About Me

My photo
I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Let the Good Times Roll!

New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”  ― Mark Twain

© 2014 Chris Terrell
That New Orleans is a major gastronomic destination can hardly be disputed. Within its confines, one will find food both low-brow and high-brow, and everything in between. Everything from po-boys and red beans and rice to high-end French. What may be less evident is how New Orleans became the center of creole cuisine that we know today.

It is a port city that, over many, many years, welcomed an immense variety of humanity: French, Africans, Spanish, Portuguese, and Asians. As a port city, somewhat isolated from the rest of the United States, it cultivated a certain openness and joie de vivre that fostered culinary experimentation. After all, the unofficial motto for New Orleans is "
Laissez les bons temps rouler"—“let the good times roll!”

I love New Orleans. I love its insouciance. I love its practiced shabbiness. 

It's been a few years since I lasted visited New Orleans. I miss it, though I'm not sure I would trust myself there this time of year. I still remember the first time I shared my love of New Orleans with my two boys. In was in late January, and we left around 2:00PM on a bright, clear, somewhat warm Friday afternoon. It is not a bad drive from Birmingham to New Orleans. A straight shot on interstate the whole way.

We stayed at a condo in the Warehouse District with my dad and his significant-other, Veronica. The kids were excited for different reasons. My son Hamp, with a strong interest in anything martial, was looking forward to the WWII Museum. My son Forrest, with a strong interest in anything culinary, was looking forward to the restaurants.

By the time we settled in and I had parked the car, it was nearly 8:00PM. We were all hungry. Though I was unfamiliar with the Warehouse District, there was no shortage of places to eat. Wee were not necessarily looking for fine dining, and so we ended up at Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar on the corner of Girod and Tchoupitoulas. This worked out well. Hamp and I both got hamburgers, which were quite good. Forrest got the special: catfish over rice, which was also quite good.

The next morning was another clear, beautiful day. After I had a quick run along Old Man River, we headed off to the WWII Museum. Breakfast that morning was a surprise. We came across the Crescent City Farmers Market at the corner of Girod and Magazine. It is open every Saturday from 8:00AM to Noon. I grabbed a croissant and some chicory coffee. Forrest grabbed a muffin the size of his head. Fully fueled, we headed off to the museum

After the museum, it was pushing noon. We were all hungry. One thing that Hamp (the non-foodie son) and I share is a love—some would say, a passion—for pizza. For me, pizza and beer is one of the perfect food-drink combinations. But beer, pizza, and Saturday afternoon is the perfect food-drink-time combination. After we quick check on Yelp and Tomato (Urbanspoon back then), we discovered Dolce Vita on a nondescript section of St. Charles.

We were not disappointed. This was some of the best pizza I’ve had outside of NYC! Believe it or not, the chef and owner, Bogdan Mocanu, is not Italian, but Romanian! He grew up cooking with a wood-fired oven and was trained in John Besh’s restaurant, Domenica, so he knows what he’s doing. The story of how he ended up in New Orleans is interesting. He had a food truck in Baton Rouge, but it got totaled by a drunk driver. Only in Louisiana! Bad for him, but good for us. 

By this point, my enthusiasm and love of walking and exploring new places had taken its toll on my little tour group. My dad, Veronica, and the kids were tuckered out and ready to nap. I dropped them off at the condo, and after a quick 15-minute power nap myself, I grabbed my camera to take some photographs in the French Quarter—a “target-rich environment” for any photographer. 


© 2014 Chris Terrell
© 2014 Chris Terrell
That night we had 8:30PM dinner reservations at Cochon, a restaurant that I had been trying to get into for the last three trips to New Orleans. Because I had some time, and happy hour had just arrived (isn’t it always happy hour in New Orleans?!), I decided to meet up with two dear friends who live in New Orleans: Victor and Jennifer. Victor is an amazing jazz pianist who teaches at the University of New Orleans and Jennifer owns a children’s clothing store in the Garden District on Magazine called Angelique Kids

We had conspired to ditch our kids and meet for drinks at Delmonico on St. Charles. Delmonico is one of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants. Now, I don’t know about the food, as I’ve not eaten there (Victor and Jennifer both agree that its good), but if the food and service is anything like the bar, then “bam!” I’ve got to try it. I had a Sazarac—of course!—and a rum punch (emphasize the word “punch”). Both drinks were perfect. And the service! Usually, I time my second drink so that there is a little bit left in the first one, so as to ensure no lag time. No need!  I had barely taken another sip after I placed my rum punch order and “bam!” there was my drink. 

© 2014 Chris Terrell
As I mentioned, dinner that night was at Cochon. “Cochon” is French for “pig.” An appropriate name, for this place is all about  pork! And speaking of “pig,” we pigged out! 



Here’s what we had: 
  • Wood-fired oysters with chili garlic butter 
  • Shrimp & tasso ham with charred greens & field peas 
  • Fried livers with pepper jelly & toast 
  • Smoked pork ribs with watermelon pickle 
  • Rabbit & dumplings 
  • Oven-roasted gulf fish “fisherman’s style 
  • Oyster & sandwich 
  • Macaroni & cheese casserole 
 And for dessert we had:
  • Farmers cheese and Meyer lemon pie 
  • Chocolate peanut butter pie with candied spicy peanuts 

After we stuffed the last bite into our mouths and paid the bill, we then made the long oscitant walk back to the condo, groaning with delight. 

We slept in late the next morning and then headed off to Cafe du Monde for beignets and café au lait. But before heading back to Birmingham, I gave in and took my kids for a stroll down Bourbon Street. Okay, so I may not win parent of the year, but at least it was a Sunday afternoon. Bourbon Street was relatively calm. After picking up some king cakes at Rouses on Royal street, we had to hit the road and head back to Birmingham.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
A few days later, I got to thinking about New Orleans. I recalled that in law school I made jambalaya all the time. It is a great dish—cheap, simple, and sustaining. Having just been to New Orleans, I decided I would make it again. When I made jambalaya back then, I relied heavily on The Joy of Cooking, my one and only cookbook. Consequently, I cracked open the latest edition and looked up the recipe for jambalaya. 

I was a bit  underwhelmed. 

It seemed like such a good recipe eighteen years ago, but not now. It lacked flavor. No worries. I took the basic recipe and improved upon it.  Maybe I've changed. Maybe I'm a better cook. Anyway, here's my version:

The Insouciant Chef’s Jambalaya

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter
16 oz. andouille sausage 
1/2 cup red wine
1 medium chopped yellow onion
3 garlic cloves minced
1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and diced
1/2 cup diced celery
1 cup extra long-grain rice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups warm chicken stock
14 1/2 oz. can of whole tomatoes with juices
1 tablespoon of dried thyme 
1 tablespoon of dried oregano
2 tablespoons of paprika
1 tablespoon of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

In a dutch oven, melt the butter and add the sausage and brown. When the sausage has browned, pour in red wine and de-glaze the pan, then add the onion, green pepper, celery, and garlic and simmer over low heat for about 2 minutes. Then add rice and tomato paste and stir to coat.

Add chicken stock and tomatoes (crushing tomatoes by hand).

Add bay leaf and other spices and simmer for about 45 minutes to one hour until thickened and rice is soft.

Salt and pepper to taste. (Of course, you can adjust the spices as you wish depending on how spicy you like your jambalaya.)

Bon appétit!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

I Think I Got Shipwrecked on the Spice Islands

I’ve tried everything....

Chris Terrell © 2017
Before
I’ve tried alphabetizing. I’ve tried country of origin. I’ve tried flavor profile. I’ve even tried color. No, I’m not talking about the latest culinary fads, but my spice cabinet. It’s a mess. And no matter how hard I try, I cannot keep it organized. So I continue to buy spices I don’t need because I cannot find the spices I already have. I have two jars of ground nutmeg (obviously a panic buy during Thanksgiving 2015); I have three jars of chili powder (2014 Iron Bowl?); and I have one unlabeled jar of a spice that I cannot identify (don't ask). 

If this were 1517 rather than 2017, I'd be sitting on a fortune. I would've retired on this spice cabinet way, way back in the day! 

What a difference 500 years make. 

Chris Terrell ©2017
After
If you were living in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, life was dull as dishwater. Speaking of dishwater, I’m pretty sure this is where the “don’t-drink-the-water warning” came from! The only option you had for hydration in 1354 was  to drink beer…at breakfast…at lunch…and at dinner. These folks had to have been buzzed most of the time. 

But if the water didn’t kill you, the food certainly could. It was bland. It was boiled. It was boring. No wonder folks tried to score some Malabar black pepper in a back alley moat to make that stuff edible. Pepper was medieval crack to these people. 

It was no wonder then that the Europeans' need to "spice up" their dull culinary lives lured the Portuguese explorer Vasca da Gama to India in 1498. The spices he hauled back to Europe covered his expenses several times over. Nice rate of return Mr. da Gama!  

These days, spices are cheap and scoring some nothing more dangerous than a short drive to the Piggy Wiggly. We even have entire stores dedicated to selling nothing but spices. First world problems, right?

No cuisine may have a stronger association with spices than  Indian, especially curry—a melange of various individual spices. Many of these mixtures, or "masalas," are family secrets, passed down from generation to generation. 

And speaking of Indian spices, during my expedition into the dark recesses of my spice cabinet, I found six jars containing different Indian spice blends, made by a company named  Ajika. I grabbed the jar for Tandoori Chicken Blend and, believe it or not, the “use-by” date was many months away. And on the back of the jar in very fine print was a recipe for grilled tandoori chicken that sent me scurrying in a huff to find my reading glasses. Dinner that night was solved. It was quick, easy, and tasted great. 

For this post, I wanted to share my discovery with my dear readers. However, there was one problem. Ajika no longer appears to be a going concern. I couldn’t find the website advertised on the back of the jar, and even on Amazon the available jars were limited.   

Sharing a recipe for a commercial spice blend that may or may not be readily available doesn't make a lot of sense if one can't get ahold of it. The only other option was to re-create the recipe. On the back of the jar, the ingredients were listed simply as: “cinnamon, clove, fennel, turmeric, ginger, spices.” Not much to go on. This was going to take a bit of detective work and so down the rabbit hole that is the Internet I went.

I quickly uncovered more tandoori masalas than there are bodegas in Manhattan. After several dead ends, however, I came across this recipe for tandoori masala that looked promising. So, with the Ajika spice blend  recreated—perhaps—here’s the recipe:

Grilled Tandoori Chicken

For the Tandoori Masala:

2 T cumin powder
2 T coriander powder
4 tsp turmeric powder
4 tsp chili powder
4 tbsp sweet paprika
4 tsp cinnamon powder
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom

Preparation:

For the marinade, combine four tablespoons of the tandoori masala with 1 cup of yogurt, 4 cloves of minced garlic, 2 tablespoons of minced garlic, 4 tablespoons of lime juice (about 2 limes), and salt to taste. Pierce four boneless chicken breasts and poke numerous holes in the chicken breasts with skewers. Place the chicken in a gallon Ziploc bag with the marinade and marinate for 4 to 24 hours. Grill at high heat on both sides until tender. 


So what started out as the dreaded task of cleaning out my spice cabinet, turned into a delicious recipe for grilled tandoori chicken. And much like those discoverers of the 15th and 16th Century, I realized that one will never know how to get from the start of one's journey to the end. But then there’s a real reason for that phrase: “variety is the spice of life.”