Filet of Sole with Beurre Blanc

October 5, 2014 – Tailgating is a little different at my house these days.

I’ve always enjoyed going to New Orleans to a Saints game.  Just visiting the Super Dome is an experience in itself.  And there is something thrilling about seeing your favorite team in person.

On the other hand, its crowded.  It’s noisy.  Traffic is a nightmare.  And no matter where in the stadium I sit the drunkest, most obnoxious guy in the building is always right behind me.

So I decided that I’d rather watch the games in my living room.  I can see the action better on my large screen tv anyway.

And I do my tailgating in my own kitchen.  I make the food that I want to make.  I love hot dogs and chili and ribs.  But I make them often and for no occasion at all.  I don’t feel obligated to stick with traditional tailgating food.

My Saints were playing the Niners so it was a football Sunday.  I wanted something that was quick and easy and delicious.  I wanted to spend the day watching football, not in the kitchen. I decided on filet of sole with a beurre blanc sauce.  Quick.  Easy.  Delicious

Beurrre blanc translates literally from the French as “white butter.”  Legend has it that it was created around the turn of the last century by the French chef Clemance Lefeuvre.  She intended to make a béarnaise, so the story goes, but forgot the tarragon and egg yolks.  Hey, it can happen.  I once made a lasagna and forgot to add the meat.

My guess is that Lefeuvre did what any clever chef would do.  I’d bet she brought the dish to table and announced that she had created a new sauce just for that customer.

Beurre Blanc

1 minced shallot                                                      1/2 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar                           1 cup (two sticks) butter

1 1/2 tablespoons white wine                                  Salt & pepper to taste

Juice of one lemon

Bring the butter to room temperature.

Combine the shallot, vinegar, wine and lemon juice in a saucepan.  Cook over high heat until the liquid has almost evaporated, one or two minutes.

Add the cream and cook over medium heat until the mixture has reduced and thickened slightly, probably another two minutes or so.

At this point remove the pan from the heat and set it aside.

When you’re ready to serve, place the sauce in the top pan of a double boiler with hot water in the bottom pan.  Add the butter, salt and white pepper. Whisk until the butter is melted and absorbed into the sauce.

When cooking the sole, remember that it’s a delicate fish, easily overcooked.  Dredge the filets in flour that has been seasoned with salt and pepper.  Saute’ in butter until golden brown, about two minutes per side.  Drizzle the beurre blanc over the filets.

Bon temps!


September 22, 2014 – Some time around 2000 I was driving around Baton Rouge in search of an interesting place for dinner.  I passed what looked like a fast food style building with a sign that said Mestizo.  Mestizo?  An antiquated Spanish word meaning a person of mixed European and Native American heritage.  I had to know what this was all about.  I did a U-turn.

What I found resembled nothing even close to fast food.  Chef/owner Jim Urdiales was simply using what was once a burger place or some such to produce food that was all his own.  His creation.  And what a creation!

With a Hispanic father and a Cajun mother, Jim had grown up with two of the world’s great cuisines.  He put them together and came up with Mexican Cajun food.  Believe me when I tell you that you just haven’t lived until you’ve had a crawfish burrito or a shrimp and crab quesadilla.

Within a short time he moved his restaurant to a larger building in a better location.  His old customers followed him.  New ones found him.

Fast forward a decade.  The woman who is now my wife was coming to Louisiana for the first time.  She was arriving in the late afternoon.  I wanted her arrival to be memorable but it was just too complicated to prepare a dinner that would impress her and get to the airport to meet her flight.  The timing was risky.  I stopped by Mestizo to talk to Jim.  He agreed to put together a tasting menu for us.  A better idea.

I got her attention with a couple of chocolate martinis I whipped up at the house and then we were off to Mestizo.  Jim greeted us and did the serving himself.  Dish after familiar Mexican dish arrived at our table, all made with fresh Louisiana ingredients.   Tortillas.  Chilis. Shrimp.  Crab.  Crawfish.  She was delighted.  Impressed.  I was feeling clever.

Mestizo was one of the highlights of her visit.  Well, she did fall in love with New Orleans a day or two later when she discovered French Quarter bars provide go cups.  Such a civilized practice she thought.  And she did learn to “suck the heads & pinch the tails” with a plate of boiled crawfish at the Acme Oyster House.  But dinner at Mestizo was memorable.

A few days go I met my cousin, Genelle Parker Hughen, in Baton Rouge to take care of some business.  I took her to lunch at Mestizo and was pleased to find the food is as unique and wonderful as ever.

She opted for shrimp tacos.  Plump shrimp fresh from the Gulf of Mexico wrapped in corn tortillas.

I found one of my favorite Mexican dishes prepared Louisiana style.  A chili relleno.  Alleged to have originated in Puebla, a city southeast of Mexico city that was built by the Spanish in colonial days, it translates simply as “stuffed pepper.”

Chili rellenos are usually made with poblano peppers.  They can be stuffed with most anything but most often with cheese. The poblano is a dark green triangular shaped chili that is mild but has a very pleasing, dark flavor.  Mestizo, however, uses Anaheim peppers.  Even milder than the poblano.

The Anaheim is stuffed with crab and shrimp, rolled in a light breading and deep fried.  It’s served smothered in grilled onions, resting on a plate of traditional beans and rice.  But clearly the stuffing is the star of this show.  Louisiana shrimp and crab encased in the mild Anaheim.  A flavor combination that inspires delight!

Jim wasn’t in the day that Genelle and I had lunch at the restaurant.  But his Mexican Cajun creation was there.  And it’s thriving.  Evolving.  Growing.  Marvelous!




The Union Kitchen

September 24, 2014 – My mother, Mari Rich, is 88 today!  She lives with my stepfather, Paul, on an idyllic piece of East Texas woodland about 40 miles or so northwest of Houston.  Whenever I fly coast to coast I always try to stop for a couple of days just to check on her.  The truth is she’s so active I can’t keep up with her.

She called me recently while I was  in Washington, D.C., to tell me that she had found a new restaurant she thought I would like.  As it happened the restaurant my mother had in mind was in Kingwood, roughly about halfway between her house and his.  Sounded like a plan was developing.

The Union Kitchen was the brainchild of Paul Miller while he was still in college.  He had in mind an upscale restaurant with the atmosphere of a neighborhood favorite.  And that’s exactly what he and his partner, Executive Chef Juan Arellano, created.  In addition to the Kingwood restaurant they have two other locations in Houston itself.

In Kingwood, the room is all dark wood and leather.  It’s a warm room.  Comfortable.  The kind of place that has a private room where local civic clubs meet.  As a matter of fact the Red Hat group that my mother founded in the area has its lunch meetings there from time to time.

As we perused our menus I began to understand Miller and Arellano’s concept of food.  They are seeking to provide a “global cuisine with southern hospitality.”  The dishes offered are indeed global but with a southern twist.

For instance, the entrée I couldn’t resist.  Osso Bucco is one of my favorite dishes.  It is usually made with a shank of veal.  Sometimes a shank of lamb.  The Union Kitchen’s offering is labeled “Porkobucco.”  A classic global dish southern style.

In an Osso Bucco the shank of whatever is slow-cooked and should be falling off the bone, fork tender.  It’s a quality not that difficult to achieve with veal or lamb.  But I wondered if a pork shank could be that tender.  I needn’t have been concerned.

The pork shank placed in front of me rested on the traditional bed of mashed potatoes and was surrounded by slices of zucchini and yellow squash.  I tested the shank with my fork and, sure enough, there was no need for a knife.  Fork tender.  Falling off the bone.  Succulent.

No one but me was really interested in dessert.  But again the Union Kitchen offered something I wanted to try.  A pair of free form crème brulees.  One the traditional custard; the other chocolate.  Again a twist on a traditional global dish.  Delightful.

A few all too rare hours with family.  Food worth fighting Houston traffic for.  It was a good night.

Oh, and happy birthday to my mother!

The Garden Cafe at the State Plaza Hotel

September, 2014 – Sometimes you stumble over a jewel of a restaurant so unexpectably.  You just don’t see it coming.  That happened to me recently on a trip to Washington, D.C.

After many years of traveling to D.C., I have developed a list of small suite hotels that are comfortable for multiple day stays involving work and are relatively (at least by D.C. standards) inexpensive.  Usually a few minutes online and I have a reservation at the first hotel on the list.

But something went awry in September.  The first hotel was booked.  So was the second.  So was the third and fourth and on and on.  Not a room available at any of them.  For the first time my list had failed me.

What to do now?  One of my friends told me he had booked a hotel near the Baltimore airport and was coming in on the Metro every day.  Didn’t want to do that.  Don’t like being on a crowded train underground for that long.

I thought I’d have no choice but to go on one of those websites that buy up unreserved rooms and try my luck.  I have only used one of those sites twice and neither was a good experience.  But what else was I to do?

Then I remembered a friend of mine had told me about a hotel at which she had stayed  and liked very much.  The State Plaza Hotel.  I checked it out on line and sure enough there was space available.

I arrived in the early evening and was shown to a spacious suite.  Very comfortable for both working and resting.  Large living room.  Dining nook.  Galley kitchen.  Spacious bedroom.  It would do nicely.

I had awakened at 3:00 in the morning to catch my flight and flown coast to coast.  I was tired but more importantly I was starving.  The bellman told me the hotel’s Garden Café was open.  Off I went to find it.

The State Plaza was at one time an apartment building with two towers.  The Garden Café is located between the towers which, it seems to me, makes it difficult for anyone not staying at the hotel to find.  Of greater significance at the time, however, was that I  found it.  That was important to me . And I soon came to value the work of the kitchen staff headed by someone I only heard referred to as Chef Peggy.

I ordered a cocktail to be followed by a crabcake sandwich and fries.  While sipping the cocktail I learned that the young bartender, Mia, was enrolled in culinary school.  Food, it turned out, is her passion.  We talked food.

The crabcake sandwich was superb.  A light breading on the outside; all crab and little else on the inside.  As good a sandwich as you could get.

I decided I’d come back to the Garden Café.  As it happened I had dinner there every night, working my way through the French bistro style menu.  I would come in tired from meetings on the Hill.  Going out to a restaurant didn’t sound appealing.  I had a few things in the kitchen I had laid in for light lunches but I wanted something more substantial for dinner.  It was just so easy to take the elevator down to the small restaurant.

The food was so good and the atmosphere so friendly.  Mia, the bartender, gave us daily reports on her adventures in culinary school.  The hotel’s assistant manager, Derick Speight, stopped in most every evening to say hello.  It was like dining in the home of old friends.

The second night I opted for steak frites.  A small culotte steak, which is cut from the cap of the sirloin, arrived cooked rare as I had requested.   The fries, were exactly as I like them.  Fresh cut with skins left on.  Another excellent meal.

But it was the third night that really turned me from casual diner to a fan.  I wasn’t really hungry that night.  I’d had a large lunch with a group of long time colleagues and allies.  I really just wanted a glass of wine and something light.  I ordered calamari.

I love calamari.  And I’ve had it in some of the best restaurants in the country.  But the dish placed in front of me in the Garden Café that evening was the best I’ve ever eaten.  A breading so light the small circles of delicate seafood almost seemed to float off the plate.  And yet the calamari itself retained a nice chewiness.  To top it off, the chef had tossed in a handful of sliced jalapeno peppers to cook with the calamari.  It added a spiciness that made the calamari’s highly pleasant flavor seem to dance in my mouth.  Delectable!

While I was enjoying the calamari I noticed that someone seated nearby had ordered a burger and it looked really good.  So on the fourth night I decided to try it for myself.  It was really good.  Nice and messy like a burger should be.  Mouthwatering.  And the accompanying fries were as good as they were the other two nights I’d had them.  Freshly sliced with skins on.  So tasty.

The final night was to be another light meal.  I had to get up at 3:00 a.m. again to catch another early flight.  Back to the spicy calamari.  Just enough to be filling.  And so flavorful.

I wish this little gem of a restaurant was better known.  It’s worth seeking out.  I have a feeling I’ll be checking in to the State Plaza again if for no other reason than the calamari.  And the crabcake sandwich.  And the steak frites.  Yeah.  All those things.