Cup4Cup Week: The Bread

FOOTBALL! FOOTBALL! FOOTBALL!

Sorry, had to get that out of my system. Even though the taint of the Saints’ scandal lingers and I’m still smarting from the BCS championship game last January, I can’t help but be excited for the start of the season. We Saints/Tigers fans are an optimistic lot. The booze helps.

Of course, you’ll need good food for the games this weekend, and you could do so much worse than a muffuletta, the Sicilian-by-way-of-New-Orleans sandwich invented by Salvatore Lupo at Central Grocery. It shares a meat-and-cheese situation with the Italian sub, but goes above and beyond in two important ways — the bread (a soft, round Italian loaf that’s light but substantial enough to take on the filling) and olive salad (with pickled vegetables and heavy on the garlic). Since I have no hope of ordering the sandwich in north Jersey or of getting a gluten-free muffuletta loaf at the bakery, I made my own.

And, well, I have to say the bread was not great. Looked nice, though:

I really don’t know if it was the flour, the recipe, my own incompetence, or some combination of those factors, but it didn’t work for me at all. The bread rose — more than I expected, actually — but emerged from the oven dense as dwarf star matter. Still, I had loads of meats and cheeses and a ridiculous amount of olive salad in the fridge, so I plowed ahead with the muffulettas, hoping a good soaking with olive salad oil would render the bread pliable enough for ingestion.

I used Emeril’s recipe and thought his olive salad was delicious, but lacked garlic. I KNOW, RIGHT? Craziness. Emeril is garlic’s ambassador, its Kris Kardashian. He revels in garlic the way David Foster Wallace reveled in footnotes — unashamedly and without regard for the reader. “Perhaps you could add another footnote or five, David?” The effrontery! But this is no time for balance and restraint; the more garlic you throw at olive salad, the clearer its point becomes.

If not for the bread issue, it would’ve been a damned fine sandwich even with the garlic paucity. Each muffuletta probably was less than a quarter of the Central Grocery sandwich, but I still only managed to eat a half, and that without the top of the bread which threatened to destroy the roof of my mouth. No thank you, bread; my Cap’n Crunch days are long behind me.

So all good experiments must come to an end. I’ll look for a new bread recipe with the Cup4Cup and let you know how it turns out. But do give the muffuletta a try if you have access to good bread and a cast iron stomach.

And happy footballing!

Let the bon temps rouler

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I finally realized a couple of years ago exactly what makes northeastern winters so difficult to bear. The weather plays a large part, of course, but mostly it’s the lack of anything to look forward to between the holidays and spring (or the start of baseball season, if you’re so inclined). It’s just one long, dark slog through gray skies, snow, and wind chills in the single digits. Harumph.

Contrast that to the time and energy spent on balls and parades during carnival season in Louisiana. Beginning on Twelfth Night (January 6th) and going straight through to Mardi Gras day, even if you’re not into the whole parade thing, at the very least you can get a king cake at a local bakery. But most people catch a parade here and there in the weeks leading up to the big day, even if they don’t go all out and make the trek to New Orleans.

I’ve only been back to one Mardi Gras since I moved away from the area, but I’ve made it my annual tradition to have a little taste of home as Endymion and Bacchus roll. The winds may be howling here in New Jersey, but barbecue shrimp and king cake keep me warm inside.

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For those of you who made it to the parades today, laissez les bon temps rouler, and may your hangovers be mild.

New Orleans!

“Home of pirates, drunks and whores / New Orleans! / Tacky, overpriced souvenir stores / If you want to go to hell, you should take a trip to the Sodom and Gomorrah on the Mississipp’!”

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But it has its good points, too.

Family togetherness is a beautiful thing, but when Gil and I spend more than four days with my folks, we like to take an evening to ourselves in New Orleans. We’d planned to try Cochon for dinner, but I noticed Bayona was across the street from our hotel, so I made a late reservation as soon as we checked in. It has a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the city, and deservedly so, I’m ecstatic to report.

When we arrived in the city, it was nearing lunchtime, so we figured on getting a quick bite at the Asian-Cajun restaurant in the Quarter, but it had closed sometime in the past year. When we found Crescent City Brewhouse closed for the holidays I made an executive decision to steer us across Jackson Square for lunch at Muriel’s, a lush, lovely, contemporary Creole restaurant; it was much more decadent than we’d planned, given our Bayona reservation for that evening, but ya gotta roll with the punches. I started with the turtle soup with sherry, a rich and warming dish I always order when in New Orleans. I prefer my turtle meat chopped instead of ground as they serve it, but it’s a minor quibble when everything else is done so well. Gil stayed local, too, and ordered the shrimp and goat cheese crepes, which were an airy and delicate start to the meal. Thinking I’d go light with my entrée, I ordered the grilled drum with macque choux (smothered corn), not realizing they’d add heavy cream to the corn. Whatever — it was absolutely perfect. Gil had the chicken fusilli in a garlicky cream sauce. Usually one of us wins the ordering war, but this one was a draw. It’s tough not to lick your plate when faced with such food, but we managed well, if only because of our dinner plans.

Once we’d finished, we did the obligatory Quarter wander to see the sights and work off some of our lunch. It felt good to stretch my legs again after sitting around for several days doing nothing more strenuous than reading, but the sun and rich sauces got to us eventually, and we retired to our courtyard room at the Dauphine Orleans for a nap and more reading before heading out for the evening.

At Bayona, we were treated to fabulous service and one of the best meals I’ve eaten in a long, long time. Chef Susan Spicer describes her menu as a melting pot, rather than fusion — she borrows from many of the world’s great cuisines but makes them sing her song. The restaurant is known for its sweetbreads (something I always try when I see it on a menu), so I ordered the appetizer portion in sherry-mustard butter, while Gil opted for the braised pork belly when he learned the seared tuna he had his eye on had been sold out. No matter, it was phenomenal — and served with a very roasted-tasting potato (and, I think) parnsip cake, a delicious balance of rich and unctuous with a vegetable with backbone that more than held its own. My sweetbreads were everything I’d hoped — lightly crunchy on the outer edges, spongy and moist inside, and anointed with the zesty but not overpowering seasoned butter. We took our time with the appetizers, savoring each bite, dissecting the flavors, all but giving up on conversation other than to say, “Here, try this!” or, “How does she DO it?”

Now, to say that I won the ordering war at Bayona would be an understatement. You know how there’s always one dish that turns every head in a restaurant as it’s brought to the table? That was MY entrée. People were standing at their tables and craning their necks around their companions just to get a view. It didn’t even sound like much on the menu, but turned out to be something special. What was it? Oh, just a two-inch pork chop on the frenched bone, served over a bed of creamy green chili grits and greens, and topped with a crawfish bechamel ever so slightly browned under the broiler. I never, ever order the chop at a restaurant, fearing it’ll be too dry or too ordinary, but this one surpassed my expectations by a mile. Cooked to a perfect medium and juicy as you can imagine, it was an amazing vehicle for the crawfish bechamel, which might’ve overpowered a less impressive cut of meat. The grits were so creamy and such a treat, I sampled only tiny bites at a time to savor the experience throughout the meal. The only downside was the overly-salty greens, but I didn’t really care about skipping my veggie for the evening at that point.

Oh, Gil ordered the pan-fried redfish, which I’ve never developed a taste for, and was probably much less stuffed than I when we left, but I think he really missed out, despite having a few bites of my dish. Dessert has never been my thing, so I ordered the cheese plate and was completely satisfied. Cheese is one of my favorite things in the world, and on any other night, I probably could’ve cleaned the plate, but only managed about half this time. Gil oohed and aaahed over his chocolate crepes and I’m sure they were perfection on a plate, but I couldn’t even look at chocolate at that point, so I can’t give you a first-hand account.

We skipped wine with dinner and had cocktails instead. I was still stuffy from the sinus infection I picked up at Christmas, so I decided on a sazerac (perhaps my favorite cocktail), strictly for medicinal purposes, of course. As with other sazeracs I’ve had in New Orleans, it was overly sweet — a real disappointment, given the drink’s origins. (Incidentally, the best I’ve ever had was at the Pegu Club in NY. Try it sometime when you’re in the area.) Gil stuck with his Hendrick’s gin & tonic and couldn’t have been happier. (They were so fancy, they even served Gil’s drink with a slice of cucumber, instead of lime!)

Loaded to the gills and ever-so-slightly buzzed, we couldn’t even fathom grabbing another drink, so we turned in soon after getting back to the hotel (still around midnight — it was a leisurely dinner), anticipating more ambling the following day. (Sorry for the lack of pictures, but neither Muriel’s nor Bayona was the type of place I’d feel comfortable whipping out a camera, even sans flash.)

When we woke, it was just as sultry as I thought it would be; the forecast was for a high of 70 degrees, which meant crazy humidity and loads of fog after a few relatively cold days. So we headed to Café du Monde for the breakfast of champions — beignets and café au lait.

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Gil’s pretty much mastered the eating of beignets at this point, though he did inhale powdered sugar once. Still, it was a marked improvement over previous visits, and we both walked out of there without the fine coating of powdered sugar on our black clothes you often see.

At this point, we walked over to the river to see what we could in the fog, which wasn’t much. I’ll leave you with photos from our misty day before picking up on the rest of our excursion.

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Across the street from our hotel — a scenic corner.

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In Pirate’s Alley, across from Faulkner House Books.

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Waiting for a fare at Jackson Square.

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The Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral overlooking Jackson Square.

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The steamboat Natchez, engulfed in fog.

By the time we reached Harrah’s casino and blew through a little money, it had started to pour. The skies were forbidding and the clouds were rushing past, so we decided to cut our visit short and head back toward my parents’ house. By the time we left the city, the rain had stopped and the sun was out again (of course), so we took a spin up River Road to Oak Alley Plantation, which Gil had never visited. My elementary school years were filled with field trips to plantations and I remembered this one as being pretty spectacular, so I thought he’d enjoy the view.

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The Hale Boggs Bridge in St. Charles Parish.

It was a much longer drive than I remembered from my last visit nearly 10 years ago; it took us past beautiful homes and clear-cut sugar cane fields, as well as some of the most depressing landscapes in the area. Just as I was starting to get frustrated with the drive, we came upon Oak Alley. They’ve added a brick-lined walkway between the oaks that give the plantation its name and changed their policy to only allow visitors in the house if they’re on a tour, but otherwise it was just as I remembered. Our tour guide was an affectless young woman named Britney with a booming voice that carried throughout the house; she managed to gloss over the slavery aspect of the plantation except for one deftly-worded sentence at the introduction to the tour. I don’t think any of us were unaware of the engine that drove the plantation, but it would’ve been nice not to have the tour confirm my worst expectations.

The house itself was magnificent in its time, but not as grand as you’d expect. It’s main features are the wraparound porches on the ground and second floors, and the stunning path of 200-year-old oaks marching from the house to the river.

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View from the river side.

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View from the balcony, facing the river.

The trip home seemed much shorter than the one on the way out, even though we stopped off for andouille and tasso to bring back to New Jersey, and Gil had his first (and last) meal at Sonic. He wasn’t happy that I allowed him to eat there, and I think the commercials have lost some of their charm for him.

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So that’s about it. It was a long vacation filled with food, but I’m happy to be back home and back to some kind of normal routine. Thanks for sticking with me through this meta-post!

(As noted in the last post, if you’d like to see the full flickr set of our trip, click here.)