So as not to forget. How to open a pomegranate (the right way)!

Sometimes I run across instructions for doing something on the Internet that are so wonderfully easy and sensible, I just want to do it that way each time.  In the case of opening pomegranates, there are a lot of instructions out there but I had not found any good ones until recently.  I tested those new instructions, found them to be everything as represented, then promptly lost them.  Finding them again was no easy task.  So I won’t lose them again, I have decided to embed the video here for your reference as well.  Enjoy!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iHbSzM63Hs]

It’s Gumbo Time!

There’s one very simple formula I’d like you all to remember: cold weather + gumbo = happiness.

So, recently, when the temps dropped below 50 degrees, I fired up Grandma’s cast iron chicken fryer and got busy. And it’s good I’ve done this a couple of ten times or so, because taking pictures with one hand while making a roux this dark with the other ain’t easy.

Now, when we talk about gumbo, there’s really only two varieties though each has endless variations. Those two are seafood gumbo and gumbo ya-ya. Seafood gumbo is a Creole version of the stew with a lot of Afro-Caribbean influences. It is good just about any time of year, and it’s the kind they mostly make in New Orleans. Even though I was raised on this kind, at some point, I crossed over to the dark side—to Gumbo Ya-Ya.

Gumbo Ya-Ya is the kind they make in Cajun country, around Lafayette. The recipe is simple: it features a very dark roux redolent of chocolate and dark French roast coffee and features no seafood at all; just the Holy Trinity, andouille (prounounced “an-Dew-ee”), duck or chicken, and spices. The most difficult thing about Gumbo Ya-Ya is the technique. And that’s what this blog post is all about.

First, the recipe. The one I have used and likely will always use is published in “The Commander’s Palace New Orleans Cookbook” by Ella & Dick Brennan. There’s lots of great recipes in there for all kinds of classic New Orleans dishes, but the only page that is splattered and beaten up in my book is page 38.

Oh, yeah, I made Bananas Foster that time and set off the fire alarm when I lit the rum to deglaze the pan. Of course, earlier that same night, my roux had set off the smoke alarm (two different kinds of alarms, sheesh), but then I stopped using canola oil. Smoke problem solved. Not sure what do about the rum. Flaming alcohol is gonna flash. But that’s another post.

Second, the shopping. You want to get about a five pound roasting chicken, although I’ve used a four-pound or two, three-pound fryers with success. But truly, the bigger the single chicken, the better, as it will have fewer bones than two chickens of an equivalent weight. For all ingredients, I try to buy organic.

Concerning the sausage, andouille outside of Louisiana can be a bit strange. So if you can, try to find a Louisiana brand, like Richard’s. Usually, it’s going to be precooked and in a vacuum-sealed pack like a smoked sausage. A quick shop at Publix and then at Kroger, however, failed to turn up the right stuff on this go round so I got the fresh kind at Whole Foods.

You need about a pound, although I use up to a half pound more to make up for a smaller chicken, if I can’t get the five pound one. If using fresh sausage, put it whole in a pan in a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes or until it is firm, easily sliceable, and thereby pot-ready.

Instead of the vegetable oil called for in this particular recipe, I now use ghee or clarified butter. The roux will be cooked at very high heat until it almost burns (it’s very exciting). And every vegetable oil I used smoked too much and gave the finished stew an off flavor. The organic ghee worked perfectly, however, with very little smoking until the very end and added a richness to the dish I really preferred.

When making the gumbo that is the subject of this blog, however, I experimented with lard in an effort to really layer the pork flavors as well as the chicken ones the recipe is designed to highlight. Although the gumbo tasted fine, the lard actually smoked more than the butter and I was missing that richness I mentioned above, so I’m going back to clarified.

Now for chicken stock, the Brennans suggest making yours from scratch. I have a better idea. Kitchen Basics, baby. Available in just about any grocery store, costs about $4, and beats that panties off of anything else. Use either regular or unsalted. (I prefer unsalted.) You will need two Tetra paks of it. Oh, and shake well before opening (or hold your finger over the little flap if you open it before shaking. Made that mistake before…).

Finally, you need flour, celery, white or yellow onions, bell peppers, garlic, and white rice, kosher salt, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder. (See quantities below.) You will also want to obtain a clean, paper grocery bag. How you manage to come by it or ascertain it’s degree of cleanliness is between you and your bag boy.

Third, the prep. Pretty simple, but you need to know how to disjoint a whole chicken—and don’t cheat and get a cut-up one. They suck. So, you get to busy and after you disjoint everthing and cut the breasts across and in half, leaving out the back, you get ten pieces. And trust me, people, do leave out the back. If you don’t, you and your friends better at least practice up on that Heimlich maneuver.

After your pieces are cut, place them on a flat sheet, pizza, or jelly roll pan and season both sides with kosher salt, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. Set aside for half of an hour.  While you are waiting for those seasonings to sink in really well, you will want to cut up your veggies.

The most important reason to have all your veggies prepared before starting the roux is that a big bowl of this stuff is what you use to put out the roux just before it bursts into flames. I don’t care how quickly you chop. You will not have time for prepping veggies once your roux is started. Don’t even think about it!

In Louisiana, we refer to this particular combination of veggies as the “Holy Trinity” because it is these three ingredients always used together that gives many dishes in Louisiana their distinctive flavor. The Trinity is similar to a French mirepoix of onion, celery, and carrots, but instead of carrots, we substitute bell peppers.

So, coarsely chop 2 cups onion, 1-1/2 cups celery, 2 cups bell pepper. Put the mix aside in a bowl within an arm’s reach of the stove. Trust me. You will not have time to dash across the kitchen when you finally need it.

Then, separately, mince 1-1/2 teaspoons fresh garlic and, although the recipe calls for minced andouille, I like mine sliced diagonally. It’s a thing.  Take 2-1/2 cups of flour and put it in the clean, paper grocery bag I mentioned earlier.

If you want to go traditional, you will also want enough dry, white rice to make about 4 cups.  It like cooking butter in mine.

Fourth, let’s light this candle! After a half hour has elapsed from seasoning the chicken (and by the time you finish all of this prep, you should have no trouble with this requirement at all), place the seasoned chicken pieces in the paper bag with the flour, fold the top, and either turn the bag over while holding the fold shut or give it a gentle shake until the chicken is just coated with flour. Remove the chicken to a platter and reserve 1 cup of the flour that’s left in the bag.

In Grandma’s cast iron chicken fryer I inherited that’s been seasoned for like a hundred years (aren’t you jealous, you should be), heat the ghee until it’s around 299 to 399 degrees and fry the chicken pieces until the coating is just brown. Don’t worry about cooking it all the way through until done. The chicken will finish in the stew. This step is really just to give the hot butter some chicken flavor.

       

Once all the chicken pieces are browned and set aside, the party really gets started when you add 1 cup of the reserved flour from the grocery bag to the very hot oil to make the roux (i.e., fried flour).

 Now repeat after me: once I start the roux, I will not take my eyes off of it for one second, nor will I ever stop stirring until it is finished, no matter what.  **You can call them back. You cannot save a scorched roux.**

And so you CAREFULLY stir, and stir, and stir, getting into every nook and cranny of the pot. Do not splatter the roux onto anything with nerve-endings unless you hate them and can make it look like an accident. The only more painful burn is a melted sugar burn when making candy. Roux burns will make you cry. Don’t do it.

But if you keep your flame high and your fingers crossed and are very, very good, after about fifteen minutes of constant, unerring attention, your roux will be the color of dark chocolate but will not smell burned. Amazing.

Observe:

 

 

 

 

 

Once you reach that dark chocolate color, immediately turn off your flame, add the chopped veggies (but not the garlic), and keep stirring the roux and veggies until those veggies are tender. The smell is incredible and will make your neighbors jealous. And, yes, the roux is hot enough to cook celery, onion, and bell pepper soft with no extra heat. Remember how I told you roux burns will make you cry?

 

 

 

 

Next, place a stock pot or large, heavy saucepan next to your chicken fryer on the stove. Now that the veggies and roux are cooled and not burned because you stirred them like I told you, dump the roux-veggie mixture into the stock pot and pour in your well-shaken and not spilled chicken stock. Bring the stock-thinned roux-veggies mix to a boil, while stirring. Lower heat to a simmer and add the garlic, sausage, and chicken you set aside earlier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now ignore for about 1-3/4 to 2 hours. Well, maybe not the ENTIRE time. You should probably come back and give it a little stir from time to time, making sure you scrape the bottom to avoid stickage. You know just for funsies.

 

Taste and adjust the salt and, if you like, toss in a few dashes of Tabasco. Hey! It’s your party….

Cook your white rice and serve the gumbo over the rice in bowls with a plate either under or nearby each bowl for the bones your guests will inevitably find.

NOTE: if you or one of your guests is weird about bones in their meat (yes, those people are out there), I have achieved the same flavor and yet avoided table side freak outs by deboning the chicken after frying but before adding it back to the roux-veggie-stock mixture.

The meat goes in the pot directly but the bones are placed in cheese cloth, tied closed with butcher’s twine, and hung like a cachet inside the pot suspended by the other end of the twine tied to the pot handle. Once the gumbo is cooked, just pull out the bag of bones and discard.

Rawr!

Foodiesaurus’ Uptown Crawl

Yesterday was a day like Foodisaurus hadn’t enjoyed in a long time. Yes, it was hot on this June day in Uptown New Orleans. Yes, it was humid. And yes, the resurfacing of Magazine Street made us long for a nice gravel drive. But the food and locales I discovered on my brief, two meal tour made all of that well worth it.

First, my dining companion and I visited Mid-City and the former J.P. McMahon Funeral Home on Canal Street, now known as Mystère Mansion. Only in New Orleans would people line up out of the door to get married at a slightly post-bellum home, next to a cemetery, across from a mausoleum, which had been most recently used as a mortuary and funeral home.

Rumored to be haunted, the building was stripped to the studs by a corporation which bought the building in 2004 in order to convert it to a day spa. Rebuilding was stopped after the company’s CEO died and the board abandoned the project. Then Katrina struck and the home sat vacant until 2007, when it was purchased and returned to its former glory as a premier events venue and kick-ass haunted house destination during the month of October.

In addition to two bars, a commercial kitchen for use of caterers, a “cake” room, reception room with dance floor and amps for a band or DJ, private theater/meeting room, and VIP guest room, the house also features a séance room (complete with “supernatural” special effects, if desired by client), and an underground “mortuary” which extends under Canal Street and is tricked out with all kinds of theme park quality scary stuff just for Halloween.

Hey, consider it a bonus if your wedding theme is “creepy.” But for other events, you’d never know the house was anything other than a beautifully-restored, traditional New Orleans manor. Fabulous!

Next stop, for lunch was a New Orleans classic—Five Happiness. It’s always nicer to visit a place with friends who have friends at the establishment, so maybe our service was a little more prompt than would ordinarily have been the case, I can’t say. But the food was prepared fresh to order and it showed in the flavor. I had the Twice Cooked Pork.

Mine was served with my choice of a wonderful example of hot and sour soup and shrimp fried brown rice, along with a large, crispy fried wonton (folded but with no discernable meat in the fold). We didn’t order appetizers or desserts, but there was so much on the plate, I was only able to finish the pork from the spicy-sweet (but not overly so) sauce, some of the included green bell peppers and onions, the small but plump shrimp from the rice, and the wonton.

Given that I avoid Chinese food like it’s a religious obligation, I was pleasantly surprised there is still an affordable place left in New Orleans that doesn’t think steamer trays, rapidly-aging “sushi,” and self-serve soft-serve ice cream is necessary for a classic Chinese experience.

After a brief shopping sojourn, we found it was seven o’clock and time for dinner. We decided a salad was in order. Regular readers of this blog may recall my abiding affection for salads at Coffee Rani in Covington, Louisiana. My friend suggested the Uptown location of same (she thought….) on Magazine Street.

As it turns out, though apparently related given the same essential menu, Café Rani clearly was not the same. First of all, there is no espresso machine. “Café” has no coffee. Hmmm. But it has a bar. Okay.

Unfortunately, there was also a weird “wet dog” smell my friend thought was like sewerage. And only two or three tables were occupied at what should have been the front end of the dinner “rush.” Not good. Now, I’ve watched enough Restaurant Impossible to know that sometimes bad smells may mean untold horrors.

Taking no chances, we abandoned ship and embarked on a search for the next place that led us quite serendipitously to possibly the best food I’ve ever eaten. In my life. Ever.

The Delachaise at 3442 St. Charles Avenue is housed in an odd, converted-rail-dining-car-looking building that, who knows, may very well have been one. We stopped because I seem to recall having eaten well in that location sometime in about 1995 or so and because there were diners on the patio facing St. Charles, braving the early evening mosquitoes to eat there. Good sign.

Inside, was a funky bar with a few tables and booths at which were seated casually-attired college students and professions and not a few couples who looked like they might get lucky. The walls were lined with chalk boards bearing handwritten notices of the day’s specials, which were, well, special. Among them the pate du jour. The boards also instructed us to order at the bar.

Along the way, we also found written menu. After some consultation with the Internet to translate the names of some ingredients, chose the Grilled Eggplant “Cannolis,” my second example of twice-cooked pork that day—the Cuban Twice-Cooked Pork—and a lovely Chianti by the glass.

I approached the bar and noticed a row of handwritten chalk boards adorned it as well, listing reasonably priced and very high quality liquor and mixed drinks. Our bartender allowed us to split the check but either payment upfront or a tab was required.

The wine came with a sidecar (bonus!) and the food was a work of art. Nonetheless, we dug right in.

The Eggplant Cannolis was group of three roulade about three inches long filled with ricotta, chevre, and herbs served on a bed of Muhammara with three olive oil drenched and perfectly crisped crostini. Muhammara, it turns out, is a spicy pepper dip originating from Syria. Although the base is apparently ground walnuts, it was reminiscent of smoked hummus, and along with the goat cheese, it elevated this dish to quite another level of awesomeness.

Given the quality and beauty of the first course, we tucked right into the pork entrée and were quickly rewarded.

The cubes of stewed pork were finished in the goose-fat fryer and the result was tender, crispy, slightly redolent of orange mojo, and unbelievably fabulous.

Accompanying the pork were steak fry-like strips of yucca, rendered crispy on the outside and flaky, tender, slightly fiberous and a little sweet by its trip through the goose-fat fryer. The food rested on a bed of top-notch aoili and occupied a good-sized platter. My dining companion and I shared the appetizer and the main but left satisfied.

Unpretentious, affordable, and with totally mind-blowing food—The Delachaise on St. Charles should be a regular stop on any trip through the Big Easy.

Rawr!

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Café Rani on Magazine—

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Have I Told You Lately How Much I Love Chipotle?

I won’t lie to you. Chipotle is a weird operation. And I was aware of its existence long before I actually tried it. But now having tried real food in Chipotle’s revolutionary fast-food context, I know there is no going back to the crap the passes as lunch at any other national chain restaurant.

My love affair with Chipotle began, innocently enough after listening to a recording of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” on one of my three-hour trips back and forth between Birmingham and Atlanta. The message of author Michael Pollan really resonated with me, especially given my upbringing in a farming family. I remembered what real food used to taste like and, post-Pollan, finally got why the stuff I ate after leaving home was never, ever as good.

After that, my husband and I did everything we could to identify sources of locally-raised and/or organic food. We learned that “organic” isn’t the end of the inquiry, especially when it comes to animal products, like beef, pork, chickens, and food produced from their milk or eggs.

One day, my husband mentioned Chipotle to me. He told me, even though it was a chain, the founder, Steve Ells, was some kind of fanatic who had figured out a way to bring locally-sourced food into a fast food context.

“No way,” my skeptical mind objected. “Mexican fast food? Like Taco Bell?” As it turns out, the answer is “yes” to the first question; and to the second, “perish the thought!”

Then, I watched THE video.

Then, I visited my nearby Chipotle.

What a revelation!

The organic, modern décor certainly was unexpected. Wood and corrugated metal are the predominant design materials, but rather than looking like an old shed, it looks like a really nice place to eat—down to the corrugated relief of a South American native on the wall and the stainless steel topped tables.

Meticulously clean but not aseptic; standardized yet unique, the ambiance underscored similar ideas I found incorporated into the food. Each store obtains its meat and produce from local farms and ranches. Therefore, the precise flavor of the carnitas in different locations may vary slightly, but the way in which it is prepared is the same. (And it is prepared entirely on site in the open kitchen at the back of the store.) And it is fabulous.

According to a message on one of the cups, Chipotle’s apparently simple menu conceals something like 66,000 unique combinations of ingredients. But I usually get the same delicious thing—a carnitas bowl with no rice, small amount of black beans, peppers, hot and mild salsa, sour cream, cheese, guacamole (yes, I know there is a small up charge), and lettuce.

To place my order, I talk directly to the person building the bowl, and I get to see what is in each bin from which each ingredient is removed through a glass barrier before committing. And none of the food is ever not perfect. In fact, nothing is ever not perfect—from the restrooms to the drink station.

Even the “tap” water served from beneath the Minute Maid Lemonade spigot tastes like good water, and not some horrible chemically-tainted liquid found in far too many restaurants. That’s because they actually clean the fountain nozzles on a regular basis. If every restaurant did that, I wouldn’t live in fear of ordering ice “water”! (Strange phobia, I know. Whatever.)

Bottom line is Chipotle has done what I heretofore thought impossible: fresh fabulous fast real food served in a warm, relaxing environment where you can actually look forward to eating. If you haven’t tried it, you simply haven’t lived. Vive la difference!

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Kool Korner Sandwiches–Your Cuban Destination

Looking for an authentic (and really awesome) Cuban sandwich?  I was after I saw the Cuban Sandwich episode of “Throw-Down with Bobby Flay.”  To be perfectly frank, I thought the odds of finding even a passable one in Birmingham, Alabama, to be somewhere between slim and none.  Boy, was I wrong!

As luck, kismet, or karma would have it, one of the best Cubans in the South just happens to be made right here for lunch and dinner, six days a week. 

Kool Korner was founded in 1985, in Atlanta, Georgia, by Ildefonso and Lucia Ramirez, who both emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 1972.  The shop was a grocery store that was slowly converted to a sandwich shop and both Ildefonso and Lucia worked and lived in the old building.  It’s proximity to Georgia Tech in Midtown and reasonable prices for hearty fare made it a classic hangout for students and locals alike.

Nonetheless, in 2009, the Ramirez’s picked-up Kool Korner and moved it to the Publix strip mall on Montgomery Highway in Vestavia Hills.  That’s right!  It’s not a chain, but the orginal shop with newer digs and the same great sandwiches.

And if you are not into pork–shame on you–but there are roast beef, salads, Cuban tamales, black bean soup, and many other options to choose from.  For dessert, try a delicious Guava and Cream Cheese Pastelito, which is like a giant puff pastry filled with thick, sweet guava jam and cream cheese, strangely reminiscent of King Cakes.

Check out the entire menu and get information on hours and location at http://www.koolkornersandwiches.com. You won’t regret it!

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