it's okay to play with your food

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

New Orleans: Prologue

It's been a while since my last post... work in Texas has been great, though a hotel room with only a microwave and mini-fridge doesn't lend itself to great cooking. And I've been eating some good food, though nothing beats what I ate over three days in New Orleans.

New Orleans... a city of extremes... raucous nights, sleepy days... fatty food, salty food, delicious food.

Strong drinks too...

I'm going to spend the next few days finally posting about New Orleans... dinner at Cochon (one of the 10 new restaurants in America that matters, according to the New York Times); po-boys and alligator pie at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; 2 1/2 pounds of crimson crawfish; the perfect Sazerac at a burnished wood bar.

So stay tuned, enjoy the posts, and please, try not to be jealous...

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The List

What Daniel and I have consumed in New Orleans since Thursday... more to follow...

Abita amber beer
Alligator, fried with chili aioli
Alligator Pie
Cafe au lait
Cheese grits
Chicken livers, fried with mint pepper jelly
Cochon du lait po-boy
Cochon du lait with turnips, cabbage and cracklin
Crawfish beignets
Crawfish pie
Dulce de leche ice cream
French 75
Rabbit and dumplings
Red Beans and Rice with Hot Sausage
Shrimp mache choux
Shrimp po-boy
Strawberry cobbler with ginger biscuits

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Oh 'bama!

Montgomery, Alabama has been full of surprises. First of all, there really isn’t much to do here. Secondly, some of the best food in town isn’t regional southern cuisine, but Korean, thanks to the large Hyundai plant in town. Thirdly, and maybe this isn’t much of a surprise, there is no actual gay bar! So much for the BBQ/Gay Bar Tour of the South…

But our friend Melanie, clerking for a judge and the primary reason for our stop in Montgomery, took us to the kind of place that people expect in the south, the Davis CafĂ© and Lounge. A hand written menu told us our options, like chicken fried steak. I suggested getting a few things and sharing. Melanie was certain that she only wanted the fried chicken and wouldn’t want to share. That seemed like a solid recommendation.

It was seriously amazing… you could actually see the black pepper and other spices rubbed on the chicken beneath the skin. It wasn’t as moist as Mrs. Wilkes’ chicken, but the seasoning was definitely better at Davis. The sides were fine. In an attempt to be “healthy,” I got fresh butternut squash and rutabaga. The rutabaga was solid; the squash was pureed and tasty like it was cooked in gravy, amazing. Their cornbread muffins were quite nice, with a crisp brown outside and moist inside. And, amazingly, all that food plus sweet tea was just over $7.

Yes, I ate fried chicken two days in a row.


Our first night in town, though, was a departure from traditional southern cooking. Melanie said that Korean and also Thai food are quite good in Montgomery. She took us to a Thai restaurant with some of the best red curry I've ever tasted: full of basil, coconut and lemongrass flavor. I actually ordered the pad Thai, which can so easily be bland, but this was quite good. Sadly, we won't get a chance to sample any Korean while in town.


Tonight Daniel and I are cooking dinner for Melanie as a thank you for her hospitality. I'm making a simple salad and Deborah Madison's Pasta and Chickpeas dish, and Daniel is making a chocolate cake. Recipes are below and photos will be forthcoming...

Pasta and Chickpeas with Plenty of Parsley and Garlic
from Deborah Madison's book, Vegetarian Suppers

from kp: I've made this twice before and it is always a hit, though I never would have suspected pasta and chickpeas would make such a good pair. Tonight though, I am veering away from the dish's vegetarian roots and adding fried prosciutto. It's a flavor I've always wanted to include. Also, the inclusion of some kind of acid is a nice touch. I've diced tomatoes in the past; tonight I will be grating lemon rind and adding a smidge of fresh lemon juice.

- makes 4 servings -

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra to finish
1/2 large onion, diced
A few pinches of hot red pepper flakes
1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas or 1 15-ounce can, preferably organic, liquid reserved
1 big bunch of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves stripped from the stems
3 plump garlic cloves
Small handful of sage leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
3/4 pound whole wheat pasta shells
Freshly grated Parmesan

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta.
2. Heat the oil in a wide skillet and add the onion and pepper Hakes. Cook for a few minutes, then add the chickpeas. While they're warming, chop the parsley, garlic, and sage together, then toss a third of it into the pan. Season well with salt and pepper, add a little water or chickpea broth to the pan, and cook slowly, adding more liquid as it cooks away.
3. Salt the pasta water and cook the pasta. When done, drain and toss it with the chickpeas, the rest of the parsley mixture, and extra olive oil to taste. Taste for salt and season with freshly ground pepper. Grate some cheese over the top and serve with additional pepper flakes.

Azo Family Chocolate Cake
from The New York Times (February 2006)

from kp: Daniel has made this before and says its easy and super good.

Time: 40 minutes, plus 3 hours for cooling
8½ ounces (2 sticks plus 1 tablespoon) unsalted butter, more for greasing pan
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate (50 percent or higher cocoa), chopped
5 large eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
½ cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
Whipped cream for serving (optional).

1. Place rack in top third of oven and heat to 400 degrees. (For best results, use a separate oven thermometer.) Butter a 9-inch springform pan and set aside. In a double boiler or microwave oven, melt together 8½ ounces butter and the chocolate. Stir to blend.
2. In a medium bowl, stir together egg yolks and sugar. Stir in flour. Add chocolate mixture and stir until smooth. Using an electric mixer, whisk egg whites and salt until stiff but not dry. Fold whites into chocolate mixture just until blended. Pour into cake pan.
3. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove cake from oven and allow to cool for 1 hour. Wrap with foil and refrigerate until cake is firm and cold, at least 2 hours. Two hours before serving, remove cake from refrigerator and bring to room temperature. Slice (center of cake will be fudgy) and serve, if desired, with whipped cream.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings.


And for those of you keeping count…

Sweet tea: countless
Fried chicken, corn bread, rutabaga, squash, BBQ: twice
Pad Thai, mac and cheese, collard greens, biscuits, fresh strawberries: once

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House

Weeks ago, my friend Jess returned from a road trip south with news of a must-visit restaurant for my trip: Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House. She spoke of delicious fried chicken and rutabaga, waiting in line starting at 10 am for a table and all-you-can-eat, family style dining. It sounded amazing. And the fact that it was only open Monday thru Fridays bode well, though it meant that Daniel and I would have to make a slight detour on our way from South Carolina to Alabama. (I find that most restaurants with limited weekday hours are great, as they don’t cater exclusively to tourists. John’s Roast Pork in South Philly is a good example.)

By 10:30 am, the line was already about 30-40 people long. Daniel dropped me off so I could secure a spot in line while he parked the car.

I strongly prescribe to what I refer to as, the Smell Test. The smell of a restaurant is a good indicator of the kind of food they are preparing. Obviously a bad odor is a problem, but just as problematic is no fragrance at all. Standing outside of Mrs. Wilkes, the smell wound its way to the sidewalk.

They started seating and after about 15 minutes we were directed to our table, second dining room, second table on the right. The table was ready with a glass of sweet tea at each setting and bowls and plates of food. BBQ pork, butter beans, carrot raisin salad, corn bread and biscuits, beef stew, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, rutabaga, squash, sweet potatoes, mashed potato salad, collard greens… I know I’m forgetting something… Seven other people were seated with us and after an awkward “Can we start?” moment, we dug in.

The food was amazing. My earlier concern about everything being overly sweet down south was completely unnecessary. At Mrs. Wilkes, they struck the perfect balance of sweet, but not cloying. Even the sweet tea still tasted like tea. My favorites were the incredibly moist, piping hot fried chicken; the tangy, vinegary collard greens; creamy, golden mac and cheese; the incredibly moist cornbread; and the even moister, soft, flakey biscuits.

And they just keep bringing you food! As soon as a plate empties, they offer to bring you more. At one point, I announced I was taking a break. Daniel, however, advised me that breaking means your stomach realizes it’s full, not necessarily a good thing. So I kept going, even polishing off my tiny bowl of delicious banana pudding, with bits of soft white cakes amidst pudding and whipped cream.

About thirty minutes later, we were bringing our dirty dishes to the kitchen, paying our $16 and staggering out the door. It was probably the most food I have every consumed in that short of a period of time. And about six hours later, much to my surprise, I was craving more fried


Not everything in the south is fried and/or cooked in lard. On the way to Montgomery, we passed by Lane Packing Company, responsible for most of the peaches we buy at the supermarket. Peach season doesn’t start till mid-May, but they also grow strawberries. And we are smack in the middle of strawberry season right now. A taste of one of the sweetest strawberries I’ve ever had was all it took before I bought a pint for the road. Every. single. strawberry. has been amazing.

Coming Up: Delicious Thai and more fried chicken from Montgomery, Alabama.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

On the Road...

My work in opera has taken me to some unexpected places... Vienna, VA... Toledo, OH... The most surprising destination so far would have to be Ft. Worth, TX. Even more surprising is how seriously excited I am to get to know Texas. Adding to the excitement is the two-week long roadtrip my friend Daniel and I are taking to go there.

For the next two weeks, I will be blogging about our various food adventures and lessons learned along the way. We left on Friday and have traveled to Daniel's parents' home in south South Carolina, 45 minutes away from Savannah, GA. We will also be hitting Alabama and Louisiana before our final destination.

Roadtrip Food Lesson #1

Never agree to eat somewhere just because you think it will make your traveling companion happy. Because, most likely, he is just agreeing to eat there because he thinks it will make you happy.

And that is when you end up getting a hardly cooked burger patty with scalloped edges and really tough chicken fried steak at a truck stop off the Virginia highway…

Savannah, GA (Part 1)

Internet research led us towards Wall’s BBQ, which was appealing for its back alley location and reputed authenticity. We made our way to 515 E. York Avenue and found ourselves on a residential block in front of a small home. Asking a neighbor for Wall’s was useless, as he just arrived in Savannah five weeks ago. My brief understanding of Savannah city planning, and the fact that our internet guide specifically mentioned the obscure entrance, led me to believe that while the restaurant address was 515 E. York, the actual restaurant was behind the house.

And there it was… the rickety, simple sign announcing the existence of Wall’s BBQ. And then there was the sign in the door announcing that Wall’s would be closed from December 2007 till March 2008. Which really shouldn’t have mattered, since it is now April; and yet, the windows were grimy, the inside was dark and the door didn’t look like it had been opened since… well… December 2007.

So I did the sort of thing you are supposed to do when down South: I asked a local. The young woman walking her dog did seem somewhat surprised by my inquest as to good Savannah BBQ, but she was able to direct us to Sweet Leaf. Though she hadn’t been there herself, she had heard good things. And she described the atmosphere as “rinky-dink,” which is usually a very good sign.

Daniel and I sat at one of three outdoor tables and took in the menu. It wasn’t large, but had the standards (pulled pork, BBQ beef, collard greens), plus some unexpected touches (The Devil’s Eggs). And from the couple with the six-pack at the table next to us, I believe it is a BYOB.

The inside was pretty hip, not aiming for any sort of southern authenticity. Bright murals decorated the walls, and the tables were covered in pop culture collage. A photo of Marilyn Monroe adorned the door to the women’s room; John Wayne graced the men’s. Sadly, it was not rinky-dink.

Daniel and I both wanted to get plates of food, for the choice of two accompanying sides. He ordered the pulled pork with baked beans and cole slaw. I opted for the Chipped BBQ beef with corn pudding and The Devil’s Eggs.

The corn pudding was excellent. Moist and sweet, it was a great accompaniment to the tangy BBQ beef. I appreciated the heavy dose of cayenne in The Devil’s Eggs, but the filling was dry which, as Daniel noted, seems unnecessary since you can easily add more mayo! The beef had a great smoked flavor, but I was expecting a more tender, beef brisket-like, texture. The BBQ sauce was too thin and sweet for me, but again, with a nice taste of cayenne in the mix.

Daniel’s pork was good, very tender, of the Western North Carolina style with a tomato based sauce. The beans were ok, too sweet for me again (I think this is going to be a reoccurring theme over the next few weeks). And the slaw was pretty disappointing; sliced cabbage in a really sweet mayo dressing.

The sugar and spice of the meal was a perfect prelude to our next Savannah adventure: The Lady Chablis drag show at Club One. The bitch is fierce, famous for her appearance in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. We attended the earlier show and the audience was primarily middle-aged/elderly married couples and one very enthusiastic bachelorette party… not exactly what we were expecting.

Things I Learned at Club One:
1- Daniel is REALLY good at pool
2- Striped polo shirts are the outfit of choice among the homosexual male population of Savannah
3- Even a drag show can be a tourist-trap

Our BBQ/Gay Bars of the South Tour has officially begun!

Coming Up: Back to Savannah for lunch at Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House on our way to Montgomery, AL.