Sunday, February 27, 2011

Let me take you to the Mardi Gras

Hurry take me to the Mardi Gras

In the city of my dreams

You can legalize your lows

You can wear your summer clothes

In the New Orleans

And I will lay my burden down

Rest my head upon that shore

And when I wear that starry crown

I won't be wanting anymore

Take your burdens to the Mardi Gras

Let the music wash your soul

You can mingle in the street

You can jingle to the beat of Jelly Roll"

- Paul Simon

We caught the parade of the Mystic Krewe of Barkus, rolling in the French Quarter.

UPDATE: 3/5/2011 - Thanks to the wonderful Magee family for their beautiful Avatar costumes in the first photo!

Good eating

In a town full of fine food and great restaurants, the culinary treasure New Orleans residents prize the most is their neighborhood po'boy shop.

The po'boy sandwich is a simple thing. A length of crusty baguette - plain or seeded - filled with something delicious. Roast beef is a traditional sandwich filling, but New Orleans is famous for its seafood, and there's nothing more tempting than a fried shrimp or oyster po' boy.

A dish of Mahony's creole slaw, made with Zatarain's mustard

Mahony's Po-Boy Shop on Magazine Street has a menu full of choices, including the Chicken Liver po'boy dressed with creole slaw - this selection was a winner at the 2009 Po'boy Preservation Festival.

Or you could go with the Peacemaker - Fried oysters, bacon, and cheddar cheese.

But I had a hankering for the grilled jumbo shrimp with remoulade and fried green tomatoes.

And [The Man I Love] went for the overstuffed fried shrimp - "dressed," of course - that's with lettuce, mayo, tomatoes and pickles.

You can sit outside at sidewalk tables, or you can eat inside. The high-ceiling room, in an old Creole cottage, is loud and echoing. While we were there, it seemed an entire soccer team of little girls were there, playing at the standing arcade game and lining up for the one tiny ladies' room.

Just shake a few drops of Crystal hot sauce on the delicious cornmeal-breaded shrimp, take another sip of draft Abita beer, and enjoy. This is good food.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why New Orleans is different

New Orleans is just different than the rest of the United States.

This is a concession stand set up by the volunteer charity for a Catholic Church school, at the start of the Mardi Gras parade route on St. Charles Avenue at Napoleon Street. The Fathers' Club of the Academy of the Sacred Heart is running a fundraising operation.

Check out the sign.

They're selling beer and booze in go-cups. Daiquiris are $10. Refills are only $7.

I love New Orleans.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Night time on St. Charles Avenue

We're here, staying in an historic inn on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. We got in around 7:00 pm and then walked out to find a place for dinner.

As we walked back, we saw this house, against the evening sky. Isn't it wonderful?

FAD Friday

Thanks to derfwad Kate in Michigan for the duck image!

Mrs. g has taken down the screens, put away the loungers, wire-brushed the barbecue, latched the shutters closed, and dust-covered all the furniture over at Derfwad Manor. She is graciously retiring from the bloggy-blogg world.

But one tradition she began begs to be continued. It's FAD Friday - or Fuck-a-duck Friday.

Based on the signature phrase of Mrs. g's late, favorite Aunt, FAD Friday is the day women can throw caution and propriety to the winds, let loose, vent their frustrations, and tell the world it can go fuck itself!!!

Feel free to weigh in! What happened to you this week that makes you want to say Fuck-a-duck??

Thursday, February 24, 2011

We're taking a trip

"Won't you come and go with me
Down that Mississippi?
We'll take a boat to the land of dreams
Come along with me on down to New Orleans."

W.C. Handy, "Basin Street Blues"

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Over Thanksgiving, we stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in Seattle where every morning we were treated to fresh-baked croissants - yes, those buttery, flaky, delicious French pastries. Our hostess and her daughter made them every day, right there in her kitchen.

The more I thought about it, I had to give it a try. Where else can you go after making pies?

I have been working with a great book called "The Secrets of Baking," by Sherry Yard. What I like about this book is that she teaches you some basic recipes, and then tells you the variations on it to be creative.

Croissants are part of her chapter on puff pastry.

If you're going to consider puff pastry, you are going to be working with butter. Puff pastry is a laminated dough - that is, just like plywood, it's layers of dough separated by layers of butter, rolled ever and ever more thinly. The dough is called the dêtrempe. The butter is called the beurrage.

Croissants take a while to make, but the beauty of it is that you can make the dough and divide it in portions and freeze it. Then you can take it out when you're ready to bake, and it's easy.

Unlike pate feuillette, Croissants are made with a yeast-raised dough. The dough recipe is simple:

1 cup of chilled milk (she says whole milk, I used 2%)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
3 cups flour (she mixes 2 cups bread flour with 1 cup all-purpose flour)
2 tablespoons of sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons of salt
1/4 pound, or one stick, of cold unsalted butter

In a standing mixer, dissolve the yeast in the milk.

Combine the dry ingredients.

Cutting the butter into tablespoon-sized slices, work the butter into the dry ingredients - as you would for pie crust, until the butter particles are about the size of peas. I used my pastry blender.

Add the flour and butter mixture to the yeast and milk mixture. Knead it and pull it together into a ball - don't work it too much.

Pull it together on a floured surface into a ball, and use a sharp knife or razor to cut an x-shape into the ball of dough, going halfway through. Then, wrap it in plastic or foil and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.

When you're ready to work with it again, take the dough out of the fridge and while you're waiting for it to warm up a bit, make the beurrage.

You'll need 3/4 of a pound of butter, or 3 sticks. That's right, you heard me. With the 1/4 pound that went into the dêtrempe, and the beurrage, this recipe requires a pound of butter.

You form the butter into a block about five inches square by about 3/4 inch thick. I cut our west-coast style stubby butter blocks in half lengthwise and then put them together in a kind of mosaic. Use a couple tablespoons of flour to work it all together, pounding it with your rolling pin as though you were working with clay. Don't let it get too warm.

Put the ball of dough on a floured surface and roll it out in an x-pattern - letting the lobes from the x-shaped cut you made expand out into a kind of four-leafed clover shape.

Place the beurrage in the center of the dough, off-set in a diamond shape.

This picture and the one above are from two different batches.

Fold the four lobes of the dough over the butter, sealing it in.

Like a package. Take your rolling pin and gently pound down on the package, sealing the places it's folded over and flattening it to about an inch thick. All the time you're working, keep a bit of flour available to dust the surfaces and keep the dough from sticking.

Then roll it out into a rectangle shape. What you're doing here is sandwiching the butter between two layers of dough. The rectangle should be about 10" by 20".

Then, fold each side of the dough to the middle, into thirds, like a business letter. This is what is called the first "turn."

Now you have three layers of butter sandwiched between six layers of dough. Roll the dough out once again into the same rectangular shape, and make the same fold again. This is the second "turn."

Now you have eighteen layers of dough and nine layers of butter sandwiched together.

You should never let the dough get too warm, so after this turn, the dough has to rest for 30 minutes in the refrigerator. The book says to wrap the dough in plastic wrap, but I find that the buttery dough prevents the wrap from clinging. I wrap it in foil and seal it inside a large ziplock bag.

After the rest in the refrigerator, take the dough out and make another "turn." Here I get a little confused between the various recipes I read. Yard says you should make at least four "turns" the first day you work with the dough, and a total of six "turns" all together. Professional bakers mark the dough to keep track of the number of "turns" - here above I've marked the dough with four fingerprints - this dough has been "turned" four times.

After the first four "turns" the dough can rest overnight in the fridge, or even be frozen for a couple of weeks. When you take it out, let it come to room temperature, and pound it gently with the rolling pin to get it workable.

Once more, roll it out into a rectangle, and perform two more "turns." Note that each with each "turn" the dough becomes more and more layered with butter.

It's boggling now to even calculate the number of dough layers and butter layers. What is it, now, 120 layers of dough and 72 layers of butter? I've lost track.

If it's too warm, let it rest in the fridge for a few minutes.

Now you're ready to make the croissants. Here, I diverge from Yard's instructions, because I have a small family. After the last "turn," I cut the dough in half crosswise, and wrap one piece and put it in the freezer, to use another time.

Now I have a piece of dough that's a short rectangle. I roll it out so that it's about nine inches wide by 20 or so inches long, and about 1/4" thick. If it seems too thick, I make the rectangle longer, not wider.

I mark the dough along the top of the long edge of the rectangle at 5" increments. I do the same at the bottom edge, but off-set it by 2.5". Then, using a pastry wheel (mine is fluted but it doesn't seem to matter in the end), I cut triangles that are 5" on one side and around 9" on the other 2 sides.

Starting from the wide end of the triangle, roll it up, then turn the point under and curve the whole thing like a crescent.

Place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Cover with plastic wrap or foil, and let rise, or "proof," at a warm room temperature for between 1 1/2 and 2 hours, until puffed.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Break an egg into a bowl, mix with about 1 tablespoon of water, and brush the egg wash onto the surface of the croissants.

Bake for 12 minutes, then turn the pan around so they bake evenly for another 12 minutes. Let cool a little while and enjoy.

They look complicated, don't they? But really, they're not. You spend one day working it all up, and then you put it in the freezer. The next time you take it out, it's easy. The only hassle is making time for the final proofing of the rolls once they're on the pan, but you can figure that part out.

The only drawback? You gotta use a lot of butter. I'm willing to put up with that part, though. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dining alone

How often do you dine alone?

I don't mean sitting in the kitchen eating Kraft Mac & Cheese out of the sauce pan - although that has a certain delicious comfort to it. I mean going out to restaurants by yourself and having a meal.

MFK Fisher wrote about Dining Alone. She wrote of the great Roman host Lucullus, who was famous for throwing fabulous feasts. But one night he ordered a meal just for himself - and noted at once the lack of care in its preparation. He summoned his kitchen staff for an explanation.

The fellow stammered out that they'd felt no need to prepare a fine feast when there were no important guests to impress.

"It is precisely when I am alone," Fisher quotes Lucullus answering, "that you require to pay special attention to the dinner. At such times, you must remember, Lucullus dines with Lucullus!"

Fisher herself learned to enjoy dining alone in public without being bothered or self-conscious. "I sat alone and ate judiciously and with amiable concentration.... I read, and drank without ever showing but a self-contained enjoyment, and seemed not to want better company than my own."

I recently enjoyed a satisfying lunch at the Border Grill in Santa Monica. I attended a meeting at a nearby office, and by the time it ended it was lunchtime. The Border Grill has a weekday lunch promotion - $10 lunch if you eat at the bar.

Although the Border Grill is a very noisy restaurant when it's busy, that afternoon it was quiet. The huge box-like space with its black walls painted with giant drawings of faces was dark.

I perched on a tall stool at the bar, and while I sipped a diet Coke waiting for my lunch I watched the bartender cutting up his garnishes and organizing his materials. There was space for me to lay out my notebook and review my notes from the meeting. I scanned my phone to see if any new emails had come in, and then the bartender placed a small oval plate before me.

Image from the Border Grill site. Click on the picture for their slide show

A sweet corn tamale, wrapped in a cornhusk and tied with a little bow, like a gift. Two little round dishes were on the side, one with a dollop of crema, the other with chopped pico de gallo.

He also delivered a basket of tortilla chips and salsa. I love the way Border Grill presents salsa - there's a little round steel dish containing three smaller round steel dishes, with three different salsas. Here was a brick-orange chile salsa, another darker one, with bits of seeds and charred skin, and a third bright green and fresh with tomatillos.

When you dine alone, you can carefully savor each little bite, without the distraction of conversation. The sweetness of the tamale was tempered with the bit of the pico de gallo, and mellowed with the sourness of the crema.

The next course was another tamale, but very different. Wrapped in banana leaf, this was stuffed with chicken and olives and chopped onions, and napped overall with a rich Oxacan mole that was so dark it was almost black. On top was a salad with some greens and some slivered pear, in a citrusy vinaigrette.

What a different taste this was! The mole was so complex and alkaline it was almost bitter - a dab of crema mellowed it considerably. The crisp bite of the pears and vinaigrette lent a nice contrast. The chicken filling was piquant in a different way. It was like having three distinct flavors in one mouthful.

To look at the two little tamales, you might think it was a small and meager lunch. But masa harina can be very filling, and as it turned out, the portion size was perfect. Not too much and not too little.

A few more bites of chips dunked in salsa, another pull at the straw for the last of the diet Coke, and I was ready to head back to my office. It was a nice break from the weekday routine, to center my head.

How do you get away from it all when you need some quality alone time?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Walk in the Park

I'm falling behind on my posting about our explorations of the historic staircases of Los Angeles. We're following Charles Fleming's book "Secret Stairs," which offers guided tours through some of the most interesting neighborhoods of L.A.

Walk number 29, the Griffith Park Loop goes through the park and the hills of Los Feliz. The walk started at the entrance of the park, near Roosevelt Golf course. We parked beneath the trees, and then took the route out of the park, south onto Vermont Boulevard.

Here, Vermont is a stately drive, with a grassy median, lined with magnificent old houses.

Like this beautiful Spanish revival

Or this English manor.

We turn onto a side street beside this gated estate - you can see the half-timbered facade over the top of the formidable iron gate.

The road gently climbs, past this great hummingbird mailbox.

Then we come to a beautiful flight of steps, anchored by a curved entry lined with sturdy benches. Halfway up, there's a landing with more benches.

It's a LONG CLIMB to the top, even though the walk is lined with beautiful houses.

But finally we make it, and there is another rest area with comfy, graceful benches. Jack and I take a little break.

The streets in this neighborhood are extremely steep, but lined with graceful old Spanish style homes. Between the homes, you get a glimpse of an amazing view of downtown.

Just after we've caught our breath, the next stair case rises to our left. Steep and challenging!

At the top, the street starts to wind around to the west, and the houses are newer. Some are stark modern architecture, and others are kind of goofy nouveau-classic.

Like this one, with a bizarre creature guarding the carport.

Just past the house with the strange gryphen, the street curves into a pinhook and you can see the rear of the houses we've passed, and see at the same time the incredible view the residents have of the city.

As the road curves around again, we now face northwest toward the park, and there on the horizon is the Griffith Observatory. That's where this path ultimately leads us. It looks like more climbing.

But before we get there, we take a roller coaster up-and-down route through the neighborhood. There are Spanish haciendas rambling over the hillsides, like this one.

And we find another funny mailbox.

The change in elevation is so steep that not only does the road climb at a ham-string-straining angle,

but it's also cut into the hillside leaving sheer cliffs on one side. And as we climb past the modest house above, in the shadow of a looming white modern edifice, we find a strange artifact:

A cast iron painted octopus, smiling away. Is this a trophy from a long-vanished amusement ride at the fabled Pacific Ocean Park? Now it's a garden sculpture in Los Feliz.

It curves impossibly up and around, and then we find a stairway down. But first we pause at the top, for a look at the city below.

Then down we go, steeply. As we go, we can see the next hill we'll be climbing - up winding Glendower Street. We've been here before, and today we'll revisit an incredible Los Angeles landmark, the Ennis House, built by Frank Lloyd Wright.

But first, we take a curved staircase embellished prettily by a tile mosaic, part of the City's arts education projects.

The climb up to the Ennis house takes us past a perfect contrast to its Mayan-esque magnificence - an odd twee little story-book cottage with a witch on the windvane.

It was a long, curving climb uphill on Glendower Avenue, first below the Ennis house, and then around its property to the front gate. We've visited the Ennis house before, but each time I see it, I am struck with amazement at the view from its inner courtyard.

To read about this amazing architectural landmark - and its troubles - go here. We linger a while, enjoying the views, and then continue up Glendower Avenue, to where it splits and we turn on a small spur called Glendower Road.

This little road ends at a gate, and a narrow crumbling road back into Griffith Park.

This road runs along the crest of a ridge, and eventually gets you up to the Griffith Park Observatory. The view of the Observatory is fantastic.

But as you turn and look at the city, the view is even more amazing.

When you step through the gate into the park, you are suddenly into the wild, and out of the residential landscape. As we walked up the road, we watched a coyote trotting ahead of us. He turned and looked over his shoulder - no doubt seeing Jack - and then ducked off into the brush.

Here the path forked, and we were faced with a choice. We could continue climbing up to the Observatory, then loop all the way around the park back to our car. Or we could take the path branching off to the right, for a shortcut back down to the entrance. We had been walking an hour and a half, and were very tired, so we opted for the shortcut.

As we were walking down, a group of kids were riding their bikes up the hill. Full of energy despite the steep haul uphill, they shouted and called one another. They exclaimed about Jack - "is that a wolf? is that a husky? can we pet him?" - and then pedaled past us, climbing.

The path curved round and gently down, and I turned to catch the kids on their bikes cresting the ridge we had come from. "Wow! Hey look at this!" they shouted as they encountered the view, calling the stragglers to hurry up.

The path continued, providing a beautiful view of the park, and also a view of the ridge we had left behind, where all the houses were. It made me think what an amazing place those streets would be to live. Of course, I also remembered how Griffith Park had burned in 2007, threatening the Observatory itself.

The path took some hairpin turns, and at one point this met our eyes. For a moment, I thought my eyes were fooling me. Were we expected to walk down this incredibly steep drop? Surely this was a shortcut and the real path curved off to the left - yes?

As we got closer to the steep drop, I realized it was something of an illusion - it wasn't as steep as it appeared.

But it was still pretty steep - here's a shot up hill after we'd made it down. Wow!

This walk was 3.8 miles, but we took the short-cut, which probably saved us at least a mile. Even so, the climb and the descent were pretty serious! We'll save the Griffith Observatory for another day.