Casa

May 25, 2015 – Fusion restaurants are all the rage now.  It’s exciting.  Producing  interesting, sometimes delicious dishes by combining flavors of different cultures.

It has occurred to me that there is a downside to carrying food cultural diversity too far.  I wouldn’t want some of my favorite foods to become memories.  Then I recall the first fusion restaurant I ever visited.  Mestizo in Baton Rouge.  The brain child of Chef Jim Urdiales, born of Mexican and Cajun parents, combined two of the world’s great cuisines to create something remarkable.  Something memorable.  You really haven’t lived until you’ve had a shrimp and crawfish stuffed chili relleno.

This week I was joining my Inupiaq friend Willie Hensley for lunch.  Willie is one of Alaska’s most respected statesmen as well as a good friend.  When we get together the conversation is interesting, substantial and significant.  So is the food.  Willie’s willingness to experiment with new food concepts matches my own.

Today I suggested a fusion restaurant I had heard about on the east side of Anchorage.  We made our way through the road construction detour on Muldoon Road.  (It’s said that Anchorage has only three seasons:  winter, almost winter and road construction.)  We found Casa in a non descript stand alone building.  As we entered we saw a bar with pool table to the right.  We were guided to a booth on the left side.  The restaurant side.

The room was decorated much as one would expect in a Mexican restaurant in Anchorage.  But the menu was far different.  Casa is a Mexican-Korean fusion restaurant.  How could we pass on the chance to try that?

Casa is the latest offering by Ronnie Lee, the Korean born chef who came to the United States to study fashion design.  Instead he discovered Japanese food and became enthralled not only with the food itself but with the color and design used by sushi chefs in preparing their presentations.  Lee has opened two successful sushi restaurants in Anchorage.  Casa is an experiment in a new and untraveled direction.

We placed our orders and very quickly the ubiquitous chips and salsa of a Mexican restaurant appeared.  Each of us also received a small bowl of chicken soup with threads of egg white.  Much like an egg drop soup.  We were in a fusion restaurant.

Willie ordered bibimbap, a traditional Korean dish that translates literally as “mixed rice with meat and assorted vegetables.”  The meat was pork.  The rice was Spanish rather than the customary white rice of Korea.  The classic presentation of bibimbap includes a raw egg on top.  At Casa the egg was replaced with a dollop of sour cream.

The sampling I tasted was highly pleasant.  I was especially pleased with the hint of sesame oil.  The flavors of Mexico and Korea were working well together.

I opted for the bulgogi burrito.  Bulgogi is another dish those accustomed to Korean food will recognize.  It translates to “marinated beef.”  The marinade usually includes soy sauce, sesame oil, green onion, garlic, shiitake mushrooms and onion.

The burrito set before me was huge.  Massive.  I told Willie there was no way I could eat all that.

I focused first on the sides.  There was, of course, the standard accompaniment of refried beans and rice one would expect in a Mexican restaurant.  There was also a beautiful tempura shrimp and slices of tempura sweet potato.  I forgot about the beans and rice.  The tempura was delectable.  The breading light and perfectly cooked.  Just nicely crisp on the outside without overcooking the delicate shrimp and sweet potato inside.  Beautifully done.

I turned my attention to the burrito.  Like the breading on the tempura, the tortilla encasing the bulgogi was cooked just right.  The marinated beef inside was very tasty, the complexity of the marinade prevalent with each bite.  The addition of cojito cheese, sort of the Mexican version of Parmesan, was a good choice.  It added a bit of tang to the other cheese, more conducive to melting, that was included.  Green and red sweet peppers, onion, tomato and cilantro,  a touch of salsa, and a swipe of guacamole on top.  All combined to make a highly palatable meal.

Mexican Korean fusion works.  Works well.  I did eat the whole thing.  And l’ll do it again.

 

 

Brussels Hash

May 9, 2015 – I love Brussels sprouts.  Those tiny little cabbage-like things.  Slightly bitter.  Completely wonderful.

Don’t really know why they’re called Brussels sprouts.  They were first cultivated in ancient Rome.  They did become popular in Belgium some time around the 14th century.  From there they spread to the Netherlands and across Europe.

The only thing I really care about though is they can usually be found in the market in which we shop.  And my wife had brought home a bag of the little jewels.

The question was what to do with them.  I looked through the refrigerator to see what else we had on hand.  Found a leek.  Love those.  And a half pound package of tasso.  Now we’re talking a meal.

Tasso is a heavily spiced Louisiana ham.  It’s most often used as a hearty flavoring in beans and such as that.  But I was thinking Brussels sprouts, leeks and tasso.  If you can’t get any tasso substitute any ham, preferably as spicy as possible.  If you can’t find a spicy ham just add a touch of cayenne to whatever ham is available.

I trimmed the ends from the Brussels sprouts and cut them in half.  That provides a wider surface area for browning.  I chopped the white and a bit of the light green parts of the leek.  I cut the tasso into small, bite-sized pieces.  The prep was done.

I tossed everything into a pan with a little olive oil and butter.  As the Brussels sprouts and tasso browned, and the chopped leeks softened, it began to look like a hash.  So I thought why not a couple of fried eggs on top.  Well, why not?

It was wonderful.  I highly recommend it.  And it’s so easy.

Brussels Hash

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

1 leek, the white & a bit of the light green chopped

1/2 pound tasso

Salt & pepper to taste

2 eggs per serving

Oil for cooking eggs.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a saute’ pan.

Add the Brussels sprouts, chopped leek and tasso.  Salt and pepper to taste. Saute’, stirring often, until the Brussels sprouts and tasso begin to brown, and the leek is soft.

Turn onto plates.

Prepare fried eggs as you like them.  Place two fried eggs on each plate of hash.

Bon temps!

Banana Bread

April 26, 2015 – For centuries there were three inspirations for the creation of the great dishes we love.  Our comfort foods.

First, feed the family with whatever was available.  Gumbo and jambalaya became famous dishes but they began with mom looking in the larder to see what was there.  What was available to feed the family.  And then making it taste good so the kids would eat it.

Second, stretch the life of food and sometimes mask the flavor of ingredients that were maybe a little past their prime.  Why do you think those European nations fought so hard to claim new lands five hundred years ago?  Oh sure, they wanted gold.  Riches. But honestly there was very little of that.  More importantly they wanted spices to mask the taste of rotting food.  And perfume to…well, you know.

Third, some rich guy paid a chef to create something magnificent that nobody else had.

In the late 19th century along came a fellow named Auguste Escoffier who gave us a fourth inspiration for the creation of great dishes.  He partnered with a fellow named Carlton.  Carlton managed the Ritz Carlton hotels; Escoffier ran the kitchens.  And just coincidentally he became the first celebrity chef.  Celebrity chefs create great dishes to attract customers to their restaurants.  Very sensible.  Good business.

I’m concerned with inspiration number two here.  Using foods that are just a shade past their prime to create dishes that are delicious.  Dishes that linger in our taste memories as comfort foods.  That remind us of home and family.

One of the most familiar is banana bread.  The most perfect fit for this category.  You can’t even make banana bread with fresh bananas.  They have to be brown and soft.  Won’t work otherwise.

And is it ever comfort food!  Who could deny the tantalizing aroma of hot banana bread?  Even as I write my taste memory is urging me to check the fruit basket for darkening bananas.

I was at my mother’s house in Texas.  I had a taste for banana bread.  Before I got there I asked her to save any bananas that were turning brown.  When I got to her house she had three big, beautiful brown bananas.

On Sunday afternoon I got to work in the kitchen.  It was fun.  Even better, I had my mother as sous chef.  How cool is that?

Most every family has its own version of banana bread.  I’m not giving away any big secrets.  Here’s the recipe we came up with.  It was delicious.  I can taste it still.

Banana Bread

1 stick butter, at room temperature                                                                                      1 cup sugar                                                                                                                         2 eggs                                                                                                                                 2 cups all purpose flour                                                                                                       1 teaspoon baking soda                                                                                                 1/2 teaspoon salt                                                                                                           three ripe bananas                                                                                                              1 tablespoon milk                                                                                                                1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350.

Grease a loaf pan with butter.  Loaf pans are usually 9x5x3.  Perfect size for this recipe.

Cream the butter and sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time.  Beat well as you add each egg.

Sift the flour, baking soda and salt all together.  Add it to the creamed butter and sugar, mixing well.

Mash the bananas thoroughly.  Add 1 tablespoon of milk and mix into the mashed bananas.

Fold the bananas and the vanilla extract into the flour mixture.

You can also add a handful of chopped walnuts if you wish.

Pour the mixture into the loaf pan.  Bake for about an hour.  Check it a few minutes before the hour is up with a cake tester. (Also known as a toothpick.)  When it comes out clean the bread is done.

Let it cool for about 15 minutes.

It’s so good warm slathered with melting butter.

Bon Temps!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Juban’s

April 23, 2015 – It’s no secret that food is a way of life in Louisiana.  It’s a seductive way of life.  Many who move to the state from elsewhere find themselves quickly adopting local food.  Local customs.  The joie de vivre found in the state whose motto is “Laissez les bon temps rouler.”  The Cajun French phrase for “Let the good times roll.”

There are great restaurants scattered throughout the state.  Everything from small family-owned cafes specializing in fried catfish, po’ boys and gumbo, or fried chicken to those hallowed restaurants that are household names.  Among the royalty of the restaurant world.  Antoine’s.  Galatoire’s.  Arnaud’s.  Emeril’s.  Great names.  Great New Orleans restaurants.

Baton Rouge has its share of great restaurants.  On this trip I was looking forward to dinner at Juban’s.  One of the finest Baton Rouge restaurants.  From the sugar pot fountain in the small courtyard just outside the front door to the bread pudding dessert offering, Juban’s is all about Louisiana.

The Juban family opened the restaurant in 1983.  The family name has been synonymous with excellence from the beginning.  They took in Michael Shane Boudreaux as a partner a few years ago.  Boudreaux has been in the food business since he was 16 years old.  If the Juban family wanted a partner he was a good choice.  Though the family retains an ownership interest in the restaurant Boudreaux has now been named president.

Joey Daigle was introduced as executive chef in 2013.  Daigle is a Louisiana native.  Like all of us, the love of food is in his genes.  He didn’t decide he wanted a career in the kitchen until he was 23 years old.  Daigle says being a chef isn’t a job; it’s a lifestyle.  He felt he was coming late to that lifestyle.  He had some catching up to do.  He got a full time job at Galatoire’s Bistro in Baton Rouge.  Then he got a job working 35 hours a week at another restaurant.  He was anxious to learn.  He was willing to devote 70 to 80 hours a week to do it.

For a while he continued his education working at two of John Besh’s restaurants in New Orleans.  Then he headed west where he worked under Thomas Keller at Keller’s group of restaurants in California’s Napa Valley, including The French Laundry.  He immersed himself in the lifestyle of the chef.  He learned well.

I was meeting my neighbor of ten years, Selma Ruth, for dinner.  Whenever I’m in Baton Rouge on business I make it a point to see the Ruths.  They’re one of the best known couples in Baton Rouge.  More important to me, they were great neighbors.  On this trip Selma’s husband, Gerard, was in North Carolina at the furniture market.  So it was just Selma and me.

I arrived a few minutes early and was greeted by David Gipson, the man who would be tending our table.  David is a professional.  Good at what he does.  The kind of guy  who makes the dining experience so much better simply because he knows food.  He knows his restaurant.  He enjoys people.

I asked for a Dark ‘N’ Stormy before dinner.  Juban’s makes the cocktail with Old New Orleans rum and the usual ginger beer and lime juice.  It was excellent.  Dark.  Stormy.  Delicious.

Deciding on food was a lot harder.  Well, not for Selma.  She ordered what she always orders.  A small filet, medium, with mashed potatoes on the side.  It’s her favorite meal.

I, on the other hand, wanted to try everything on the menu.  I was in my native land so I had to have some native food.  But the menu was so awesome.  I really did want everything.  Gripped by the agony of indecision I admit to taking the easy way out.  I ordered the Chef’s prix fixe dinner.

This evening it started with chicken and Andouille gumbo.  The kitchen got the roux exactly as it should be for a good gumbo.  Dark.  Smoky.  That unique taste that lingers on the palate.  An excellent gumbo.  My down home fix for the trip.

The entrée was amazing.  A braised boneless short rib.  I’m seeing boneless short ribs show up more often on menus but frankly they haven’t been that good.  There’s something about the bone that adds sort of an all-beef lagniappe.  A little something extra to the taste.

Not so with Chef Daigler’s boneless short rib.  Beautifully marbled.  Cooked to a fork only tenderness.  Not a lot of meat.  So rich and tasty.  Not a lot was the perfect amount.

Selma was happy with her steak.  I was thrilled with an excellent cocktail, gumbo any Louisiana native would be proud of and one of the best braised short ribs I’ve ever eaten.

It’s why we say, “Laissez les bon temps rouler!”