Archive for the ‘Southern’Category

Pimento Cheese for holiday South in your mouth

Pimento cheese
Chef Matthew Bell hails from Montana, but after about a decade in the South, he felt confident to head the kitchen at South on Main restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s a collaboration with the Oxford American, the magazine that chronicles the literary and cultural life of the South and is often called the ”New Yorker of the South.”

”We are taking our cue from the magazine and keying in on the cuisine from all regions,” Bell told a gathering of writers who previewed the restaurant and performance place while it was still under construction. ”Arkansas cuisine is a microcosm of the whole South with influence from the Ozarks and the Smokies,” he said. ”We have a long growing season and close access to the Gulf for seafood.”

Now open for business, Bell is offering updated versions of classic dishes, such as a starter of pork cheeks with gnocchi, parmesan, and a fried egg, or a main course of catfish with fried brussels sprouts, hushpuppies, and rémoulade. But for my small group he proved his chops with a masterful version of the Southern staple Pimento Cheese. I like to serve the colorful dip during the holidays — all you need are some celery sticks and a few crackers.

PIMENTO CHEESE

To add heat, chef Matthew Bell favors Frank’s Red Hot Sauce or Crystal Louisiana’s Pure Hot Sauce. Since I had neither on hand, I used traditional red Tabasco from Louisiana’s McIlhenny Company.

Ingredients

1/2 roasted red pepper, peeled and seeded and finely chopped
1/2 pound grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon finely grated garlic
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 1/2 teaspoons pickle brine from your favorite dill pickles
3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
pinch of salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

Using a strong wooden spoon and a bowl, combine all ingredients in order, stirring well after each addition. Pack into small bowl or ramekin and serve with celery sticks or crackers.

What to buy in a Cajun grocery store

grocery2 Usually Pat and I write about buying specialty foods in overseas grocery stores, but Cajun cooking stands so far apart from most other American regional food that the grocers have developed lines of goods we can rarely find anywhere else.

The pickled tabasco peppers, gumbo file powder, and various hot pepper sauces shown above are cases in point. In fact, I was once told by a northern grocer that file powder was illegal. (Not true, but it is allegedly mildly carcinogenic. If you eat three pounds at a time, you might develop a tumor in 20 years.) Needless to say, file powder can be hard to find up here in the chilly north.

grocery1 The ingredients immediately above are even more local. Dried shrimp might be a worldwide commodity, but Louisiana dried shrimp has a distinctive flavor of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s great in a shrimp cream sauce or a soup. The garlic sauce from Poche’s is an essential ingredient in some quarters for dousing boiled crawfish tails. The instant roux mix, while not so different from Wondra flour, makes a great tan roux.

grocery3 The last item is a latecomer, at least to legitimate grocery stores. At 100 proof, this colored corn likker has the requisite kick to be called moonshine — minus the chemicals to make you go blind.

Making crawfish étouffée

Spoonful of etouffeeThere are as many recipes for crawfish étouffée as there are cooks in Louisiana, but that’s probably because the basic recipe is so simple that everyone wants to add something to give it a personal touch.

As part of my instruction at Crawfish College in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, I had the good fortune of meeting chef Dustie Latiolais of the hugely popular restaurant Crawfish Town USA (2815 Grand Point Highway, Breaux Bridge, LA 70517, 337-667-6148, www.crawfishtownusa.com). Crawfish dustie He showed my class how to prepare a classic crawfish étouffée at home. The key elements are the so-called “Cajun Trinity” of chopped onion, celery, and green pepper, and (of course) the crawfish. Latiolais thickens his with a red roux, which includes paprika as well as flour kneaded into the butter. The idea is to make a strongly flavored stock which is thickened with a roux so that it envelops the crawfish tails nicely.

CRAWFISH ÉTOUFFÉE

Ingredients

6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) butter
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
3 tablespoons chopped celery
1 tablespoon chopped green pepper
1 1/2 cups seafood stock (can be saved from boiling shrimp or lobster)
2 tablespoons soft butter
2 tablespoons white flour
1 tablespoon paprika
6 ounces crawfish tails

Directions

1. In heavy-bottomed saucepan melt 6 ounces butter over medium heat. Add onion, celery, and green pepper and cook until onion softens and begins to become translucent. Be careful not to brown butter.

2. Add seafood stock and bring to a simmer.

3. In small bowl combine soft butter, flour, and paprika. Knead together until uniform. This is your red roux.

4. Whisk roux into simmering stock, stirring vigorously to keep from lumping. Continue stirring until mixture begins to thicken (about 5 minutes).

5. Reduce heat and stir in crawfish tails. Heat until tails are hot. Serve over rice.

Peeling Louisiana crawfish

01-Breaking a crawfish apart Crawfish might look like little lobsters, but getting to the meat takes a whole different approach. For starters, a meal of lobster is one lobster. A meal of crawfish contains several dozen. Because they are smaller, the meat in the claws – let alone the legs – is of little consequence. The tail’s the thing. But crawfish, unlike lobster, don’t have a carapace anywhere near big enough to poke your finger through.

02-Crawfish fat When I attended Crawfish College and the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, the first thing I had to learn about crawfish was how to get at those tails so I didn’t go hungry. Fortunately, there’s a time-honored technique that also yields a nice clean tail without the animal’s alimentary tract.

Start by grasping the crawfish with both hands – one on the tail, the other on the main body (as above). Now twist to separate the two sections. This brings you to the existential choice: To suck the heads or to throw them away and move on to the tails. Even some Cajuns think sucking the heads is disgusting. Others enjoy inhaling the briny essence of crawfish. Still others suggest that it depends on how much beer you’ve been drinking.

03-Pulling vein from crawfishThe separated tail will be dabbed with a murky yellow-green mess traditionally called “crawfish fat.” (See the image above on the left.) In fact, it is the liver and has an intense crawfish flavor. It is universally enjoyed. All fans of crawfish agree that when peeling the tails, you need to pinch at the base. As you draw the tail out of the shell, the pressure will capture the digestive tract and pull it out separately from the meat so it can be discarded. (See image on right)

Although the directions sound complicated, they become second nature when you sit down to a special crawfish eating table (below), with a deep well in the middle for boiled crawfish and a funnel to toss down the shells to the garbage can strategically situated below. The whole business goes much faster when accompanied by the spicy Saison d’écrévisses ale from the local Bayou Teche brewery.
04-Peeling table with beer

08

05 2013

What to eat at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival

Cindy Harris of Houston TXWhen it comes to the food vendors at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, the food isn’t all crawfish, but to quote a good friend’s catch phrase, it’s all good. Well, most of it. I’d been given a big buildup from a couple of locals about Cajun pistols or pistolettes, which are buns stuffed with seafood and cheese and then deep-fried. As someone said, “they musta changed the recipe.”

Bon Creole Cindy Harris from Houston, Texas (above) opted for Giant Shrimp on a Stick from the same vendor selling Gator on a Stick (“tender and delicious”). In fairness, I tried the alligator on a stick and found it more tender than most alligator I’ve tried. And, no, it doesn’t taste like chicken. It tastes like alligator.

Food on a stick always does well at outdoor gatherings where few people can get a place to sit. In addition to the shrimp and gator, one vendor had the venerable corn dog (hot dog on a stick dipped in cornmeal batter and deep fried). More popular than all the meat on wooden sticks were the original meat on a stick: both frog’s legs (deep fried) and turkey legs (grilled over charcoal).

Boiled crawfish Having sampled many of the offerings, I will venture the opinion that the best tasting and probably healthiest options were some of the classics: crawfish etouffée on rice, jambalya, and seafood gumbo. (As the T-shirt says, “All creatures great and small taste better in gumbo.”) But this being the Crawfish Festival, my vote goes to the plates of boiled crawfish. (Watch for a future post on the technique for peeling boiled crawfish.)

Commencement Day at Crawfish College

Cap and gown
Crawfish you lookin' at me By the end of a short work week in and around Breaux Bridge, we the matriculated have been inculcated with the full flush of gracious community, the can’t-help-but-smile chords of a pounding accordion and fiddles, and the feisty spirit of the crawfish (right), which seems to flourish no matter what the world might do to beat him down. (This might be the secret of keeping a French Acadian spirit alive and well in exile from its original homeland. Like the crawfish, they took to the rich swamps and became Cajuns.) So we at the College reached our graduation day as part of the opening ceremonies, where we were presented with cap, gown, and diploma (above).

As the bands began to tune up for the one-of-a-kind Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, I had the pleasure of meeting Helen and Pete Rago (below) of Covington, Louisiana. They have been coming to the festival longer than anyone can count (Pete admits to being 88, Helen is forever young). No one can even come close to matching their costumes. To honor them this year (they have been Grand Marshals at least once), they were presented with the original painting from which the 2013 festival poster was made. Rock on, Helen and Pete. P1040472

04

05 2013

Trapping deepwater crawfish in the Atchafalaya

Jody Meche with crawfish Jody Meche is a third or fourth generation fisherman who maintains about 1,000 crawfish traps in the Atchafalaya Basin. He also happens to be a member of the Henderson Town Council and a board member of the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion & Research Board. So even if he can clown around with a grimace as he shows off a prize crawfish (above), he has the bona fides to be taken seriously on the subject of crawfish. And he’s not modest — not even a little bit. “My crawfish are the best tasting crawfish in the world,” he proclaims.

Jody Meche dumps crawfish trapHe spent a half day on the Atchafalaya showing some of us in Crawfish College just how deepwater wild fishing is done. Meche fishes a much larger trap than the pond fishermen. His traps stretch 4-5 feet long, which allows the crawfish to crawl to the surface for a sip of air now and then while the trap rests on the bottom.

The landscape where Meche fishes is phenomenally beautiful and productive swamp within the basin. It could be even more productive, he points out, if the powers that be would use the basin for the purpose created by the Army Corps of Engineers – as flood relief. On Thursday morning, there was more than a 20-foot differential between the height of the Mississippi where it can be let into the basin (33, almost 34 feet) and the height of the basin water itself (under 13 and a half feet). To Meche it makes no sense for people all up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to deal with flood water when the river could be lowered by bleeding out some of the water into the Atchafalaya. Another 5-6 feet would restore the basin to its natural heights readily visible as water lines on the embankments.

Jody in the swamp More water would mean a smoother flow and better oxygenation in the basin. It would, in effect, cover up the channeling effects of the spoil banks left behind by oil and gas exploration and pipeline construction. It would also mean bigger and more crawfish. Of course, it would also make the whole basin into an undisputable navigable waterway. That could call into legal question a number of land claims currently providing outside investors with lucrative oil and gas royalties that would otherwise revert to the state. This is all according to some legal views. And litigation runs by Napoleonic code in Louisiana.

Jody's catch in a boilStill, Jody and his nephew Casey Bodoin, running a sister boat, quickly gather two big sacks of crawfish — around 70 pounds. They will make a mighty fine boil come evening. The Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival is about to begin and on the eve of the festivities, all the volunteers who make it happen have a party and picnic on the fairgrounds. We students of Crawfish College are privileged to join, and our crawfish from the trip with Jody Meche are part of the feast. Here Byron Blanchard dumps the just boiled crawfish into a cooler as his son sprinkles them with “swamp dust” – a spice blend that includes salt, paprika, and just a bit of cayenne pepper.

03

05 2013

Crawfish 101 – pond fishing and processing

Crawfish Clay's pond To begin understanding crawfish, it’s worth starting with the culture and harvest. A lot of the Cajun country crawfish business involves growing them in ”ponds” – really flooded depressions fed with bayou water and held in place with an earthen levee. We went to visit Mike Clay’s pond, where he’s been growing and (after a fashion) breeding crawfish since 1985. Shown above is Mike’s pond, with crawfisherman Robbie Guidry getting ready to make a harvest.

Crawfish Mike ClayIncidentally, Mike, shown here, is also the 2013 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival king. Crawfish from his pond have also won the festival’s crawfish races for the last dozen years or so. From every haul, Mike selects a few fast movers for training, which is why he has crawfish crawling around on his rubber gloves, as shown below. Crawfish Mike's racers

Crawfishing is deceptively simple. A crawfish trap is a funnel-shaped wire mesh basket into which the fisherman throws bait – in this case half a small fish. Like lobsters, crawfish are scavengers and they will crawl into the trap to feed on the bait, only to find they can’t crawl out. On Clay’s pond the traps are set on twin posts. The fisherman places a trap on a blank post, then hauls the trap on the adjacent post and dumps the crawfish either into buckets or a sorting table. Here’s a photo of Robbie holding up a trap with a few dozen crawfish inside. Crawfish Robbie pulls trap

It’s a monotonous task, but the crawfish pile up quickly. On the sorting table they are cleaned of debris (including the fish bones from the bait) and scooted into sacks that end up weighing 35-40 pounds. The sacks are then covered with wet burlap to keep the crawfish cool through evaporation.

Once they are delivered to a processor, that operation will wash the crawfish with clean fresh water before boiling them for a carefully controlled time and then chilling the cooked crustaceans. Here at CJ Seafood, they then peel the chilled crawfish and package the tail meat in vacuum bags for sale. Like the fishing, peeling is monotonous, but the crawfish peelers who do it work swiftly. For what it’s worth, the staff at CJ Seafood pack about 16,000 pounds (that’s eight tons) of crawfish meat a day. Crawfish peeling

02

05 2013

Off to Crawfish College in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

Crawfish dance
Breaux Bridge, Louisiana’s annual Crawfish Festival pretty much celebrates everything that is great about Acadian culture, from the mud bugs to the music to the Cajun proclivity for a darned good party. The heart of the festival, of course, is the mass consumption of crawfish farmed and wild-caught in St. Martin’s Parish. This year the organizers put a little twist on the festivities by offering a crash course for those of us who did not grow up on intimate terms with the Bayou Teche and the Atchafalaya Basin. They call it Crawfish College — a little introduction to the world of Cajun country’s signature crustacean. Over the next few days HungryTravelers will be hitting some of the course highlights.

The photo above, taken last night at Pont Breaux’s Cajun Restaurant (325 Mills Ave., Breaux Bridge, LA, 337-332-4648, www.pontbreauxscajunrestaurant.com), might explain the appeal. When crawfish are in season (March into June), people eat a lot of them – and then dance the calories away to the accordion, fiddle, and guitar of a Cajun band.

Crawfish Randy Leblanc Randy LeBlanc, the gentleman holding a platter of boiled crawfish, owns Pont Breaux’s, and he is an aficionado of all matter Cajun, most notably music and food. The restaurant has a live band every night and also prepares some other terrific seafood. My favorite (non-crawfish) dish might be the shrimp and oyster brochette, which consists of a good-sized prawn and a fat oyster wrapped in a piece of bacon and deep-fried. It’s served with a stuffed potato, jambalaya, and bread.

Crawfish eatersThe all-you-can eat crawfish boil is exactly what it sounds like. I watched one old boy (a disk jockey at the Cajun-Zydeco-Swamp Music radio station KBON, 101.1FM) devour three entire platters of boiled crawfish. Most folks, like those shown here, had enough to handle just eating one.

All in all, lots of crawfish and Cajun music made a perfect overture to Crawfish College. You have to eat ‘em before you study ‘em.

01

05 2013

Tonging for wild oysters in Apalachicola Bay

I met Kendall Schoelles around dawn at 14.2 miles west of the John Gorrie Memorial Bridge on Route 30A. (That’s how they measure distances in Apalachicola, Florida.) We drove his pickup down a packed dirt path to a marshland dock, where we boarded Schoelles’ shallow-draft oyster boat. We were headed for the oystering grant that’s been in his family since the late 19th century. The Schoelles family grant used to be 1,100 acres; after government takings, it’s down to 158. That’s enough to keep Kendall and his brother harvesting enough oysters to make a living. Most Apalachicola oystermen, like those pictured above, have to make do with the public bars.

Apalachicola Bay oysters are the pride of the Gulf of Mexico – plump, sweet, and salty. It’s the last place in North America where wild oysters are harvested by hand by oystermen in small wooden boats. It’s back-breaking work, not unlike the small-boat lobstering I used to do in Maine, and I felt honored that Schoelles let me come along to participate, if only peripherally, in this vanishing way of life. Food doesn’t get any more locavore than shellfish from a town’s front-yard bay.

Apalachicola Bay is a unique environment on the Gulf of Mexico, created by an extensive barrier island system at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, which drains much of Georgia and the Florida panhandle. The plankton-rich mix of salt and fresh water creates optimal conditions for oysters. Apalachicola bivalves have always been the premium Gulf Coast oysters, so prized that oysters from elsewhere in the Gulf were sent here for packing so they would be shipped out in crates stamped ”Apalachicola.”

Schoelles revved the engine and we sped through the weeds into flatwater, unable to see more than a few feet in the fog. I asked how he found his lease under such conditions. ”Mostly, I just know,” he told me. ”I’ve been coming here most of my life.” Schoelles has never fished more than two months anywhere else but on his lease. He paused for effect, ”Of course, the last four or five years I use GPS.”

We anchored on a bar and Schoelles got down his tongs, which resemble two garden rakes connected together like a pair of scissors. The fog was starting to lift, and I could see that loons ringed the boat because tonging stirs up the small fish that they like to eat. The chicks were diving feet from the gunwales while the adults kept their distance. Both herring and laughing gulls had keen eyes on the boat.

Tonging is intensely hard work – reaching down to the bars, closing the rakes, and hauling the catch to the surface. Schoelles did it methodically, moving the boat a few feet every few minutes, until we had a huge heap of oysters and other sea life on the deck. With the sun trying to peek through the fog behind him, he seemed to glow beatifically.

Then we sat down for the grunt work. Because Apalachicola Bay oysters are wild, not farmed, they grow in clumps with a slew of other organisms – mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, giant algae, and other creatures I couldn’t possibly name. The oysters have to be separated from all these other objects – mostly by banging on the junctions with a steel culling iron without cracking the shell. All the small oysters must be tossed back to grow. Schoelles held out whelks and starfish to take ashore to die because both are oyster predators.

The cracked oysters (it’s easy to smash a shell by accident) became bird food for the gulls that follow the boat. One laughing gull has been coming to Schoelles’ boat every morning for two years. How does he know it’s the same gull? He doesn’t – not for sure – but the two seem to have an understanding.

The birds of Apalachicola eat well – but then so do the people. For more on where to enjoy the nutty, buttery flavor of Apalachicola Bay oysters, see my profile of three restaurants in the October 28 Boston Globe: “Where to eat oysters in Apalachicola.”

10

11 2012