Thursday, May 30, 2013

farewell to nola

It has been a joy writing these posts. And also apparently folks are appreciating them, since I got a text from my vegetarian best friend begging me to road trip again to New Orleans, with her, and that she would definitely eat seafood (!).

But lest we forget, I wasn’t in New Orleans solely to binge eat on seafood. I mean, I did a lot of that. But the main reason for my presence (and that of my mom and boyfriend) was to celebrate my sister Malindi’s graduation. She worked hard for four years, getting straight A’s her last semester (!!! It’s hard enough to get straight A’s in college- I never did- and particularly your LAST SEMESTER OF SENIOR YEAR) and we were excited to honor her accomplishments.

Reason #982375982379835 that going to my own college was a stupid decision: we never got free anything. By “free”, of course, I don’t mean “free”, I mean “recouping even a tiny percentage of the extraordinary amounts of money the school received from our family”.

Anyway, Tulane excelled at this, particularly at the form of their epic Wave Goodbye party. (Tulane is the Green Wave. Get it?! Get it?!)

All around the beautiful, oak-tree-lined quad, there were little stands that looked like this:


Doesn’t it look like we were at some epic food and wine festival?! They had a DAZZLING, all-you-can eat selection of virtually every New Orleans favorite that could possibly occur to you. Best of all, in miniature portions, so you can eat more. Because obviously one regular meal is equivalent to like… sixteen miniature meals. Right? Right? Hello?

Having tasted a lot of New Orleans specialties already (see above, re: seafood binge eating), I sought out the things I hadn’t tried yet.

Top on my list was the muffaletta. That is because a few months prior, I had tasted one for the first time at my pal Grace's Mardi Gras dinner. And it had kind of made my eyes roll back in my head.

So this happened:


It wasn’t as good as Grace’s (I mean, cmon, she made her own rolls; this one was mass produced and a little sloppy) but I think many many things in this world would be enhanced with a slather of zesty-olive chunkiness.

Next on the agenda was crawfish, in the form of crawfish pies (foreground) and crawfish balls (back right). The pies were not dissimilar to empanadas, with a pretty zesty filling. The balls were a feat of nature, managing to be crispy on the outside and utterly soft and dense on the inside, not dissimilar to Spanish croquetas, if you’ve ever had those. My one complaint is that I wish there were LESS on the plate! Steve  and I split the two crawfish plates and there were still leftovers. (Any of you who know Steve in real life or even read this blog regularly will understand that is shocking. In his defense, New Orleans in general was kind of a food O.D., and we were all at this point just trying to keep our bellies from exploding. While still tasting everything, obviously).


There was corn soup and everyone was all “Whoop de doo, corn soup”. Until Malindi actually got it. She took a bite, and her eyes got all wide, and she gave us a taste. And then we all booked it to get creamy creamy buttery buttery ever so slightly spicy corn soup. Plus, in a weak nod to health, a cucumber-watermelon-heirloom tomato-mint salad. Nice, although unevenly distributed between cups. I didn’t get any cute little heirloom tomatoes :(


We were in an epic line for the next item (oh, just wait) so we got some spiced nuts to keep up our strength. You know the sweet, spiced, crunchy, addictive nuts at baseball games? Yeah. Those. Dangerous. Crack-like.


The epic line was for… barbecued oysters! Mega mega amazing amazing enormous barbecued oysters. Drenched in cheese and an herby vinaigrette sort of thing. Who knew, right?! Grilled oysters and parmesan are a very very good thing.


Then we had to make a visit to the dessert department. Another epic line for ice cream.


I opted for the strawberry sorbet and the creme brulee (I didn’t finish these. I feel pathetic having to defend myself about this extraordinary quantity of food. But for the record, I didn’t finish these. But I did have to try my sister’s chocolate, and that one was the best of all and I should’ve just gone for it and gotten three).


Oh and then a slight ADHD moment, where I noticed that the red beans and rice line was really short and I hadn’t had those yet in New Orleans and well…


WORTH IT. So rich and smoky. This is (spoiler alert) the first item I have recreated since coming home from Nola. And, yknow, a complete protein. So there you go.

Shockingly out of character for me, the other desserts struck me as uninteresting. Steve like them okay, but I only had a bite of each (strawberry shortcake and lemon cheesecake. Eh.)


But the night was young. In a hilarious turn of events, Erin, our buddy from Americorps, was also in town! What are the odds that two people currently living in Virginia and another person currently living in Texas will randomly be in New Orleans on the exact same night?! So cool. While Steve and I waited for Erin and her buddies to arrive, we sipped sangria.


(love this pic with the moon in the background, Steve!)

And then we were off to Frenchman Street! Also in the French quarter, hopefully slightly less touristy than Bourbon Street. We dipped into a nifty jazz club and got drinks, and then went outside and wandered (getting drinks to go, yet again. Ridiculous).

We stepped into this cool little alleyway, ablaze with Christmas lights, and browsed the wares of local artists. I bought myself a fleur de lis headband for the simple reason that it was $5 and I wanted to remember this lovely night in New Orleans. Then Erin saw it and loved it and wanted one too. Then we were twinsies! Posing with my apparently inebriated boyfriend.

frenchman st.

Good times. Thanks for the picture, Erin!

Another crappy night’s sleep ensued. Got home late, were woken up at six am by Malindi’s roommates shouting about curling irons (…)

We went to pick up Malindi and Mom, and motored off to the Superdome. On the way this wretched, wretched cop wrote me a ticket for running a red light because there are BS intersections in New Orleans where you are supposed to somehow know that when turning left, you can’t just turn left because that would be too easy. No, you have to turn left and stop immediately and wait on the median until the cross street has a green light. There is no sign warning you of this. The officer did not care that I had an out of state license plate and my sister was sitting in the backseat in her cap and gown. Ugh. So Steve drove the rest of the way to the Superdome and I sobbed in the backseat.

Graduation was amazing. In lieu of Pomp and Circumstance, a jazz band played wonderfully exuberant New Orleans jazz. The speaker was the Dalai Lama!!!! One point that really struck me from his conversation was that education was a wonderful opportunity but it was important not to isolate yourself as a result of it, and to reach out to the people in the world with less. And to always attempt to form friendships, both as individuals and groups, because with the trust that comes from that, solving all of the world’s problems will be done more collaboratively and more easily too.

A photoshoot with my glamazon sister ensued.

malinkle graduation

She is second from the left. Fun fact: her pal, furthest left, had been drinking since 6 am!

Then we were off to a VERY exciting lunch. We were pretty certain in advance that it would be amazing, since my mother had been at the dentist and read about them in Food and Wine (!). The name? Cochon. The word for “pig” in French, FYI.

Inside was lovely (sorry, backlight…)


Like seemingly everywhere in New Orleans, they had a great, intriguing cocktail menu.


What would you get?!

Being a celebratory occasion, we were cool with day drinking. Being day, we opted to share. My mom and Malindi split the Honeysuckle Rose, which was great. And Steve and I split The Swinekiller. I mean, rhubarb bitters?!


It was tangy and refreshing. Have no idea what that thing floating in it was, but I dug it.

Mostly small plates happened at lunch (have I adequately given you the impression that we had already eaten A LOT?!)

Steve got two soups. His first gumbo (which he loved, and we all got to taste and admire for its intense smokiness). And another corn soup, since he’d loved the one the previous night so much. This one was chilled, and different, but just as good.


My mom, demonstrating what a balanced, non-neurotic individual she is about food got a virtuous and tasty beet and arugula salad… and fried pork cheek terrine! I had a bite of the cheeks and they were good; nice and crisp on top. Not at all what you’d expect when you hear terrine (or at least we didn’t, we’d all been imagining pate) but unique and very good.


Malindi had a hard time deciding what to order but ultimately just wanted to get something Cochon was famous for. So she got the cochon! It came with little bits of pickled turnips and pork rinds atop. And wow, turns out pork rinds can be really gourmet and delicious!


I was kind of ridiculous with what I got. I knew I wanted small plates, and I knew the crawfish and green tomato gratin was calling my name (I mean come on!)

It arrived and was thoroughly delicious and satisfying. Creamy, flavorful, interesting textures.


And, not thinking all that clearly about all the creamy cheesiness a gratin would entail and still sad and wanting something comforting after getting my stupid ticket I also ordered the macaroni and cheese.

It was delicious, but I was much more interested in my gratin. Fortunately, my mom fell in love with it in a serious (SERIOUS) way. So I passed it over to her end of the table most of the time and a good time was had by all.


We saw some epic slices of pie go past us during the meal, and we knew dessert was a foregone conclusion. Like at every point in this meal, the menu was dazzling and we wanted it all.


But we ultimately opted to share two. The chocolate peanut butter pie was a foregone conclusion, and boy was it great. The crust seemed to have chunks of nuts embedded in it, and was amazing; crunchy and salty and just a little crumbly. The filling was creamy and perfect.


However, no less delicious, and simply categorically different was the pineapple upside down cake. Malindi ultimately opted to order it (we gave the graduate dessert decision making power) because she was intrigued by the presence of cornmeal. And gosh darn it, it was a great choice. The cake had the most wonderfully caramelized outside, and a wonderful, slightly toothsome texture throughout from the presence of the cornmeal. Its sweetness, and the sticky pineapple on top, was perfectly complemented by the slightly tangy ice cream. A unique and lovely spin on a traditional dessert. We all want to make this at home!


We took a bit of time to wander in the area around the restaurant, taking more pictures of Malindi. We returned to The Chimes and hung out in their lovely garden, then went inside for a quick marathon of My Cat from Hell episodes (I completely blame the graduate for this).

And then it was time to go to the ROCK AND BOWL! Malindi’s best friend Sarah had a HUGE contingent of family in town, and they planned to celebrate at this sports spot/music venue. They invited us along, their treat. So nice! So fun!

Aside from being a magnificent bowling alley, it had a bar! Open for party guests. I know beer is a traditional bowling alley beverage, but I don’t like it. So I got a white wine spritzer, which looked a lot like it, so there you go.


Rock and bowl has everything you could want from a bowling alley, but also so much more. For example, they cater. They cater AMAZING NEW ORLEANS FOOD. This was my first taste of etouffee on the trip and Lord. Have. Mercy. The big fat crawfish chunks were amazing, and the rich and butter soaked sauce was amazing. I’d never really want to see how it’s made, but it sure went down easy.


Unpictured, there was also tasty jambalaya and salad.

And then, of course, it was time to get our bowl on.

Due to a quirk in putting our information into our alley’s computer, Malindi accidentally played twice. Also Malindi was a dominant force in the game, and did a lot of trash talking about the obviously inferior Malindi.

(Things like this are my family’s lifeblood. We have such bizarre senses of humor. Oh and also we are not good at bowling. Clearly.)


Yet another display of the friendly New Orleans spirit: also having a party at the Rock and Bowl that day was a girl who’d graduated from LSU. She had the most ENORMOUS cake, and when her family barely made a dent in it, started offering it to us.

We politely accepted a slice of our cake, figuring it would be mass-produced and shortening-y. Well, not so! It had the most rich, crumbly, subtly almond-infused vanilla cake, and creamy and delicious frosting. We ate it with gusto!


And then we spent several hours cleaning my sister’s room, and an exhausting 18 hour day driving back to Virginia!

Au revoir, Nouvelle Orleans. It was a blast!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

the new orleans deliciousness continues

The inarguable highlight of our second afternoon in New Orleans was a trip to a landmark:


YESSSSSSSSSS! More on that in a second.

Since it became apparent very early on in the trip that consuming enormous quantities of (often fried) food was going to be an essential part of my stay in New Orleans, I decided to just go with it and maintain some peace of mind by walking extraordinary amounts. Our po’boys and daiquiri fueled first day included an impressive 10.5 mile walk. Our second, a beautiful stroll down Saint Charles Avenue to the famous French Quarter and back, 7.5 miles or so. I’ll take it.

Especially when there were praline samples to be had to fortify us on our trip.


And, since Steve was there and needed second lunch, pizza options to explore.


[Don’t we love that casual pizza places in New Orleans have beer pairings?!]

I clearly missed the memo about Gulf shrimp. Again, these were not tiny! These were jumbo shrimp! (Oxymoron alert).


Now, back to that first picture… in case you couldn’t quite guess the contents of that bag…


Ohhhhhh yes. The famous Cafe Du Monde.

Let me first say that the walk through the French Quarter to Cafe du Monde is lovely. Beautiful homes and hotels to be seen, the music of street musicians wafting around (particularly amusing was a girl who was playing the accordion with impressive talent accompanied by a dude who sang wretchedly and was clearly stoned out of his mind. It was quite entertaining!), fun little shops to pop into (including the most extensive hot sauce selection I’ve ever beheld at one spot).

And Cafe du Monde, while clearly a tourist attraction, runs like a well oiled machine. (Note! Cash only. But cheap. It’s like $2 and some change for what we got, and if you’re looking at price per calorie it’s epic!)

As for the beignets.. If you haven’t experienced them this description isn’t going to do much for you but they’re… fried dough. With powdered sugar. And SO MUCH MORE. Guys, beignets are… they just… I can’t even put into words how good they are. Doughy in the middle, crunchy on the outside, yeasty, crisp, sweet…. they are just absolute heaven.

DSC02998 DSC02999

On the map I saw a place called the French Market, and I was all excited to meander around it, envisioning handsome men carrying baguettes and cheese samples and the like, but it was ultimately a bit depressingly touristy. No cat lady t-shirts (though there were a lot of places selling things like that in the French Quarter, being a tourist-oriented part of town) but the restaurants looked more designed to please every palate than truly impart the culinary quirks of Nola.

I did enjoy this pun.


Meander meander. On the one hand, I was all, “Look at those exquisite buildings! I would love to live in the French Quarter!”


On the other hand… Bourbon Street. Yelling. Puking. Spilling. Fighting.

It being a landmark and all, Steve and I both wanted to experience it… just to say we had, pretty much. So off we went to indulge in overpriced drinks in the company of the friendly and inebriated.

The first place we ducked into had a balcony (big plus, and why we picked it), live music (semi-plus; I love live music but wasn’t that dazzled by their sound, but according to Steve their between-songs rappeur was “hilarious”. I was in the bathroom and missed it) but no mojitos (big minus; New Orleans is HOT and you really just want a mojito).

Fortunately, the very cool bartender joined us in bemoaning the fact that most of the bars along that strip did not serve mojitos because it’s a pain to muddle lime… then referred us to one that did, Pat O’Briens. And told us which of the (several) bars on their premises to which to bequeath our hard-earned dollars, which he assured us would have the lowest prices.

And the mojitos were ours.


With a nice fountain view.


I have turned into a real lightweight and spent the entire walk back from the French Quarter (keep in mind, almost 4 hours) spontaneously breaking into dance, blurting out deep down emotional pronouncements, and laughing at Peniston Street. Again.

Fortunately, the absurd effects of my single drink (!) wore off by the time we did dinner with the family.

My sister recommended Ignatius, another lovely restaurant on Magazine Street. Once again, we sat outside.


Like many of the restaurant choices in Nola, they had an impressive small plate selection, so I opted for the shrimp and grits and a side of greens.

Lorrrrrrrrrrd those shrimp and grits were good. (Sidebar: have we been taking note of how much shrimp I ate in New Orleans?! Hoping I didn’t have any underlying cholesterol issues prior to this trip!)

The shrimp, per usual, were fat and juicy and cooked just right but WOWZA that gravy was sumthin’. Smoky, tangy, and rich. And the grits, while certainly serving as an impressive butter vehicle, still had a nice assertive flavor and texture of their own. This was GOOD GOOD GOOD.


The greens were my attempt at getting a serving of vegetables in for, oh… the first time on the trip? They were those lovely Southern-style greens. You know, cooked for hours and hours until basically devoid of nutrients.


Malindi got the same shrimp and grits along with a fried green tomato salad (!) that she shared. And both my mom and Steve got the Jambalaya, which was A+.

Cute story: I thought our waiter was kind of reserved or unfriendly or something, but then as he was clearing our plates, he noticed Malindi still had food left, shot her a grin, and told her to “keep nibblin’”. ADORABLE.

Final note, Steve TREATED everyone to dinner! Thanks pal!

Another crappy night’s sleep, involving a deflating air mattress (…) followed. It was just as well that I didn’t sleep much- more time to see what the lovely city had to offer. I snuck out of Malindi’s dorm room, leaving Steve to get a bit more shut-eye, and made the pleasant stroll to The Chimes once again.

Jill was nice enough to invite Steve and I for breakfast.

Due to a legal system that contains a certain amount of whimsy, The Chimes is not allowed to have any on-site cooking. So, Jill goes down the street to the French Bakery every morning and brings in delicious baked goods.

Nibble nibble nibble. I didn’t eat all of these… but more bread may have happened too :)


Then we were off to another bee-yoo-tiful neighborhood, Bayou Saint John. New Orleans is a little weird with the urban planning- you drive around and you’re on grimy, ugly, strip-mall-y roads, and then you take a turn and drive two blocks and BOOM, you’re somewhere GORGEOUS. It’s all a bit uneven.

This is a bayou. (Secret: I have no idea what a bayou actually is. My little sister spent four years in Louisiana and she does not know either, which makes me feel better).


We originally arrived to attend the Bayou Boogaloo street festival, with live music and the like, and the colorful sign looked promising:


But we turned out to be too early. So instead we took the recommendation of an incredibly friendly local who told us we could find what she considered the best po’boy in New Orleans here:


A LOT of people agreed. I heard some local types go, “Ugh, that’s right, it’s Tulane graduation this weekend.”

*cough* Sorry.


Some of the past visitors were famous!


(Can you imagine trying to eat a messy po’boy wearing a suit and tie?! Reason 203485720835602837502835 I don’t want to be president.)

After a long wait to order and then receive our food, I would’ve eaten just about anything, but these sweet potato fries went down real nice. Particularly, in a fun combination I made after raiding the condiments bar out of simple curiosity, with cocktail sauce.


As for my po’boy, initially a bit enigmatic..


Pulled open to reveal it was comprised of a roll, fried catfish, lettuce, tomato, and pickles…


The bread was only so so. And the lettuce was pre-bagged and seemed to be giving out in the Louisiana heat.

Not to worry. I just ate the perrrrrrrrrrrrfect catfish. Fish and chips lunch, Nola style. It was magnificent and in and of itself earned Parkway Bakery its fame.


Also: back in 2005, Parkway Bakery flooded six feet deep. So a toast both to their perfect catfish and their enduring spirit.

The post-lunch activity could’ve easily consisted of a food coma, but instead we took a stroll, to the City Park. We didn’t make it into the museum, but we checked out the sculpture garden, the old-fashioned amusement park (which was ADORABLE; I was heartbroken it wasn’t open) and peeked in at the film they were shooting (!) (Didn’t recognize anyone)

The best part, though, was the natural scenery. As my mom wisely pointed out, you can see where they got the inspiration for putting Mardi Gras beads on trees. The lovely Spanish moss makes that shape naturally!


More to come!