Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fêtes Past, Fêtes Future: Finding Something Lost in the Réveillon

There is no city the same size as New Orleans that cares as much about its food, a fact that is probably no more true than it is today. I think this has to do with the type of person that the city is attracting as of late. This also has some likely bearing why Orleans Parish cannot boast a single TGI Fridays, Applebee's, or Red Lobster. Few times of year are more appealing to revel in this fact than Christmastide, when réveillon menus begin to appear at local restaurants.

A recent article in the often joyless publication Cooking Light did a fine if ironic job of recounting the resurgence of the réveillon tradition in New Orleans. For a moment I imagined its subscribers' tears dropping wetly on the page as they juxtaposed a life they will never allow themselves to know with the I Can't Believe it's Not Butter lurking in their refrigerator and the 7 pm spinning class at the gym. Yet I soon reawakened to reality and acknowledged that they will only see it as a novelty undertaken in a strange land.

Indeed, the key failing of the Cooking Light piece is that it does not mention the most important dimension of réveillon, and that is the philosophy behind it. To be sure, the feast is a meal. But more critically, it is a statement - it is a worldview. Moreover, you needn't be as wealthy as the Brennan clan to pull the thing off at home. At some level you just have to reject the no trans-fat microwave popcorn age in which we live. That is why the réveillon is also a perfect fit for today's New Orleans, a city increasingly made up of individuals who have come here seeking to be expatriates yet remain in their own country. It is a place where old ways (both high and low) and all their attendant inconveniences still flourish. For certain, the city has been grossly commodified for tourist consumption, but it is also a world without Outback Steakhouse. It is a place with color and character so often missing in American landscape. Certainly, you can find similar restaurants offering multi-course prix fixe menus elsewhere (like Baccanalia in Atlanta, for instance) but few places where it is part of the lifestyle.

Jessie and I are looking forward to the day where we can host our own réveillon feast after Midnight Mass, but that will sadly be some years away. Newly married and yet without the great family magnet that are newborn babies, we must still travel to the East for holidays. We decided, however, to avail ourselves of a grand indulgence last night and take in a réveillon menu at one of our favorite local restaurants.

Martinique Bistro on Magazine Street has been the site of many enjoyable dinners. For the same price or maybe a tiny bit more than what you might spend on a mediocre meal at Romano's Macaroni Grill, you can have fine dining, excellent service, and a decent wine list. When the weather is fine, there are few restaurants that offer a more pleasant courtyard. In the winter, the dining room offers a cozy retreat that might as well be in Provence. Last night, we took in their réveillon menu.

I do not intend this post to be a restaurant review, because I question my qualifications to take on Martinique on its level. Suffice to say that going during the Saints game was a stroke of genius. The Saints lost to Dallas anyhow (we caught the occasional "son of a bitch!" coming from the kitchen) and the place was nearly empty, making it a homey experience.  Yet a few recommendations - the lobster appetizier - the endive salad - the gumbo - the duck....!

For now we will collect these menus and memories until the day when family gather here for our own réveillon.

Merry Christmas from New Orleans!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Louisiana Citrus

It is time for another post of morning lagniappe! Partly because it is all I seem to have time for these days but mostly because the greatness of Louisiana grapefruit cannot be ignored!

While our wonderful Satsuma crop is familiar to some outside of Louisiana, few people outside of the state realize that you can readily acquire navel oranges and grapefruit grown right here. Only the southernmost region of coastal Louisiana features a climate that can reliably support commercial citrus production, most famously in environmentally fragile Plaquemines Parish.

I noticed grapefruit for sale at Dorignac's a few weeks ago, but finally decided to buy this week when the price hit an incredibly low mark of $.59 apiece. The flavor of the sweet ruby red fruit is as good as the photograph in this post suggests.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Morning Lagniappe

We've got a busy day ahead of us today, having to drive to Atlanta from New Orleans - and we can't leave until at least 4:00 PM. So I whipped up a late breakfast for Jessie and I as we both go about our morning work at the house. This is definitely one of life's luxuries of her working from home and my being an academic - a somewhat flexible schedule. Of course, it only works because we actually get things accomplished this way!

In the refrigerator was a package of Richard's Cajun Country tasso-style ham originally destined to season some collard greens. I also had some early Louisiana Satsumas that bought a few days ago at the Robért Fresh Market that is only a 3-minute walk from our house. Add some eggs and a little leftover smoked Gouda cheese from a party we had a couple weeks ago for the wedding, and there you have it!

In a lot of ways this dish is not remarkable save for two things. One is the early Satsuma, which is green on the outside and is an absolute visual treat on one's plate when sliced open. One can never call Satsumas "beautiful" late in the season unless referring to the flavor (which is better, I think.) Alas, Satsumas are almost never shipped outside of Louisiana. The other element here is the tasso, which for mass market packaged meat, was pretty darn delicious! Then again, to say that this is "mass market" means that it is sold from perhaps Hattiesburg in the East and Beaumont in the West. One finds it here next to the Oscar Meyer bacon.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Of Plum Cakes and Such

It all happened a couple of weeks ago while in the midst of moving into our new home in New Orleans. While we were no longer swimming in boxes, and the with the furniture was mostly in place, our cupboard would have definitely registered something approaching recognition on Mother Hubbard's face. There was only one thing for it - a stocking up trip to my all-time favorite grocery store in the metro, Dorignac's on Veterans Parkway in Metairie.

And there they were, right by the entrance, stopping me dead in my tracks. Prune plums, like Concord grapes, are simply not available year round. In fact, neither are they a fruit you that will find just anywhere. First there is the relatively recent and perverse obsession with blotting the word "prune" from the lexicon (they aren't "prunes" anymore, but "dried plums" for those keeping score at home.) What is a grocer to do? Label the bin "plums that could be useful for making dried plums?" Fortunately for us, New Orleans is home to a substantial Italian culinary tradition, and the prune plum figures into this culture. It is a fruit that reaches its true potential when baked, a process that allows the intense flavors of its deep purple skin to burst forth in all their glory. Reinforcing the notion that I'd fallen into some rarefied prune plum cosmic reality, they were also on sale for only $1.69 a pound. Too busy to bake? Probably. But this opportunity left me with no choice.

My grandmother's plum cake is a thing of pleasant childhood memories, and I'm sure I babbled about it on the drive home. Once there, I called my mother to get the recipe, it not being among my clippings. Luckily she knew where it was - it had been printed in the Cary, Illinois jubilee cookbook published some time in the 1960s. Reading the ingredients over the phone and transcribing them was fun, but mom and I both agreed that it was missing salt. Regina Hohenstein, aka "grandma," was not above holding out on a key ingredient. But there was no fooling us. The recipe is not Italian, at least to my knowledge, but makes a fantastic after dinner dessert with coffee or an equally tasty breakfast. Here it is below (with all of the ingredients!)

1/2 lb. butter
4 eggs
1 C sugar
2 C flour
grated (or better yet, Microplaned) rind of a lemon
1/2 tsp. salt
sugar and cinnamon for dusting.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter with a mixer, adding sugar and salt. Separate the 4 eggs and beat in the yolks only, reserving the whites in a separate mixing bowl. Add flour and lemon rind and mix into butter/sugar mixture with a wooden spoon or similar utensil. At this point it should be fairly stiff, almost like a cookie dough. With a clean mixer, beat the egg whites until nice and fluffy and then fold into the batter. Once you have incorporated the egg whites, spread into a 12x18 ungreased jelly roll pan. Don't be afraid to spread it fairly thin - it will, in fact rise. Just make sure it is even. Slice prune plums into quarters, pitting them (be careful, the edges of prune plums can be like little razor blades - I sliced my thumb open on one!) and placing the wedges just as close together on top of the batter as they will lie. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Bake for 30-35 minutes at 350.  The cake should not be too brown - you will know it is done when the edges start pulling away from the pan. If it starts getting brown, pull it out!

Monday, August 24, 2009

New Orleans Restaurant Map

With so many friends and family coming into town for the wedding in October, I've taken it upon myself to begin construction on a Google Map with restaurant recommendations. New Orleans has so many fantastic eateries that no list can be comprehensive, but for those who are unfamiliar with the city, this list will quickly expand your horizons. As you can see, a car is probably the best way to get around town.

View Justin's New Orleans food picks in a larger map

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Frustrating Phenomenon of "Almost Great"

Blackboards with campy phrases adorn the cheerful interior of Ignatius Eatery.

Every now and again, I encounter this in the classroom: the student who, despite revealing enormous capacity for greatness, never quite fulfills their promise. I can see them in my mind's eye now, schlepping across campus in flip-flops, perpetually happy with a too-easily gained "B" average.

Perhaps this is too harsh of an analogy to make with Ignatius Eatery at 4200 Magazine Street in Uptown New Orleans. In many ways, it is a great neighborhood restaurant, offering reasonably priced fare, an inviting atmosphere, and decent service. But their capacity to do some things extremely well and plating them next to the dreadfully ordinary is just kind of frustrating. It's good, but it could be so much better than it is.

Straight up, I would recommend Ignatius to anyone who wants an easy and mostly satisfying meal, especially if you have out-of-town guests in tow who are looking for some local New Orleans favorites such as po-boys and red beans and rice and yearn for a hassle-free outing. (Of course, if I were in the French Quarter, I would go straight to Stella! ...but that's another post. And my favorite po-boy is hands-down the fried oyster variety at Domelise's, but they offer limited hours and accept cash only. )

While I have read online reviews that complain about bad service, I have found the staff both friendly and attentive on recent trips. One online reviewer from Chicago, her heart set on "jumbalaya," ended up at Ignatius when she found that she couldn't wear jeans at Commander's Palace. She declared the food "just okay," but the bread pudding as "YUM!" On the one hand, this made me think that the Crescent City might want to ramp up its campaign of culinary enlightenment in the rust belt. But I was also struck at how I and this gourmand from the City with Broad Shoulders came away with the same impression of Ignatius, if for different reasons.

Like that "B" student, there are many things that Ignatius does very well. Guests at every table receive a carafe of ice water and chilled glasses upon arrival, which is a particularly nice touch on a hot August afternoon. Beer is served in paper bags ("Camp Street" style) - a trifle silly but tolerable in a place that aims to be funky. Yet it is the food where a restaurant lives or dies, and there's a little of both taking place on the table at Ignatius.

Despite the heat of the day, Jessie and I shared a cup of the crab and corn bisque and found it wonderfully rich, tangy, and sweet with terrific crab flavor. Likewise, my roast beef po-boy featured many of the best qualities of its kind served throughout the city. I'm not a huge fan of sandwiches slathered with Maggi-style brown gravy mix, and while I find the famous "debris" at Mother's quite tasty, I always feel afterward as if I'd been bobbing for apples in a hotel pan full of pot roast juice. Ignatius delivers tender pulled beef in a savory sauce on a Leidenheimer roll - simple and good, though a little on the dry side for some people's tastes. I'll admit that I was also happy that I wasn't wearing part of the sandwich when I left.

The menu also includes something advertised as "boudin meat loaf." (Those unfamiliar with boudin sausage, a foodstuff with nearly as many variations in southern Louisiana as there are snowflakes in the Antarctic, should really check out The Boudin Link.) To call it such is a little misleading, as the boudin really only contributes a small amount to the meatloaf's pleasant flavor profile, yet it was tremendously good. That no thought had been given to the meatloaf's appearance could have been forgiven if it were not next to a scoop full of soggy yellow corn and unmemorable potatoes that would have been more at home in an army chow line. And this is crux of my gripe: what dish could be easier to render (in summer, no less) than simple sweet corn? Moreover, in an establishment where ketchup bottles line shelves in the dining room, wouldn't it have been simple to put a little color on meatloaf? With more care, and Ignatius could be oh so much better. Maybe not Commander's, but better.

Then again, perhaps I doth protest too much. Like my "B" students, Ignatius is eminently likable, and I'll undoubtedly make a return visit.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

My Grandfather's Brandy

A few weekends ago found my mother and I stocking up on the food supplies that I would need for the then-pending wedding shower in South Carolina. We had started the morning early at Patak's "Sausage Chalet" in Austell, Georgia (more on that in a later post!) and had spent much of the rest of the day generally goofing off and seeking out the quality and offbeat in what can otherwise be a pretty generic corner of suburban strip mall America. Our last stop was at Total Wine, a place that can present a financial danger to anyone who carries a credit card in their wallet. We had filled the cart with all of the Cava and wine necessary for the coming event and had already begun aiming it at the checkout aisle when mom suggested detouring past the liquor offerings.

"Your grandfather used to drink this when I was a girl," she said. "What?" I thought. Her father, Ernest Hohenstein, died a couple of years before I was born. He'd emigrated from Stettin, Germany in 1924, the old capitol of Pomeranian Prussia. Today it is part of Poland and called Szszecin. Being the youngest, I was the only one of my siblings to never know him. But I think I would have liked him, had I the chance. This trip to Total Wine only reinforced that notion.

The bottle in question was a German brandy by the name of Asbach Uralt - "der geist des weines." This liquor comes from the Alsatian region of Germany and with the exception of an interruption in production during the Second World War, has been continuously distilled since 1892. Apparently a far bigger brand in Europe, it is not something one typically finds stocked at the local liquor store. Asbach ages this grape wine brandy for three to four years in Limousin oak casks, which I suspect contributes to its smooth character. At about $30 for a 750ml bottle, it is an affordable luxury.

I've often found the manner in which beverage writers describe flavor profiles a tad absurd, so I will try to place my impressions in the vernacular rather than descending into "peppery hints" and "notes of oak." As a bourbon or Irish whisky drinker, I think those of a similar mind would find Asbach Uralt a pleasant change of pace. It lacks the "burn" one senses with a bourbon and leaves behind a far smoother, pleasant aftertaste. Jessie gives it her seal of approval, because I apparently do not reek of a tavern after consuming this brandy. (She does not care for the smell of bourbon on my breath, sadly.) Yet it isn't quite Cognac, which for many is a good thing. As one reviewer suggests, "this isn't your father's Cognac, this is your grandfather's brandy." How true. A quick search reveals a several websites that suggest its use in cocktails, and I'm inclined to believe that Asbach Uralt would put a unique twist on some old standbys that call for bourbon or rye.

The English used on the company's website brings to mind the stilted prose that used to grace computer manuals from the 1980s, but it does offer a bit of history and background on this venerable product. And it appears that the folks at Asbach have also entered the maw of social networking with its own fan page on Facebook.

I haven't been this excited about an alcoholic beverage since I stumbled across Hendrick's Gin about a year and a half ago. But this is of a much different character, one that takes me back to a place that is both foreign and utterly familiar.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

June Showers bring October Weddings... and "Girlie Food"

When it comes right down to it, Jessie and I already think of ourselves as married. After all, she did follow me out to Mississippi last June and we've been engaged for almost a year. In fact, we would probably already be married if the logistics of the last twelve months had given us time to actually schedule a ceremony. But now it's finally time to pay the piper, and that means we are awash in invitations, and hotel reservations, and showers, and cakes, and gift registry, etc. Let's also not forget to mention the joy that is navigating all of the bureaucratic trappings of a Catholic wedding. I'm proud to say that we've been crossing obligations off of this formidable list in a pretty orderly manner, one at a time. Our extended planning period has been an enormous blessing.

Although it seemed as though it was forever in the future when we first scheduled it, next weekend we will drive to South Carolina for Jessie's shower. It has mostly been a collaborative effort involving her maid of honor, sister, and mother. I volunteered early on to cook for the occasion if for no other reason than because to go to Jessie's mother's home and not spending the weekend cooking would seem utterly foreign. The main problem with all of this is that I have little experience cooking the sort of "girlie food" one expects at a shower.

Because of my said culinary shortcomings I decided to test-drive a few sufficiently girlie recipes. One is my take on chicken salad, the old standby of garden club meetings and wedding showers. The other is a little more involved, featuring grilled pork tenderloin and what Jessie and I affectionately call "cheeseball." If the chicken salad is something we might expect from Melanie Wilkes, than the tenderloin is straight out of Steel Magnolias. This seems appropriate, because I think there will be a little of both in attendance next Saturday.

As a side note, I learned early-on that my focaccia, the only fail-safe bread that I bake, will simply not do for finger sandwiches. While rich with flavor and pleasing to the eye, it is simply too firm and chewy for such dainty fare. Restaurants and caterers often favor visual appeal to the detriment of practicality, but one can only wonder at the value of tasty chicken salad if the majority of it disgorges onto your plate after the first bite. Both sandwiches, therefore, will rest on thinly sliced French bread from a grocer's bakery.

In the test kitchen: an attractive but messy chicken salad sandwich on focaccia bread.

Chicken Salad with Apples:

My chicken salad could hardly be any easier. The day before making this concoction, grill as many boneless chicken breasts as you think you might need. My favorite preparation is simply to rub them with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill for 10 minutes a side on a low flame. Let them reach room temperature after removing from the grill and then refrigerate. When I'm ready to make the chicken salad, I cube the breast meat. Then I cube apples (Granny Smith, McIntosh, or any other fairly tart and firm apple will do) in a ratio of 1 apple to every two large chicken breasts. Round out the salad with green onion, chopped Italian parsely, mayo, and season as needed with paprika and salt and pepper. I would consider adding some chopped pecans or walnuts too, but someone here is not a fan of these. The apple gives the crunch that celery would normally provide, and I think it offers more flavor.

We have yet to come up with a name for my other creation, so "tenderloin á la cheeseball" will just have to do for now.

Guests to our home are familar with what we call cheeseball, our great staple of entertaining. Its origins trace back to May 2008 trip to Napoleon House in the French Quarter. We were within steps of the State Supreme Court building when Jessie's random cravings set upon us. Said cravings are sometimes easily fulfilled (cheese fries, for instance) but often they are not. Like trying to find Thai food along US78 through Northern Alabama. By the time we'd crossed the Napoleon House's threshold, I had only been able to tease out in our familiar question-and-answer routine that Jessie's craving could be for something "sweet, or maybe cheese." Cheese often finds its way to our table, and during this particular trip we'd twice had excellent plates - once at Café Degas and again at Bayona. Jessie spied an offering on the menu promising a spread of "goat cheeses" served with pita and yeast bread, and promptly ordered.

Although this dish has been different on every subsequent visit that we have made to Napoleon House, the basics have remained essentially the same. It consists of a two-inch ball of white cheese, mostly feta, extended by either cream cheese (today) or a soft chèvre (originally) and seasoned with chopped parsley and green onion. The first time we tried it, the cheeseball was very crumbly, but on subsequent visits it has been smooth and spreadable -- likely due to the switch to cream cheese and the addition of a little bit of sour cream -- discoveries we also made on the road to cheeseball nirvana.

OUR cheeseball has evolved over time as well, and what I describe here is the latest iteration. We found that garlic was just too powerful (especially when Microplaned) while green onion did not supply enough punch. Shallots became the ideal in-between. Chèvre yields a greater tartness, but makes the dish more expensive and the flavor difference hardly justifies the cost. Countless times we have had this spread on Carr's water crackers with a nice red wine - our version of the good life on a dime.

The fixin's for cheeseball: feta, parsley, sour cream, cream cheese, shallot.

  • Equal parts crumbled feta and cream cheese (about 3-4 oz. each)
  • chopped parsley to taste
  • approx. 1 tablespoon shallot, finely chopped
  • black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon sour cream (what makes it so spreadable!)

Mix together with a fork & put into ramekin or mound into a ball on a plate. Keeps in the refrigerator covered for about a week. Though it never lasts a week.

The inspiration for the sandwich came out of a need to pack some lunch for one of our rambles in the Delta. (You can find good food at restaurants in the Delta, but see above craving and understand the wisdom of toting rations.) I generally dislike deli meat and have long ago mastered the art of slow-grilling roasts for the purpose of making sandwich meat. We had some leftover grilled pork tenderloin in the refrigerator. (Slow grill a tenderloin on low heat, 10-12 minutes a side & let rest before slicing.) By some miracle we also had a little leftover cheeseball. Combining the two on bread yielded something on the order of euphoria. The sandwich below is a direct descendant of this moment.

Making up the tenderloin à la cheeseball sandwich. This is not rocket science, folks!

Tenderloin á la cheeseball sandwiches
  • Spread a generous application of above cheeseball on one side of bread. Use mayonaise on the other half.
  • Place a layer of thinly-sliced English cucumber and thinly-sliced grilled pork tenderloin on sandwich

The secret, of course, is in the cheeseball. Only time will tell, however, if the guests enjoy these sandwiches as much as we do. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gag Me with a Twelve Pound Cheeseburger!

Few sayings ring truer than the chorus of Bruce Springsteen's "57 channels (and nothin' on)." As if to demonstrate television's inability to grasp the concept that more is often less, we've recently witnessed an explosion of programs that fuse cooking with reality television, including a slew of contrived chef talent search shows like Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," Food Network's "Chopped," and Bravo's "Top Chef." Unlike the popular (and often quite good) "Iron Chef America," the only meaningful ingredient in these programs is manufactured drama. You can almost hear the bumper now: "Somebody's gonna cry tonight, and it ain't from the onions!"

These kitchen cum "American Idol" shows are now having to make room for an growing list of food-travel programs. Not that this is anything new. "Forty Dollars a Day" helped launch the prattling chipmunk empire of Rachael Ray, and the irascible and versatile Anthony Bourdain has brought feasting on the obscure to television for almost a decade. But now if you are not content with Bourdain's exotic locales, you can always stay tuned to the Travel Channel and catch Andrew Zimmern ingesting deep-fried tarantulas or perhaps pickled emu beaks, all while cooing, "...ooh. Wow. I mean, it's so... so... like what you would not expect." His program is a little like watching "Fear Factor" without the put-on screaming.

"Man vs Food" host Adam Richman pauses before abusing his intestines on camera.

Yet few shows deliver more colon wrenching excess than the Travel Channel's newest hit, "Man vs Food." It's what you might expect if you combined a hairier version of Zimmern with Johnny Knoxville from MTV's "Jackass." The show's host, Adam Richman, visits everyday fare hotspots around the country and then sets about doing something ludicrous like attempting to eat fifteen dozen oysters in an hour or a dish of curry so hot that even the restaurant's chef wears goggles during its preparation. Anyone who has paid attention to the billboards while driving along Interstate 40 through Amarillo probably understands the creative genius that inspired this show. You guessed it, one of Richman's earliest stops was at the Big Texan Steak Ranch where he takes "the restaurant's legendary 72-ounce steak challenge." According to the show's website, it remains the most popular episode.

Like "Jackass," Richman has inspired adoring imitators. Who can argue that these budding media stars aren't on to something?

I mentioned "Man vs Food" to a few of my students in class today, and several gave it a hearty endorsement. This left me confident of the Travel Channel's ability to sell advertising space for domestic beer and AXE body spray. But I can't help but feel that somewhere in a darkened apartment a self-conscious calorie counter sits on the couch weeping as he watches Richman gack down a nine pound pistrami sandwich and tries not to think about the grim stack of Lean Cuisines lurking in his freezer.

One wonders what culinary frontiers Richman will cross in future episodes. Perhaps he'll eat five pounds of spicy crawfish boil and then use the restroom without first washing his hands. Maybe it'll be an eating contest with Takeru Kobayashi, who we used to see obscenely stuffing Nathan's hot dogs down his gullet. No doubt it will be scintilating. Cable television would deliver no less.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Alcohol Improves a Berry Disappointing Season

It's been a cold spring in these parts, and it doesn't seem as though it has been a particularly bountiful year for Mississippi or Louisiana strawberry growers. That was why it was only more surprising when I discovered that our local big-box purveyor had southeastern berries for sale. They were from Eubanks Farm in Lucedale, Mississippi - in the southern tip of the Magnolia State at approximately the same latitude as Ponchatoula, Louisiana.

Unfortunately, while they weren't quite the plywood variety grown in California, like most grocery store berries, they were a little hard. I've yet to make it to a decent u-pick operation this spring.

But we should remember that alcohol can and often does rescue us from our most bitter disappointments. I can hardly claim any originality in using Cointreau to extract the best out of mediocre strawberries. This preparation yields a light desert that is perfect when you want something sweet after dinner but not terribly much more to eat.

(Makes two portions)
Core 5 to 6 medium strawberries and thinly slice
Macerate in a bowl with Cointreau and two teaspoons of sugar
Serve on small plates with a rim
Pour on creme fraiche (or in a pinch, half & half)
lightly sprinkle with cinnamon (which is really what makes all the difference).

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Antoine's by way of Oxpatch: Tilapia Meuniere

A "hungry" portion of tilapia meuniere.

A number of completely unrelated factors led me to try something new in the kitchen last Friday evening. We've been staying true to the vow of meatless Lenten Fridays this year, and not without some effort. Certainly we are doing a lot better with it than with our resolution to quit swearing for Lent - but that's another story entirely. For us, this has meant seafood on Friday. (And yes, vegetarian friends, we realize that in your universe, fish is meat. Please bear with me.)

The chief problem with this plan is that decent seafood is pretty expensive in Oxford. There is an independent gourmet grocer on the other side of town, but most of their fresh fish is simply way out of our budget, even if our table has trended toward much smaller portions of meat than either Jessie and I grew up knowing. I would no more buy seafood at Wal-Mart than I would purposely listen to a Kenny G album. This leaves us with the K-Roger. Those who know me well understand that I generally dislike "Krogering" for a variety of reasons. Alas, they have a seafood counter of sorts, and it is in our price range.

Examining the contents of Kroger's seafood case is a little like viewing an exhibit on global aquaculture. Selections run the gambit from Mississippi catfish to Vietnamese shrimp. My loyalty to Louisiana means that Asian shrimp are simply out of the question. And no, I don't really feel like fixing salmon. Besides, for the last week I've had trout meuniere on the brain (this recipe from Brigsten's is a little more complex than what you will find below.) Or maybe something involving pompano. Yet by now, you will have guessed that the Oxford Kroger has neither of these in stock. My eye quickly settled instead on some small tilapia filets, of which four set me back a mere $5.15. A junk fish to many, my farm-raised tilapia have all of the class of a weekend trip to Dollywood. But who says you can't still have fun in Pigeon Forge?

I suddenly got excited about the prospect of turning this inexpensive meat, er, fish, into something special when we got home. The idea that I'd be able to blog the results, if they were successful, also appealed because many of our friends and readers of this blog can certainly appreciate saving a few bucks on dinner. But the traditional trout meuniere preparation found in my Galitoires or Antoine's cookbooks just wasn't going to cut it with our modest finned friends. Fortunately, with a few easy modifications, the tilapia made for a creditable stand-in for its more expensive cousin.


4 tilapia filets
panko bread crumbs
flour for breading
2 eggs
1 lemon
1 shallot
5 tablespoons of butter (sorry, this recipe is inexpensive, but not low fat.)

This goes together very quickly, so go ahead and get all of your ingredients together while your large skillet is warming up on a medium-high setting. Don't use super high heat or you will burn your butter, which you definitely do not want in this instance. (I know that some of the recipies, including that for Galitoire's meuniere butter, instruct you to carefully brown it. That's not what I did here.) For those who are unsure, this recipe is super easy.

Finely dice 1 small or 1/2 large shallot (about 2 tablespoons)
Extract juice from 1 lemon
Beat eggs for egg wash & put in a pan.
Set aside another pan for panko, and yet a third with flour. Season the flour with salt & white pepper
Bread the tilapia filets by washing in egg, then flour, then egg again, then panko

Put 3 of your 5 tablespoons of butter in the hot pan & melt. (I used my fancy non-stick Scanpan, but in retrospect, a cast-iron or other heavy conventional pan would be better as your sauce will be tastier if "bits" stick to the bottom.)

Brown the tilapia in the butter on both sides. For those of you who are new to this, make sure your pan is hot enough. The butter should be only the nearest edge of singeing. Do not flip until ready. Luckily, you should be able to see the panko start to brown around the bottom edges of the filet. When brown all around, flip carefully. Plate the filets when both sides have fully browned.

Add the remaining butter to your hot pan and whisk to speed up the melting. Once melted, add in your diced shallots. These will carmelize almost instantly - within 3 or 4 seconds - if diced finely enough. The contents of the pan should turn a pleasant brown color. At this point, deglaze the pan with the lemon juice and whisk to make sure all of those tasty bits are in your sauce. Pour this steaming goodness over your plated filets. Garnish with the diced parsley.

In the end, you will have tilapia meuniere for four modest or two hungry diners. Because everything else save the shallot and the lemon are likely in your pantry, the total grocery bill came in well under $8. (Okay, parsley and panko are staples in my kitchen, but maybe not yours.) With any luck, it'll allow you to keep both your Lenten and budgetary obligations.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Hunt Begins for New "Worst Restaurant in Oxford"

A king its own right. A king of awfulness. The location of the now-defunct San Francisco Bread Company
at 1501 W. Jackson in Oxford, Mississippi.

Every trip Jessie and I have made to rent a movie over the last four months has always included some detached speculation about when the San Francisco Bread Company located next door to Movie Gallery would go out of business. It was never a question of "if," mind you, but a definite "when." The dining room seemed ominously dark Wednesday evening when we rented Australia, and a drive-by yesterday did little to change our impression that the franchise operation had gone legs-up. Since I had been wrong several times before in declaring the beast dead - the SFBC had been an artful practitioner of playing possum - I resolved to toe the corpse this morning on my way to campus. I pressed my cupped hands to the cold glass to get a better look inside. An artificial Rose of Sharon standing gaudily next to a soiled comfy chair seemed not to comprehend what the barren pastry case, upended chairs, and scattered paper products on the floor silently understood. The establishment that had earned our esteem as "the worst restaurant in Oxford" was no more. I considered casting my eyes heavenward in the expectation that I might see a gliding ring of vultures but remembered that even carrion have culinary standards.

Our one and only visit had come last September during one of Jessie's periodic hankerings for Panera Bread - more specifically, their broccoli cheddar soup. Since the nearest Panera location is in suburban Memphis, and she had long since crossed the "hungry and feed me soon" line, a sixty mile drive was out of the question. As chains go, I like Panera well enough. It is a good concept, and when properly executed delivers upon pretty much everthing it promises. As an aside, Panera offers recipes for many of their dishes online, including soups - but not the ever-popular broccoli cheddar. I'll be trying this copy cat version soon to prepare for future random cravings. Those who share Jessie's soup tastes but lack a personal chef should know that they can buy it pre-packaged at Costco.

At first glance, San Francisco Bread Company seemed to hold out promise as being a fellow player in this achingly bourgeois restaurant niche, yet something wasn't quite right. We've all seen the familiar horror picture trope where out-of-towners enter a quaint but strangely empty hotel and are subsequently punished for their stupidity in chosing to spend the night by being hacked into pieces by a lawnmower blade-weilding psychopath in a hockey mask. We suffered no physical harm, but neither were we smart enough to get back in our car when we were unable to ascertain whether or not the place was still in business by the time we tried the front door.

We began shedding our expectations, including soup of any kind, not long after crossing the threshold. In spite of being squarely within the dinner hour, the place was empty save one employee who hunched at a table and faintly mouthed the words to her copy of Chistopher Paolini's Eragon. Nobody seemed to notice our presence, so we studied the menu selections. That is to say, the remaining selections, for someone had taped copier paper on the menu board so as to obscure some of the entrees and all of the prices. By this time, our reader had stepped away from dwarves and goblins long enough to alert a compatriot to our presence, and, with a deep sigh, returned to her perch and book.

We placed our order, which came fast enough, and headed to the fountain drink dispenser with sandwich baskets and empty paper cups in hand. Drinks filled, Jessie and I selected a table, sat down, and took the first full measure of the dining room. Other than the quiet mumbling of the employee, the only sound in the dining room came from a wall-mounted television tuned to CNN with the volume turned very low. It had the effect of giving the space all the cheer of a Jiffy Lube waiting area. Which, in retrospect, may have been appropriate.

To say that the soda was flat doesn't begin to describe the thin cola syrup water in our cups. We tried again, but all of the fountians were equally lifeless. Perhaps it was the scent or taste that set Jessie off, but she ate very little of her tuna salad sandwich. As for my meal, it included a variety of mystery-meat roast beef reminiscent of the humorously-named (and no connection to the singer) Charlie's Pride brand sold by Wal-Mart. It was also of a salinity more suitable for use during Commodore George Anson's 1740-1744 circumnavigation of the globe than for deli sandwiches. We left the restaurant with the taste of buyer's remorse in our mouths.

Subsequent internet surfing revealed that ours was not an isolated incident. Google reviews included that of "Elizabeth," who said after a February visit "the girl had her face smashed against her hand while we ordered and was very rude. They seemed mad that we wanted to dine in, and then my meat on my turkey wrap was FROZEN! gross! They were rude, weird, and no one was eating in there during lunch. Sketchy..." Gross indeed, Elizabeth. "Charley" echoed our own sentiments by pondering, "how this restaurant stays open, I have no idea." Wonder no more, my friend.

One does wonder, however, what will happen to SFBC's prime West Jackson location. We can only hope that this dreadful establishment is gone for good. Then it will be time to crown another as "the worst restaurant in Oxford." Suggestions are welcome, but consider that crappy dining experiences and sub-par food at overrated establishments do not necessisarily constitute the sort of utter wretchedness that SFBC embodied. For instance, it is neither shocking nor noteworthy that the International Buffet will cause gastrointestinal distress or that the young waitresses at Old Venice Pizza are rude. So discern for the true bottom, the dining experience that both underwhelms and frightens. The one unparalleled in its very afulness. But for now, the king is dead.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Our family makes, eats, and all around loves Russian-style pirozhki. I remember their baking as a great childhood event; something that, while quite affordable to make, we didn't eat every day. They often emerged from the oven in the days before Christmas, and always at Easter. Not coincidentally, this was also when mom made her nut and poppy seed coffee cakes, which use the same dough.

Pirozhki and my mother's fabulous date-nut bread are the two most popular family recipes that come down through my father's side of the family. On a shelf at my parents' home in Marietta sits an old photograph of three grim looking men dressed in World War I-era Russian military garb. Presumably one of these men is an ancestor, and genealogical research suggests his stomping grounds may have been the present-day Ukraine. Diverse cultural forces have transformed the gastronomy (and lexograpy) of the pirozhki over time, and the recipe below represents merely one iteration among many found across an expanse of Europe that, with apologies to Winston Churchill, stretches from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic. When I consider the broad range of renditions around the globe, it makes me feel less guilty about treading on family tradition by experimenting with the filling! This recipe, for instance, features a similar dough, but different filling. Perhaps the cooked egg better reflects the dish's modest roots?

As an aside, in 2000, my brother Jeff shared this family recipe with the unwashed in the Thursday food section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It later received the Golden Whisk Award for being one of the 10 best recipes of the year.

The Dough

The dough contains potato as well as flour, and is sweet with a light, fine texture. It would probably make beautiful dinner rolls if twisted into crescents. Turning it into a coffee cake is a matter of spreading a filling on the surface, then rolling it into a log.

(Above) The kneaded dough awaits rising time in a greased bowl.


1 1/2 cups "potato water" - or the water drained from boiling your potatoes
1/4 cup warm water
2/3 cups sugar + a pinch
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 heaping tablespoon of dry yeast
2 eggs
2/3 cups butter
1 cup mashed potato
7 to 8 cups of flour, preferably bread flour


Crack eggs into a bowl. Meanwhile, start boiling your potato and take care to use enough water so that you have the requisite 1 1/2 cups left over.

Proof the yeast in the 1/4 cup of warm water and pinch of sugar.

Put the butter, sugar, and salt into a large mixing bowl. You might use a stand mixer, but be aware that the standard Kitchenaid bowl may not be large enough. Consider the volume of ingredients, and note that this dough comes together well when mixed by hand.

Pour the hot potato water into the bowl and let it melt the butter. Add your mashed potato to the mix. The potato must be finely-mashed. Consider using a food mill or a ricer if you are not confident in your ability to convert unadorned boiled potato into a fine mash.

Once the mixture in the bowl has cooled to room temperature, add the yeast and eggs.

Now it is time to add the flour. I like to add it a 1/2 cup at a time, mixing it first with a whisk, then a spoon, and then my hands as the dough takes shape. Once you have kneaded it into a beautifully elastic ball, move it to a greased bowl and cover with a towel. Place it somewhere to rise - the warmer the place, the faster the rise. Forty-five minutes usually suffices. Once the dough has risen, you are ready to roll it or shape it to your heart's content!

(Above) Approximately 1/5 of the dough ball rolled out approximately 3/16" thick
and ready for the filling of my choosing.

Filling the Pirozhki

The filling that I grew up knowing consisted of humble green cabbage, onions, and ground beef. These ingredients received no more elaborate seasoning than salt and pepper. There is no profitable way to rush the filling's preparation, so it makes a great deal of sense to set it in motion before making the dough. Making it the day before is ideal. Begin by browning approximately a pound of lean ground beef in a large pot and add an entire head of finely chopped green cabbage and three or four (depending on size) onions. To this day, my parents use a pot that is too small to hold all of the raw cabbage, and its lid never fully rests on the pot's rim until the cabbage has had a chance to reduce. It is extremely important to thoroughly drain the excess liquid from the filling after it has been cooked and seasoned. Placing it in a colander in the refrigerator overnight will ensure that it is not too wet.

(Above) Filling draining on the counter. Wet filling = bad.

When you are ready to make the pirozhki, spoon filling out onto your dough (a common heaping household spoonful is about right - perhaps 3 ounces of filling) evenly spaced, leaving roughly two inches between mounds of filling. This will allow you to take a pastry wheel or table knife to cut the dough around the filling so that you have at least an inch in each direction to wrap together. Folding the dough creates a biscuit-sized pirozhki, which you should place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Allow to rise for 20 minutes and then bake between 17 to 20 minutes at 375 degrees fahrenheit or until light goldent brown on top. They are good to eat hot or cold, and their portability makes them perhaps the most ideal on-the-go savory food every conceived. They also go exceptionally well with a dark beer such as a Belgian Trappist Ale.

(Above) It is difficult to capture an image of a full plate pirozhki, as they disappear soon after it has been set upon the table. A great way to hold and serve for company (no more than 20 minutes) is to place them uncovered on an earthenware plate in an oven at its lowest setting.


I have made vegetarian pirozhki by substituting diced portobello mushrooms for the beef. Apostasy to my father, some of my guests have pronounced the veggie version superior to the family original. And it seems plausible that mushroom might be closer to this food's peasant origins. Adding fresh garlic to the filling can enhance the flavor. I have also used Creole seasoning to good effect. Another modification involves brushing the surface of the unbaked pirozhki with an egg wash and sprinkling with coarse salt. If served immediately, such a technique will yield a most attractive pastry. But be forwarned, pirozhki with a glazed surface will neither refrigerate nor freeze well. Without a glaze, they freeze acceptably well in a gallon zip-top bag.