food highlights from the big easy

I know it’s been a little silent here over the last few weeks. Em and I have both been quite absorbed by our respective professional activities. (It might be difficult to believe but we have a life outside of our little deux dilettantes bubble.) I have also been traveling, and this is just the beginning of my travels. As I’m writing these lines, my suitcase is wide open and it looks like a tornado went through the apartment, and by the time this post is published I’ll be in Asia. More on this later, but for now, here’s a recap of what’s happened over the last few weeks.

zatarain

While I was psychologically preparing to turn the big 3-0 (I survived, no worries), I spent some time in Louisiana and Florida. There is nothing like a Hurricane/Bloody Mary/Pimm’s Cup (delete as appropriate) to make you forget about the gloomy milestone you are facing. The main reasons behind this trip were the celebration of our first wedding anniversary and the 95th birthday of my husband’s grandmother. (And I was the youngest person at that party, which definitely helped me put things in perspective.)

French market

I already mentioned that my husband is from New Orleans, and I’ve grown sort of attached to his hometown — even more so since we got married last year on the Natchez, the last authentic steamboat on the Mississippi River.

Each time we visit New Orleans, we have a list of things to “absolutely” do, even if that means eating 5 times in a day and being tipsy by 3 p.m. What can I say? We’re very committed when we travel. And it certainly does not help that New Orleans has such a vibrant food tradition! Mark Twain said that “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.” I think we can all agree on that. Let me take you on a small tour of some of signature food places and dishes I’ve experienced in the Crescent City.

Elegant lunch at Commander’s Palace

Commander’s is a New Orleans institution (it opened in 1880!) located in the Garden District, and it’s all you can expect from a genteel and respectable southern house: Antebellum elegance, character, overzealous waiters and ridiculous amount of cutlery. But far form resting on its laurels, Commander’s offers an innovative menu that captures the essence of Louisiana cuisine while incorporating new influences. And if you go for lunch on a weekday, you can take advantage of an insanely cheap 25-cent martini offer. They’ll cap you at three, as my husband’s friend demonstrated, but that’s still enough to put you in a happy mood for the rest of the day. (Why not four? Well, you must know the saying: One martini, two martini, three martini… floor!)

Commander's

Start with their soups 1-1-1, a delicious sampling of three soups — usually a seafood bisque, the gumbo of the day and their signature turtle soup. Then continue with one of the restaurant’s staples: shrimp and grits or the cochon de lait (approved by the hubby). For dessert, the bread pudding soufflé gets high marks and looks great, though I haven’t tried it yet. I can, however, personally recommend their strawberry shortcake. On my list for next time: The Sunday jazz brunch, which I’ve heard good things about.

Otherwise, if you’re looking for the same kind of chic and old-fashioned atmosphere, Arnaud’s, in the heart of the French Quarter, is worth a try, and their French 75 is to die for!

Chargrilled oysters at Acme Oyster House

They’re not on the menu, and they don’t need to be. Everybody comes to Acme to try them. And when I say “everybody”, I’m only slightly exaggerating. Be ready to wait in line, but you will be rewarded with a life-changing oyster experience. Topped with butter and Parmesan and grilled on an open flame, they arrive bubbling hot and are served with French bread for soaking up the sauce. Irresistible!

chargrilled oysters

Beignets at Café du Monde

You can’t go to New Orleans without stopping at Café du Monde, the city’s most famous coffee stand. It’s open 24/7 (except on Christmas) and basically has two items on the menu: café au lait and beignets.

Beignets

The deep-fried beignets are light and puffy pillows of doughy deliciousness. They’re served generously dusted with powdered sugar. Cafe du Monde has its own special coffee blend, which is a mix of coffee bean and chicory. Mixed with milk, it has a nice hazelnut flavor.

Café du monde

The one inconvenience is that the place tends to get busy, especially mid-morning. If you feel discouraged by the line at Café du Monde, try Café Beignet on Bourbon Street (which might also have a line, but it’s likely to be shorter). They have a lovely patio, and the beignets are just as good.

Café beignet

Drink a Pimm’s Cup at Napoleon House

No need to go to Wimbledon to enjoy this famously refreshing long drink. Turns out, it’s a hit in New Orleans, too, and the mecca of the Pimm’s Cup is the historic Napoleon House. (Legend has it that this house was offered by the city’s mayor to the twice-exiled emperor, who died before he could find his way to New Orleans to take up residence and plot his comeback.)

Napoleon House

The Pimm’s Cup is a well-suited drink to the sweaty climate, and it makes a perfectly respectable cocktail for daytime drinking, as its recipe is pretty innocuous: Pimm’s No. 1, a gin-based liqueur with pleasant flavor and low alcohol content, topped off with 7-Up or ginger ale and garnished with cucumber. It hardly even counts as an alcoholic beverage. (Recipe to come soon on deux dilettantes.)

Napoleon House

I also tried their Pimm’s ginger mint julep, basically a julep made with Pimm’s, ginger beer and mint. Nicely refreshing, but I found it slightly stronger than the Pimm’s Cup. I sipped it while enjoying the sunshine in the beautiful courtyard. But hot weather, alcohol and sun don’t go well together: We had to be at the Natchez at 2 p.m. and the walk to the boat was not pretty to see.

Other remarkable places for a drink: Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, New Orleans’ oldest bar, only illuminated with candles at night, Molly’s at the Market, the only bar that stayed open through Katrina to provide respite to the locals, and Bar Tonique, a trendy neighborhood place on the outskirts of the Quarter, with the perfect balance between dive bar and cocktail bar, as suggested in their tagline “handcrafted cocktails without the pretense“.

Try the muffuletta at the Central Grocery Co.

If you’re a meat lover you might want to try a muffuletta, a sandwich consisting of a flattened round Italian loaf split in half and garnished with layers of mortadella, salami, mozzarella, ham, provolone and the (not so) secret ingredient, a chunky olive salad.

Central Grocery

There is apparently no better location to get it than at Central Grocery, where this famous sandwich was created in 1906. It’s a small and slightly run-down Italian deli but it sure delivers. You can buy half or a whole sandwich, and even the half is plenty for two people. I have become obsessed with their olive salad and I’m dreaming of making it. Maybe this summer, spread on grilled bread like a NOLA-style bruschetta.

That sandwich apparently gets even better when it rests for a little while, just long enough for the bread to absorb the olive juice while staying crusty on the outside.

And I can’t leave out the po’boy, the humble sandwich that’s a New Orleans staple. I haven’t been, but according to a well-informed source (my husband), Parkway Bakery is the place to go for po’boys with a variety of stuffings, from fried seafood to hot sausage. Order yours “dressed”, which by default means with mayo, lettuce, tomato and pickles.

Crawfish boil

Each time we are in New Orleans we have to get our fix of crawfish. They’re difficult to get in the Northwest, and if you happen to be in Louisiana during springtime, don’t hesitate!

Crawfish boil

Attending a crawfish boil is the ultimate Louisiana experience. We were lucky to be invited to a crawfish boil hosted by our friends, which made me realize of how much of a social event it is. But if you don’t have that opportunity, many restaurants offer great boiled crawfish. You can also attend one of the various crawfish fests organized during the season. I remember my first Louisiana crawfish experience few years ago at Morton’s, in the Northshore suburb of Madisonville, and it was delicious.

As with all kind of shellfish, you have to be ready to work for your food. But, as we learned at our expense while being gently mocked by our friends, there is a proper way to eat crawfish with minimal effort, and it does not involve painfully peeling off the entire tail. While I have the excuse of not being a local, getting schooled in the art of crawfish peeling was a matter of wounded pride for my husband, who spent the first 18 years of his life in Louisiana. To sum it up, pinch the tail and suck it to get the meat out. Enjoy with fresh Abita beer, the local brew.

Bring back some pralines

Pecan pralines are a New Orleans specialty. The pecans are coated with a mixture made of cooked sugar, butter and cream. This Southern treat finds its origin in France but has evolved from its French counterparts, which are simply made with almonds and caramelized sugar. In Louisiana, the more readily available pecans replaced almonds in the recipe. (Below, a fresh batch at Aunt Sally’s in the French Quarter.)

Fresh pralines

I’m personally not a huge fan of the Louisiana-style pralines. I think they’re too sweet, and their creamy texture reminds me of fudge, which I don’t like either. But they make nice gifts for the sweet tooths among you, since they take minimal space in the suitcase.

Aunt Sally's pralines

There is certainly much more to say… New Orleans is one of those rare places in the States where you can still find a true regional cuisine. Best advice? Immerse yourself in its rich and diverse cuisine and trust the locals. Go where they go and eat what they eat. You won’t be disappointed. But don’t totally rule out some of the more touristy places. There is no shame in joining the crowds for a spot at a New Orleans landmark. There’s a reason why these places became popular, and many of them still live up to their reputations.

Snow Balls

And remember, when you think you’re stuffed and that you will never be able to eat again, there is always a little bit of space left for a sno-ball (a favored summer refreshment made of shaved ice flavored with syrup) — a fact proved many times by the hubby.

Bee

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strawberry-rhubarb pâtes de fruits

strawberries & rhubarb2As a child I had a terrible sweet tooth. I wish I could say that it has diminished but alas, this is not the case. What has happened is that I have developed a more sophisticated palate of sweet teeth.

It was no surprise then, for my husband to find me hovering over a large stock pot stirring up strawberries and rhubarb with copious amounts of sugar. He asked (again), “are you almost done?” And I sweetly replied, “no dear, you can not rush candy making.” You simply can not. Candy will not be rushed. Especially pâtes de fruits made sans gelatine or agar.

Pâtes de fruits, or fruit jellies, are wonderfully decadent sweet treats. But surprisingly, for a French confection that is sold in high-end pâtisseries, you’ll find it to be a simple recipe. Traditionally, it’s made with fruit, sugar, water and lemon juice. Nothing fancy there. I love that. Many American recipes add gelatine, agar or liquid pectin but I wanted to make the truest version of pâtes de fruits possible. Call me a purist if you must. I’ll own it.

So, in the spirit of science I forged on, experimenting to find a balance between the ingredients to create a natural occurring pectin that is found in the highly coveted little gems called pâtes de fruits.

Strawberry-rhubarb pâtes de fruits

Yields 1  12 X 9 baking dish (to be cut to your desire)

Ingredients

  • 1 pound strawberries (washed, hulled, quartered and then weighed)
  • 1 pound rhubarb (washed, trimmed and cut to 1 inch pieces and then weighed)
  • 1 lemon juiced
  • 1/2 lemon, zested (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • white baking sugar, extra fine
  • castor sugar, superfine

In a large stock pot, combine strawberries, rhubarb, lemon juice, lemon zest and water. Mix and turn stove temperature to medium (on a scale of 1-7, about 4). Cook for 20-30 minutes, stirring almost constantly. When the strawberries and rhubarb are soft and mushy, remove from heat and mash thoroughly.

mashed

Using a food scale, measure the weight of a medium bowl. Note the weight. Then push the mixture through a fine metal sieve into the bowl. This will take a bit of time, strength and patience. If you have a food processor, now is the time to pull it out of the cupboard!

After pushing the mixture through the sieve, weigh the bowl again and subtract the weight of the bowl. Return the mixture back to the large stock pot and match with an equal amount of extra fine baking sugar. Example: I had exactly 610g of strawberry-rhubarb mixture and I matched it with 610g extra fine baking sugar.

Cook over medium heat (4-4.5 on my stove top), stirring constantly. After 30-35 minutes, it should be dark, glossy and create a tail (shown below). Remove from heat.

action shot - tail

Pour into a baking dish lined with parchment paper. If you have a busy kitchen, gently drape an additional piece of parchment paper over the dish, taking care that it does not touch the pâtes de fruits. Set aside for 24-48 hours. Or bake (uncovered) at 150° F for 8 hours and then let rest for an additional 8 hours.

poured and ready to set

Once set, remove from baking dish and cut. I decided to go with classic squares but I think stars would rather smart.

Pour a small amount of superfine castor sugar onto a baking sheet and start to coat each side with sugar.

sugar fix

Work each piece, adding more sugar to the baking sheet as needed.

strawberry rhubarb pate de fruits

The result? Sweet, chewy goodness. I think they’re simply divine.

Enjoy! XOXO, Em