Archive for March, 2010

Down home flavors from New Orleans

Whenever we’re in New Orleans, our favorite spot to splurge on a night out is Restaurant August, the linchpin of chef John Besh’s six eateries. Not only is Besh a supremely talented chef and restaurateur who understands both great food and the whole concept of a great night out, he’s also one of the nicest guys in the business.

His fried oysters with pepper spoonbread or his lacquered pork belly with crawfish, olives and blood orange are the very definition of refined Southern cooking. (He also serves a mean whole roast sucking pig with grits, roasted onions and blackberry jam. Mm-m-m-m.) It’s no surprise that he’s won a slew of professional accolades, including recognition as Best Chef Southeast from the James Beard Foundation.

So when the nominations for the 2010 James Beard Awards were announced last week, we were delighted to see John Besh’s name again—this time in the American Cooking category of the cookbook awards. Last October Besh revealed his casual side in a delightful guide to the tastes of his home town in the appropriately titled My New Orleans: The Cookbook (Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC). It’s one of three books nominated in its category, and all three represent a strain of Southern cooking—maybe the country’s hottest regional fare right now. As Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys sang back in 1942, “That’s What I Like About the South.”

Besh has a magic touch, even with soulful simple fare. Here’s his version of a classic, complete with his commentary from the book. Thanks to his publisher for letting us share it here.


Serves 6

Time is the key to making successful red beans: they need to cook slowly and well. Using flavorful fat is another secret. Just as my grandmother did, I keep the fat from every batch of bacon I make, and I save the fat that solidifies on the surface of chilled chicken soup and roast chicken drippings, too. Just a little bit adds big flavor.

2 onions, diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat
1 pound dried red kidney beans
2 smoked ham hocks
3 bay leaves
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 green onions, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cups cooked Basic Louisiana White Rice (see below)

Sweat the onions, bell peppers, and celery in the rendered bacon fat in a heavy soup pot over medium-high heat.

Once the onions become translucent, add the kidney beans, ham hocks, bay leaves, and cayenne, then add water to cover by 2 inches.

Increase the heat and bring the water to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and allow the beans to slowly simmer for 2 hours. Periodically stir the beans to make sure that they don’t scorch on the bottom of the pot, adding water if necessary, always keeping the beans covered by an inch or more of water.

Continue cooking the beans until they are creamy and beginning to fall apart when they’re stirred.

Remove the ham hock meat from the bones, roughly chop it, and add it back to the pot of beans.

Stir in the green onions and season with salt, black pepper and Tabasco. Serve with white rice.


Makes about 4 cups
This recipe will work with most long-grain rices, including Popcorn Rice. Save some of the fat skimmed from your chicken stock to perfume the rice with many wonderful flavors.

1 tablespoon chicken fat, extra-virgin olive oil, or butter
1 small onion, minced
1 1/2 cups Louisiana long-grain white rice
3 cups Basic Chicken Stock
1 bay leaf
1–2 pinches salt

Put the fat, oil, or butter and the onions into a medium saucepan and sweat the onions over moderate heat until they are translucent, about 5 minutes. Pour the rice into the pan and stir for 2 minutes. Then add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Add the bay leaf and salt.

Cover the pan with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 18 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.

—From My New Orleans: The Cookbook by John Besh/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Here’s a link to Amazon to buy the book.


03 2010

Las Fallas and more paella tips

When we think of Valencia, the first thing we think of is paella. But the city is probably most famous for its jaw-dropping Las Fallas festival always held March 15-19. This year we finally got to attend. It is a whirlwind of parades, music, fireworks, controlled explosions outside city hall, and general madcap revelry that continues around the clock. Valencians construct immensely complex satirical scenes in 300 or more squares of the city. Some of them go 75 feet tall and can cost up to $1 million each. They represent a wide array of political and pop cultural subjects, and the satire can be both biting and bawdy. (Witness Nicolas Sarkozy of France in a hot tub with three buxom women, one of whom is perhaps performing an intimate underwater kiss.)

Between midnight and 1 a.m. on March 20, all but two “pardoned” figurines are burned to the ground. It feels like a cross between Mardi Gras and the bombing of Baghdad as shown on CNN. For the Valencians, it’s a way to get rid of the old and welcome in the new. To the uninitiated, it is simultaneously unnerving and exhilarating. (See the bottom of this post for some sample photos.) But back to paella….

We took a break from the sensory overload of Las Fallas one afternoon to head down to L’Albufera, the lagoon south of the city, for a lesson in making paella outdoors. La Matandeta restaurant sits right at the edge of the lagoon’s rice fields, and chef Rafael Galvez uses rice from the adjacent plot as well as meat and vegetables raised or foraged in the immediate area. Cuisine doesn’t get more local than that.

Working with two 20-inch pans on tripods over wood fires, he made both a traditional paella valenciana (similar to ours—see here) and another version featuring squid and its ink with an abundance of vegetables.

We were reminded that the traditional outdoor cooking infuses the paella with a haunting smokiness and helps to guarantee a nice crust along the bottom. We also learned some tips that we expect to use in our own paella endeavors from now on.

For the paella valenciana, Galvez begins by setting the pan over the fire and adding enough olive oil to thinly coat the bottom—and a few tablespoons of coarse sea salt, which we have never done. At this point he fully browns the meat (bone-in pieces of chicken, duck, and rabbit) along with the onion. As the meat browns, he adds paprika and colorante (a coloring agent with some saffron), and stirs well to coat everything. He then adds three kinds of beans—flat green beans cut in 1-inch lengths, meaty white beans found only in the Valencia area, and a flat bean similar to a lima bean.

The handles on most paella pans are attached with rivets. We had never realized that these marks serve as measuring devices. Galvez adds enough broth to bring the mixture up to the bottom of the rivets. Then he adds the rice to bring the mixture to the top of the rivets. He likes to lay out the rice in a cross pattern on top of the soup, then swirl it into the liquid. He says this distributes the rice evenly. Then he adds a large sprig of rosemary—something we had never seen before but is apparently quite traditional. (He fishes it out before the paella is done to keep the herb from making the dish too bitter.)

After all that intensive prep, Galvez simply brings the mixture to a simmer, adjusting the wood beneath the pan to heat it evenly. We were surprised to see that he keeps the burning wood and its coals around the rim of the pan, but not in the middle. This prevents the dish from burning, as the shape of the pan allows the liquid to bubble up on the sides and spread back toward the middle. He never stirs the rice for the 20 minutes it takes to cook.

The finished paella is a lovely golden dish, which the restaurant serves with a fruity red wine from the nearby Utiel-Requena district, where the Iberians were making wine from the Bobal grape variety 500 years before the Romans invaded. The rice and the wine are a perfect match.

As soon as the weather permits, we’ll fire up the Weber kettle grill to make paella outdoors. Now if we can just find a red from Utiel-Requena….

La Matandeta is located on the Alfafar-El Saler road, km. 4, in Alfafar. Tel: (011-34) 962-112-184, A cooking lesson with meal is 50 euros per person for groups of 10 or more.

And now for some images from Las Fallas:


03 2010

The perfect pre-travel meal

It seems that the airlines responded to complaints about bad food by simply eliminating meal service. So now when you do get a tray of gooey pasta or Silly Putty chicken—well, it’s better than nothing. Some of our food and travel writer friends beat the system by packing creative sandwiches on homemade bread, gourmet trail mix, or fancy cheese. We tend more toward convenience foods. We always have peanut butter crackers and little boxes of raisins to throw into our carry-on bags. But we compensate by having a soothing meal at home before we head to the airport.

Ginger-carrot soup is our usual choice. The carrots pack a wallop of vitamin A and ginger is said to ease motion sickness and generally aid digestion. Our favorite recipe is from Soup for Every Body: Low Carb, High Protein, Vegetarian and More (The Lyons Press, 2004) by Joanna Pruess, whom we met a few years ago.

Joanna has a deft touch with flavors, and her Carrot Soup with Chèvre has become our go-to departure and homecoming dinner. It is complex, richly flavorful, low in fat, and simply delicious. If we’re only going to be gone a week, we just put the leftover soup in the refrigerator. Any longer, we freeze it.

She generously gave permission to reprint the recipe here, complete with the nutritional information. We confess to a few minor alterations. We like to use sweet winter storage carrots instead of the often insipid baby carrots (except during local carrot season), and we use a Cuisinart immersion blender to purée it rather than splashing soup all over the counter with a conventional blender.

We’re off tomorrow to Valencia for Las Fallas, and this is the dish sending us off and welcoming us home. (Check out some of Joanna’s more recent books as well: Seduced by Bacon: Recipes and Lore About Americans’ Favorite Indulgence (The Lyons Press, 2006) and Cast-Iron Cookbook: Delicious and Simple Comfort Food (Sky Horse Publishing, 2009).


Serves 8; makes 8+ cups
In this version of carrot soup, sweet young carrots are paired with slightly salty goat cheese and tangy buttermilk to produce an exciting blend of flavors.


1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
3 pounds trimmed young carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3 tablespoons minced candied ginger
1 teaspoon ground mace
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup buttermilk
Salt and white pepper
4 ounces mild chèvre, such as Montrachet, chilled and cut into 8 slices
Fresh chervil or parsley sprigs, for garnish


1. Heat the oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and sauté until tender and lightly colored, 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the carrots, 3 cups of the stock, and the ginger. Cover and bring the liquid to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until the carrots are very tender, 20-30 minutes.

2. Transfer to a food processor or the jar of an electric blender and purée until smooth. Return the purée to the saucepan. Stir in the remaining stock, the allspice, and mace, and heat until hot.

3. Whisk a cup of soup into the buttermilk to warm it, then stir the buttermilk into the soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes. Ladle the soup into heated bowls. Place a slice of chèvre and a sprig of chervil in the center of each bowl and serve.

Calories 190
Calories from fat 70
Total Fat 8g
Saturated Fat 3g
Cholesterol 15mg
Sodium 1040mg
Total Carbohydrate 25g
Dietary Fiber 5g
Sugars 17g
Protein 7g
Vitamin A 960%
Vitamin C 25%
Calcium 20%
Iron 6%


03 2010

Making patatas a la Riojana at home

We don’t feel too bad messing around a little with tradition to make this dish with New England provender. This rich stew hails from the Ebro River valley in La Rioja, but until Napoleon brought potatoes to northern Spain in the early 19th century, this dish was made with chestnuts!

Of course, nowadays the local potato varieties of the Ebro valley are highly prized—considered by many the tastiest potatoes in Spain. In fact, the Riojanos tend to keep them for themselves. Not only do they have the rich potato flavor of say, a Kennebec, they also keep their shape like a waxy potato while containing enough starch to thicken a broth. We discovered that a mix of waxy potatoes (Red Bliss are the easiest to find) with some starchy potatoes like russets both thickens the stew and provides some toothy pieces of potato.

The Riojanos also have a special way of cutting their potatoes to maximize the exposure of starch to the broth. Hold the scrubbed, unpeeled potato and insert a sharp small knife at a 45 degree angle to the surface. Dig in about an inch, then twist the potato to make a conical cut. Snap out the piece, and continue until the whole potato is cut into irregular, roughly conical pieces. (It’s actually a quick way to cut up potatoes with a small knife.)

Spanish chorizo is usually available in U.S. grocery stores that cater to a Latin American clientele. Other types of chorizo are less spicy; if substituting, double the garlic and add an additional teaspoon of paprika.

This version of the dish is adapted from chef Raúl Pérez Marín of Restaurante Sopitas in Arnedo, southeast of Logroño, the capital of La Rioja.



1 ancho chile pepper, stemmed and seeded and torn into pieces
1/2 cup boiling water
1 1/4 lb. (two large) russet potatoes
1 1/2 lb. Red Bliss or other waxy potatoes
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled, cut into quarters and thinly sliced
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and roasted to remove skin, cut into 1-inch pieces
3-4 large cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
1 large fresh tomato, cored and skinned, coarsely chopped
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika
8 oz. Spanish chorizo, cut in 1/2-inch slices
1 cup dry wine (white or red)
3 cups chicken or beef stock
coarse sea salt and black pepper to taste
chopped parsley to garnish


1. Soak dried chile pieces in boiling water for a half hour. Puree in blender or food processor. Set aside.

2. Cut up potatoes. Peel russets and cut into 1/2-inch cubes. (They will almost disappear and provide the thickening.) Scrub the waxy potatoes and cut into irregular, more or less conical shapes about 1 inch on widest dimension. Set potatoes aside.

3. Heat olive oil over medium heat in 4-5 quart Dutch oven or other large pot. Add onion and bell pepper and sauté until onion is soft. Add garlic, tomatoes, and bay leaf and sauté until most liquid has evaporated. Stir in thyme and paprika and cook another 30 seconds.

4. Add chorizo and raise heat to lightly brown the meat. Add the pureed pepper.

5. Stir in potatoes and add wine. Bring to boil and cook 3 minutes to burn off alcohol. Stir in broth and raise to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes.

6. Remove about a cup of potatoes from the stew and mash with a little liquid. Stir back in and cook another 5 minutes.

7. Serve in shallow bowls with a little chopped parsley sprinkled on top.


03 2010