Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fried Dough

As threatened, I made beignets last night. They are not the most beautiful lumps of fried dough I've ever made, but they tasted pretty good.  I've come to the conclusion that my Cuisinart fryer is really too small, but I don't actually use it enough to upgrade to a bigger capacity.  I think that I should just plan on using my cast iron Dutch oven the next time I need to fry something.

I had a box of Cafe Du Monde beignet mix, but I passed on using it.  I had made brioche dough on Friday night and I was running up against a use it or freeze it deadline (according to the source, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.) I decided to shape the brioche and use the left-over dough for the beignets (which is one of the uses suggested in the afore mentioned book.) 

I probably should have used more flour on my work surface, which is why the dough looks free form: it stuck as I tried to get it up and my bench scraper just kind of mushed things.  Never the less, I got about two dozen of the tasty bites made and neither my husband nor son complained about the appearance.

Beignets always take me back to New Orleans, a city I have visited on two occasions, both times for conventions.  The first one was over Labor Day Weekend in 1988 and the weather was terrible.  We got deluged by rain, which is not surprising for hurricane season.  I was busy working on my portrait project, so I got out very little during the course of five days.  The second trip was in late October of 1995.  The weather was much better and, although some of the company was the same, the relationships were different.

Every night for the week we were there, we'd end the night at Cafe Du Monde, across from the cathedral, and eat beignets and drink chickory coffee or hot chocolate.  Then a shuttle would take us back to our hotel north of the French Quarter, along with a group of our friends.

My first trip was on a tight budget and my big eating experience was dinner at Dooky Chase's Restaurant.  I was divorced, self-employed, had a seven-year-old, and was pretty much living from hand to mouth.  I met a lot of people for the first time who are now very close friends, and I even caught a glimpse of the man I would later marry, although I did not have a clue that was in my future.  I spent most of those four or five days corralling writers like Connie Willis, Pat Cadigan, Jack Williamson, and George Alec Effinger to sit for portraits for my planned exhibit in Boston in 1989.

On my second trip, I was married and our finances were a lot more stable than mine had been.  We did dinner at K-Paul's, the Court of the Two Sisters, Tujaques and many places I can't even remember.  As I recall, in 8 days, we had only two bad meals.  One was the banquet for the World Fantasy Awards (no surprise there, with hotel food fare) and the other was our last dinner in the city at what purported to be the oldest Italian restaurant in New Orleans.  A friend later described the place as a tourist trap.  The food was awful, but we did discover that our adventures at Tujaques the night before had made the rounds of stories among the food service personnel in the city.

Tujaques is located in an old building across from the old market in the Quarter.  We had made reservations  with three other couples (Fantasy and Science Fiction editor Kris Rusch and her husband Dean Wesley Smith, screenwriter Ted Elliott and his then-girlfriend Kim Rawl, and novelist and television writer Melinda Snodgrass and her then-husband Carl Keim) to have a private dining room for an evening of conversation and laughter. 

In the next room was a huge party of diners with other friends of ours from the convention.  We were separated by a door which had a knob only on our side, and the door knob could easily be removed. When we discovered who was on the other side of the door--the party included George R.R. Martin (before he became "The American Tolkien", the late, lamented Roger Zelazny, Joe Haldeman, Gardner Dozois, Walter Jon Williams, and various wives, girlfriends, and others--we asked the waiter to send them a bottle of Perrier, in a champagne cooler, with our complements.  This started an on-going escalation of hilarity.  They sent a waiter with their bill for us to pay.  We refused.  Then Sue Casper (Gardner's wife, and a writer in her own right) and Parris McBride (G.R.R.M.'s significant other and now wife) came over to visit.  And took the door knob.  Then they started opening and closing our door to much laughter on all sides. 

I went to get the door knob back.  I think I'll leave the story there, except to say that the tales of Gardner's Knob reached epic levels among the science fiction community  in the years to follow and I was reminded of it this morning when someone said they referred to it to discover if a spammer was trying to reach them by IM or if it was really Gardner (it was a spammer.) 

I was happy to learn that most of the French Quarter was spared the destruction of Katrina, and that the Cafe Du Monde and Tujaques, the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans, are still there.  It's nice that you can pick up a box of beignet mix out here in L.A. (World Imports carries it) and have a taste of New Orleans in your own kitchen.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mardi Gras

March is turning out to be a good time to try different things in the kitchen.  This past Sunday, I decided to do a New Orleans themed dinner to celebrate Mardi Gras.  The menu for the Sunday Super Supper Squad was Shrimp and Crayfish Etouffee, Jambalaya, home baked bread, and a King Cake.

I looked for a recipe to make a King Cake from scratch.  I've got several of them now, but I realized the problem I had the last time I tried to make one from scratch was coming up with the correctly colored sugars for decorating.  So I decided to go with Mam Papaul's box mix, which includes all the necessary ingredients and decorations.

Unfortunately, in my haste to get the dough made, I threw in the wrong packet.  It looked brownish, so I thought it was the yeast.  Wrong.  It was the praline mix for the filling.  That dough is still sitting in the refrigerator. 

Len was out, so I called him and asked him to pick up another box mix.  I had seen it on Friday at the World Imports.  They were out.  Instead of calling to tell me, he headed all over the San Fernando Valley until he found one where the King Cake mix was in stock.  It threw my timing off, because I had the main courses to make, but I did manage to pull it off.  I'm glad our friends were happy to wait until I had finished decorating it.  Tonight, I'll make beignets to remind us of the Cafe Du Monde.

While I don't really have any desire to visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras (Halloween there was enough for me), I do enjoy the food in limited quantities.  The eight days we spent there in 1995 were about 5 days too long.  I needed fresh vegetables and no more fried food for a while. 

I was very pleased with my first attempt to make a dark roux for the etouffee,  but it sure is labor intensive to make.  I got the right color, but I think the final result was not quite as thick as traditionally done.  That's o.k.  I liked the effect on rice.

We've got a bit more leftover jambalaya for tonight.  It's even better that way.

Oscar Party Time

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my new kitchen? Space. I have space. And I know how to use it.

Christmas finally got put away in time for our annual Oscar Watch party.  This year, we had almost 20 people.  As often happens, there was the same basic crowd plus a few newbies.  I didn't get to attend our party last year because I was still packing us out of the rental house and cleaning as I went--I had a really good crying jag over that one.  This year, I didn't really have much interest in the show hosts, so I happily puttered in the kitchen getting food out to everyone else.  I missed something funny at the beginning--there was a lot of laughter--but it wasn't like Hugh Jackman was hosting.  I did see him sitting in the front row, and I did enjoy Anne Hathaway's singing complaint about him not doing a duet with her.  I wish we got a dime every time Wolverine is referred to outside of the comic book industry, but we don't.  I meant to ask Bruce Vilanch if Hugh had actually bailed on the song or if it was just the routine, but I forgot to do it when I photographed him last Wednesday.  He is not on my PDA, so the moment has passed me by.  Back to food.

The hit appetizer was my Inception dates, stuffed with Gorgonzola and wrapped in bacon.  Even my non-fruit-eating-spouse ate them and the credit goes to Secrets of a Restaurant Chef Anne Burrell, who made them with manchego cheese on a recent show.  What I really like about them is that I can make future batches ahead of time and throw them in the oven during a party to keep them coming.  They are a little labor intensive, but oh, so good.  I couldn't find my maple syrup to do the final step of Anne's recipe, but they were fine without it.

My friend Lisa Klink brought True Grits, which I think was an inspired name.  They went quite well with the ham (always appropriate for the Academy Awards) I made for more serious eating.  I got my son Michael to make another lemon tart from the supply of fresh lemons I've harvested from the little tree in my old garden. I'm really happy I can push him into making some of the things he learned in the baking class we took last fall.