilarious disaster-post that I'd planned, and try making them again for you guys.

2. Boeuf Bourguignon: The familys traditional Christmas dish is boeuf Bourguignon, so finding the recipe in the book, I decided to make it for Christmas Eve dinner. Now when I say tradition, I mean it--Christmas just isn't Christmas without certain things for my family: boeuf bourguignon for dinner, mom's egg casserole for breakfast, the annual squabble over who will pass the presents around in the morning, and a Christmas Eve screening of the greatest Christmas movie ever made:

Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.

Tony's recipe calls for a paleron or "chicken steak," a steak made from the neck and shoulder of a cow. Mom, who was tasked to grocery shop for dinner, could not fund such a thing at the farmer's market where she shops, but made do with a sirloin.

First thing I did was brown the meats, as instructed. Tony advises heating olive oil over high heat until almost smoking, adding the meat in batches, and searing on all sides until brown, not gray. That is all well and good in the cookbook, but in real life, that is a recipe for HOT OIL IN THE FACE. Which I received, and promptly turned the heat down, resolving that gray meat would not kill us.

Next, we add sliced onions to the pot (I learned from my mistake chopping onions for soup, and used a mandoline this time). When they were golden brown, I sprinkled with flour, and added the wine, scraping up the fond. Next, the meat, veggies, garlic and herbs are added, and enough water to cover the meat by one third, for a ratio of two-thirds solids to one-third liquid. The mix gets brought to a boil and simmered for two hours, with the chef stirring and scraping the foam off the top.

Here is when I ran into trouble again. If you have the book, you'll see a pic of deliciously browned beef sitting in a syrupy, thick sauce. Well, I have no idea if I miscalculated my liquid ratio or what, but my sauce would just not thicken. Gram and mom helped: mom by adding some cornstarch and a little more flour, gram by stopping mom from adding too much cornstarch and destroying the stew. Another half hour was necessary for the sauce to thicken nicely. Mom, in the meantime, boiled some egg noodles on which to serve the beef (not in the recipe, but in her book, it's not boeuf bourguignon without egg noodles). In addition, we had a big salad, and I made these tasty popovers from the New York Times.

Despite my troubles, the bourguignon turned out excellent. The meat was tender and delicious, and the sauce worked out wonderfully. We gobbled it up, and had plenty left over for our little cousins to eat during our big Christmas Day dinner.

Sorry again for the lack of photos, but of course, I didn't get my camera until the next morning!

3. New Years Eve dinner: For New Years we had Friend B over for dinner, and I made one of my favorites, rack of lamb with mustard glaze, or carre d'agneau au moutarde. I've made similar recipes for Easter dinners past, so I was excited to make Tony's recipe. As a side dish, I made the gratin dauphinois that Tony describes as "made for" the rack of lamb.

First, I trimmed the fat and silvering from the lamb chops (there was a lot).

Next, while I waited for the lamb to come up to room temperature, I made the potato gratin. This was my first time making gratin not out of a box (the horror!) so I was pretty excited and hopeful.

I sliced the potatoes with my mandoline, and put them in a pot with cream, garlic and herbs.

Then, the potatoes go into a garlic-rubbed covered gratin dish. This lovely red dish was a Christmas present from my sister, isn't it gorgeous?

Finally, the potatoes go into the oven toppd with Gruyere for 40 minutes. And out came a delicious gratin. It was SO EASY you guys. The box gets kicked to the curb for reals.

Once the lamb had rested and warmed, prep was easy. I browned the meat in a pan with olive oil and butter, then removed the meat and stirred in wine, some veal stock, garlic, and a bouquet garni. The sauce boiled and simmered while I finished prepping the lamb.

I sprinkled thyme and rosemary leaves over the meaty side of the lamb, then spread dijon mustard over the meat. Next, I pressed some bread crumbs (homemade from a pepper and cheese loaf that was sent as a gift but unfortunately got stale during transit). Finally, I cooked the lamb at 375. The recipe says that 17 minutes would suffice for medium rare, but I found that it took about 30 minutes for the lamb to stop being blood red in the middle. This actually was a plus, as it took about that long for the sauce to thicken sufficiently. Once the lamb had rested, I sliced it up, covered with sauce, and served.

Unfortunately no pix of finished product--friend B came over during prep, and I was having too much fun visiting with her and cooking to pick up the camera... so sorry! But let me assure you the dinner was both gorgeous and delicious, and we abandoned our dignity and gnawed all the meat off the bones, which is to me the hallmark of a successful dinner.

So there you have it, three more dishes down over the holidays. Yeah,I know you are all sick of hearing me succeed at delicious dinners, so I promise that when I redo the short ribs, I will tell the full tale of my horrendous failure. In the meantime, I promise to take more freaking pictures of the food, and have a great time cooking in 2010!

Lessons Learned: Take more freaking pictures.

Next week: New year means pork, so possibly cote de porc a la charcutiere, or roti de porc au lait.