Friday, April 05, 2013

Summer 2013 Garden - First Journal Entry

Planted March 25 and 26, 2013

In summer 2011 I built a 2 x 4 box, filled it with dirt, and grew some stuff. I won't grow edible things in my yard, out of caution against lead and chemicals in the soil of this old uptown neighborhood. I raised Japanese eggplant, okra, and purple-hulled peas. Maybe some squash. I can't recall. We fried the eggplant, and cooked a few pots of peas with okra added for flavor and color. I then tried a winter crop of Brussels sprouts and greens, and nothing did well. We never got enough of a cold spell.
Last summer, I refreshed the box with new garden soil and nothing grew well. The new dirt was too dense. I needed lighter, airier soil. I came up with Happy Frog Potting Soil, from Fox Farm Fertilizer Co. and found it at Laughing Buddha Nursery on Clearview. I'm sure there are other mixes that would do just as well, but I like the sound of "Embrace the Vitality of Happy Frog," and the mix looked good for vegetables. At Charvet's across the street, I found an all-purpose fertilizer. All in all, hunting down dirt, fertilizer, Japanese eggplant seedlings and other other good stuff to grow took me a couple of days of driving around the Metrys to Laughing Buddha, Charvet's, Lowe's, and Jefferson Feed and Seed. Charvet's, by the way, is totally witchy - if you're looking for healing herbs like fever few, mother's wort, penny royal and so on, go to Charvet's.

I have about 16 square feet to work with - a 2 x 4 box, a 2 x 2 box, and an oval fish pond roughly 2 x 4, with a deep and a shallow section. I also have some green plastic growing bags. Happy Frog is expensive - $18 for two cubic feet! - so I removed just 4 inches of the garden soil and spread two bags of the Frog as top soil. So far I'm happy; it's loose, dark, and all the plants settled in overnight, except the okra. It wasn't draining well and looked like it might be coming down with a fungus.

Back row: fennel, Ichiban eggplant, okra. Front row: fennel, yellow squash, cucumber.

More Ichiban

Front: Rosemary and sage. Top left and center: carrots. Top right: chard.
In the alley I have three green bags, two seeded with cow peas (like field peas) and one with sugar snaps. I've put some branches in there for the sprouts to climb.

Sugar snaps and cow peas.

Cow Peas sprouted within two days. Yay for rain!

While I was at Laughing Buddha Nursery, I picked up some herbs, along with an idea:

I mangled a 10-foot length of 4-inch sewer PVC into 3-foot segments with a handsaw I pulled off the shelf at Home Depot - those big box stores used to have stations set up for cutting pipe, didn't they? At home I hacked trenches with a little cordless saw, drilled drainage holes, sealed the end caps to the uneven cuts with silicone glue, and made a few passes with a can of spray paint. Voila:

Et voila:

I made two, filling one with mints and basils, and one with savory herbs. They're rough around the edges, but were fun to make and fit perfectly along the front porch rails.

These pictures are from the last week of March, right after planting. Everything is taller already, especially with the bit of rain we've had. The fertilizer and soil seem to be good, so far.

But it could all go to hell. Summer heat hasn't even nearly begun.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Your Mama, Buster Holmes, and Blue Runner

I'm not a New Orleanian born and raised, so red beans and rice Mondays aren't in my DNA. But after moving here in the 1970s, I was introduced to the tradition in the best possible way, at Buster Holmes' on Chartres. My best friend and I had Typing before lunch, and Gym afterwards, so that meant we had just about enough time to skip out of McMain, head down Claiborne to the Quarter, have lunch, and be back in our desks for English, before heading to NOCCA for our afternoon classes. My parents were from Georgia and Arkansas, so I actually ended up preferring the big pot of white beans with ham hocks that was usually sharing the stove top, but I enjoyed many plastic plates full of red beans, rice and sausage before Holmes closed the doors forever.

Between those golden years, and years of Mondays with our friend Dave's homemade pots of vegetarian red bean goodness, and oh yes, regular small sides with Popeye's 2-piece dark meat combos, I'm a red bean lover. I've come to depend on others for my red bean meals. But lately we've taken an old and reliable shortcut in Blue Runners, and we've started to look forward to Monday nights at home.

The ideal batch will start with a link of andouille. We prefer the kind that comes in a thick link, an inch or more in diameter, but the andouille you have is the right andouille. For us, the best case is to have a pound or two in the freezer, from Bourgeois' Meats in Thibodaux ("Miracles in Meat Since 1891!"). (We're not playing foodie; we just have to go to Thibby a lot these days, and Bourgeois visits are a nice little bonus.) Bourgeois' andouille is almost loose, chunky, and streaked with soft pockets of fat. Cut up a link, brown it a bit, and add a few tablespoons of trinity, some garlic, and a couple of chopped green onions. The seasonings just melt into the sausage fat. Add a couple of cans of Blue Runner, and thin it all with some stock - chicken, veggie, whatever you have on hand. Finish with salt, pepper, and heat - I like Schirachi and C likes Tabasco - and you're good. Since we're all about healthy eating, pop some brown rice into the ricemaker before you start chopping and opening cans, and you're all set. When you go back for seconds, as you will, take a minute to reheat it with a little more stock.

This is pretty much foolproof, which is why Blue Runner rules. C and I take turns with it, and it comes out spot-on perfect every time.


1/2 lb. thick andouille, cut in 1/4 inch chunks
2 green onions, chopped
1 oz. trinity
2 or 3 cloves garlic, smashed
Stock - chicken or veggie
2 small cans Blue Runner Creole Cream Style Red Beans
S&P (white pepper is a good choice)

First, put on your brown or white rice.

Then, saute the sausage and once it's rendered out some fat, stir in the green onions, trinity and garlic. Stir that until the seasonings soften, then add the red beans. Stir in stock until you like the texture (1/2 cup to a cup), and add a little salt and pepper. Let the flavors meld over a low fire until your rice is ready.

Serve over rice, and top with green onions and hot sauce. French bread is always a welcome addition.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

In which I fail and pass the "Eat Local" challenge

I thought about signing up for the Eat Local challenge last month. A 10 percent discount at Hollygrove Market and a signing bonus of a bag of salt from down around New Iberia was very tempting, but for those of us teaching summer classes at The People's University, by the lake, June is a month without a paycheck, so I couldn't swing the fee.

But thinking about the challenge got me paying attention to what I eat, and analyzing what I make versus what I buy prepared. I will never live a fully "eat local" life, and that's not a failure, it's a choice. I want coffee, I want champagne, I want brats from Wisconsin and salmon from the Northwest and I need to stock my shelf with pepper and other spices, so I make no apologies for that. And, as a general rule, most "do this, and only this" lifestyles end up with unintended consequences that undercut their well-meaning philosophies, so I don't gravitate toward manifestos.

But I do like buying from my friends and neighbors at the farmer's markets, at the grocery store, and in local eateries. After the storm, as we came back and started rebuilding our lives, I wanted to support the business people who invested in New Orleans and the surrounding area. I benefit, too, from the bounty of things we can harvest here, from the ground and from the waters. So I end up cooking with mostly local ingredients pretty much daily.

Last night I made a ratatouille, and as I chopped veggies I realized all but the tomato paste, bay leaves, salt and pepper and canned tomatoes came from the farmer's market and my own garden. On another burner was a pot of purple-hulled peas. I'd cured and smoked the bacon flavoring it. I'd picked a few okra from my garden and chopped them in. Tabasco's local. That leaves the onions (probably from Georgia), salt and pepper, and a little Sriracha (New York?)

That's a win, I think. Those peas were exquisite, in any case. Nothing beats freshly shelled peas.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Gulf of Mexico

In 1974, we moved to New Orleans, the last stop in my dad's career with the American Red Cross. Before that, he did twenty years in the Air Force, so our family experience was one of being transients, rootless visitors to new places, never really belonging anywhere.

To welcome us, our neighbors brought over soup, but it was brown, dark, thick, and a big claw stuck out of the top. What did I know of gumbo? Before a year had passed I'd tackled cracking crabs with an empty Dixie bottle on a newspaper-strewn picnic table, attended my first Mardi Gras, watched slack-jawed as an alligator strolled down our street after a hard rain, and gone out fishing with my brother in a bayou off a local boat launch, only to realize we were under a canopy of oaks where water moccasins hung lazily from the branches and alligators barked at us from down dark arteries of the marsh. I fell in love and I've been here since. I cannot imagine living anywhere else.

The pelican is Louisiana's state bird, but I never really saw one until about 1990. We'd woken up early on a day off in spring, and like Binx Bolling, tooled along the Gulf Coast highway to the Mississippi beaches, about 90 miles east and slightly north of New Orleans. In Gulfport we boarded the Captain Pete and headed out on an hour's ride to Ship Island. We'd done this many times, as it was a favorite escape from civilization - an undeveloped, quiet beach, home to birds and crabs, with a pre-Civil War fort, a snack bar and some bathrooms and a boardwalk, nothing more.

This trip was special, though. As we left the harbor, we saw pelicans, brown pelicans flying alongside the boat, and dotting the wooden piers. They'd been nearly extinguished by chemical pollution and hunters, but here they were, making a comeback.

Over the next few years, the numbers of pelicans we'd see on our drives up to the coast grew, and we'd see them sooner each time. By the mid 1990s they were on over Lake Pontchartrain, in Slidell and Eden Isles. By 2000, I started seeing them flying along the Causeway Bridge, further west over the same lake . And by 2003 or so, their ranks had grown into the city itself, and I'd see them flying and nesting on Bayou St. John, the waterway that connects Mid City to the lake.

In 2004, I got a tattoo based on a Greek key pattern, in a blue that makes me think of the Gulf waters. In 2005, before the storm, I added a pelican rising up over that water, an image taken from a Walter Anderson woodcut; I like how his primitive style echoes the ancient Greek imagery of the wave.

Last week I went to Ship Island, and enjoyed the pelicans and dolphins that accompanied the boat to and from the island. I got sunburned and windswept, and I put the constant news stories of the spill and our inability to stave it off out of my head for a few hours.

But now I'm grieving something fierce, knowing these magnificent birds, along with their dolphin pals, and the many other species - gulls, herons, and more - are being coated in oil, their eggs ruined in their nests - and that they are dying miserable deaths while we are powerless to help them.


I bought a pork belly at Hong Kong Market. Off the Broiler has the skinny on this wonderland in a repurposed Walmart/stripmall in Gretna. With the pig on hand, I set about making us some bacon. I read Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie, but settled on Karen Solomon's recipe for the cure. After 9 days, I dried it, let it form a pellicule over a day, and then smoked it with oak hardwood charcoal, and a mix of cherry and pecan chips. It came out a beautiful color. And it tasted good. I'm going to do this again.

Oyster Freak Out

It's May, 2010. There's oil in the Gulf. I've been craving seafood, and feeling so anxious about our future. Shopping at Whole Foods for dinner, I picked up a dozen oysters as an afterthought - just in case, what if there's no more? - and put them on the grill with butter, garlic and herbs. I normally curse while I'm opening oysters but my cantankerousness was tempered by my need to just treasure the moment.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

A Mess o' Chard

Can one cook up a mess o' chard? I mean, chard ain't collards or mustards. But it is greens, and good greens.

I didn't take pictures! I will, next time.

Get the rainbow chard. A nice bundle of rainbow chard has a mixture of red, white and yellow stalks. Clean the bunch in a sink of cold water - soak them, drain, and soak again. The cut the stalks in half-inch lengths, while you gently heat a lot of garlic - a lot of garlic, not a little bit - in some oil. I mix olive oil and vegetable oil.

Saute the stalks while you cut or tear the beautiful greens in ribbons maybe an inch or so wide. Add them a handful at a time and let them deflate in the heat, stirring them with the stalks and garlic. Then turn the fire way down, cover with a lid and let them get soft. The pot likker will come out and the garlic will meld with the greens and crunchy, colorful stalks.

I made a mess o' chard tonight, four bunches of it. We ate it with broiled salmon and little red potatoes.

I remembered to take some ugly iPhone 3G pictures the last time I cooked some chard:

Knox, I heeded your warning and kept it to one bunch.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Waitress in a Donut Shop

Back in the late seventies, I worked at Cafe du Monde, slinging beignets to tourists.

Here's a beignet at Cafe du Monde - pronounced ben-yay (emphasize either syllable, we'll know what to serve you.) Tourist attempts on that ranged from bengays to big nuts to bayonets.

Above is a picture of me in 1976. One day, Madamoiselle magazine did a photo shoot at CDM. We kept trying to slip the models beignets - they were so skinny!

I remember being annoyed with them being in my way all day, and this picture captures that. I don't know why that's the one they chose to publish. There's a little note "Beth age 16" in my mom's handwriting at the top, on my paper hat.

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.