Too seldom do I take the time to embellish meals with garden blossoms, whose bright colors can enhance the appeal of almost any food. At the Thyme Garden Nursery, in Alsea, Oregon, summer tours conclude with an outdoor luncheon, and each dish comes adorned with flowers. These pictures are from a visit I made to the Thyme Garden with four friends earlier this month. Edible flowers in these photos include nasturtium, nigella, and pinks. Among the decorative herbs are bronze fennel and sweet cicely.
On Halloween, fall has finally set in here in the Willamette Valley. The trees stand bare, red and gold leaves carpet the ground, the sky is as grey as the wet streets, and the air is damp and cold. At this time of the year I pick the last of the peppers and remember where I was four years ago, watching the same change of seasons.
My daughter and I had hiked to a hilltop village near Alba, Italy, where beside a blazing fire we ate plate after plate of a fixed-price lunch. My favorite dish was soft, sweet, oily roasted peppers flavored with a paste of anchovies and garlic. It’s a perfect dish, I think, for the last of the pepper harvest.
In Piemonte peperoni al forno is made in various ways, and here in America we also have options. You might use salted anchovies instead of anchovies canned in oil. You might use big, thick-skinned peppers and char them to remove their skins. I prefer to use thin-skinned peppers and to leave the skin on. You know the little supermarket peppers that come in red, orange, and yellow? They would do, and if their flavor is dull the roasting would certainly enhance it.
That supermarket mix is the ancestor of one of my favorite peppers, which I have stabilized as Little Orange Sweet. It’s a little bigger than its hybrid forebears, with few seeds and a wonderful sweet taste. It’s an ideal pepper for roasting with anchovies and garlic. Here’s how I do it.
Peperoni al Forno My Way
2 pounds thin-skinned, ripe sweet peppers
2 ounces anchovy fillets packed in olive oil
1 small head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
½ cup olive oil
Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Rinse the peppers, and pat them completely dry. Halve or quarter them, depending on their size, and seed them. Spread the pepper pieces in a roasting pan. In a mortar, pound the anchovies and garlic to a paste. Blend in the oil from the anchovies and the additional oil, and toss this mixture with the peppers. Roast the peppers, stirring them at least once, for about 30 minutes, until they are tender. Serve them hot or at room temperature, with fresh bread to sop up the extra oil.
Last month I had the luck to spend two weeks in Austria, a little country of cheerful, modest people and outsized natural and cultural wealth, from the ancient salt mines to the soaring Alps, from Baroque palaces filled with with art to the operas of Mozart, from the gold and jewels of the royal treasury to the lushest cow pastures I’ve ever seen.
As the pastures might suggest, the Austrian food world is rich as well. The butter tastes like butter, the egg yolks are as orange as oranges, restaurants pride themselves on their local and bio ingredients, and farmers all over the country produce their own excellent cured meats and schnaps (brandies from assorted fruits). Here are a few gastronomic highlights of the trip.
Found in the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s double row of permanent produce and restaurant stalls, stretching from one metro stop to the next:
a barrel full of fermented cucumbers;
flavored hummuses (among the merchants are numerous Turks and other immigrants from the Near East);
Kletzen, whole dried pears, upper left; and Weingartenpfirsich, vineyard peaches, lower right. The peaches grow from seed in the vineyards of western Austria, where they ripen at about the same time as the grapes and so provide a handy snack for the harvesters (in case the workers have tired of eating grapes). Although these peaches are small and rather dry, they are preferred over big, juicy peaches for cooking, especially for jam. The dried pears are traditionally used at Christmastime to make Kletzenbrot, a yeast bread containing nuts, spices, and rye flour as well as dried fruit.
Pears are a particularly important food in mountainous areas where grapes don’t grow. The favorite seems to be Williams, or, as we call it in the United States, Bartlett.
In the Zillertal, a valley in the Tyrol, we saw many standard pear trees, like this one.
In the Salzkammergut, near Salzburg, we saw several pear trees espaliered against the walls of buildings.
Austrians love all kinds of fruits. At the Nashmarkt in Vienna, these women were selling an assortment of fruit juices.
High on a mountain over the Zillertal, a man stopped his car, pulled out a ladder, and propped it against a mountain-ash (or rowan) tree heavy with fruit. Can you see him in the tree? He is probably gathering the berries—Vogelbeeren—for schnaps. The birds must share!
We were fortunate to be in Austria when the Preiselbeeren—lingonberries—were ripe. A mound of lingonberry sauce, served alongside meat-and-potato or meat-and-noodle dishes, tastes like cranberry sauce but a bit less sour and bitter. Lingonberries are smaller than cranberries, though, so they look more like red currants without the hairy bits.
Here are lingonberries in a market.
We found lingonberry plants covering the floor of spruce forests above the Zillertal. Often lingonberries and huckleberries—Heidelbeeren–grow together, so it’s difficult to harvest one without harvesting the other. A handful of the two together makes a fine snack for a hungry hiker, and a basketful makes a nice batch of mixed-wild-berry jam, which we tasted in our hotels.
In the Zillertal Regional Museum, we found an old berry basket and berry comb. We’d seen a woman using a comb like this as she foraged in the woods over the Zillertal, while her husband dozed in the car by the side of the road.
While in Vienna I felt I must visit one of the city’s venerable coffeehouses. I chose Café Landtmann. The outdoor tables looked tempting in the sunshine, but the traffic noise drove me into the staid interior.
Unable to work up an appetite for the fancy cakes, I ordered humble apple strudel in a pool of custard.
The strudel made a fine, though expensive, lunch, but when I afterward explored the nearby Kunsthistoriches Museum I wish I’d gone straight there, because smack in the middle of the museum is what must be one of the most beautiful cafés in the world.
Most Austrian breads are dark and dense, as you might guess from the dimensions of this bread-cutting tray at the Zillertal Regional Museum. I particularly liked the Dinkelbrot, which, I found out only after coming home, is made from spelt.
But Austrian bakers make white breads, too, like these in the shape of soccer balls.
My favorite snack in Austria was Mohnzelten, which are like fig Newtons but big and round and filled with poppyseeds instead of figs. This one, bought in Dürnstein and baked nearby, was made with a potato dough.
The cured meats of Austria are amazingly diverse and good. This man, in the Naschmarkt, gave us so many samples that we couldn’t eat lunch afterward (note that his Lederhosen straps don’t hold up his Hosen but are printed on his T-shirt).
Scattered throughout Vienna are Würstelstände, sausage stands. Long, thin sausages served in a bun are called by their English name, hot dog. The vendor cuts off one end of the bun, jams the bun cut-end down on a spike, inserts the sausage in the hollow thus formed, and squirts in some mustard. We enjoyed the Käsekrainer, a cheese-studded smoked pork sausage. Oh, to find such a hot dog at home!
We found this sausage vending machine along the street in the town of Aschau, in the Zillertal.
Meats, cheeses, breads, fruits, vegetables, and often fish are included in the lavish breakfast spreads at Austrian hotels—and when you reserve a room in Austria, you’re usually reserving a seat at a breakfast table as well. These two photos show just part of the spread at the Hotel Unter den Linden, in Krems.
This breakfast room, at the Hotel Hubertushof in Bad Ischl, is typical in its comfort and beautiful woodwork.
This was one of my breakfasts at the Hubertushof.
Austrian hotels have amazingly sophisticated coffee machines, like expert baristas in a box. Enzianhof, in the Zillertal, even has a machine for poaching your own eggs.
It’s too bad for us that so little Austrian wine is exported to the United States (though the amount is growing), because Wien ist Wein, as they say. Both the red and white wines made around Vienna are excellent. We were happy to be there during the harvest season, so we could taste Sturm, grape juice that has fermented no more than a few days or weeks.
The best place to taste Sturm is at a Heuriger, a wine garden on the outskirts of the city. The wine growers are allowed to sell their own wines along with an assortment of meats, salads, and so on, which you usually order by weight at a counter. This is Heuriger Kierlinger, in Nussdorf.
And here is Sturm for sale in the Naschmarkt.
In the Zillertal Regional Museum we found the biggest kraut board I’ve ever seen. It must be four feet long. We saw old kraut boards, big and small, displayed elsewhere, too, but I don’t remember seeing sauerkraut on a menu. Perhaps it was too early in the fall . . . or perhaps kraut has fallen out of style.
Finally, just for fun, here’s dessert.
With October have come gray and dripping skies and, to the garden, split and spotted tomatoes and feasting snails and slugs. This weather is the norm for autumn in western Oregon—if not for the Pacific Northwest in general.
But nearly all of September was sunny and warm, the peak of the harvest season. Last month was a time to celebrate, and I did.
First was the Labor Day weekend tomato tasting at the Almarodes’. What an excellent way to compare and choose among varieties that have done well for your neighbors! With homegrown and home-smoked turkey, homemade wine, live music, and salads from everybody’s gardens, this annual event is always a big, noisy party.
Robert and I squeezed in a food expedition to Portland, with visits to the Barn (Trapold Farms’ overgrown farmstand) and various ethnic markets. My favorite was Supermercado Mexico. In the long glass case lining one side of the store were beautifully cut meats and, at one end, seafood, salsas, and dulces.
Then there was a tasting of savory jams, at my house. For at least an hour my tasters were silent and serious, absorbed in their work.
Robert and I ended the month with a plane trip to Boulder, Colorado, where some people, at least, stop running and pedaling in the sun long enough to cook and eat well. We especially enjoyed an inventive but unpretentious dinner at Arcana, lunch at the Dushanbe Teahouse, and basil-mint-chocolate-chip ice cream at the Heifer and the Hen, where other imaginative ice-cream flavors include squid-ink-and-lemon.
I nearly forgot to mention our greatest find in Boulder: raw-milk Leyden-style cheese made from grass-fed Jersey cows at James Ranch, near Durango. I’ve never had true Dutch Leyden cheese, so I don’t know how it compares, though I can say that the James Ranch cheese lacks the annatto-orange rind of the Dutch version. In any case, I love the hard, sharp, crumbly James Ranch Leyden, laden with both cheese crystals and whole, fragrant cumin seeds. We didn’t even balk at paying nearly thirty dollars a pound for this cheese at Cured, a shop on hip Pearl Street in Boulder.
I’m sorry I’ve been silent so long; the past couple of months have been especially busy for me I’ll try catch up here by taking on several small topics at once.
SORBET MIX FOR THE PANTRY
After dance class last Friday night Greg had a hankering for ice cream, so he and his wife, Wendy, and I sat on plastic chairs outside Baskin-Robbins licking our cones, gazing at Albany’s ugliest intersection—treeless parking lots on all corners, backed by buildings that look like giant shoe boxes—and pondering why we don’t make our own ice cream more often. Ice cream is for birthdays, I said, and it’s always after I’ve made the cake and cooked the dinner that I realize I’ve failed to search out cream, and I must have the real thing, which is darn hard to find in our area if you don’t keep your own cow. But sorbet is better than ice cream, anyway, Wendy reminded me, and where was that raspberry sorbet recipe I’d promised her three years ago? It’s simple, I said—raspberry purée and sugar, that’s all you need. Like me, Wendy and Greg always have raspberries in the freezers. Yes, that’s plural, freezers. I have so much fruit in my freezers that there is little room for anything else. Then I had an idea: What if we made up a sorbet mix in advance, and stored it on a pantry shelf? Probably we would all eat sorbet more often, and stay away from this ugly intersection.
So Wendy vowed to make some raspberry sorbet, and I made plans for my next picking of Triple Crown blackberries, for which I use the same basic recipe. Here it is in the pantry version, which I developed just yesterday:
Press the fresh berries through the fine screen of a food mill.
7 cups blackberry or raspberry purée, from about 4½ pounds fresh berries
2 tablespoons lemon juice (optional, and only for lower-acid fruit such as my Triple Crowns)
3 cups sugar
Combine the berry purée, the lemon juice (if you’re using it), and the sugar in a large pot, and stir. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Boil the mixture gently for 1 minute—no longer, or you may turn it into jam.
Pour the purée into two quart jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. If you come up a bit short, top off the jars with boiling water. Then add lids and rings. Process the jars fin a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.
A day before freezing your sorbet, put one of the jars into the fridge to chill. Freeze the sorbet according to the directions that came with your device.
Makes 2 quarts
NEW RULE FOR HANDLING JAR LIDS
Jarden, the company that owns Ball and Kerr, has informed Oregon State University Extension that it’s no longer necessary to soak Ball and Kerr mason-jar lids in hot water before using them. Instead, just wash each lid before placing it on a jar and screwing on the ring.
ESSENTIAL FOR FOOD-LOVING OREGONIANS
September 1 is the coming-out party for the second edition of Liz Crain’s foodie handbook, Food Lover’s Guide to Portland. A helpful guide for Portland residents, Liz’s book is an essential resource for those of us who visit the city only occasionally and so struggle to keep up with all the changes in the local food biz. Liz lists the many farmers’ markets and CSAs (“community-supported agriculture”—i.e., subscription food boxes), tells where the food carts congregate, and covers ethnic groceries (from Caribbean to Korean to Russian), cured-meat and halal meat markets, bakeries, cooking schools, breweries, wine shops, fish shops, and chocolate shops (13 of them!). She also describes stores that sell supplies for cooking and preserving, such as Mirador, where I send people for pickling crocks and the like. Food Lover’s Guide to Portland, 2nd edition, is available for pre-order from Powell’s Books and from Amazon.
While minding the local public library one Saturday afternoon, I read a book on dealing with deer. I’d already tried some of the author’s ideas; for example, I regular spray rotten egg around the garden. (Beat four eggs, add a quart of water, cover tightly with cloth, and let ferment for several days in a warm place far from the house.) But I’m reluctant to spray this stuff on vegetables and fruits that people will be eating soon. I was looking for new ideas.
I puzzled over the suggestion to pin “dryer sheets” around the garden. Dryer sheets? Then I remembered: Dryer sheets are the little squares of nonwoven petroleum-based fabric (interfacing, we called it, in the days when girls and women sewed all their own clothes) that are treated with fabric softener and chemical perfume and sold in the cleaning aisles of supermarkets. Labeled according to scent–“ocean breeze,” “forest glen,” etc.—they burn my eyes and nose and smell uniformly sickening to me. God only knows what they do to the produce in the adjacent aisle. But my thoughts were only about Bambi, who was already making nightly raids on my tomato patch, picking fruits that weren’t even full grown yet, much less ripe, and taking one smile-shaped bite out of each. I went to a supermarket and sniffed up and down and shelves of dryer sheets—coughing, eyes watering—until I found the stinkiest packet.
No wonder I couldn’t walk down the cleaning aisle of a supermarket without holding my nose, I thought when I got home. The dryer sheets were enclosed in a thin cardboard box and nothing more, no plastic bag or plastic lining. This is legal, in a food store? And now I would use these toxin-laden squares to pollute the air in my own vegetable garden? Yes, I was that desperate. I put one clothespin on my nose and used all the rest from the clothesline to pin the dryer sheets to bamboo tomato teepees and bamboo poles set along the bean rows.
And the dryer sheets did the job, in part. The tomato raids stopped, for several days. But meanwhile Bambi devoured all the bean plants not directly under dryer sheets. I recalled the mystifying rows of little white flags, about a foot tall and a foot apart, that I’d seen in a neighbor’s garden. My neighbor was ahead of me: Those little white flags were protecting rows of bush beans. I bought more dryer sheets—a different brand, with a supposedly different but apparently identical scent, and again packed loose in a thin cardboard box—and planted rows of little white flags, hoping that they wouldn’t give Bambi the wrong idea. I was not giving up!
Placed low and close, the dryer sheets kept the deer off the beans, but in the meantime Bambi was biting smiles into the tomatoes again. I sniffed a dryer sheet from the first packet. The smell was gone. As strong as they had stunk at first, the chemicals had lost their sting.
Now, should I replace the old dryer sheets with new ones? Would I have to do this once a week? What a sad waste that would be. Besides, I have a big batch of rotten egg in the barn, smelling up the entire building. What if I dip the dry sheets in the egg and then pin them on the bamboo? So that’s my next garden chore. Again, I’ll reserve one clothespin for my nose.
After discovering green garbanzo beans at a supermarket in Salem, I had to try growing my own. A friend had given me some seeds of Hannan Popbean, a brown- to black-seeded chickpea selected by Carol Deppe, a Corvallis plant breeder. Carol calls this bean a popbean not because the pods make a popping noise as you press them open—all chickpeas do this, apparently—but because she pops the dried seeds like corn, by parching them in a hot, dry pan until they swell and break open.
Although Carol grows her popbeans in spring, without irrigation, I planted mine in late May, along with soybeans, runner beans, long beans, and regular bush beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). A couple of weeks after the initial planting I had to fill big gaps in the other bean rows, but to my surprise every one of the garbanzos germinated. I was surprised again by the foliage, which looks much like vetch and nothing like other bean leaves. The third surprise from my chickpea row was the best one: Deer don’t eat these plants. I learned why they don’t when I ate my first green garbanzo, just two months after planting, and tasted something sharply sour on my fingers. I touched my tongue to a bean pod and understood: The plant defends itself from grazing by seasoning its pods and foliage with malic and oxalic acids. Brilliant!
So, forget my fears about all the special requirements for growing chickpeas. I don’t have a long growing season. I don’t have sandy soil. I didn’t add nitrogen-fixing bacteria to the soil. But I didn’t need any of these things. Garbanzos seem to be an excellent crop for my garden. They are certainly easier to grow than edamame.
TERRA MADRE AND SALONE DEL GUSTO
I’m happy to announce that Slow Food USA has chosen me as a delegate at Terra Madre, the biennial international food fair and Slow Food conference in Torino, Italy. If any readers of this blog will be at Terra Madre or in or near Torino for any other reason in late October, I would love to meet you.
What makes a good fish taco? In San Diego, where Robert and I went last weekend, craving sun on our pale skin and warmth in our winter-chilled bones, people debate this question seriously. And so the two of us did some not-so-serious sampling. In each case, the local fish taco seemed a bastard child of a traditional Mexican taco and a plate of fish sticks. The tortilla was made from either corn masa or refined wheat. The filling was a chunk of unnamed white fish, breaded or not and fried, and then sauced with thinned mayonnaise (often called “white sauce”) and topped with sliced head cabbage and yellow and white cheese shreds. The cook might provide a sprinkle of diced tomatoes or a side of tomato salsa or both, but if we wanted chiles we had to reach for the bottle of hot sauce.
I enjoyed the two fish tacos I tried, especially the one scattered with black beans, though both tacos would have been better without the industrial cheese. But the dearth of traditional Mexican food in a city less than twenty miles from the border struck me as a little sad. The soldiers, sailors, and retirees from Wherever USA seem to spread white sauce all over their adopted city. We witnessed this at the outdoor Little Italy Mercato, where we heard no Italian spoken but watched vendors make filled crêpes that bore a striking resemblance to San Diego’s second-most-popular pseudo-Mexican menu item, the breakfast burrito, a big wheat tortilla rolled around fried potatoes, eggs, and cheese.
Still, we found excellent food in San Diego. We were duly impressed by the Mercato, with its lovely summer vegetables (even tomatoes and strawberries!), dozens of varieties of citrus, local olive oils, and fermented pickles.
In restaurants, the seafood always tasted fresh, though none on the menus we saw was local. We especially liked Café Secret, a Peruvian restaurant in Del Mar that specializes in ceviche from sustainably harvested seafood, served on platters complete with choclo (tender hominy-like corn kernels) and canchitas (crunchy roasted and salted corn kernels). At Café Secret, the pale sauce on the fried potatoes and yuca was cheese-based huancaína, not runny mayonnaise. Though mayonnaise sauce would have been good, too, come to think of it.
No, I haven’t been to Moldova lately. In fact, I’ve never been to Moldova. But my daughter went, in May. She knew exactly what sort of pictures I’d like to see. Our Moldovan pal Cristina helped me interpret the photos.
Beside the lettuce in a Moldovan market are grape leaves ready for stuffing. They are simply laid flat, sprinkled with salt, and then rolled together for sale.
Here are whole brine-pickled watermelons, and slices of pickled watermelon. Apparently I’ve neglected to report on my own adventures in pickling whole watermelon, so I’ll do that soon. The watermelon flesh loses its crispness and becomes . . . I don’t want to say slimy. A nicer term might be tomato-like.
Cabbage is pickled whole, too. Here the leaves are separated and laid in a mound, ready for making sarmale—or, “in the folk,” Cristina says, galush. These long-simmered rolls filled with rice and ground meat are the Moldovan version of the Turkish sarma.
Brine-pickled tomatoes, like other pickles, are sold drained. You take home as many as you’d like in a plastic bag.
On the right side of this picture are brined stuffed peppers. Though I included a Turkish version of this pickle in The Joy of Pickling, I haven’t made brined stuffed peppers in ages. Now I’m inspired to make some this fall. Most amazing here are the enormous brined stuffed eggplants, at left. I don’t think I’ve ever fermented stuffed eggplants, and I can’t conceive of using—or eating!—such huge ones.
Some plums are sun-dried; others are smoke-dried. The smoke imparts a distinct flavor that I can only imagine. In the right photo above is an oven for smoke-drying plums.
In the picture above, a woman is selling an assortment of homemade pickles and relishes. You don’t see the jar labels because there aren’t any. The jars are in various sizes and shapes because they formerly contained various factory-made foods. But don’t her pickles look good?
At the top right in the same photo are plastic soda bottles filled with borsch acru, fermented from wheat bran, bread (preferably dark and a bit stale), salt, and sometimes lovage, for flavor. You use this sour liquid in zama, a chicken soup with vermicelli, or in borsch. “Once you use up the borsch acru,” says Cristina, “don’t throw away the bran. It can be used again.”
Finally, on the Orthodox Easter table is a bottle of cognac. In Moldova cognac is not fancy French brandy but green-walnut liqueur, like the Italian nocino. Have you picked your own green walnuts this year? If you can still pierce the walnuts to the center with a needle, it’s not too late to make green-walnut liqueur.
All photos copyright © Rebecca Waterhouse 2013
In the coastal village of Rockport, on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, Robert and I found the best lobster we’d ever eaten at the Roy Moore Lobster Company, on Bearskin Neck. We sat on the little dock out back slurping raw, briny oysters and watching a young man prepare lobster traps a few feet away while another boiled up a our own crustacean in the little restaurant-store, where lobsters waiting their turn ran angry circles in their glass tank, at eye level with the customers. When the boiled brethren were ready, the cook cracked the shells with a knife, set each lobster in a paper basket, and topped the claws with a little plastic cup of melted butter. Sweet, tender, and succulent, that lobster was as good as fresh Dungeness crab. I licked the luscious tomalley off my fingers, the shells, and the basket. A Chinese family stepped aside as the trap repairer came through pulling a big crate of lobsters just off the boat, and we scrambled to clear up our mess so the family could sit.
Nobody says “submarine sandwich” in Massachusetts, but everybody knows what a sub is. It can be filled with cold cuts and marinated vegetables—never dill pickle relish, mayonnaise, or mustard—but the ultimate sub is a hot one, stuffed with steak, sausages, or meatballs and the optional onions, peppers, and cheese. The steak is thin-sliced beef cooked fast in a heap on the griddle. A steak-and-cheese sub is sometimes called a cheesesteak, but it’s unlike any Philadelphia cheesesteak I’ve had. Instead of stringy beef in Velveeta or Cheez Whiz goo atop mushy bread, a New England sub consists of juicy meat topped with melted provolone on a loaf with substance. The onions and peppers are cooked ahead, slowly, to tender sweetness, and briefly reheated before serving.
When we lived in Massachusetts, a sausage sub with onions and peppers was sometimes called a sausage bomb. The meat was fresh pork sausage flavored with cracked black pepper and whole fennel seeds, usually in thick, juicy slices. I loved sausage subs even more than steak-and-cheeses.
In those days, we got our subs at pizza-and-sub shops. Each was unique—there were no chains—but they were all reassuringly similar. Inside you’d find a griddle, a pizza oven, plastic chairs, and Formica-topped tables. A youngish, dark-haired man ran the place; seldom did you see a second worker. You assumed the man’s parentage to be Italian. Only two things were on the menu: pizza and subs. The pizza was a thin crust topped with nothing but tomato sauce and cheese, for most customers, although optional toppings were listed on a menu on the wall. Most of the subs people ordered were hot.
Googling “best subs Boston” brings up sandwich places with too much extraneous stuff on the menu—chicken kebabs, corned beef, even “wraps.” I had to do my looking for pizza-and-sub shops out the car window. Everywhere we drove, I scanned storefronts. Finally, the day before we left for home, we spied Maria’s Pizza and Subs in the town of Beverly. The place looked right, despite a few irrelevant menu items like souvlaki and baklava. Maria and her sister, as I imagined the two look-alike women behind the counter to be, are apparently Greek. Their sausage was sliced too thin for my liking, and I couldn’t taste fennel, perhaps because it was overwhelmed by the tomato sauce spooned atop my sausage. But the steak-and-cheese sub tasted right.
On the way out of Somerville the next morning, as we headed south toward JKF Airport in New York, I spotted another pizza-and-sub sign. I wanted to stop, but we’d just eaten breakfast, and we had no time to dawdle. I can’t find that shop on the Internet. I’ll have to hunt it down on my next trip to New England.
Robert and I flew to New Orleans the week before last to spend time with our youngest, who was finishing an internship in southern Louisiana, and to see the city for the first time. I hope you don’t mind my diverging from the topic of homegrown food once more to share some photos of NOLA’s unique food culture.
Waiters take a break at Café du Monde, the city’s favorite spot for beignets and people watching. Though I’ve avoided coffee blended with chicory since my dreadful experiment with a 100-percent chicory brew, I had to try Creole coffee, typically an 80-20 blend served as equal parts brew and milk. New Orleans folks seem a bit defensive about their chicory, which tourist literature describes as “very mildly bitter”; Café du Monde’s website says chicory “is added to the coffee to soften the bitter edge of the dark roasted coffee.” Thankfully, the milk softens the bitter edge of the chicory, but the acrid aftertaste lingers on the tongue.
This is Café Beignet, Café du Monde’s leading competitor, situated in a lovely city-owned plaza where musicians entertain at nearly all hours. Café Beignet’s beignets—rectangular yeast doughnuts sprinkled with powdered sugar—are said to be lighter than Café du Monde’s, and we concurred with this opinion. We also appreciated not having to excavate Café Beignet’s beignets from a mountain of powdered sugar. (At Café du Monde, I watched a man eat his excess sugar with a spoon.) But at both cafés the beignets were excellent, as doughnuts nearly always are when they’re served fresh and hot. Which is the only way to serve a doughnut, right?
Our server pictured at Café Beignet is Laurie, who led a fascinating group tour of New Orleans eateries through Tastebud Tours.
On Bourbon Street, in the French quarter, crowds of tourists stroll and stagger from one club to the next, all night long. Choose your blues, jazz, rock, Cajun, or whatever (the music is so loud that the genre may not matter), and you can sit and listen or dance for free provided you buy a drink. But many people prefer to drink as they amble down the street, and this is perfectly legal. Here is one of several shops specializing in frozen daiquiris to go, in a rainbow of artificial colors.
And here is a walk-up bar that opens right onto Bourbon Street. The sign says, “Pour me somethin Mister!”
I was thrilled that our food tour included servings of muffuletta, also known as muffoletta or muffaletta. I’d been intrigued by the name of this sandwich ever since my sister brought me a jar of olive relish labeled with the same word. Actually, the relish isn’t properly called muffuletta or even relish; it’s known in New Orleans as olive salad. Originally, muffuletta was the name of neither the relish nor the sandwich but of the bread loaf, which a Sicilian baker introduced to the city in the late nineteenth century. In Sicily, soft, round, sesame-topped loaves of muffuletta are still popular, especially on November 2, All Souls Day. They are split crosswise and spread with various fillings, such as cheese, anchovies, and olive oil. At Central Grocery, a little Italian market still thriving in the French quarter, Lupo Salvatore invented the New Orleans muffuletta sandwich in 1906, when he filled muffuletta loaves with Italian cold cuts, cheeses, and a mixture of chopped olives and pickled vegetables and wrapped the sandwich in paper to make a portable lunch for his countrymen who worked on the Mississippi River and on nearby farms. The muffuletta pictured here is from Mike Serio’s sandwich shop.
Once I understood that muffuletta was bread, the name lost its mystery. Muffuletta is an obvious cousin of the French moufflet (soft, tender bread), the German muffe (small cake), and the English muffin. I suspect that all of these words are related to the English muff and terms in various European languages for puffy things–boxing gloves, mold, softness, and even wild sheep.
A French Quarter shop displays hot sauces, distinguished one from another more by their provocative names and label art than by their ingredients.
Johnny’s Po-Boys, another stop on our food tour, specializes in the other iconic New Orleans sandwich, the po’ boy. Filled with anything from roast beef and gravy to deep-fried seafood, the po’ boy has its own origin legend: Bennie and Clovis Martin worked as streetcar conductors until they saved enough money to open a coffee stand in the French Market in 1922. Inn 1929, the streetcar workers went on a long and violent strike, which the public supported with a boycott. The Martins offered free food to the strikers, big sandwiches filled with gravy and fries. Whenever one of the strikers came toward the stand, the Martins would say, “Here comes another po’ boy!” Their generosity made them and their sandwiches famous.
The Martins worked with a local baker to develop a new sort of French loaf, 40 inches long and blunt at both ends, to be easily quartered with no waste. Today most of these loaves are made by a bakery called Leidenheimer, which also makes most of the muffuletta loaves used by New Orleans shops and restaurants.
By the way, the German immigrant who founded Leidenheimer Bakery in 1896 first tried to sell the dense, dark breads of his homeland. But today Leidenheimer makes only “French” (white) bread. We saw no whole-grain bread anywhere at all in New Orleans.
Laura’s Candies specializes in pralines (pronounced “prah-leens”), candied pecans that are more candy than pecan and formed like drop cookies. Other candies in the shop are at least as interesting.
We came across this coffee truck in the Garden District. The only food carts allowed in the French Quarter, for some reason, are Lucky Dog hot-dog carts.
Royal Street, in the French Quarter, has a lot of antique shops. In one of them we found these French copper jelly pans, priced from $300 to $600. Keep these in mind if you want to send me a birthday present.
In New Orleans we ate a lot of crawfish, mostly boiled in heavily spiced water (and at one restaurant left in the water until they turned to fiery mush).
Better still was this crawfish etouffée, shelled crawfish smothered with a roux-based sauce, at the Praline Connection on Frenchmen Street.
At the Praline Connection we also ordered fried pickles, vinegared dills sliced crosswise, battered, and deep-fried. They are a pleasant change from French fries or fried onion rings, but fermented pickles sliced into spears are much better for frying, I think.
Miss Sandra stirs her gumbo at the New Orleans School of Cooking. I took several pages of notes in her class, which was as entertaining as it was informative.
After a swamp tour near Slidell, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, we let Sam’s GPS find us a restaurant. What the GPS thought was Schaefer’s turned out to be Speckled T’s, but no matter. For $19 each, we enjoyed the most amazing all-you-can-eat brunch of our lives, with raw and grilled oysters, boiled shrimp and crawfish, braised catfish, shrimp and grits, asparagus, sliced duck breast, whole boned quail, prime rib, and more, including all-you-can-drink champagne.
For our last meal in New Orleans we visited Deanie’s Seafood, a fifty-year-old favorite with a casino downstairs. While we waited for our entrées, the waitress brought not us not bread but red-skinned potatoes, boiled, apparently, with the same chile-based seasoning mix used for crawfish and shrimp. What a revelation! In Louisiana, potatoes and sweet corn are often boiled in the same pot with shellfish, but I hadn’t considered boiling potatoes on their own with Cajun-Creole spices.
At Deanie’s we also loved the soft-shell crab, something we don’t have here on the West Coast. How clever to time the catching and selling of crabs so people can eat them just after they have lost their shells but haven’t yet begun to grow new ones! If I had to shell a crab this small, though, I think I’d order something else.
I’m sorry we didn’t get to eat at Commander’s Palace, probably New Orleans’s most famous restaurant, in the Garden District across from Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. The owners, the Brennan family, have several other expensive restaurants in town. Five days in New Orleans wasn’t quite enough.
We did eat in two other expensive and impressive restaurants where I was too busy eating to take any pictures: Lüke, one of John Besh’s several restaurants in the city, where I watched the cooks work in a glass-walled room, and La Petite Grocery, in the Garden District, where the lobster beignets were unforgettable. Keep these two in mind if you plan your own trip to New Orleans.
I hope you don’t mind my diverging a bit from the subject of this blog to share some photos of my recent trip to Brittany.
First, a produce stand at the weekly market in Dinan:
Above left: Beets are usually, if not always, sold cooked. Above right: A liquor stand in the Dinan market features whiskey made from buckwheat.
. . . spider crabs and scallops. We chose fresh mackerel for dinner.
At the market we saw cured meats in abundance . . .
And one stall (below) sold blood sausage stewed with apples–a fantastic combination.
This was lunch after a trip to the market. Every day we drank cider, a different brand or style each time. The alcohol content ranged from 3 to 6 percent.
For some people the local market isn’t enough; they grow their own produce in home or community gardens. The community gardens we saw had big plots, each with its own shed. Here is a community garden in the castle town of Fougeres.
One day we went to see the oyster beds at Cancale . . .
. . . and bought some oysters, of course, for dinner. Robert chose the salty wild ones.
At left is one kind of oyster we’d never seen before, “little horse foot.” Does it have an English name?
Finally, here’s a picture from St-Malo, on the coast. We didn’t go into La Maison du Beurre, but no doubt it offered some of Brittany’s famous salted butter.
Salted butter?! Our hosts at dinner one night were surprised we’d had it before–in America, yet! Salted butter is unique to Brittany, no?
Actually, we loved Breton butter not for its salt but for its rich flavor and yellow color–a color that comes not from annatto but from grass in the cows’ diet.