Shrimp Boil, Crawfish Boil, Crab Boil…Take Your Pick

April 21, 2014 – It’s a sure sign of spring in the south.  A big pot of highly seasoned water bubbling away.  Filled with new potatoes and corn.  Maybe a few other things.  And shrimp, crawfish or crabs.  It’s peel’em and eat’em time.

Now I have to admit that growing up in Alaska with king crab so abundant I’m spoiled.  When it comes to crab, I’m going Alaskan every time.  But combining the traditional dishes of my native culture with the seafood bounty of my adopted home produces some spectacular results.  Gumbo made with king crab is simply amazing.  Over the top delicious.

When it comes to a boil, crawfish is my favorite.  Those little cousins to the lobster can make it challenging to get to the tasty meat hidden away in the curve of their tails.  But the effort is worth it.

The first time I took my wife to New Orleans we went to the Acme Oyster House for lunch.  She tried raw oysters for the first (and probably last) time.  And boiled crawfish.

When the waitress set the tray of crawfish on the table, my wife looked nervous.  Her son had told her to get me to show her how to “…suck the heads and pinch the tails…”  She wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.

First, break the tail away from the body.  Suck the liquid and fat from the body.  So spicy.  So good.  But not everyone is up for  that.

Next strip away the first two sections of shell from the tail.  Then pinch the end of the tail, gently pushing the meat up and out.

Suck the heads…pinch the tails.

Reach for another crawfish.

In the various places in which I spend time crawfish aren’t always available.  The shrimp boil is the easiest to do on a consistent basis.  And shrimp are the next best things to the little red mudbugs.

The real trick to a shrimp boil is getting the shrimp spicy enough without overcooking them.  It only takes about three minutes to cook shrimp and that’s not really much time to spend in the spices that make a boil so wonderful.  There are, however, some things you can do to help the little crustaceans absorb as much spice as possible without turning them into overcooked bits of nautical rubber.

The following recipe can be used for crawfish, shrimp or crab.  You can also add other ingredients to the boil.  I’ve never seen a boil without new potatoes and corn.  But artichokes work well in a boil, too.  I’ve even seen mushrooms tossed in.  It’s like so many traditional Louisiana dishes.  What do you have handy in the kitchen?

This recipe can also be extrapolated to serve as many people as might show up.  Just figure on about a pound of shrimp per person.  You might have some leftovers or you might not.  If you do, the shrimp will be spicier the next day, inspiring even more delight.

Medium shrimp (21 – 25 to the pound) are best for a boil.  Smaller shrimp work better in salads.  Large shrimp are excellent for grilling or for scampi.

You can make up your own spice bundles if you wish.  Include mustard seed, coriander seed, cayenne, bay leaves, dill seed and allspice.  Coincidentally, those are the ingredients in Zatarain’s shrimp, crawfish and crab boil.  It’s a lot easier just to toss one of those little bags of extreme goodness into the water.  And these days supermarkets all over the country carry the products of the venerable New Orleans company.

Shrimp Boil

1 bag Zatarain’s shrimp, crawfish, crab boil                      6-12 new potatoes, cut in half

2 onions, peeled & cut in half crosswise                           1 lb sausage, cut into 2″ pieces

4-5 whole garlic cloves, peeled                                         3-4 ears corn, cut in half

2 lemons, cut in half                                                          2 lbs medium shrimp

Fill a stock pot about two-thirds full with water.  There should be enough water to cover all the ingredients without overflowing.  Add salt to taste and bring it to a boil.  Toss in the spice bundle, onion, garlic and lemons.  Reduce to a simmer for half an hour to 45 minutes.  Give it plenty of time to let the spices fully permeate the water.

Add the new potatoes and sausage.  Bring back to a boil, then reduce the heat again.  Simmer slowly for 15 to 20 minutes.  Check the potatoes occasionally with a fork to make sure they’re not overcooking and becoming mushy.

Add corn.  Bring the water back to a boil, then again reduce the heat.  Simmer for about five minutes.  As with the potatoes, check the corn occasionally with a fork for the same reason.

Finally, add the shrimp.  Bring the water back to a boil, then again reduce the heat.  Simmer for three minutes.  The shrimp should simmer only until they turn a nice pink color.

Take the pot off the heat.  Place a bag of ice in the water to stop the cooking process.  Let the ingredients soak in the water for about ten minutes to allow them to soak up more of the spices.

Bon Temps!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poor Boy Lloyd’s

April 14, 2014 – Mary Kuntz was pretty in pink.  She told us she has worked at Poor Boy Lloyd’s in Baton Rouge for 37 years.  The original Lloyd died a while back, she said.  She seemed pleased to tell us that she was here to show current owner Fred Taylor the ropes when he took the place over more than 30 years ago.

My cousin, Genelle, and I were at Poor Boy Lloyd’s because Lloyd’s had what I needed.  What I needed was a po’ boy, Louisiana’s greatest contribution to the sandwich world.  (With apologies to Central Grocery of New Orleans and the muffuletta.)

The po’ boy originated in New Orleans.  Like many of the world’s favorite meals, it was working man food.  A section of French bread is sliced open and stuffed with fried oysters, shrimp, catfish, softshell crabs or any combination thereof.  The roast beef po’ boy, filled with shredded beef called “debris” and drowned in rich, dark gravy, is a New Orleans tradition.  And in recent years the French fry po’ boy has become popular. To put it simply, a po’ boy is a chunk of French bread stuffed with whatever you have on hand.

The predecessor of the po’ boy was the oyster loaf, popular in the last part of the 19th century.  It was also known as the “peacemaker,” allegedly because many an errant gentleman staggered home in the wee hours of the morning with one under his arm, hoping to distract the wrath of a waiting wife.

The name po’ boy originated at the Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant.  Before Bennie and Clovis Martin opened their eatery they had worked as conductors on New Orleans street cars and were members of the streetcar employees union.  On July 1, 1929, streetcar motormen and conductors walked off the job and thus began one of the nation’s most violent strikes in a time known for brutal labor conflicts.

Patronage of the city’s streetcars fell to near zero partly due to fear of the viciousness exhibited by both sides.  But public support for the striking employees was also high among New Orleaneans.  The union received many letters of support, including one from the Martin Brothers in which they promised free meals to their striking union brothers.  The Martins ended their letter by saying, “We are with you till [sic] h–l [sic] freezes over, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm.”

To keep their promise the Martins sliced long loaves of French bread into sections to make sandwiches.  Cheap.  Portable.  Delicious.  Immortal.

Bennie Martin is credited with uttering the phrase that led to the name po’ boy.  Tradition has it that he said, “Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, ‘Here comes another poor boy.'” In the unique way New Orleaneans have with the English language, it didn’t take much to get from  “poor boy” to “po’ boy.”

Today I was in need of a fried catfish po’ boy.  I’d had the craving for a couple of days.  We had gone downtown one evening to find a place for dinner and spotted Poor Boy Lloyd’s.  But there was a blues festival on the river and the closest parking was many blocks away.  We went elsewhere for food that evening but Poor Boy Lloyd’s stayed in mind.

I ordered my po’ boy dressed.  In the language of the po’ boy that means with lettuce, tomato, pickles and mayonnaise.  For good measure I asked for a cup of red beans and rice on the side.  And a plate of fried pickles to share with my cousin.

I bit into the sandwich and it was exactly right.  The  crusty crunch of the French bread. The juiciness of fresh tomato and lettuce dressed with mayo.  Another slight crunch of the breading protecting the delicate filet.

Catfish is one of my favorite fish but only fried.  I’ve tried it many other ways but, to me, the fine texture of the white flesh just doesn’t stand up well with most treatments.  There are other fish more adaptable.  But fried with a light breading to hold in the moisture, catfish is exquisite .  Hard to find better.

The pickles were terrific.  Crunchy and sour and fun.

And the red beans and rice…well, I could write a whole separate piece about red beans and rice.  Oh wait!  I’ve already done that.  These red beans were great.  Just great.

After lunch, I stepped up to the register to pay the tab and met owner Fred Taylor.  Fred is one of those people born to be a restaurateur.  I had never met him before.  I only talked to him for maybe five minutes.  But when I walked away I had the feeling I’d made a new friend.

Even better my new friend knows how to put a po’ boy on the table.

See you soon, Fred.

 

 

Ruth’s Chris Steak House

April 12, 2014 – My cousin, Genelle, and I were carefully studying the menu like we’d never seen it before.

“What are we doing?” I asked her.  “We’re in Baton Rouge.  We’re at Ruth’s Chris.  We’re having steaks.”

I have a simple philosophy on such matters.  If you’re at Ruth’s Chris and you don’t order a steak, what’s the point of being at Ruth’s Chris?  Ruth’s Chris serves the best steak in the world.  Any Ruth’s Chris is good.  The Ruth’s Chris in Baton Rouge is the top.  It’s just as simple as that.

The Ruth in Ruth’s Chris was Ruth Fertel who passed away in 2002.  In 1965 she was a single mother faced with raising two sons and getting them through college.  Against all prevailing wisdom of the day she mortgaged her house and bought Chris Steak House in New Orleans for $18,000.  The mortgage was for $22,000 because she figured she needed another four grand to get started.

The Chris was Chris Matulich who opened the steak house in 1927.  He sold the place six times and each time the new owners didn’t make a go of it so he got it back.  Cheap.  Then along came Ruth.  He didn’t get it back.

She operated at the original location until 1976 when the building burned down.  Fortunately she had recently purchased a nearby location to use as the base for a catering company.  Within a couple of weeks Ruth was able to open for business in the new location.  But there was the small matter of the name.

The sales agreement gave Ruth the right to use the name Chris Steak House but only in the original location.  The new place would be Ruth’s Chris Steak House.  Tongue twister of a name but a legal end run around a small problem.  Ruth said she always hated the new name but she had to make it work.

1976 was a memorable year for another reason.  That was when Baton Rouge real estate developer T.J. Moran convinced Ruth to give him a franchise to open a Ruth’s Chris in Baton Rouge.  It was the first franchise and, in my view, still the best of the some 130 Ruth’s Chris restaurants that have subsequently opened under franchise agreements around the country.

I sipped on Ruth’s Chris version of my favorite cocktail, a French 75.  They call theirs a French Quarter 75.  They make it with Roederer sparkling wine, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, Beefeater Gin and lemon juice.  A raspberry dropped into the Champagne glass along with a lemon twist adds to the presentation.  A preeminent variation on the original cocktail.  Refreshing.

I ordered what I always order when I’m at Ruth’s Chris.  The bone-in cowboy ribeye.  Rare.  Genelle ordered the filet mignon.  We asked for mushrooms and potatoes au gratin, served family-style.

You can hear a Ruth’s Chris steak coming well before it reaches the table.  Their steaks are seared and cooked quickly at 1800 degrees.  They come out sizzling.  A dollop of butter is dropped onto the steak just before serving.  It adds to the sizzle.  It’s a happy sound.

The ribeye was perfectly rare.  Premier among steaks.  The mushrooms, dripping in butter, so pleasant to the taste.  Such a scrumptious partner to a sizzling steak.  And the potatoes, draped in a carpet of melted cheese.  Simply delectable.

Genelle ordered a crème brulee for dessert.  I went with my favorite southern sweet dish. Bread pudding with bourbon sauce.  The slight bite of the bourbon sauce turning day old bread into a succulent pastry.  A ballet for the palate.

We waited silently in the cool air of a Louisiana early spring evening while the valet brought our car up.  Dinner was at Ruth’s Chris.  There was nothing more to say.

Bobby’s Burger Palace

April 10, 2014 – K Street, Washington, D.C.  Home to high priced lawyers and high powered lobbyists.  It’s where former Members of Congress come to pump up their retirement plans.  If you’re celebrity chef Bobby Flay and you want to open a fast food burger joint in the capital city, it’s where you want to be.

Bobby’s Burger Palace looks more Vegas than D.C.  Lots of bling in the form of color.  Orange, red, and yellow top the flow of a lunch counter winding along one side of the room.  Long family style tables fill the other side.  The room made me feel good.  I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy lunch.

I was meeting my friend Paul Raak for lunch.  I got there early to snag the only private table.  Good thing I did.   By noon the place was jammed and there wasn’t a vacant seat in the house.

Paul is from Iowa and told me long ago that he’s a “meat and potatoes” kind of guy.  Though he once e-mailed me a picture of the rather adventurous menu at a restaurant somewhere in Virginia where he had taken his wife to dinner.  Just wanted to show me that he could step out of his comfort zone.

I ordered a vanilla bean milk shake while I waited for Paul. I’ve always thought it was a wise practice to have dessert first.  Especially in Washington, D.C.  You never know when the unexpected might happen there.

What I got was a power house of a milkshake.  Tiny flecks of vanilla bean seed suspended in ice cream.  Vanilla as flavorful as I’ve ever experienced it.  Wonderfully pungent vanilla.  A power house shake for D.C.’s power street.  Appropriate.

When it came to ordering a burger, well, I love eggs.  Especially fried eggs.  So I couldn’t resist the Brunch Burger, served with thick slices of bacon and American cheese with a fried egg laid over everything.  The egg was impeccable.  Crisp edges.  Yolk just runny enough.  As fried eggs go it was superb.

Paul again chipped away another bit of his image as a conservative eater by ordering the sweet potato fries.  I went with the half and half, choosing regular fries and onion rings.

For the third time during the week I was served a plate of fries that was in the category of superlative.  Fried just as I like them.  Freshly hand cut.  Skins on.  Excellently browned.  I was beginning to think there is a rush toward creating the ideal French fry in D.C. If so, I applaud it.  I’ll lead the charge.  The three thick slices of nicely breaded and browned onion rings added sweetness to the plate.

Bobby Flay has said that his favorite thing to eat is a hamburger.  He has also said that while he was building an empire of upscale restaurants across the country and skyrocketing to success as one of the superstars of food tv, the dream in his head involved opening a burger joint.

His dream has come true. And it came with a splendid burger.

 

 

Good Stuff Eatery

April 8, 2014 -The energy hits you like heat from a blast furnace when you  step into Good Stuff Eatery on Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill.  It swirls tornado style through the staff.  Through the room.  Ordering can even be confusing.  I wasn’t at all sure that I was going to get what I thought I had ordered.

As I learned more about the Mendelsohn family, especially Chef/Owner Spike Mendelsohn, I came to understand that the seemingly wild and crazy atmosphere of the restaurant is probably just another day in their lives.  And miraculously all tends to turn out well.

Spike Mendelsohn is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and trained in some of the world’s greatest restaurants.  He probably just couldn’t help himself.  The food business is in his blood.  His parents, Harvey and Catherine, opened and ran more than two dozen restaurants across the country during their career.

While apprenticing at some of the world’s greatest restaurants, he kept the thought of following in his parents’ footsteps with his own restaurant ever in mind.  Then one day his parents, retired and vacationing in Greece, mother Catherine’s ancestral homeland, received a call from daughter Micheline.  A restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill had closed and the building was vacant.  What an opportunity!

Convincing his parents to come out of retirement to help him get started and calling on a network of cousins and friends, Spike opened the Good Stuff Eatery.  His philosophy isn’t complicated.  “Give people simple, delicious, fresh American comfort food using local, fresh, farm-grown ingredients.”  But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring.  Far from it.

Good Stuff Eatery’s burgers are “handcrafted” and it makes a difference.  Spike calls his shakes “handspun” and that makes a difference, too.  He’s taken good old American burgers, fries and milk shakes and given them what he calls the “good stuff twist.”

It works.  Works so well that Spike has followed the success of the Capitol Hill restaurant by opening Good Stuff Eateries in Arlington, Virginia’s Crystal City and in the tony Georgetown section of D.C.

It was a bit hectic as our party of six scurried to find, then hold, a table big enough for us while trying to get our orders placed.  I opted for the steakhouse burger.  A generous, juicy patty with creminis, onion “straws” and Emmental Swiss cheese with what is described as Tangy Steakhouse Sauce, accompanied by fries and a chocolate shake.

The “handrafted” burger tasted just that way.  Much like the burger I might have formed with my own hands for my own grill.

The fries were perfect.  Freshly hand cut. Skins on.  Browned on the outside exactly as they should be.

The “handspun” shake was much the same.  Almost liquid ice cream, chocolate-ized.  Chocolate gold.

I looked around the table.  There was little conversation among the six of us.  It was a time for eating.  And the eating was good.

Good stuff.  So good.

 

 

 

 

 

DGS Delicatessen

April 7, 2014 – I never knew that “schmutzy” means clutter, as in “a lot of stuff,” in Yiddish.  That gap in my lexical education was filled in by Lily, the young woman tending our table at DGS Delicatessen in Washington, D.C.  But more about schmutzy later.

Cousins Nick and David Wiseman opened DGS Delicatessen about a year and a half ago.  DGS is not a kosher deli but under the direction of Chef Barry Koslow they are turning out great food based on traditional Jewish cooking.  Koslow is good at his job.  So good that he was named the best Jewish chef in the city in 2012.  Following long-established custom, Koslow does all the curing, brining and smoking of meats in house.

The Wiseman cousins honored another local Jewish tradition when they selected the name DGS.  At the beginning of the last century scores of mom and pop grocery stores, many of them owned by Jewish families, were scattered throughout the city.  But even in that time of embryonic marketing big box stores were starting to appear.

The mom and pop stores formed a cooperative in 1922 to gain access to greater purchasing power.  Known as District Grocery Stores, the cooperative enabled the small stores to compete with the big guys.  David Wiseman’s family owned one of the District Grocery Stores.  Hence the name of the deli.  DGS.  Tradition.

It’s not all tradition at DGS.  When you get past the name and the menu the long, narrow room shouts free spirit.  A brick wall on one side, open kitchen on the other behind a counter of white tile.  Across from the kitchen stairs lead up to a second floor bar.  Everything else is all wood and chrome.  Very 21st century.

Well, except for the music.  Bobby Darin was singing “Dream Lover.”  Great music from the early days of rock & roll.   Doo wap and girl groups.  The Dell Vikings.  The Supremes before they were consumed in the flash of Diana Ross’ stardom.

I was meeting a group of Alaskans for lunch.  People from Valdez, Glenallen, Kotzebue, Ketchikan.  We had the state pretty well covered.  It was a cold, rainy day in D.C.  Lily asked if she could bring me a drink while I waited for my party.  I asked for hot chocolate, my go to drink on cold, rainy days.  She said they didn’t have it on the menu but she would see what she could do.  Minutes later she returned with a passable cup of hot chocolate.

But back to schmutzy…Reading through the menu while I waited for my companions to arrive, I couldn’t resist the starter called “Schmutzy Fries.”  And Lily was right.  The plate set in front of me did contain fries and a lot of stuff.  Gooey, messy, cheesy, delicious stuff.

The fries were just as I like’em.  Hand cut with skins on.  Browned to perfection.  Covered with chunks of pastrami and a heap of sauerkraut.  Swiss cheese melted over all.  And a peppery red sauce for spice.  An abundance of taste sensations.

Our table ordered a variety of sandwiches.  Since I had already tried the pastrami with the schmutzy fries, I opted for corned beef.  A Reuben sandwich that came with a large, nicely tart dill pickle.  While I would have been happy with a bit more sauerkraut, the corned beef was quality.  A first rate Reuben.

DGS.  A 21st century deli based on tradition. On customer service.  A restaurant with class.

 

 

 

Beer Cheese Chicken Soup with Crusty Rosemary Bread

March 30, 2014 – It was raining and cold.  Not the Arctic kind of cold that makes you rummage through the closet for gloves and scarves and stocking caps.  It was that wet, bone-chilling cold that comes with a hard winter rain.

Even though it was officially spring it was still a winter kind of rain.   March got itself a little confused this year.  In like a lamb and out like a lion.

Not that I’m complaining.  I like rainy days.  A roaring fire in the fireplace.  A good book or an old movie.  Maybe a nap with a concerto of falling raindrops lulling you to sleep.  And a steaming bowl of soup with crusty bread for dipping.

On this rainy day I made a Beer Cheese Chicken Soup.  All the better with crusty rosemary bread.

I prefer chicken thighs almost exclusively.  They’re moist and flavorful.  So unlike the ubiquitous boneless, skinless breasts.  This recipe does work best if the chicken is boneless and skinless.  Even so I still like thighs.  The chicken should be cut into bite sized pieces for cooking.  I sautéed the small pieces in a little olive oil until they were beginning to brown.

I also added some broccoli for color and crunch.  I would suggest using raw flowerets,  sautéing them in olive oil as well.  Take care not to overcook them.  Done properly the broccoli will add a bit of crunch and color to the bowl.

Light the fire in the fireplace, find a good movie and enjoy!

Beer Cheese Chicken Soup

1/2 medium onion, chopped                                 2 1/2 cups chicken broth

1/4 cup butter                                                       2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

1/4 cup flour                                                         1 cup cooked but still crunchy broccoli

Salt & pepper to taste                                          1 pound chicken, cooked & diced

2 cups milk                                                           1 cup elbow macaroni, cooked

                                                                              1 12 oz bottle of beer

Saute the onion in butter until it is softened.  Add the flour and cook for two or three minutes, stirring constantly.  Add the milk and chicken broth, continuing to stir until it begins to thicken.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Add the beer, stirring well.

Add the cheese and continue stirring until it is melted.

Add the chicken and broccoli.  Stir to mix well.

Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

Crusty Rosemary Bread

1 crusty baguette

Softened butter

Fresh rosemary, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350.

Cut the bread into slices about 1/2 inch thick.  Lightly butter each slice and sprinkle each with the chopped rosemary.

Place the slices of bread on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven.  Bake for about ten minutes, watching them closely, until they’re brown and crispy.

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Bon temps!