Saturday, July 18, 2009

Fried Soft Shell Crab Sandwich

The iPhone has no flash, and this sandwich was made during a thunderstorm Thursday that took out a nearby transformer. The picture is dark, but the sandwich was sublime.

I'm journaling this to remember the cool, dark house on a summer's day, a shelter from the threatening thunder and lightning, and the almost solid wall of rain that pelted down for more than an hour. The sandwich, and the memory of cooking it, is the sensory anchor for my memory. This is summer in New Orleans where most days are bathed in brutal heat and light, but some days are wrapped in cool, dark clouds. The price for those respites from the heat is scary, bombastic weather. For two summers after Katrina, I couldn't enjoy such a day.

Well, that's somber.

But we're here, and it's home, because where else can you spend about 10 minutes of casual effort and end up with a fried soft shell crab sandwich just because it's time for lunch, and that's what you have in the fridge?

I picked up two frozen soft shell crabs from a vendor at Tuesday's Uptown Farmer's Market. Another vendor had 'em fresh, but they cost more and these were just fine. I could put them in the fridge to thaw slowly, and knew I'd get to them a day or two down the road.

First, I just covered the bottom of a cast-iron frying pan with vegetable oil. I left it over a medium-low fire to heat while I prepped the crabs.

Crabs must be cleaned before they're eaten. It's a quick process: lift the flap on each end and remove the dead man's fingers (the lungs), then turn the crab over and pull off the flap underneath. (If that flap is slender and pointy, the crab is male and while they're plenty tasty, if you can check them before buying, look for the wider, rounded flap that indicates a female, because they're fatter, and fatter means tastier.) Finally, take some kitchen scissors and snip off the face: the eyes and jaws are not edible.

They must be dry before going into the hot oil: thawed crabs are full of water, so pat them well with paper towels.

I mixed an egg in a bowl with 1/2 cup of milk, put a cup of flour in another bowl, and stirred in kosher salt, some Tony Chacherie's, and a little white pepper. I've just rediscovered white pepper and can't figure out why I haven't used it always and forever.

After cranking the fire to medium-high, I dipped the crabs in the egg wash, put them in the flour, and shook the bowl till each was covered. I held each crab above the bowl and shook off the excess flour. I like fried foods lightly dusted, never thoroughly encased. Even in the bad light available for this photo, you can see the colors of the cooked crab under the flour - I find that appealing to the eye, but what's important is that the flavor of the food isn't overwhelmed by the breading.

The electricity went out right about this time. But no matter - that's why you gotta be cooking with gas.

It took about 3 minutes on each side for the crabs to reach perfection. We enjoyed them on white bread - I browned mine over the burner since the toaster oven was out of action. We dressed our sandwiches with butter on one side, mayo on the other, lettuce, dill pickles, lemon and hot sauce.

If you're in New Orleans during soft shell season, find a good po'boy shop and try one of these on a bun or toast if the menu allows. They're good on French bread, but better on a smaller, softer stage.

In the drama of the storm, a shaggy dog story unfolded, but that's another post.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Elmo, 1994-2009

We lost little Elmo today, after years of him cheerfully enduring and ignoring major health problems - diabetes, thyroid malfunction, and a tumor. The tumor returned in force, and that is probably the culprit, along with no longer being able to regulate his insulin well enough.

He was a fun guy, a real pal. We joked that Elmo was a proactive patient, very involved in his health care. He'd come yell at us when it was time for his insulin shot. He was demanding and cranky at times, and we enjoyed that about him.

When we picked him out at the SPCA 15 years ago this summer, he was lank and tiny, like a washrag with a ping-pong ball-sized head. He had a little croupy cold and the attendant shook him at us and said, "This one doesn't come with a health guarantee!" Indeed, not. But he rallied, and became big and healthy.

He and his partner, Scat, whom we brought home from the SPCA that same day, once chased a pack of three rogue pit bulls who'd tried to venture onto our porch. We know because we ran out on the porch in response to the high-pitched wails and screams of the dogs as they ran down the street.

Elmo was calm and sweet on our evacuations these past few years, putting up with all manner of inconvenience and disruption.

He liked to lay in Cherry's arms while she rubbed his tummy. He enjoyed running through the house and crying the hunting song cats make. He liked sitting on the warm bricks of the patio and getting a little sun. And he loved to eat anything tasty. A little thin-sliced ham was his favorite treat, and he'd smack you if you weren't delivering it quickly enough. He ate a slice today, before succumbing to a seizure.

Elmo died in Cherry's arms, getting a belly rub, already made comfortable with fluids and valium, unafraid and knowing he was the center of the universe. Just another day.

God bless you, Little Elmo. You gave us good friendship and love, and made every day in your company joyful.

Scat and Elmo

PeeWee and Elmo form "a sullen alliance," tolerating and ignoring one another. (photo and comment by Cherry, earlier this week.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Perfect Place

It hit me over a dozen cold, clean oysters in the Quarter today, that I was well into a perfect 24 hours in New Orleans.

Yesterday afternoon and early evening offered a ride down Highway 90 and over on 308 to Thibodaux, for a visit with the old men and dinner at Spahr's. The seafood gumbo and fried oysters on a bun were, as always, wonderful.

Highway 308 is beautiful in the daylight, with Bayou Lafourche on one side and old houses backed by cane fields on the other. But it's a twisty stretch and known to be treacherous. On the way back, the rain had made it wet and we had to turn around and cross the bayou when we came up on a wreck that looked like it would take a long time to clear from the two-lane blacktop.

That was precursor to the storms that have continued through the night and into today. I sat up until 1:30, waiting for a tornado warning to pass. It was extended instead, and I slept uneasily all night. But for two hours I watched a screen filled with little curving arrows indicating "circulation" -- tornados! -- and clusters of white lightning bolts, all against blobs of red and green that mark the degree of storm and level of rain, stretched across a map encompassing Southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. I give big props to Margaret Orr, the only weather caster in the City to track this big storm through the night.

Here in our house we call her Mary Margaret Orr, remembering her many years back, losing her composure a bit and urging us all to run for our lives as Georges approached. By the time of Ike, she'd gained gravitas and poise, and now she's our elder weather stateswoman, as worthy a successor to Nash Roberts as we have. But when the hurricane is closing in, it appears that she accessorizes with progressively larger crucifix-wear, and hence, she becomes Mary Margaret.

It continued raining today, but with less drama, and we headed to the Quarter for the first of several events we'll enjoy at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. We parked in our favorite lot, on Toulouse between Chartres and Decatur, and reminded ourselves to stop and take in the things we love, as we scrutinized and photographed the old walls backing onto the lot. Then, a quick lunch before masterclass with John Berendt, whose work "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" we'd both loved.

His teaching was on place, and it was appropriate. He quoted Wendell Barry, saying "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are." I know that of all the places I've lived, I am what New Orleans has made me.

Sitting in the cafe, with its full-length doors open to the Quarter sidewalks and the rain punctuating the conversations drifting around the room, I tucked into a stellar platter of oysters. They came on a bed of ice, just as cold as they could be. The schucker had cleaned them well, and the purple and white shells sparkled against the shine of the ice.

I can't imagine living anywhere else.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Oyster Bliss

I had an envie for oysters last night and persuaded myself to buy two dozen from Whole Foods, at 49¢ each. That's less than the average at an oyster bar, except for Wednesday nights at Jaeger's. And though I did a pretty good job shucking them, I worked up a sweat over just those 24 ersters. I don't think anyone would want me behind the oyster bar on cheap oyster night.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Possibly the best gumbo I've ever made

Top Chef came to New Orleans and the contestants of course had to make gumbo. One chose duck and andouille, and that made me think that I'd never done a duck gumbo. So over Mardi Gras I picked up a duck, some andouille and a pint of good P&J oysters.

The duck was the wild card and I found several recommendations on how to prepare it - boil it in a stock, braise it. I don't like the current practice of serving duck medium rare, so after quartering the duck, I braised it, put it on the rack in a roasting pan with celery and onion, and roasted it for an hour. I deglazed that pan and put the duck and juices in a stock pot with celery, onion, fresh bay, s&p, and let that turn into a wonderful stock that I then kept overnight.

The next day, I prepared my creole mirapois (the holy trinity): onions, celery, and peppers, along with some garlic and the andouille.

And prepared a roux. It turned out to be the best roux I've made in many years, probably since I was cooking professionally. I stirred it for 45 minutes, until it would simply get no darker.

The duck stock was warming on another burner the whole time, and it drove Peewee crazy. Please give me the duck! I want the duck.

Once the roux hit a deep, dark brick red, I took it off the fire and added a cup of trinity. It went a shade darker, to deep brown, as the vegetables practically melted into the Cajun napalm.

After that, it all came together nicely. I strained and ladeled in warm stock, added the rest of the vegetables and sausage, the shredded duck.

While that simmered for an hour or so, I made rice and yams, and finally added the oysters.

The final product (don't forget the filé on top!)

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Winter is Seafood Season

I splurged on good, jumbo lump blue crab meat from the Gulf tonight. $25 for a pound, but it was worth it. We enjoyed it on a salad of mache, romaine and shaved fennel, with celery, green onions and tomato. Remoulade topped it off. There are a few nice Gulf shrimp in there, too. Boiled in Zatarains, of course.

All because its Carnival Time!

Every year, the elementary school a block away does a practice run for their Mardi Gras marching. I was grading papers and C. was working but we managed to make it out to the porch and enjoy the marching band, and the kids in costumes throwing beads.

It's become a harbinger of Carnival for us; a normal work day suddenly includes the sound of horns and drums in the distance. Voices add to the mix, then the sound of lots of feet. It's a gift! Carnival comes right to us.

A good season in New Orleans

Shopping a week ago and saw this sign of the times - lemons, potatoes, garlic and Zatarains. Time to eat crawfish.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Shrimp and Grits

This isn't a traditional New Orleans dish, but I always enjoy it. I tried Paula Deen's recipe, and liked it. It has a lemony flavor. Next time, I'll try a South Carolina recipe.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

2009 begins and with it, new interests

Today we bought some new cookware. It strikes me as a good start to a new year, and I think I will write about it in the coming months.

Yes, it is mundane. Banal even? But of great importance to me.

We live in one of the most diverse and pleasing culinary environments in the world, New Orleans. Here in the kitchen of our rented shotgun, we've created many wonderful meals. But there's never a shortage of places to go or call for equally fine food; for a long while, with my teaching and C's work, we've turned to that option far too often. In 2008, with its leaner times, I started once again to cook more frequently at home. It's been satisfying, and along the way, I've extended my repertoire. Sometime in the past few months, I started to really hanker for a Le Creusset pan, maybe two. I wanted to experience the enamel-coated surface; I love cast iron, but sometimes am dissatisfied with the taste and color it can impart to food. This was an idle wish; at $250 a pot on average, I could not justify the expense.

Last night, we enjoyed a good etouffe prepared by our friend LB, and while helping her do dishes afterwards, I was taken aback by the big, red, enamel pot on the stove. Wow! You got Le Creusset for Christmas! But no, not at all. It turns out Martha Stewart has taken on the French cookware giant and produced a challenger, a fine example of heavy-weight, well-made enameled cookware priced for the reality of this economy, made available to lower-middle-class me. Oh boy. And it's on sale, to boot. Oh wow.

C and I discussed it and I hightailed it to Macy's today, returning with three pieces: a 7-qt. round casserole, a 5.5 round casserole, and a little 1.5 qt. stone bakeware pot, all for about $135.

Tonight I made blackeyed peas and cabbage with bacon in the two big pots. It was a fine way to start the year. I found quickly that I have to use a low fire; the heat circulates beautifully, and efficiently. The mirapois for the blackeyed peas came out perfectly, and while it has no bearing on the flavor, looked pretty against the creamy enamel coating.

I plan to explore the possibilities of these new additions to my kitchen over the coming months. If good things come out of this, I'll include them here, with pictures (don't know why I didn't do that tonight, but there you go. This is free-form, not a regimen.)

Note to myself: Happy New Year. Make it count.