31 December 2008

It's been a while.

College applications. Lots of them. But they're due by 11:59 pm tonight (December 31) so I'll be back in food writing mode shortly. I've got some writing to do about Crabby Jack's and Martinique. Soon. But not now.

24 December 2008

P1 and other wonders

I've realized something recently. 99% of the time, when we decide to allot more attention, time, and effort to something, we burn out, get fed up, and become utterly exasperated with that which previously commanded our extra attention. It can happen with everything from schoolwork to relationships. Things just get old. But here I am, and I've started a food blog on a whim, and given that I'm a pretty driven girl, I'm devoting myself to maintaining this, if for no other reason than that it is hopefully preparing me for my career. Yet I haven't even begun to burn out. The reality of writing this has bolstered my initial interest, and it has lodged food into my permanent consciousness to the point where I deliberately seek out inspiration for my frequent little quips. Amen!

Moving on. For those of you who don't know, there's this incredible art biennial here in New Orleans called Prospect.1 (is that properly punctuated? I can't seem to ever get it right). There are literally artists from the world over using every medium you can dream of, displaying their art at tons and tons of venues across the city. It's a big deal. A darling family friend, David Buckingham, has his art over at the Universal Furniture Store. He uses found metal to craft these wild, fantastic, sometimes quite offensive wonders. This is what he has at P1 (from Pulp Fiction):

Anyway, at the CAC, there are these two sculptures of sorts made by Lee Bul. The first is this glorious, delightful, frivolous, borderline garish chandelier-esque structure, draped elaborately with glass and beads and chains that reflect light in every which way. Its framework is spirally and ornate, reminiscent of pirate ships or even a tiny metropolis, bedecked in jewels.

Opposite this ostentatious masterpiece is its counterpart, a hulking blackblackblack bunker. It looks like a miniature cave, with a molded fiberglass shell and rocky peaks. On its own, it's morbid and base and slightly confounding at first glance -- an abstract manifestation of the elephant in the room, this gargantuan behemoth that seems out of place on the mirrored floor of the gallery. Two things contradict this first impression, though: first, its simple juxtaposition with what we will refer to as the chandelier calls in a yin and yang perspective that helps add insight and intrigue. More importantly, though, is the realization that the bunker is more than something to look at. Walk inside, put on the headset, and whisper -- strike up a conversation -- break out in a spontaneous tap dance. Every slight sound that is captured in that cave is magnified by about a thousand times, so that even if you're restricting your noise to the most basic and quiet noises necessitated by life itself, you hear this uproarious, unnerving, discordant cacophony in the headset. It's just wild.

And, okay, so this is a food blog, not an art blog. I'm here to talk to you about dishes and techniques and chefs on whom I have crushes, not so much about sculptures and structures that have caught my eye. But all this build-up does, indeed, have a culinary purpose. Because in my later reflections on those two pieces, I felt that kind of singular, rare inspiration that makes you truly proud to find. The notion of that dichotomy captivated me, and I started dreaming up flavors that reflected a similar duality. Here's a short list of my inspiration thus far, the first item as the chandelier and the second as the bunker:
* Ebullient champagne / dark amber beer
* Fluffy vanilla meringue / dense, flourless chocolate cake
* Shaved hearts of palm with fresh lemon juice / warm, earthy beets (can you tell Lilette inspired this one?)
* Tangy, zingy, flaky-white ceviche / decadent grits and grillades
* Tart balsamic vinegar / velvety olive oil
* Mahony's ethereal onion rings / Mahony's roast beef po-boy with wine-y dark gravy
* Wasabi / roux
* Sorbet / foie gras
* Passionfruit / eggplant

Take the idea and run with it! Let me know if you have any whimsical ideas of your own.

20 December 2008

Iberico bellota

So now I'm officially done with my last set of high school midterms and I've got an entire two weeks ahead of me to think about food. I'm hoping to visit Lilette, Herbsaint, Cochon, and Tony Angelo's over the break. Of course, the first is a favorite and the others are places I tragically have yet to taste. My very culinary aunt raves about Tony Angelo's frog legs. I'll be writing.

I was leafing through the January issue of Food & Wine, reading about food trends of 2009 and new restaurants to visit and great things to try cooking at home. As usual, it was all I could do not to eat off my hand. No kitchen is satisfactory to my obscure cravings after I see glimmering photos of new dishes like Mario Batali's Fusilli alla Crazy Bastard or after I read Lettie Teague's 2009 wine diary.

Anyway, St. James sounded fantastic for lunch with my mom -- to me, its spot in New Orleans' restaurant world is as that girl who just throws on an outfit and looks effortlessly, enviably cool. Its cheese assortment borders on the profound, the sandwiches are always elegantly divine in a very simple way, and the chutneys and spreads that line the walls for purchase are adorable in a terrifically sophisticated yet genuine and humble way.

I almost got the ploughman's lunch, which has an assortment of cheeses (cheddar, Stilton, and one other kind, which has not yet lodged itself in my memory since I have not yet eaten it), pate, and chutney. The problem was that, while it was everything I had been craving recently, it was not what I was craving right then. I stuck with a sandwich: turkey, tomato, avocado, basil, and a magnificent cheddar.

As we were paying, we saw a sign advertising a new shipment that had come to the store. It was called iberico bellota and a sample plate was eight dollars. We wondered, a sample plate? Almost ten dollars? What could this possibly be? As it turns out, it's the creme de la creme of ham, made of hogs who are fed only acorns for the duration of their lives at pasture. It's also $80 a pound. We considered: this is either horrifically indulgent or so supremely perfect that it's worth it. I decided we should have it. I am, after all, an aspiring food writer and should take every chance I get to dabble.

As it turns out, the latter of our expectations was the correct one. Oh. My. God. This ham was beyond compare. We got a simple white plate that bore four thin ribbons of this legendary iberico bellota. No oils, no garnishes, no trappings, just unadulterated meat too perfect to be tainted by anything but its own essence.

It's wonderfully oily in a totally organic way that isn't heavy at all. The acorns lend themselves to the flavor, which is nutty and earthy and briney and ever so slightly buttery. It tastes like salted caramel, and it's so velvety and impossibly rich that I'd snap it up as a dessert in an instant. This is not the type of ham to put on a sandwich. This isn't deli meat or something to fry up for breakfast. This is elemental ham, platonic ham, the form of ham. It's fantastic and worth every cent and, dare I say, reduces prosciutto to the level of Oscar Mayer.

Also, as a quick last note: yesterday, I took my dear friend E. Leigh to Gumbo Shop -- she was born and raised here, moved away after her dad got a job teaching at Clemson in South Carolina, and hasn't been back for a year and a half. The Gumbo Shop is the embodiment of food to which locals become accustomed but which is craved by the rest of the world after first taste. I got a small cup of seafood (meaning shrimp and crab) and okra gumbo, which duly came with rice and had an admirable, rich brown roux that was NEARLY as thick as cake batter. I also got alligator sausage, which was a special; I'd actually never tried alligator meat before (!). The dish came with two small sausages with a special, sweet-spicy side of something vaguely resembling creole mustard on the side. And the meat was sweet!

11 December 2008

Feast your eyes, lambs

...because unless you're ridiculously fortunate, your eyes will be the only things feasting on this marvelous array of foods from French Laundry in the Napa Valley.

My family used to vacation in Sorrento, Maine, and we'd always stop at this restaurant on the water where one could get the freshest of fresh Maine lobster for a ridiculously low price, considering. You sat with bibs at picnic tables, swabbing your lobster in melted butter, while water rushed over rocks in the river. So of course, lobster is sentimental for me as it is. It's like dessert, no matter how you do it. In this case, it's poached in butter and served with King Richard leeks, pommes maxims (imagine a gourmet potato chip), and red beet essence. Mmmm.

It seems that this is essentially a glorified chocolate-mint ice cream sandwich, done with Thomas Keller's unique finesse.

These are the truffles they serve you at the end of your meal. The ones second from the left look like Sucre's port chocolates. They're all beautiful. For some reason, the one on the right cracks me up -- it's faceted like a precious gem!

Credit to Google Images. I wish I could say I'd taken them.

M.F.K. Fisher, a food writer in a league of her own.

It seems that this woman is appearing far too serendipitously in snippets of my conversation these days: with my poetry teacher; with my women's history teacher; over a bowl of buttered spaghetti, a simple dish that Fisher champions, with my mom; with my classmates, who are curious as to why I am lugging around this 800-page volume entitled The Art of Eating; and, today, with Julia Reed, a food columnist at Newsweek who spoke at my school. In any case, Fisher is a major part of my life right now, and given that I am far too broke from Christmas shopping to enjoy an actual meal out right now, the next best foodie thing to write about is a fellow epicure.

Perhaps this excerpt from The Gastronomical Me sums it up best:
"It seems to me that our basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it... and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied... and it is all one."

A more serious or self-respecting gourmet might spend seven pages elaborating on how and why P is for Pasta, or Parmigiano Reggiano, or Panna Cotta, or Pâté. Fisher, though, is an entirely different story, and although she does pay homage to Pâté in a single page, she chooses to devote seven pages to a chapter entitled P is for Peas. (Later on, I might add, she spends only four pages on how R is for Romantic, glossing briefly over the inextricable connection between food and love.) Such is Fisher's eccentric and whimsical Alphabet for Gourmets, in which letter designations exactingly and comically refrain from the trite, so that C is for Cautious rather than Coulis and H is for Happy as opposed to Hamachi. Perhaps it's not the most elevated book out there as food literature goes, but it is undoubtedly among the most genuine, and that, in short, is Fisher's hook.

What is most alluring about Fisher is her effervescent wit and infectious passion. Important to note is the fact that Fisher is not just a food writer the way Brett Anderson is for the Times-Picayune. As opposed to an author of ephemerally significant newspaper reviews, she is a writer unto herself; her subject of choice just happens to be food rather than star-crossed lovers or the American Dream. Her writing style has an effect similar to that of an effortless host: instantly relaxing, humbled, and infinitely inviting in its lack of pretension. Rather than elevate herself superficially with typical food jargon, she has a no-nonsense but all-joie de vivre approach, so that one can read it without a familiarity with typical culinary semantics. She's a real human being, concerned more with the sentimentality of a certain meal than with emulsions or aromatics, who can devote solid, sincere writing in praise of kasha, the simple oatmeal-esque dish pervasive in Eastern Europe, just as well as she can effortlessly discuss the gastronomical benefits of beluga caviar or pâté de foie gras truffé en brioche. Regardless of her topic, there is a sheer joy that glimmers through every word, and why wouldn't you want to read that?

07 December 2008

...as I aimlessly research chefs in a deft procrastination attempt,

I keep finding little morsels of enlightenment that make the procrastination completely worthwhile.

Allow me to introduce him. He is Graham Elliot Bowles, and he deserves his own Wikipedia page. Known for his chef-dom at Chicago restaurant Avenues in the Peninsula, he also presides over the eponymous graham elliot, where he upholds his reputation for serving unexpected things that tickle one's palate and seduce one's imagination.

As a high school senior, I haven't had the good fortune to dabble in his gastronomical ventures, so I'm relying on Frank Bruni's NY Times review to do the trick:
"Mr. Bowles has been known to serve crushed Altoids instead of mint jelly with lamb and to present diners with lollipops of foie gras encrusted with Pop Rocks. His cooking typifies another facet of this cuisine: the way it recruits junk food into the service of fancier dishes or creates highbrow versions of lowbrow classics.
'Why not go to the store and get the curiously strong mint?" Mr. Bowles said in a telephone interview, going on to reject "that horribly boring quote, 'I love to use farm-fresh products and local ingredients and European technique.''"

Irreverence and innovation, as anyone knows, are two surefire ways to win my heart.
Below, a deconstructed Caesar salad from graham elliot:
I like that the crouton is standing there like this immovable monument amid the frivolous ruffles of lettuce and anchovy.

A match made in culinary heaven

...at the very least, a match made in our dreams.
As I was chatting with my dear friend Laurin about food and film (!), we mentioned our respective culinary crushes: I was yammering on about the dish in my previous post, and she was, well, discussing Eric Ripert in an informed way. I effused that I had used the same word -- "wit" -- as a New York Times food writer to describe Grant Achatz, and that whether or not I was making mountains out of molehills, I was going to take that to be providential.
She then gave me a very sweet and sincere compliment and hinted at maybe, MAYBE, getting a shout-out on PFB. So here's a toast to the entirely fictional but wholly ideal marriage of Laurin to Eric Ripert. Perhaps they will honeymoon in the South of France, as Ripert was born in Antibes and Laurin spent a summer in Nice. Quite obviously, the stars have aligned over their union, since Laurin is a pescetarian and fish is precisely Ripert's specialty.
Here's to decade upon decade of pseudo-connubial bliss...

passionfruit sponge between spirals of dehydrated prosciutto

thank you, grant achatz.
(i stalk)

I am preparing myself

for a deluge of baking in epic proportions. I've felt it coming for a while now, and as the suspense builds, so does my mental list of things to bake. Somehow I got suckered into baking snacks for the entire Upper School during exam week, so at least my cooking will be put to good use. I'm planning on doing some roll-and-cut sugar cookies with this delicious icing, chocolate-mint thumbprint cookies, my famous oatmeal-craisin-white-chocolate-chip cookies, vanilla cupcakes, shortbread, and hopefully some peppermint bark as well. All from scratch. More to come. It's too bad I actually have ambition, because I'd make a kickass stay-home-and-bake housewife.