Monday, May 3, 2010

Making Meals Matter

Recently, I embarked on a most enlightening culinary adventure: delving into Alicia Silverstone’s new book, The Kind Diet.

Her premise: We all have to eat. The modern food industry is one of the most damaging forces in the world today from both environmental and humanitarian standpoints. Why not make food choices that nourish—and heal—our bodies while lessening the negative impact on the earth’s resources and our fellow creatures?

She doesn’t expect everyone to rush headlong into the Kind Diet. It’s totally cool if you just want to dabble in a more vegan-friendly way of eating. Every little bit helps. She provides chapters from how to “flirt” with a vegan lifestyle to ramping it up “superhero” style—vegan with a macrobiotic twist.

She stresses incorporating more whole grains, greens, beans and fruits and vegetables into your diet—no surprises there. Give white flour and sugar the boot. Her recipes and suggestions for a variety of healthy packaged foods help ease the transition into a more mindful way of stuffing your pie hole.

I know what you’re thinking…That’s GREAT for a millionaire movie star who wants to eat like a nouveau hippie, has the funds to buy the weird ingredients, and a kitchen staff to prepare meals for her.

Cost. Convenience. Deep-seated habits and traditions. I get it. Who wants to give up cheese? (I do love my Cabot.) But seriously, when you’re armed with the knowledge of what this stuff does INSIDE your body and what it does to the environment and other living things, can you really ignore that and keep shoving the processed crap down your gullet until it catches up with you and causes all sorts of problems?

I made an effort to eat the Kind Diet way almost exclusively for a few weeks and I felt great, much better than I ever have on any other eating plan. Like I said, it’s been a culinary adventure trying out new grains and greens and learning to enjoy meals without cheese. (I tried one of the fake cheeses—and trust me, you’re better off with NO cheese that that stuff!)

The Scarlet Roasted Vegetables were amazing—the dried apricots added a sweet-tart punch! And it was fun to watch the Mochi—a brown rice pastry—puff up into chewy little poofs which were tasty drizzled with brown rice syrup for a sweet snack or sesame oil and tamari for a savory treat.

I’m attempting to make my everyday diet as vegan as possible. But I still love trying new restaurants and experimenting in the kitchen. I’ll certainly indulge on occasion—if Smoker & the Bandit's BBQ comes calling, hell yeah, I'm answering the door. I’m not going to be that freak at the table with the weird food hangups, although truthfully, I’m beginning to see that our “normal” American eating habits are a lot more gross than the Kind Diet’s.

What you put into your body determines, in large part, the overall quality of your health—something we take for granted WAY too much in our modern culture.

I’m going to make the most of my life, one bite at a time.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Super Bowl Memories

After the kick-off, Mel and I rolled up our sleeves and hit the kitchen to get Super Bowl XLIV’s dinner underway.

Normally, I wouldn’t have given football’s biggest day a second thought but this was no ordinary Super Bowl. New Orleans, my favorite city-away-from-home, was represented and we had to celebrate. (OK, truth be told, we would have made this meal either way—my sister was visiting that weekend, and that’s what we do when she’s here—we eat fabulous food and mix vintage cocktails.)

A recent e-newsletter from the Southern Food and Beverage Museum included recipes from Beau Chene Country Club’s Chef Hosie Bourgeois: BBQ Shrimp and Truffle Bleu Cheese Grits. The lusty spread of ingredients was enough to jumpstart the anticipatory salivating: fresh rosemary, beer, butter, garlic…bleu cheese, truffle oil, heavy cream…

A little Food 101: BBQ Shrimp New Orleans-style is neither cooked on a grill nor coated in sticky red sauce. It’s closer to scampi and may have been based on that dish back in the 1950s when a restaurant customer, who’d had something similar in Chicago, tried to explain it to a chef down south.

Though I’ve tried many versions, this new one may be my favorite for its lush sauce, perhaps because it conjures up one of my other favorite NOLA dishes, Crawfish Etouffee with its thick, slightly tomato-ey gravy. Typically, BBQ shrimp calls for butter, white wine, Worcestershire, lemon juice, hot sauce and a drift of black pepper. And, typically, you’d use heads-on shrimp, which is fattier and also soaks up more sauce, but I’m lazy and I’ll admit I don’t always feel like making a big greasy mess when I eat.

Back to the kitchen: Both dishes practically assembled themselves—all the shrimp ingredients went into a big sauté pan to simmer and the perfectly timed quick cooking grits were a cinch to stir together.

But the results…Five star all the way. Paired with a simple green salad tossed with homemade Meyer lemon dressing and a fresh baguette for dragging through the juice, this was one plateful of intense flavor.

For dessert…what could be better than a sweet Super Bowl win for the Saints, toasted with clinking glasses of Rosa Regale?

Here’s my adaptation of the recipes:
New Orleans-Style BBQ Shrimp

2 lbs large shrimp (peeled or heads-on, your call)
1 C tomato sauce
¼ C Worcestershire sauce
¼ C lemon juice
2 t. Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning (it’s salty, so use to your taste)
1 bay leaf
5 fresh rosemary sprigs (take a big deep whiff of these before you throw them in!)
6 oz beer
4 T butter
2 oz extra virgin olive oil
A hearty dose of fresh ground black pepper
A few lemon slices
---Combine all ingredients (except shrimp) in a large sauté pan and simmer for ten minutes.
Add shrimp and cook for about 3-5 minutes, till done.

Truffle Bleu Cheese Grits

8 oz quick grits
8 oz heavy cream
2 C water
1 oz white truffle oil
3 oz bleu cheese crumbles
½ tsp salt

---Bring cream and water to a boil. Whisk in grits and salt. Stir over low heat for about five minutes. Remove from heat and stir in truffle oil and bleu cheese.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lucky Clover

In the summertime especially, New Orleans truly is hotter than hell.
We’d had a busy day: New Orleans Glassworks ( in the Arts District and the riverfront Southern Food and Beverage Museum ( in the morning; la petite Absinthe Museum of America ( on the Rue Royale in the afternoon, lots of walking in between.

I wanted to get back to the Dauphine and hit the pool before succumbing to a couple of frosty Hurricanes in the cool darkness of May Baily’s.

Mel wasn’t going anywhere till we got our hubcap-fried burger at the Clover Grill. (
We perched on a couple of red deco barstools at the counter. Apologetically, the cook said the A/C wasn’t working. (What did it matter at that point? I thought. Just bring us our Co-Colas.)

The guy two seats over from me could’ve been Vince Vaughn, circa 20 years ago. Except for the fact that he was plugged into his iDistraction, watching something, oblivious to my appraisal, we could have tripped backwards in time a little bit.

I’m succumbing to the sultry stickiness, mind adrift, as we sip our icy Cokes and take in our surroundings, a languorous French Quarter late afternoon. We watch the hubcap sizzle on the hot griddle, our little burger steaming away under there, betting it’s going to kick Port of Call’s chunky ass.

Yep. I’m afraid it did, Port of Call fans. It was thin but substantial, perfectly cooked and manageable—it didn’t fall apart in our hands. Between that, the Coke, and the hot oily, salty fries, we found ourselves in a little corner of greasy spoon heaven.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Miracle Michael

We pretty much had him to ourselves.

In between his serving other patrons at the Swizzle Stick Bar, we bantered about booze. We were treated to the last bit in the silver shaker from other people’s cocktails, drizzled into a pair of shot glasses. Chocolate Martinis. Whiskey Smash.

A thought popped into my head. I’ve been on a quest to sample a particular vintage cocktail--The Aviation—but one of its uncommon ingredients had eluded me thus far.

Its original recipe called for: Gin. Check.
Maraschino liqueur. Check. (Thanks, Mel.)
Lemon juice. Easy enough.
But Crème de Violette or Crème Yvette—not that easy. My guess: modern palates were turned off by the fact they’re both made from crushed violet petals—making its existence quite scarce.

So I said to Michael: “What do you know about Crème de Violette?”

He gave me one of those rare smiles, a golden “eureka” moment wrapped up with a big Christmas bow. He reached under the bar and pulled out a bottle.

He whiffed it under our noses. I recognized the scent--not what I expected-- but couldn’t quite place it. My sister, on the other hand, must have really loved her childhood supplements because she immediately said: “Flintstones vitamins.” He nodded.

He knew just what I wanted. I’m happy to report the finished product—all silvery lavender in its martini glass—was light years away from kids’ stuff.

It was glamorous. It was ethereal. I could have been Carole Lombard draped in white chinchilla and glittering rhinestones, waiting for my man Gable to join me in the lobby bar.

The taste? Icy, clean, a hint of violet blue yonder.

And I have Michael to thank for leading me to my Liquid Grail.

Postscript: Check this out--

Up next: Lucky Clover

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

NOLA when She Sizzles

The best way to navigate the French Quarter in the smothering heat of summer is to stay hydrated, for goodness’ sake—and keep your blood sugar up with multiple small meals!

The first place Melificent and I headed was Port of Call, a dive joint on Esplanade favored by the locals. In addition to Neptune’s Monsoon—a large and unremarkable rum/fruit juice concoction, we launched into smackdown mode and tried one of their burgers—this trip, it was Port of Call versus Clover Grill.

“Better be a good burger,” Mel said, noting the $9.50 price tag.

The patty, capped off with a handful of shredded cheese, was so thick, it basically deconstructed into wads of meat as we attempted to eat the thing.

Next stop: Fiorella’s—home of the best fried chicken in the Quarter. We were still buzzing on our bucket of rum/juice, so we kept it light and ordered two big spicy, crunchy breasts of heavenly goodness. Fan-effing-tastic. Enough said.

The next day, we needed a snack before entering the shrine to all that is tasty: the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at Riverwalk. I was beyond delighted to find Messina’s in the food court—purveyors of Cajun Spicy Potatoes, which I had missed, all these long years without. (I have cooked up several batches of these sinful spuds since returning home: little red potatoes simmered in Zatarain’s cayenne-laced seafood boil, smothered with Tony Chachere’s seasoning-flecked sour cream and shredded cheddar, sprinkled with chopped green onions. Simple and oh-so-good.)

SoFAB and its Museum of the American Cocktail made us thirsty and hungry, duh, so we wandered through cool, dark Harrah’s casino, emerging into blazing sunlight on the other side at Loew’s hotel, with Café Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar nestled in its lobby.

The airy lounge is adorned with some of Adelaide’s massive cocktail shaker collection. She was a Brennan, of the famed NOLA restaurant clan, and liked the hooch so much she wore a gold swizzle stick charm around her neck. Would have loved to meet her!
Drink special: The Adelaide Swizzle. Perfect for a hot afternoon. A tall glass filled with New Orleans Dark Rum, Peychaud’s Bitters, soda, lime juice and a “secret ingredient” which Michael, our first rate absolutely amazing bartender (for reasons I will reveal in my next post), refused to tell us outright but let us discover on our own. (Mel’s getting a bottle of the secret ingredient for Christmas! That’s all I have to say.)

What do you get when you spear a big fat shrimp, dip it in a cornmeal-shredded tasso batter, fry it up, swirl it in a Crystal hot sauce reduction, and showcase it on a plate atop a clear pool of pepper-flecked jelly, garnished with slivers of pickled okra? Paradise on a bamboo skewer, my friend.

The Swizzle Stick Bar did not disappoint and it only got better from there…
UP NEXT: Why I love Michael...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The One-Cookbook Dinner Party: Nigella Bites

Who wouldn’t want to cook with Nigella, whose technique and sexy penchant for licking her fingers prompted one food critic to describe as a “prelude to an orgy”?

British cookbook writer/TV hostess Nigella Lawson’s breezy and talkative style is meant to break down kitchen-phobia and teach people the sensual joys of cooking and eating. To say that Nigella’s recipes are written in a “conversational” manner would be an understatement. They were a bit kooky and rambling (like herself) but in the end, quite tasty!

I rounded up another group of test monkeys and gave “Nigella Bites” a whirl:

Watermelon Daiquiris: Luscious, beautiful and so easy!

Union Square Café’s Bar Nuts: Bursting with fresh rosemary, cayenne, brown sugar and sea salt.

Elvis Presley’s Fried Peanut Butter & Banana Sandwiches: Hands-down, the most decadent thing any of us had eaten in a long time: sweet, creamy and buttery. I cut the sandwiches in triangles and served as appetizer bites.

Liptauer Spread (with bagel chips): It looked like something an old Jewish lady (i.e. my grandma) would eat…But I was intrigued by the combination of flavors, which included caraway seeds, cornichons and “French” mustard (I’m assuming she meant Dijon, which is what I used) processed with cream and cottage cheeses. Delicious. (And utterly fantastic on toasted bagels the next morning.)

Soft and Sharp Involtini: First, she explains how she makes this southern Italian recipe with one set of ingredients which sounds great….but the recipe she actually provides, she goes on to say, is more “Greek in nature.” So I made her Greek version of fried eggplant slices rolled around a hearty filling of bulgur, pistachios, and feta, topped with a lush homemade tomato sauce and baked (I made a batch of lasagna noodle bundles for the anti-eggplant contingent.). It takes a bit of time to prepare as you have to precook the eggplant which makes it pretty oily but otherwise, it’s a great recipe, especially for feeding a crowd. And it would be just as good—and easier—if you wanted to skip the eggplant altogether and use lasagna noodles instead.

Raspberry and Lemongrass Trifle: I used strawberries since they were in abundance and less expensive. I nearly had a custard emergency—she isn’t clear on how long it takes to thicken and I don’t make custard from scratch very often (well, never, really!) so I overcooked it and it started to curdle. I snapped into Plan B and dug out a box of vanilla pudding, mixed it and shoved it in the fridge to chill. Meanwhile, the cute redhead passes through the kitchen and drops a suggestion: put it in the food processor to smooth it out. It worked! The trifle was amazing despite the custard SNAFU—which I’m glad could be salvaged because it had been steeped with lemongrass stalks and had a delicate flavor that old Mr. Jell-O Pudding would have sorely lacked.

Chocolate Cloud Cake: Dense, rich flourless dessert, but her crazy-ass sugar measurements threw me off mid-recipe and I had to call in my mathematician. The orange zest and Cointreau provided a nice hint of the exotic, but overall, it didn’t make me do cartwheels or anything.

Nigella’s recipes burst with rich flavors and promise a sensation for the taste buds—nothing bland about THIS British cooking. The sumptuous photos in her cookbooks, whether gooey fried mozzarella sandwiches bubbling in olive oil or the voluptuous hostess herself gazing seductively over the bowl as she sips hot & sour soup, make it easy to see why she’s been called “the queen of food porn.”

Friday, July 24, 2009

Flashback, Last Summer: It all started with the Drunken Pony

St. Augustine, rainy Monday afternoon, end of June.

My sister and I had just managed to duck into the Lightner Museum before the deluge struck. After feasting our eyes on so many beautiful things and imagining the glittering parties that were held in the former Hotel Alcazar’s heyday, we were famished.
As I flipped through a visitors guide, a coupon caught my eye. Free Drunken Pony? Hell yeah. Whatever it was, we were intrigued. We zigzagged across the wide boulevard, dodging raindrops until we found the cozy pub, McKnight’s, purveyor of the inebriated equine beverage, and also allegedly famous for fried green tomatoes. Oh yeah. We christened our visit to the Oldest City with a kick: a half Woodchuck cider-half champagne sparkler and a few decadently cheesy snacks.

Thus fortified, we set off in search of our next spirited adventure. Having a cocktail on the verandah of the white-columned confection known as the Casablanca Inn is a glamorous way to spend some time. This elegant 1914 Mediterranean Revival mansion overlooks Matanzas Bay with a front porch perfect for watching the cavalcade of humanity amble past.

We chose a couple of knock-your-socks-off-potent concoctions. I had a Kiss on the Lips—I don’t remember what was in it but it sure was good, ‘cause it made my lips tingle! (It’s hard for me to refuse a kiss like that!) Mel had a Tahiti Tini, fruity and delicious.

After that, we found more substantial fare at the Columbia, an offshoot of Ybor City’s original, occupying an old building in the heart of the historic district. Crusty hot and buttered Cuban bread and 1905 salads. We opted for mojitos—or in this case, little more than minty Sprites. The dining room was cool and dimly lit, with brick walls and arches, wood floors and handsome waiters. In short, a perfect little repast.

We window shopped our way to the piece de resistance: Casa Monica’s Cobalt Lounge. A majestic120-year-old edifice with Moorish-Spanish flair, the Casa Monica took us into another world with its sumptuous interior glittering with mirrors, fountains, exotic lanterns and metalwork, richly upholstered furnishings and dark mystery.

At the bar, we ordered our drinks—mine a classic French 75, and Mel’s a Blueberry Martini. As we sipped, we soaked in the luxurious ambience and imagined other lifetimes while the pianist at the baby grand provided the soundtrack.

If you’re going to visit St. Augustine, don’t just look at the history. Drink it.