Saturday, October 15, 2011

Tummy time USA (6)

Tummy Time 6 comes to you from New Orleans, one of the crossroads of American cuisine, where the flavours of the deep south blend in with Creole and Cajun influences which are tossed into a storm of extra spices fresh from the Caribbean Sea. Even though we're staying here for several days it's not enough to fully sample what's on offer in this town that's almost as famous for its food as its music, but we had a go.

Long before I set off on this trip I had made a list of American foods I had to try at least once (such as those tamales in New Mexico, and the ribs, and the barbecue, and the grits, and the boudin.... you get the picture). This dish, Jambalaya, was on that list and so I have tried it twice so far, and this was the best example of this classic spicy rice creation. It is its own dish entirely, but it's a second cousin of the popular Spanish paella in that there's rice, shellfish and spicy sausage in there, but the sauce is heavier and the result gluggier than most paellas I have tried back in Sydney. As you can see in the photo above, the vegetables on the side were perfectly cooked, turning it into a truly well-rounded meal. I had this at Pere Antoine in the French Quarter.

Another 'must-eat' on that list was a Po' Boy sandwich. I got the itch to try these from reading James Lee Burke's Cajun detective novels, where his hero Dave Robicheaux and his mate Clete Purcell always seemed to be chomping down on them for lunch. The original Po' Boy (made for poor boys without much money, so goes the legend) consisted of deep-fried oysters in this baguette (or sub) style bun. That was long ago, because Po' Boys can have any filling you like nowadays, and some I have seen are seriously overloaded with too many ingredients. This is a fried shrimp Po' Boy, which consists of light and juicy freshly fried shrimp (prawns) plus a light layer of coleslaw as well. That's it, very simple, very nice. The lemon on the side is not for decoration, it's for squeezing.

I had this Po' Boy at the most famous diner in New Orleans, Mother's on Poydras Street. Its walls are plastered with photos of famous patrons of the establishment, including several of their good ol' buddy George W Bush posing with all the staff. It's a super-popular place and I even had to queue outside before being allowed to join the queue inside to order. Patience is well rewarded here, though.

Also on the list of must-eats was fried green tomatoes. The venue for this nice appetiser was the Upperline Restaurant (from where those lovely people drove us home, which I mentioned in the previous blog posting). This dish is everywhere down here, almost always served this way with a 'shrimp remoulade' sauce on top. The thick green tomato slices were lightly battered then fried, and on their own they're a bit bland, so no wonder they always come with a sauce of some sort.

Here's the interior of the Upperline, and like so many restaurant and bar interiors through all areas we have visited so far in the US, the dominant decorating theme is 'clutter'. If there is a bit of spare wall space, stick something up there! At the Upperline it's original artworks everywhere, by a variety of artists.

Pam's appetiser consisted of spicy, deep-fried oysters (which the Upperline bills on its menu as "One of USA Today's Top New Dishes in the USA for 2007"). Pam's verdict was yum, but she couldn't quite describe the sauce, saying it was really lovely but a bit too complex to nail down what was in it. Tomato-based and nicely spicy is as close as she could get.

It doesn't look too photogenic but it was a treat. We both decided to order the duck, and for a moment, in the interests of wider Tummy Time coverage, one of us was going to try something else, but we both love duck and have barely seen it on the menu anywhere. Pam opted for the Ginger Peach sauce, and I went for the Garlic Port sauce. Neither of us loves sauces all that much, but the garlic sauce was super garlicky, which I don't like, and the peach sauce was very sweet. The duck itself was rubbed with spices, hence the 'blackened' look, the meat was juicy, very tender and not fatty at all (which is what the duck-haters always hate the most). The little pot of mash on the side was deliciously sweet sweet potato blended with chopped pecan nuts, and it was heavenly.

Our side dish was slow-cooked greens, which came to the table accompanied by a bottle of Cajun pickles. The greens were delicious but salty, as I suspect the greens were cooked with ham or bacon bones or something similar, which are high in salt.

Come dessert time and we went for the classics. I had this dish, bread pudding, one of the stand-by desserts offered in virtually all the restaurants and diners we have visited in Louisiana. Oddly enough, no two bread puddings have looked the same, but this one, a Honey Pecan Bread Pudding with Toffee Sauce is top of the list for flavour and light texture.

Pam chose pecan pie and she chose wisely. As bread puddings are ubiquitous on Louisiana menus, so too are pecan pies. We could have eaten 20 of each by now, but we are just so restrained!

Dinner time the next night wasn't all that thrilling, taking place at the Gumbo Shop in the French Quarter. I went for the Creole Combo, so I could try another Jambalaya (the blob in the centre) as well as the traditional Red Beans and Rice (on the right). Making up the numbers on the left was Shrimp Creole. This was blanded down tourist food with very mild spicing and little personality anywhere on the plate. I really should avoid combos at all times, shouldn't I?

Pam's main of blackened catfish suffered from the same disability. No spice, mild flavour, I don't know why they bother serving it this way. The good news was that, as usual, the catfish was juicy and flavoursome. This is probably the most common fish on the menu down this way, and it's a good eating fish.

The dish which saved the evening was Pam's humble side dish of corn cooked the Creole way, with a fair bit of spice, plus chopped capsicums (peppers) and onions.

Before we finish off Tummy Time 6 from New Orleans, let's go back 100 miles to New Iberia, for the Gumbo Festival which we attended just prior to coming to New Orleans. The theme this year was "Peace, Love and Make Gumbo" (I've got the T-shirt), and numerous stands made their own signs for the occasion.

An enormous crowd turned out for the festival, which lasts three whole days. This photo was taken on the morning of the third day, a Sunday, and there were four such 'streets' of stalls like this filled with people from all around the area. Streets around the venue are blocked off by police, and it's as if the whole town is here.

Sunday is devoted purely to a major Gumbo-making competition and while that yummy soup (and the buzz of the carnival) is what everyone is there for, there is so much else to see and enjoy as well, such as the delightful way so many stalls are decorated. This is the Cafe de Poulets, selling chicken gumbo.

They're serious about their hot sauces here, with dozens of different brands available, but the most famous of them all, Tabasco, was a big presence in more ways than one. If you want to buy a half-gallon flagon of hot sauce, sure! But they also were giving away teeny weeny little sampler bottles as well.

I tried all the gumbos on offer. How the system works here and at some other crowded open-air venues is that you go to a ticket stand and buy a sheet of tickets for food, and a sheet of tickets for drinks. This chicken gumbo cost three tickets. A seafood gumbo cost four. Pammy found a smoked turkey and quail gumbo, decorated with a little quail egg on top: that was four tickets. All the gumbos are served in these little polystyrene cups, and it wasn't unusual to see people wandering around balancing three of these cups in their hands as they looked for a spare table to sit down and enjoy the lot.

Two last notes, without photos, to finish off. Hash browns! How could a potato lover like me ignore them? Pam is of the opinion that there is something fundamentally strange about eating potatoes for breakfast. I'm not, and this morning I enjoyed the best hash browns of the trip so far, here at the Marriott in New Orleans. This was an irregularly shaped grated potato cake that was crispy brown on top, crispy brown underneath and softly mashed-potato-like in the centre. This is what I have always imagined hash browns to be, but as we travel this land I've discovered that any kind of breakfast potato dish, no matter how it's cooked, is called hash browns. So I have had them as little baked potatoes or pan-fried potato wedges a few times. However, the standard has been set at the Marriott and it'll be interesting to see if anyone can knock it off its perch as best hash browns ever. By the way, none have been those awful little rectangular, deep-fried bricks dished up in Australia and called hash browns. Perish the thought!

Secondly, a night to remember in the French Quarter. It may sound sacreligious while being here in New Awlins, but when we saw Cafe Giovanni offering Italian food, my brain just went to pasta. I had to have pasta, and anchovies, and olives, and olive oil, and so we dined there. The notice said "light musical entertainment" and so we thought "OK, that's a bonus".

Decorated like an upmarket bordello complete with heavy curtains in the doorway, it had a piano in the corner with a lady tickling the ivories. So far, so good. Just after the appetisers and wine arrived, she started to sing. Opera. She screeched but the crowd applauded enthusiastically.

Then a tenor appeared, walking amongst the diners singing "O Sole Mio". Not long after, to accompany our entrees, another songstress wandered amongst us singing that well-known Italian standard, Bali Hai from South Pacific. Each time the audience loved it. We were the only ones present not there for the singing.

The amusing thing about the Penne Puttanesca I ordered, which lacked in the salty, pungent olives, capers and anchovies I was dreaming of, was that they didn't offer grated parmesan on the side, as is usual in so many Italian restaurants. In this land where there's grated cheese added to virtually everything, including the salads (indeed Cafe Giovanni did have grated cheese on the bruschetta) there was no grated cheese on the side with the pasta, just a few yellow flecks of it discernible on top. Amazing.

To alleviate the threat of four tenors coming out to bellow at our desserts, we skipped the sweets, paid the bill, and left the opera lovers to enjoy their happy cultural evening. We'll never forget Cafe Giovanni!

That's it for Tummy Time 6. Next stop, Montgomery Alabama and all that southern fried chicken!

1 comment:

Alexa said...

Catfish was one of the first fish I really loved eating. People think it tastes "muddy" but it doesn't (well it shouldn't!), it's a very delicate moist fish. Best served blackened in a thick coat of spices!