New Orleans – Part Two

Prologue:

In case you haven’t heard, New Orleans got smashed by Hurricane Ida, on August 29.  In fact, Ida careened into Louisiana 16 years, to the day, after Hurricane Katrina obliterated much of New Orleans.  Tough times are ahead for everyone in southern Louisiana and Mississippi.  I remember the mass exodus, after Katrina.  I made some new friends, as they made their way north, to the Memphis area.  Many of those people returned to New Orleans and Biloxi to rebuild their homes and communities, after many months,  and now, they have an opportunity to prove their mettle, once again. 

Stay strong, friends.

Way back, at least it seems like ‘way back’ to me now, in May, 2021, my wife and I made a trip to New Orleans.  We had spent most of 2020 confined by Covid-19 and, after receiving our vaccinations, we needed to break away.  We spent 4 days and 3 nights in New Orleans, just as the city was lifting some of the Covid restrictions.  We had a blast.  You can see my first blog about this experience here

Here’s some of my recollections from our second day, in the fabulous Crescent City, New Orleans.

Café Du Monde

You’ve got to wake up early in the morning if you want to beat the masses that head to Café Du Monde on any given day.  I mean really early!  Café Du Monde, located in New Orleans’ French Market, which of course is in the French Quarter, is open 24 hours a day.  That’s pretty impressive, considering that mostly serve beignets and coffee! 

How can a café survive with such a limited menu?  You only need to sample their beignets and chicory coffee to understand. Simplicity is divine, especially when the simple things are done right!

Everything you might want is within walking distance, in the French Quarter.  Every stroll unveils interesting shops and eateries.  All sorts of shops, restaurants and hotels can be found on nearly every street.  I was expecting a tourist trap but I was surprised to see a pleasant balance of locals and tourists on the streets and in the stores. 

The Market Café

Dining al fresco might be the best way to enjoy the New Orleans experience.  The sights, the music and the aroma of New Orleans is a treat for the senses.  The Market Café has some indoor dining but most of the seating is outdoors, on the covered patio that wraps around the building. 

We stopped by for an early lunch and I’m glad we arrived before noon.  We waited about twenty minutes to be seated.  By the time we finished our meal, the line was doubled and I imaged that people waited for nearly an hour, to be seated.

The menu at the Market Café is moderately priced and the food and service was worth every penny. 

AWESOME ROAST BEEF PO’ BOY!

I had a difficult time deciding what to try, because I wanted to try everything!  I opted for small cups of Gumbo, Jambalaya, Shrimp Creole, and Red Beans and Rice.  All four bowls were rich and delicious but the shrimp creole was outstanding.  Based on the color and velvety thickness of the sauce, I would call it etoufee, either way, it was full of flavor and very satisfying.

WHEN IN DOUBT, SAMPLE THEM ALL!

As we walked back to our hotel, we came across a Mexican restaurant. I stopped to look at the menu and I thought it might be a good place to visit for dinner.  After our rest, I visited the bar at our hotel.  Patrick’s Bar Vin showcased several types of wine and the proprietor, Patrick, was chatting with some of the regular customers.  I went to the bar to check out the beers, on tap.  Among the regular, expected variety I noticed two Belgium beers, Le Chouffe and Chimay.  I tried one of each and was impressed with the Chimay.  Each pint cost about $9.00, so I sipped them thoughtfully.  While I was there, I struck up a conversation with the bartender and, during the conversation, I learned that he was from Honduras so, naturally, I had to talk about my Tex-Mex roots and  I eventually asked him about the Mexican restaurant that I had seen on my way back to the hotel.  He said that the restaurant was overpriced and the menu was all over the place, which made him feel that the restaurant lacked focus.  He said that if I wanted authentic Mexican cuisine, I should go to Cuñada, which was only a few blocks away from the hotel.  He said that Cuñada was a family owned business, and served authentic Oaxacan food.  I took his advice and was glad I did!

PATRICK’S BAR VIN – BIENVILLE STREET

Cuñada – Conti Street

For a split second, I thought, “Why am I going to a Mexican restaurant in the New Orleans French Quarter?”  I regained my senses and remembered that great Mexican food can be found just about anywhere in U.S., and, more importantly, New Orleans has such a diverse mixture of cultures.  It’s what makes New Orleans, New Orleans.  African-American, Spanish and French influences are woven together, like a beautiful tapestry. 

I felt at home during our visit to Cuñada.  The aroma of beans and spices filled the air as we walked inside. The simple décor and the busy staff members made me think that their emphasis was on the quality of the food.  That proved to be true.

The brilliant colors that might have been missing from the restaurant décor, so popular with Mexican restaurants, were found in the plates of food they served. 

We started with queso fundido, which translates to “melted cheese”.  It is a dip served with crisp or soft corn tortillas. 

This version included five types of melting cheese, Chihuahua, Oaxaca, queso blanco, Monterrey Jack, and asadero queso frescal.  Pork chorizo was added, as well as roasted poblano chiles and cilantro.  The different kinds of cheese were not mixed together, before baking on the cast iron skillet, which gave the dish a nice variety of textures and flavors.  That quality made this a standout version of queso fundido!

My wife ordered enchiladas rojas.  The cucumber, radishes, pickled onions and avocado was a feast for the eyes and the rich red sauce had an earthy tone, with just a little heat from the chilis. 

I ordered fish tacos, prepared two ways.  One was a beer battered fish taco and the other was pan fried.  Both were accompanied by all of the colorful vegetables.  I was glad to see that they prepared the rice in the classic, Oaxacan fashion.  Corn, peas, carrots and a pinch of cilantro turns rice into something special. 

It was the simple bean soup that won my heart.  The beans look so innocent, surrounded by all of the colorful food but those beans were outstanding!  The bean broth was full of mild flavors.  I closed my eyes and concentrated on the flavors, trying to piece together the different spices that went into the soup. 

It wasn’t until we got up to leave that I realized what was in the soup that made me feel so good.  There, hanging from the vent hoods, over the grill, were several bunches of epazote.  That’s the mark of authentic Oaxacan cuisine! 

I’m usually not shy about asking to take a trip back to the kitchen in a restaurant, but this galley styled kitchen was tight and the cooks and staff were dancing deftly around each other, hard at work.  Not a good time to assert myself, I thought.  At the heart of the kitchen was the person I knew would be there.  Grandma.  Grandma was laying out a round of fresh corn tortillas on the grill and she looked tired.  I shouted loud enough for her to hear, “Tengo much gusto!  Gracias!”, which basically means, “I so happy, thank you”.  She raised her head to look at me and seemed bewildered.  I gave her a wink and we left.

New Orleans – Day One

As a first time visitor to New Orleans French Quarter, I didn’t know exactly what to expect I would see and discover.  Sure, I knew about Bourbon street, famous for Mardi Gras celebrations and I knew there would be plenty of restaurants and pubs to visit but, I was amazed at how accessible all of these places were. 

Walking is the best mode of transportation in the French Quarter. The French Quarter is a compact ward of the city and every street is full of a variety of restaurants, bars and boutiques.  A twenty-minute stroll can lead to world of discoveries.

We checked into our hotel in the late afternoon and, after a few minutes of rest, we were hungry and ready to find our first meal.  We walked out of the hotel lobby and one minute later, we found ourselves at Curio, a bistro and bar on the corner or Royal Street and Bienville Street.

Curio has the French, Spanish and Caribbean architectural style that nearly all of the buildings in the French Quarter share, which means lots of ornate iron work and multiple floors of covered galleries facing the streets.

Curio serves up typical American fare, embellished with Creole flair.

Our waiter, Dylan, was cordial and enthusiastic.  He guided us through some of the items on the menu and steered us toward some excellent options. 

French Onion Soup Au Gratin

$9.00

Caramelized Onion, Rich Beef Broth, Swiss & Provolone

The standout was the French Onion Soup Au Gratin.  My wife and I share this and we might have been happy to split another one amongst us because it was really that good.  There was nothing fancy or trendy about the French Onion Soup.  What made it so outstanding was its richness.  The beef stock was rich and smooth and full of flavors that can only be achieved by a slow process of reduction.  The caramelized onions added the perfect amount of sweetness to the soup.  The broiled cheese that topped the soup was perfectly melted and had just the right stringiness to make it fun to eat, but not messy.

Blue Crab Cakes

$14.00

Louisiana Blue Crab Meat, Onions & Peppers, Creole Coleslaw, Cilantro-Lime Mayo

This was my first experience with blue crabs from the Gulf of Mexico.  It is likely that the crabs actually came from Lake Pontchartrain, which is actually a large brackish estuary in southeastern Louisiana. 

I don’t have crab cakes very often but I know good crab cakes when I eat them.  Good crab cakes need to be full of sweet crab meat and they need to be seared perfectly, to achieve a crisp but yielding outer crust.  The crab cakes at Curio are very good and the cilantro-lime mayo dressing was a refreshing change of pace from the more typical remoulade sauce, or tartar sauce that is prevalent on the East coast. 

As good as these were, they rank number two on my crab cake experiences.  Number one came from a restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, some years ago.  It was a combination of the superior Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and the skilled chef that made them earned them top prize.

Coriander Blackened Redfish

Honey Creamed Mustard Greens

$26.00

Locally sourced redfish is plentiful in Louisiana.  Most are caught in the Gulf but redfish also find their way into Lake Ponchartrain.  Blackened redfish was developed by famed chef, Paul Prudhomme, right here, in the New Orleans French Quarter, nearly forty years ago. 

Blackening fish is a brave yet counterintuitive method of pan frying fish.  Paul Prudhomme’s genius shines brightly through this inventive preparation.  The fish filet is heavily dusted with seasonings and then quickly pan fried in butter at high heat. The result is a very aromatic fish, smoky to the nose, but not overly spicy.  The highlight of the fish I had at Curio was the emphasis on cumin, in the spice mix.  Cumin, when charred, adds a whole new depth of flavor.  The fish sat atop rich, creamy mustard greens.  Time could have stopped while I was eating this and that would have been just fine, with me.  I like big, bold flavors in nearly everything I eat and this redfish satisfied me in every way. 

Grilled Chicken Caprese Sandwich

$17.00

Fresh Mozzarella, Marinated Chicken, Basil Pesto, Tomato, Balsamic, Toasted Brioche Bun

My wife order the Chicken Caprese Sandwich.  She noted that the chicken was moist and tender and the Mozzarella, tomato and basil caprese was very fresh but the star of the sandwich was the delicious brioche bun. 

One of the nicest things about our experience at Curio was our timing.  We arrived in the late afternoon, when the dinner crowd was just beginning to arrive and, after a leisurely meal, we returned to our hotel before the raucous crowds packed the streets and bars.  We dined al fresco, on the second floor gallery.  The temperature was nearly perfect.  We were still a few hours away from sunset and a gentle breeze made the moment even better.  We sat and talked and looked down at the streets below, observing the crowds below. This was a very nice way to start our New Orleans experience.

Prolonged Paella…and a trip

No, I haven’t fallen off the edge of the earth. I’ve been busy jumping over life’s hurdles. Work. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. That’s been the name of the game for many, many months and it doesn’t look like there’s any relief any time soon. But, as any good hurdler will tell you, the key to success is to stay limber and be ready for the next hurdle.

And, so it goes.

I’ve got several posts waiting in the wings, waiting for final tune-ups, but I have left them idle for so long now that I’ve nearly forgotten the spirit that lives within each of them. No worries though. I’ll find a way to breathe life into them and bring them into the light, someday.

For now, I’ll tease you with a picture of the paella that I made several months ago and then it’s off to New Orleans. Yes, the culinary Mecca of the U.S. A few decades ago, I might have made a trip to New Orleans just to stagger around Bourbon Street with a drink in my hand, but now I’m going to enjoy the sights, the history, and the awesome food.

I hope to come back rejuvenated and inspired.

But, for now, as promised, here’s a glimpse of a lovely paella!

Bye for now. Enjoy every meal!

King Cake French Toast

Mardi Gras is right around the corner and that means King Cakes are back in season.  My wife recently made her first attempt at making a King Cake and I must say, it was superb!  The texture of the cake was springy and light and the sweet glaze that topped the cake was sprinkled with yellow, green and purple confectioner sugar, in traditional New Orleans style.  We have been nibbling at the large cake for a few days and it occurred to me that it might be well suited for French toast.  So, that’s what I did this morning.

Ingredients:

Several 1” thick slices of King Cake

2 eggs

1 cup whole milk

¼ cup heavy cream

¼ lb butter (on stick)

Maple syrup

Directions:

Add eggs, milk and heavy cream to a shallow baking pan, or shallow plastic storage container.  Whisk the ingredients briskly. 

Lay the slices of King Cake in the mixture and allow the cake to soak for 15 minutes.  Turn the slices over and soak for another 15 minutes.

While the cake soaks, heat a large skillet, at low heat, and add the butter.

Once the butter begins to bubble, turn the heat up to medium heat.  Place slices of cake into the pan.  Do not overcrowd the pan. 

Cook for about 3 to 5 minutes and turn the slices over, after they have browned.  Cook for another 3 to 5 minutes and remove the slices to a serving dish. 

Serve with maple syrup, bacon and fresh fruit.