Louisiana Wiggle

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The end of January is generally the slowest time of the year in restaurants around here. Strange, since school is back in session and the basketball team is usually doing great. Perhaps it's a hibernation instinct. The town starts to stir again around St. Valentine's Day, and soon we'll have spring and the Farmer's Market again. We begin switching our menu from winter to Louisiana, with of course, a few exceptions. Even though we're slower, there are lots of things we still want to serve that fit this season. Corned ham, I've already talked about. We 'll have one every Saturday for a while. There is always a clamor for sweetbreads and generally in February it is answered. I find food that rich less appetising in August. Paul has come up with a delicious Creole preparation for mackerel. We're using both king and Spanish as both are around now and they seem to alternate availability. Mackerel is one of those fish that people sometimes complain tastes fishy. I never know how to respond to this observation. And somewhere in the world, about this time each year, mangoes are in season. Suddenly they are inexpensive and they are everywhere. I use them to make mango salad. This is one of the few instances where my travels in Mexico have directly influenced the menu. I think everyone expects to some day come into Crook's and to find burritos and enchiladas- that I will finally have gone native or something, but I go out of my way to avoid this. There are plenty real Mexican restaurants run by real Mexicans around here. There is no need for my feeble efforts in that direction. Besides, I continue to be fascinated as I sift back over the food I grew up with in eastern North Carolina. I always find new possibilities to explore Southern there. Having said all this don't be surprised if I make one more attempt at tamales. While in Mississippi this fall Dean McCord and I followed the Tamale Trail for a while on our way to Oxford. I first encountered this variety of Southern tamale years ago in Arkansas. They were black with pepper. I put them on the menu at Crook's for a while, but we couldn't give them away. I may give them another shot this spring.

The sudden surfeit of mangoes reminds us that the seasonal fruits this time of the year come from the tropics. This brings up the current hot topic of going local or not, and I suppose, what do you do if seasonal is not local. I take a middle ground on this. I shop locally whenever it's practical. It's fresher and it keeps my money in the community, but I'm not giving up coffee, or lemons or vanilla. If you are too strict about this, you will end up cutting yourself off from the deliciousness of the unknown. And frankly, it isn't realistic to expect that everything you buy to have been gathered in a misty glade by poor but honest farmers or kindly old crones. We should try to act responsibly, but we also need to remain modern. The discussion takes a radical tinge from time to time, with some people suggesting that we should even give up unnecessary travel in order to avoid polluting. This seems dangerously isolationist to me. The last thing the world needs right now is for people to keep to their own tribe.

My grandmother once mentioned in passing, that she and some of her friends made some Baptists at Cape Hatteras mad by dancing the Louisiana Wiggle on a Sunday. I tucked that away with all the other stories. It's funny but I have no details. There were rumors about rum runners coming ashore on the Outer Banks during Prohibition and the like. It all adds to the legend. I always felt that I had a particular affinity for my grandmother and her friends. They came of age during the Roaring Twenties and I hit my stride in 1967. I think there is a similar world view. In any case, when I had to come up with a name for the triffle that I put on the menu one Mardi Gras, this story came to mind. It does wiggle a bit in its parfait glass.

Another thing I inherited from my grandmother was the feeling that cooking and gardening go hand in hand. My understanding of the plant world adds immeasurably to my understanding of cooking. I always have a tiny little kitchen garden, even though in truth I never have time to cook at home very much and a few years ago I added a small greenhouse onto the back of my house. Some herbs, a tomato plant or two and many varieties of hot chilis make up the bulk of my crop. (The peppers are a hobby. One plant produces enough for a season. I plant them all among my flowers. Many are gifts from friend's gardens. My oldest variety is Indochinese, given to me twenty-some years ago by a friend from Vietnam.) Last week I had the rare pleasure of pouring over seed catalogues while there was a winter storm outside my window. I've always loved doing this. It makes my house seem particularly cozy.

posted by Bill Smith at 4:42 AM 0 comments

Gumbo Z'Herbes

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Every once in a while, you encounter a food that is utterly delicious, yet is completely unknown to you. Thirty five years ago this happened to me with my first pesto. Three years ago it happened to me again in New Orleans. The restaurant was Dooky Chase's and the dish was gumbo z'herbes. It was one of many, many items on Mrs. Chase's lunch buffet. I thought I was collards when I saw it, but when I moved the spoon, I discovered it was full of meat- unlike collards here, at least. Everything we had that day was delicious, but everyone at our table kept remarking about this unknown recipe. It was clearly, more than collards, although they are indeed in it. It really stopped me in my tracks. After lunch, I asked Mrs. Chase about it. Ordinarily she only served it on Holy Thursday. Why something so meat laden should be served at during Lent, I can't say, but Louisiana usually does like it wants. She said that tradition has it that an uneven number of greens should be used, sometimes 5, sometimes 7 etc. She included carrot tops in hers, and pepper grass,which is wild. (I knew exactly what that was. I remember picking it along the railroad track, when I was little.) I was amazed that I had neither tasted nor even heard of something that is so delicious.

It takes a lot of greens to make a decent batch of gumbo z'herbes. I used a half a case each of turnip greens and mustard greens in my first batch this winter. It's on the menu now because we are approaching Mardi Gras. I always like to feature the food of Louisiana whenever I can. Each batch will vary a little. Other ingredients might include collards, leeks, cabbage spinach and sorrel if mine has survived this cold snap.Whether I go out and gather pepper grass remains to be seen. The railroad line that parallels the bike trail between Chapel Hill and Carrboro is rich foraging ground. I'll just stop adding things on an odd number.

Mardi Gras always seems to come along just when we begin to tire of the more solid dishes of the dead of winter. Since people from Louisiana will eat anything that moves, the sky is the limit. Besides gumbo z'herbes, there'll be a traditional red gumbo with pork, chicken and seafood, some kind of Cajun mackerel that we're still working on and sorbet made from milk punch that I learned from Marcelle Bienvenu. If I have time I'll make a king cake, although they dry out so fast they're only good for one day and it may be time to trot out Louisiana Wiggle again.

This winter, Mrs. Chase reopened the take out part of her restaurant. Hopefully the dining rooms will quickly follow. She is 84 years old and one of the most remarkable people I've ever met. Her manner reminds me of one of those movie actresses from the thirties- well spoken, well bred, witty, courteous, and smart. She's worked really hard her whole life as well. Since Katrina. I've been going to New Orleans from time to time to help my colleagues there rescue their restaurants. On one trip I worked at Dooky Chase's, pulling out soggy sheet rock and dragging ruined stoves and fryers out to the street. It seems like forever since the storm so it is especially disheartening that such important restaurants are still not open.

I had the good fortune to visit New Orleans about a month before Katrina. It was the best trip ever, but because of that I felt the destruction of the city all the more. I returned a few months after the storm, and even the mess we all saw on television did not prepare me for what I found. A year later, there had been progress, but Mrs. Chase's neighborhood seemed pretty much the same. I doubt I'll be going back this spring. The projects we were working on are all but done, and my construction skills are truthfully, rather limited. I will resume my role as a tourist though, and I urge everyone to do the same.

One last thought on all this. The powers that be were paralysed after Katrina, but a friend of mine who lives in New Orleans told me that every weekend, his church fellowship hall filled up with volunteers with sleeping bags and knapsacks who had come to do whatever they were asked. The week I was at Dooky Chase's, a bus from Mississippi pulled up. In it were people from the Viking Range factory. They jumped out with mops and soap and brooms and gloves and went to work sorting what was salvageable from what was trash. Then they washed, packed and labeled what was good. When Mrs. Chase (above, in the blue baseball cap) is ready to open, all of those pots and dishes will be ready to go. As a restaurant person, I know what a great gift this was. Lots of people from this area volunteered and raised funds. Our county health inspectors used vacation time to go down and inspect wells and water treatment plants. I know people who ran in fund raising marathons and who collected musical instruments to replaced lost ones. It's nice to know about all this in these times when some people can seem so hateful.

posted by Bill Smith at 8:44 AM 1 comments

The Smell of Burning Whiskey

Friday, January 18, 2008

I rely on smell when cooking, more than you might imagine. Sometimes aroma can tell you when something is exactly right. I don't know how many times something has been saved because of this. It usually happens seconds before it will smell exactly wrong. This week I was making our duck and onion soup. First you cook down about ten pounds of onions in a heavy dutch oven until they are reduced to about a quart. This takes hours and requires the onions to first release all their liquid into the pot, then this liquid is slowly boiled away. The onions will be brown and almost sugary at this point. I then pour on a cup of Bourbon or brandy. Sometimes this will ignite, sometimes not. I risk my eyelashes every time I do this, because I can't resist sticking my face into the resulting steam to inhale the delicious fragrance of whiskey burning off of browned onions. (This same thing happens near the beginning of boeuf bourguignon.) Gallons of duck stock are then fed into the soup pot, bit by bit all afternoon. We add shredded duck confit near the end of the cooking. It is served with grated Hickory Grove cheese, and some garlic toast.

We make the confit ourselves. Although time consuming, it is actually quite easy. Fresh duck legs are rubbed with a mixture of salt, raw garlic, something hot and a lot of the spices one generally associates with Christmas cookies. The salt is never the same. One batch will contain the jar of ground allspice that I bought by mistake, Another time I'll throw in all those annoying little nubs of nutmeg in the bottom of the jar, plus all the sharp shreds of bay leaves that you are afraid will choke someone, yet won't throw out. Sometimes fresh ginger, always cloves. On this last batch, I cheated near the end by stretching it with ground cinnamon, because it kept me from having to get out the food processor again. These duck legs turned out an appealing orange-brown color. The duck is kept in the salt for at least a week, then cooked slowly in a bath of lard and duck fat until a broom straw will pass through the thickest part of the leg without breaking. This verges on the folkloric, I know.

One more new arrival in this week of cold weather, lard and cast iron. I love pineapple upside down cake. It is one of the first things that I remember cooking. It was on a Boy Scout camping trip. We baked it in the coals of a campfire, in an iron Dutch oven and we used Bisquick. It came out perfectly and I remember being perfectly amazed. I cook mine in a skillet these days, and start it on top of the stove and finish it in the oven. I am still amazed, especially if I don't burn my arm when I flip it out onto its plate. Next week all of this will begin to give way to make room for our Mardi Gras menu. It comes early this year (February 5th). I look forward to this every winter. I love Louisiana and it's food, and I'm still mad about Katrina. I'll probably let fly about that again soon. My rant has become a yearly event. In the meantime, be thinking about milk punch sorbet, gumbo z'herbes and something rolled in Cajun salt.

posted by Bill Smith at 2:59 PM 0 comments

A Pineapple Full of Tequila and a Fried Frog

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

On my last full day in Celaya, I went with Luis and Carolina and their son, Luisito, to Lake Yurira, near the border with the State of Michoacan. On its shores are clustered large, thatch roofed fish houses that mainly serve what can be caught there. The lake is huge so it feels like the sea. There are mountains in the distance. There is music. We get pineapples that have been hollowed out and then refilled with fruit juice, tequila, cayenne pepper and ice. The tops have been rimmed with salt and decorated with paper flowers. They are large and delicious. We are brought a large platter of what appear to be hot sizzling whole minnows. I had had something like this years ago in France. They are very salty, sort of like fried sardines. I hear Luis order a ranita. I'm pretty sure this means little frog, but I say nothing. Carolina and Luisito both get coctel , that delicious cold seafood gazpacho made with shrimp and chunks of avocado. I have used it as a soup at Crook's, having been taught the recipe years ago by people on my staff. It is generally served in an over sized goblet, but for children it comes in a sherbet glass. (If you order this around here, make sure that you are not getting the extra fancy version which is finished off with a spritz of orange Fanta). I choose the devilled shrimp. This is the second time that I have encountered fresh water shrimp in Mexico. The first was in the mountains in Oaxaca. They were caught in a river.

As I order this, I am reminded of a trip to Ecuador years ago, where I encountered women selling plastic bags of boiled lake snails. They were so pretty and smelled so good that I almost couldn't resist them until I took a good look at the state of the lake from which they had come. No such caution today! The situation was too enchanting. I didn't examine this lake.

The ranita was indeed a frog, only it wasn't little. It was plate sized. It had been cleaned and gutted to be sure, but it was pretty much all there ,head and all. It perched between the red rice and the cabbage salad. And it tasted exactly like chicken. When Luis was finished, all that remained was a little pile of very clean, shiny bones.

(If you have time, click on the photos. They are quite nice when enlarged. This is true throughout the blog.)

posted by Bill Smith at 9:18 AM 0 comments

Observation Intrudes On Indolence

Saturday, January 12, 2008

I have to say that I am becoming quite an expert on the workings of the small butcher shops of Mexico. This time I have seen chorizos made, and then hung up to dry, and have witnessed the creation of carnitas from start to finish. The old saying about not watching the making of sausage if you want to continue enjoying it, is made flesh here, as it were. Chorizos are sausages, so I'll say no more about them. Carnitas start out looking like something in a horror movie and end up as a delicious sandwich. In between there is a copper cauldron filled with suspicious looking bubbling black oil into which is thrown everything from what appears to be osso buco and roasts, to lungs (they have to be pierced or they'll float on top), to organs I can't honestly identify. One thing looks like some kind of sea creature, but Luis swears it comes from a cow. Anyway, all this is boiled together for hours. Salt water and oranges are added, then it is drained and chopped bit by bit as it is sold. People come up and ask for specific things- "Put lots of liver in mine", or "Not so much fat this time', or "More fat this time ", or "Please chop in some pork rinds". The chopping is done on a slice of tree trunk that has obviously seen many years of use.

Being observant is my only constructive activity on this trip. I usually try to associate my peregrinations with my profession but I can't think of a single instance of deliberately having done so on this trip. Mexico may well be the ruin of me. I love societies where it is impossible to detect even the tiniest smidgen of Protestant Work Ethic. I've always preferred Italy and Spain to northern Europe. This is not to say that the people are not industrious. They are. It is just a different kind of industry, and it is accompanied by a useful understanding of the failures of the flesh (there's that word again), that are inevitable.

I love language mix ups. I'm sitting in a cyber-cafe as I write this and I've just asked my astonished waiter for a plate of gatitas (kittens) instead of galletas (cookies).

posted by Bill Smith at 2:20 PM 0 comments

The Return of Corned Hams

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Watching the food go out of the kitchen last night, it suddenly dawned on me that we are in full winter mode. It may seem odd for me to say that I suddenly noticed something so obvious, but that's how the menu ebbs and flows around here. We know the foods that we will be serving in cold weather, but we don't sit down one day and say that the winter menu will be this and it will begin on this date. Paul and I discuss upcoming possibilities every week. We talk about what's liable to be around and what is starting to go away. Pork shanks weren't the hit we had hoped, so maybe it's time for Cheese Pork. Somebody asked me about rutabaga the other day. Eliza MacLean called and I remember that people expect corned ham after the holidays. There are bluefish off the coast again, but this time let's bring back the diced vegetables and fines herbes . It's more wintry and we haven't done that in a few years. And what about pineapple upside down cake? This is how we work. Happily Paul keeps notes, because I can't remember anything. People sometimes ask for things I don't really recall making. Possibly they are asking about the one night stand of a lucky combination of odds and ends plus leftovers, but I have to beam appreciatively as I try to pry clues that might jog my memory. I hope I'm not implying too cavalier an attitude about the menu, but after all these years I have confidence in this wish and a prayer approach.

In any case, last night we had a wonderful winter menu. Besides the bluefish and cheese pork, there was duck with vinegar brown sauce and pink grapefruit (the cranberries went away with the holidays); that New Moon cheese from Chapel Hill Creamery, baked and served on winter greens with fresh pecan halves that my father gave me, and the first corned ham of the season. Everything was colorful, festive and glistening with rich sauces. Just my cup of tea.

I have indeed decided to break form this year and return to Mexico for my birthday instead of making my usual trip to Quebec. I have more friends to cut up with in Celaya. So this year, no veal brains on toast with brown butter and capers at the Cafe St-Malo on January 11th. I have to admit that thinking about this gives me a little pause, but I'll probably go north later this year. It is the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec and they are planning quite a wingding. Speaking of guts, look for sweetbreads to appear when I get back, and those pecans will probably show up in ice cream sometime soon.

posted by Bill Smith at 7:15 AM 0 comments

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