new orleans

Scared into Love

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This isn’t a story about being scared to love. This is quite the opposite.

On a bit of a whim last summer my husband and I decided to join a couple of friends on a trip to New Orleans. I made Will, the planner, promise that the hotel would be nice and clean, and everything else I couldn’t give a damn about. I had decided to visit my folks alone for few days before the trip and flew into to NOLA after my husband and friends had been there for a couple of days. It was raining when I arrived and, as Austin was experiencing a record drought, it was the first time I had seen a drizzle in months.

As I moved through the airport I smiled at the gas lamps and live musicians. I was used to stray guitarists and full bands within airports from living in Austin, but the internal gas lamps had the exact romantic affect on me that they were supposed to incur. I was tired from traveling, but ready to be out and about in a new place.

Will and I are not people who waste time; we dropped off my things at the airport and immediately went right back out to explore. I find the best way to become intimate with a strange city is to walk it’s streets. We wandered through rich areas and poor areas, as well as the French Quarter. Our hotel was a single block from Du Monde’s and I’d stay there again in a heartbeat, even knowing the amount of children that died within its walls.

We walked down cobblestone, by 200 year old homes and areas that had been ravaged by Katrina. Eventually, we found ourselves in a cemetery, all white marble and above the earth. If it’s one thing New Orleans knows well, it’s that buried bodies float. Many of the tombs were beautiful, a handful ornate, a few were vandalized, and some forgotten. I’m not particularly melancholy, but the cemeteries of Louisiana embody a sullen beauty that New England doesn’t quite get to. Spanish moss and bright stone rather than dark earth and old rock.

We passed through Bourbon Street without incident; I appreciate the architecture and I love a good drink, but I can do without wading through puddles of vomit at 10am. We went to the aquarium and even the zoo. There were hat shops, and usual tourist crap vendors, flowers for sale, and plenty of sidewalk performers and artists. Most of all, though, you could smell how old the city was. I felt her past through each cell of my body and the more I explored the more she sunk into my bones. She had been beaten, diseased, dishonored, and raped, and still New Orleans holds her head high, unembarrassed and rather proud by what has made her.

After a couple of days, we decided to take an evening historical tour of New Orleans’ alleys within the French Quarter. The second stop on our night adventure was our own hotel, where we were informed that dozens of school children burned to death in the areas that were now the rooms we had been sleeping in. We learned about paying a man to duel for you on church grounds and of nuns who smothered hundreds of babies to keep their orphanages from becoming overrun with the unwanted. We listened to tales of Civil War atrocities, of slaves burning themselves rather than being torn from their families. We already knew about Delphine DeLaurie and her bizarre bloodlust, but we were surprised to hear that Nicolas Cage eventually purchased her home…and then had to sell fast when his own money ran out. Needless to say, we went back to our hotel in the evening with a shiver down out spines.

But as I leaned on the hotel balcony late that night, I wasn’t bothered by the remnants of the man who hung himself in the floor below me or the children who had burned around me. I felt the cool air, smelled the river, and tried to stare into the apartment across the way, loved so much by it’s residents that they didn’t bother with window dressings. I thought of what it would be to live in such a place. A city flooded and reflooded, burned and buried. Diseased and destroyed. And so very, very beautiful and beloved. It was a city who made those who cared for it even stronger.

For the first time in my life my body and mind ached to be apart of a place I barely knew.

We weren’t in New Orleans long, and we left feeling incomplete. We drove the trip from Nola to Austin, weaving in and out of plantation areas and stark highway. I’ve enjoyed previous vacations, missed the romance or a pretty sunset, remembered an incredible restaurant or a neat day trip. New Orleans was different. We left New Orleans feeling different.

And I’ve been unable to stop thinking about her since.

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Science in the Kitchen: Fennel, Red Beans, & Chowdah

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This week was incessant. Stressful, disappointing, overwhelming. It’s been months since I’ve written so little, but time keeps passing and life goes on. At the same time I’m writing so little, my brother is writing more than ever, hysterically documenting his trip to Thailand and parts beyond. The pictures are great and the writing very sarcasticly funny. I recommend it.

So after a shitty, no good, very bad week, the weekend arrives in an attempt to break me out of my funk.

Saturday morning grocery shopping reminds me that weekends are for experimenting!

Tomorrow is game day! I have no idea what that means! All I do know is that most of the thirteen original colonies are so bad at American Football (a sport I abhor, by the way) that many of them had to apparently band together to form a single team: The New England Patriots. And what an intimidating mascot that is. A guy who really likes his country can defeat a Giant, no problem. I guess they operate under the power of positive thinking. Yeah, that’s totally super cool and masculine.

Sorry, bit of a rant there. So for this weekend, my husby is making a new red beans and rice recipe and I’m making clam chowder and sauteed fennel.

Today I’m going to post the fennel and beans.

My It’s So Good That It’s like Salty Candy Fennel:

2 TBSP olive or vegetable oil

2 heads Fennel, sliced in 1/4 – 1/3 inch slices

2 medium to large garlic cloves, sliced thinly

2 small or 1 medium shallot, sliced thinly

1 TBSP ponzu

freshly ground black pepper

Growing up in a stereotypical Italian-American family, meant much of my youth was spent in or around a kitchen. My grandparents had an impressive garden, and as a kid bouncing around with a million cousins amongst the many legs of mother, aunts, and grandparents it was common for a hand from above to drop slices of fennel, tomatoes, figs, or hunks of other veggies in our paths. The flavors of ripe fruits and vegetables were abound, building a deep respect of their versatility in me at an early age, yet I didn’t have cooked fennel until I was a teen.

Often the flavor of fennel is described as a more delicate version of black licorice. I happen to like black licorice, but not because I like fennel. Fennel does have a unique flavor, but when it saute’s, it caramelizes, becoming sweet and a little smokey, much like an onion does. Generally when cooking, the first thing that hits the pan once the oil is hot is garlic, but in this super simple and quick recipe, garlic comes last. And this recipe is so quick that the longest part is the prep in slicing everything.

Heat the oil over medium high heat in a skillet. Once the oil moves around the pan easily toss in the fennel, trying to keep the slices in one layer. Let them sit for 3 -4 minutes and then stir – or toss if you’re skilled – to continue caramelizing. After the fennel has been in the pan for about 5 minutes, add the shallots. After an additional 1-2 minutes, add the sliced garlic. You want the garlic to warm, but not brown. Add the Ponzu and continue cooking for an additional minute, stirring to coat. You want the fennel to be just tender, caramelized on the outside, but with a good bit of bite in the center. There’s nothing worse than mushy vegetables.

This is crazy delicious. It’s sweet and salty, it has bite, it’s just a little spicy from the barely cooked garlic, and it’s got great texture. It’s the dish that changes a dissenter’s mind about fennel. Now this as it is makes an excellent side dish and if you’re on Weight Watchers it’s next to Zero points. Immediately upon diving into this for lunch all I wanted was to have thrown in some shrimp the last 2-3 minutes of cooking and served with brown rice. Perhaps even a dash of Srirachi. That would have been a mega simple, quick, filling, and healthy dinner!…In fact, stay tuned for that recipe later in the week.

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My husband has a bit of a man-crush on John Besh. And who can blame him. It’s impossible not to fall in love with all things N’Orleans and Besh is certainly an integral part of their current food culture. Chip likes to make his lunches for the week on the weekend prior and as I’ve gotten more interested in new recipes so has he. What used to be his standard Yakisoba or hummus and veggies lunch, has evolved to include homemade bean salads that change with the seasons, and now red beans and rice.

But this is serious red beans & rice. Chip choose to double the amount of red beans, added an extra ham hock, a little extra water and bacon grease, but otherwise his loyalty remained intact. Rendering bacon fat is easy, but it does make you house smell strongly of bacon. I only like to smell bacon right when I’m eating it. Then I need all evidence of it being cooked to disappear. This is because of one time when we were house hunting a few years ago. Chip and I walked into the most claustrophobic, messy home and it just reeked of bacon. We took one look at our realtor and read each others mind at once: Get Out! Ever since I just can’t stand the smell of that stuff, but I put the dislike to the side for today.

Rendering bacon fat is easiest if the bacon is cut into 1-1 1/2 inch chucks and cooked over low to medium-low heat. I did not cut up the bacon ’cause I didn’t want to smell like bacon for the rest of the day. No matter how many time I wash my fingers I swear they’ll smell of bacon for hours. You want all the fat to cook off, but you don’t want the grease to cook into brown bits.

John Besh’s  Red Beans & Rice with “Chip Tweaks”

2 onions, diced

1 green bell pepper, seeded & diced

1 stalk celery, diced

3 TBSP rendered bacon fat

2 pounds dried kidney beans

3 smoked ham hocks

3 bay leaves

1/2 cayenne pepper

3 green onions

salt and pepper

3 cups rice

In a heavy stock pot, Chip sweated the celery, peppers, and onion until the latter was translucent over medium high heat. Then he threw in the kidney beans, ham hocks, bay leaves, and dash of cayenne, and gently stirred everything together. After a few seconds of stirring, Chip poured water into the pot until the beans were submerged by 2 inches of liquid. Some items may float to the top, but that’s cool, let them do their thing. Just do you best to measure 2 inches above the beans.

At that point he cranked the heat to high and water for a boil. Once there was a good boil going, Chip turned the heat to low and covered to simmer for 2 hours, stirring every 20 minutes or so. Everything needs to be covered by at least an inch of liquid at all times, so adding water periodically might be necessary, though I’m sure you could use chicken broth or low sodium stock as well. When the beans are crushed to a creamy consistency easily with the back of a spoon, everything was done. Chip removed the ham hocks, easily pulled the meat off the bone, roughly chopped it into small chunks, and then added it back to the pot.

He continued to reduce down the mixture until it was the consistency Chip wanted. You can make this as souped or thick and creamy as you want. And, yes, red beans are healthy for you, but when they’re cooked with ham hocks in veggies that were sauteed in bacon fat, I make no promises of their diet power.

For a final touch he added chopped green onion, salt and pepper, and hot sauce to his liking.

Red Beans & Rice finished and very tasty, rich and hearty without seeming too heavy. An excellent alternative to the usual winter stews and chicken soups.

Clam Chowder tomorrow!