Posts Tagged ‘CHOP’

The Garden of my Youth

My favorite harbinger of spring, the Park Ridge Farmer’s Market, opened a couple weeks ago.

Because it’s so early in the season, the majority of the vendors were selling seedlings, potted plants and garden starter kits. I wistfully remembered the vegetable and herb garden I had planted in my parents’ backyard some 20 years ago.  I originally planted basil to feed my pesto addiction, and then beefsteak tomatoes because I simply could not stand the perfect-looking but flavorless imposters found in the supermarkets. That successful five-foot by five-foot plot  in the first year led to a five by ten plot the second year, adding plum and cherry tomatoes as well as parsley to the basil and beefsteaks. Somehow by the third year, my little garden grew to 5 by 20 with all the usual suspects, plus cucumbers, bell peppers, zucchini and strawberries.

I learned a lot during those years. Rabbits love strawberries. Clay is very difficult to rototill. A single zucchini can quadruple in size overnight while its plant grows to invade the next block. That porous black fabric really does prevent weeds. Cucumbers have nasty barbs on them that will draw blood. Cilantro and bell peppers will NOT grow for me, no matter how much loving care I provide. Making sauce with real homegrown tomatoes is a labor of love, with a strong emphasis on labor. Pesto will freeze very well provided all you use is basil, garlic and olive oil, adding the pinenuts and cheese right before serving.

With my father’s help watering, weeding and rototilling, I had quite the little victory garden. When my mother asked why I didn’t grow flowers, I told her that if I am going to do all of this work in the dirt, I wanted to be able to eat the rewards. While flowers are pretty, they’re not as tasty as a homegrown tomato topped with fresh pesto sauce.

In autumn, 1994, I bought a condo. Two of the selling points were the extra-large kitchen and large west-facing balcony. The following spring, I decided to do some container gardening on my 25 by 8 foot balcony. A few herbs and some grape and plum tomatoes were the extent of my motivation. But, due to my corporate job, I traveled too much to really tend to those pots properly. Eventually I gave up, leaving a tangle of dried out stems and leaves. The gardener in me died in 1995. The corporate job ended in 2000.

Since then, I have the time to plant and raise herbs and vegetables, but those pots sit unused in the corner of my balcony, filled with 12-year-old potting soil and the remains of the roots of my last container garden. Each Saturday morning, I stare wistfully at the tomato seedlings at the market and think, “maybe next year.”

New Orleans 2003

New Orleans is a foodie’s paradise. Jay and I spent six days eating and drinking all that the Big Easy had to offer. Thanks to some great restaurant recommendations from my cousin Anthony and pal Don, we never had a bad meal. We never even had a mediocre meal!

Here are some restaurant reviews and recollections of our trip. We suggest you check out some of these places the next time you’re in New Orleans.

Remoulade (Arnaud’s Grill), Bourbon Street

This was our first lunch. Jay had a Shrimp Po’ Boy, which he gave a rating of 5 (1 to 10, 10 being orgasmic). I had the Crawfish Pie. Understand that there are few things I enjoy more than crawfish. But, we arrived at the tail end of crawfish season (and the beginning of crab season, another favorite). The crawfish pie was wonderful, chased by Abita Amber beer.

A note about Abita, the local brewery: Avoid Abita Lager at all costs. The stuff is swill. On the other hand, Abita Amber and Abita Turbo Dog are both delicious, especially with spicy food. But, like many local brews (Jamaica’s Red Stripe comes to mind), it is best consumed in its city of origin. Beer from tropical climes does not travel well.

Felix Oyster House, 210 Bourbon Street

Across the street from the better known Acme Oyster House is this casual little gem. Outstanding Turtle Soup and wonderful Crawfish Etoufee. Jay ate both the Oysters Bienville (8 out of 10) and Oysters Rockefeller (4 out of 10). Neither of us care for raw oysters, but reports are that they’re terrific. This dinner was accompanied by Abita Amber, which quickly became our brew of choice for the rest of our stay.

Petunia’s, 817 St. Louis (French Quarter)

This charming, gay-owned and run little restaurant is in an old home, and makes incredible breakfasts. My French toast was a huge portion made with French bread, with a wonderful hint of vanilla in the batter. Jay enjoyed one of Petunia’s specials, Maw Maw’s Cajun Breakfast. Scrambled eggs, rice, shrimp, ham, corn, carrots and mild Cajun seasoning. It was similar to a hash. Luckily, we ate early in the day (10 am is VERY early in New Orleans!) so as not to ruin our appetites for…

Commander’s Palace, (Garden District)

Background: On my first trip to New Orleans in September, 1992, a dear friend took me to Commander’s Palace, where I had the best meal of my life. It has long been known as one of the top restaurants in the world, and some great names in cooking have worked there (Paul Prudomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon). For years, I told Jay that we MUST go to Commander’s, because he’d be astounded by the meal. We made reservations a few weeks before we left Chicago to ensure we’d get in.

After a cursory look at the regular menu, we decided on Chef Tory’s Tasting Menu with matched wines. This was a seven-course extravaganza, with each course accompanied by a half-glass of wine, specifically chosen to complement the food.

The Menu

Breakfast of Champions: Caviar fresh from the Tennessee River valley served with three whole wheat mini-pancakes, creme fraiche, cured salmon, sunny-side-up quail egg and duck ham. Served with Verget, Chardonnay, Burgundy

Jumbo Lump Crab Risotto: Superfino risotto scented with forest mushrooms, shallots and Chardonnay. Served with Hartford, Sonoma Coast, Chardonnay

Green Fig and Foie Gras Profiteroles: Sweet Louisiana figs stuffed with foie gras-Armagnac mousse — garnished with mayhew preserve, port wine reduction, black pepper brioche and roasted pecans. Served with Chambers, Muscadelle, Australia

Butter Braised Lafourche Redfish: With a butter poached oyster and Paddlefish caviar, over a ragout of duck pastrami, artichokes, tomato concasse, peppered arugula and summer asparagus veloute. Served with C.P. Cuvee by Iron Horse

Griswold Seared Muscovy Duck Breast: with a jalapeno and seventeen orchard-honey spoonbread — finished with a Ruston peach-tarragon confit. Served with Bryon, Pinot Noir

Cheese Plate: Assorted imported cheeses with roasted pecans and artisan breads. Served with Chateau Bernadotte, Haut-Medoc

Chocolate Pot de Creme: With naval orange gelee and crisp cookie spoon. Served with Hop Kiln, Late Harvest Zinfandel.

The service was excellent….well-informed, attentive, friendly, but not overbearing. The food was, well, magnificient. Creative pairings, amazing flavors and gorgeous presentations. We both ate things that night that we’d never think to order, as well as things we normally don’t like (for instance, I do not like fish…at all. The Redfish was delicious).

While each course was wonderful and memorable, what stood out most, in retrospect, were the figs stuffed with foie gras mousse. We had never eaten foie gras and were amazed by the flavor. Our head waiter called it “meat ice cream.”

When the final dessert course was served, they had only one Chocolate Pot de Creme left, so they supplemented it with a sour cream cheesecake and bread pudding with whiskey sauce. Oh my.

The meal lasted more than three hours. By the third course, we realized that we shouldn’t eat all of each offering, but every bite was so incredible that we couldn’t resist. Neither of us had ever eaten such a variety of great food in one meal. We ate until we were literally in pain. Truly a joyous experience.

Pascal’s Manale (Garden District)

I had dinner here with a friend in 1992. Their barbeque shrimp was legendary at that time and I was looking forward to having it again. As a matter of fact, my own recipe for barbeque shrimp is based on those memories. Jay and I rode the St. Charles Streetcar to the other side of the Garden District and walked a couple blocks to Pascal’s for lunch. Unfortunately, it was the day after our experience at Commander’s Palace, so our taste buds (and bellies) were somewhat exhausted. We ordered the Combo Remoulade (boiled crab meat and shrimp in a tangy combination of remoulade and cocktail sauce), which was a wonderfully refreshing appetizer. Then, on to the barbeque shrimp. It’s served with heads and shells on (for those of you who get squeamish), in a spicy butter sauce. The spicy sauce wasn’t nearly as spicy as I remembered it (and not even close to the heat level in my recipe), but the shrimp were quite fresh and tasty. Dessert was pecan pie, which wasn’t bad.

The Bulldog (Magazine Street)

We left Pascal’s and started walking through the Garden District when the skies opened up and let loose with a deluge of rain. We scurried into a little neighborhood bar called The Bulldog and were surprised by the incredible selection of brews. They had more than 50 beers on tap, and another 200 (both domestic and international) by the bottle. We watched the ballgame and had a few pints waiting for the rain to let up.

We then walked Magazine Street, full of antique and other funky shops, the Garden District with its gorgeous mansions, and the Warehouse District before heading back to the Maison Dupuy.

Acme Oyster House, 724 Iberville (French Quarter)

Yes, this is the famous oyster house of New Orleans. There’s a web cam there, focused on the actual oyster bar, manned by the most experienced and talented shuckers to ever open shellfish. Quite frankly, the place is a dive, but that’s part of its attraction. It’s busy and noisy…a classic Bourbon Street experience.

I ordered the Hot Sausage Po’ Boy and Jambalaya combo. And what a combo it was. The hot sausage was an andouille patty on a French roll, fully dressed (mayo, lettuce and tomato) and bite for bite, one of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. The jambalaya was very good….full of andouille sausage, bits of chicken and shrimp in a spicy rice.

Jay ordered the Peacemaker Po’ Boy and Red Beans and Rice Combo. The po’ boy was loaded with fried oysters and shrimp, and the red and rice was some of the best he’s ever tasted. All was washed down with large amounts of Abita Amber.

Acme is worth the inevitable wait in line, but if you’re very hungry and can’t wait, go across the street to Felix. The food is good, but it lacks the atmosphere of Acme.

Port’O’Call, 838 Esplanade (French Quarter)

Another neighborhood dive bar with a great jukebox and some of the tastiest, juiciest hamburgers anywhere. There’s almost always a wait for a table, but you can belly up to the bar and be served one of those great burgers for lunch. The burgers are served with baked potatoes….loaded with your choice of toppings. The menu is limited, but it doesn’t matter. The burgers are what people line up for. A great, fast, filling lunch.

NOLA, 534 St. Louis (French Quarter)

Jay and I had eaten at Emeril’s Fish House in Las Vegas and enjoyed it, so the other reservation we made while still in Chicago was at NOLA. This is Emeril Lagasse’s second restaurant and is more casual than Emeril’s and DelMonico’s. The atmosphere is somewhat noisy, the tables are very close together, and the service is excellent. The portions are massive, so consider sharing.

We shared the appetizer, a sweet potato fritter topped with Gulf shrimp and andouille sausage with pear confit. Truly delicious.

We each ordered a salad (the next time we’ll split one). I had the eggplant fritter over arugula, with portobello mushroom confit and some type of chutney. Jay ordered the fried oysters over arugula with Danish blue cheese and homemade bacon. Both were amazing.

The bread basket contained rosemary foccaccio, jalapeno corn bread, french bread and a sweet whole wheat bread with raisin and honey.

Jay’s entree was the smoked half duck on a bed of corn spoon bread, served with corn, haricot vert and a caramel glaze. Somehow, he was able to eat most of it.

I ordered the roasted filet mignon with french-fried shallot rings and Maytag blue cheese. It needed to go back, as I ordered it medium and it was quite rare. It returned to the table a perfect dark pink., which the chef considers medium-well. It was a great steak, but the star of the plate was the Maytag blue cheese.

Dessert was something to behold. We split it and couldn’t finish it….one of our disappointments as it was stupendous. A banana pudding cake with fresh vanilla wafers, a hot fudge drizzle, fresh whipped cream and fresh bananas. The cake was very light, almost like a sponge cake. Had we not eaten so much, we would have finished it and ordered another.

Deanie’s (Dauphine & Iberville) French Quarter

We had lunch here one afternoon and enjoyed it a lot. Instead of bread on the table, the serve boiled new potatoes with very spicy Cajun seasoning. Their Bucktown Boil pizza appetizer is a seafood “white” pizza with shrimp, crab, crawfish, garlic and cheese. Their crabmeat & corn bisque was creamy and delicious. I enjoyed the Blackened Shrimp & Crawfish etoufee. Not too spicy but very tasty.

Redfish Grill (Bourbon Street near Canal) French Quarter

Often voted the best seafood restaurant in New Orleans, this Brennan-owned restaurant did not disappoint. With it’s funky décor, it’s a loud and casual place where locals hang out. Their crabcakes with remoulade put mine to shame and the coconut shrimp on pineapple coulis was magnificent. Jay enjoyed the blackened redfish/BBQ oyster combo, served on a bed of cabbage with sweet potato shaving on top. Dessert was very rich…a double chocolate bread pudding which, try as we might, we couldn’t finish.

Coop’s, French Quarter

A great place for lunch near the French Market. Red beans and rice, fried chicken, cole slaw and fried shrimp were all delicious.