Monday, August 27, 2007

Diet Dilemma

I was walking from the restaurant to my office the other day and, out of the corner of my eye, caught a glimpse of C’est La Vie, the French bakery across the street.

The morning sun fell gently on the face of the bakery and a golden glow shone all about the building. Through the glimmering radiance I could have sworn I heard a heavenly choir of angels singing “Gloria” (not Van Morrison’s G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria, but the glory hallelujah-type ditty usually sung by a choir). The bakery was calling to me. My thoughts turned to pastry.

The custard-raisin croissant is a thing of simple beauty— butter, flour, milk, egg, and yeast. A touch of custard in the dough and the addition of raisins and cinnamon make it one of my favorite breakfast treats.

I continued to walk towards my office, ignoring the siren song of the heavenly choir. Approximately halfway across the parking lot, the diet angel and the diet devil instantly appeared— one on each shoulder— as they have many times before.

The diet devil spoke first, “Go over and get one of those custard-raisin croissants. You deserve it. Those scales in your bathroom are broken. There’s no way you weigh that much. Eat. Enjoy. Live.”

The diet angel chimed in saying, “Robert, you know those scales aren’t broken. If anything they are seven pounds off giving you a false sense of security. Croissants are loaded with butter and…”

“Don’t listen to him,” the diet devil interrupted. “He’d have you eating sunflower seeds and rice cakes all day. You’re a chef. Chefs aren’t supposed to be skinny. Eat one. Heck, eat two.”

“Skinny? Ha! You haven’t seen skinny since the Regan administration,” the diet angel replied. “Just go into your office and eat a protein bar.”

“A protein bar? You’ve got a world-class bakery across the street and you’re going to eat a protein bar?” said the diet devil. “I’ll bet they just pulled the custard-raisin croissants out of the oven. They’re probably warm enough to melt in your mouth.”

“Just think of how many extra miles you’ll have to walk to burn off those calories,” said the diet angel. “You’re gonna have to start shopping at the Big and Tall store again, and everyone knows you’re not tall.”

The diet angel won that battle, but the diet devil will live to fight another day (a potential rematch might be reconvened on my shoulders as early as this afternoon)

Lightheaded from a lack of substantive food, I sat at my desk and wondered how fate had dealt me such a terrible blow.

Why couldn’t a Frenchman have opened a bakery 97 steps (yes, I’ve counted them) away from my office when I was in my 20s? Back then, I could eat anything in site and not gain an ounce. When I opened my first restaurant, the people at the pizza delivery joint down the street from my house knew my name. I had a standing order when I got off work at midnight: a large pepperoni pizza and a two-liter Coke— all that and a 32-inch waist, too.

In those days I had the metabolism of a hummingbird.

In my early 30s, I could eat a seven-course meal at a fine-dining restaurant, and three hours later, eat a late-night breakfast at an all-night diner— all that and a 34-inch waist, too.

In those days I had the metabolism of a mountain goat.

By the time I reached 40 years old, my waist had expanded to an all-time high of 42 inches and my metabolism was like that of a pot-bellied pig.

Today, at 45, I purchase jeans with a 38-inch waist and am currently on my way back to 36’s (as long as the diet angel can keep me away from French pastries). My metabolism is like that of an average 45-year old mammal and I am learning to live with it

National Geographic Adventure magazine just published a list of America’s top 10 cities Along with Nashville, Austin, and Chicago, my hometown of Hattiesburg made the top ten list. These lists have been around for years, but this is the first time that Hattiesburg has shown up on list that didn’t feature retirement communities.

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the same year a French bakery opens in town; we land on a top-ten list. The quality of life is going up. My waist size is going down, and through it all, the heavenly choir of angels is still singing.

Miniature Banana-Nut Muffins

2 cups flour
3 /4 cups sugar
1 Tbl baking powder
1 /4 tsp salt
1 /2 tsp nutmeg
1 /2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped fine
1 egg
1 /2 cup whipping cream
1 medium sized mashed banana (about 1 cup)
1 /3 cup melted butter

Preheat oven to 350.

In one mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg, walnuts and salt.

In another bowl, blend the remaining ingredients together well. Fold wet ingredients into the dry. Do not over mix.

Fill non-stick miniature muffin tins 3 /4 full of the mix.

Bake for 14-16 minutes.

Yield: 24 miniature muffins

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Singular Culinary Career

New Orleans has many culinary icons. In the beginning there were Jean Galatoire, Arnaud Cazenave, and Antoine Alciatore. By mid century the Brennan family began to set up shop in North America’s Creole Capital. In the 1970s Warren LeRuth was on top and passed the torch to Paul Prudhomme who began his reign in the early 1980s. Emeril Lagasse opened his first restaurant in 1990, and John Besh brought us into the new millennium. All have left their mark on the Crescent City’s culinary scene.

Countless chefs have passed through the city’s kitchens over the last century. Some became famous and moved on, others stayed. Still others finished their careers as local heroes, or toiled in obscurity in the lesser known kitchens— a career sous chef or line cook— spending decades feeding tourists and locals alike.

Nationally known icons aside, the most knowledgeable culinary personality in New Orleans— the man who has met every chef, eaten every dish, knows the food, has cooked the food, has written about the food, and eventually made a living out of talking about the food, while witnessing every restaurant opening for the last 35 years— is not a chef or a restaurateur.

Tom Fitzmorris knows New Orleans and he knows food. Born on Mardi Gras, he wrote his first restaurant review in 1972, and has written at least one per week ever since.

As one who is responsible for 750 words per week, I am in awe of Fitzmorris, whose daily internet newsletter, The New Orleans Menu — over 4,000 words daily by my count— contains the most informative and up-to-date chronicling in and of one of the nation’s top food cities.

Fitzmorris is the foremost expert on the New Orleans restaurant scene. He is certainly the senior statesman of New Orleans’ food writers. This Creolized version of Craig Claiborne has written for several national publications, served as editor of quite a few local publications, but the strongest witness to his prolific journalistic output is the daily newsletter, The New Orleans Menu.

I began subscribing to The New Orleans Menu,, over eight years ago. Each free issue includes a recipe, a restaurant review, a top-ten list (top ten New Orleans steakhouses, top ten places to eat oysters, top ten formal dining rooms, etc), and various musings on New Orleans food and restaurants. Whether you dine in New Orleans once a week or once a year, The New Orleans Menu is a great reference guide for the food, restaurant scene, and culture of New Orleans.

In addition to the newsletter, Fitzmorris has hosted a daily radio show since 1975. The Food Show airs live on WSMB 1350 AM between 2 and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

As if all of the newsletter writing, restaurant reviewing, and radio-show hosting wasn’t enough to fill his day, Tom Fitzmorris’s New Orleans Food, a cookbook that encompasses his life in the kitchen and at the table, was released last year.

Many New Orleans cookbooks are written by restaurant chefs who have converted their recipes for home use. Often, the original intent gets lost in the translation. Fitzmorris, not a classically trained chef but certainly an exceptional cook in his own right, developed each of the book’s 225 recipes in his home kitchen for use in home kitchens. They are spot on.

One wonders when Mr. Fitzmorris sleeps.

During the Katrina evacuation, Fitzmorris spent the longest period he had ever spent away from his native city. Though during his temporary relocation he continued to write about the city and the losses incurred during the aftermath. Within a matter of weeks the daily newsletter returned, and once again Fitzmorris, certainly an icon in his own right, was keeping track of the city’s restaurant rebirth.

Today, Tom Fitzmorris is the writer of record for connecting New Orleans’ culinary past to its future. In a time when longstanding family heirloom recipes were lost to the levees, Fitzmorris’s writings, recipes, and recollections carry the torch.

Most of the population living outside of the immediate New Orleans trade area knows the names Lagasse and Prudhomme, yet history might show that one of the most important culinary icons in the Crescent City is not a chef but a chronicler.

Crescent City Grill Seafood Gumbo

5 cups Shrimp stock
5 cups Chicken Stock
5 Gumbo Crabs
3 1/2 cups Tomatoes, diced with juice
2/3 cup Tomato Sauce
2 Tbl. Worcestershire
1 tsp. Black Pepper
2 Bay Leaves
2 1/2 tsp. Basil
1 tsp. Oregano
1 1/4 cup Corn Oil
1 1/2 cups Flour
2 cups Okra
3 cups Onion, medium dice
1 1/2 cup Celery, medium dice
1 cup Green Onion, chopped
1 cup Bell Pepper, medium dice
1/2 cup Parsley, chopped
3 Tbl. Garlic, minced
2 Tbl. Creole Seasoning
3 Tbl. Hot Sauce
2 lbs. Medium Shrimp, peeled
1 lb. Claw Crabmeat, picked of all shell
1 lb. Lump Crabmeat, picked of all shell
1 lb. Oysters, with juice

Bring first 10 ingredients to a boil. Reduce heat to a brisk simmer and continue to cook skimming the tomato-like foam from the top of the stock— one hour.

While the stock is simmering, make a dark roux using the corn oil and flour. To the roux add the okra stirring constantly. Once the okra is incorporated into the roux add the onion, celery, green onion, bell pepper, parsley, garlic, Creole seasoning and hot sauce stirring well to incorporate. At this point you should have something that resembles a black gooey mass. Add the shrimp and continue stirring until shrimp turn pink. Add the crabmeat and oysters.

Turn up the heat on the simmering stock. Transfer the seafood-roux mixture to the hot stock and stir until the roux is completely dissolved. Bring the stock to a boil once more and then reduce to a simmer.

Remove the Gumbo crabs and serve over rice.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Lawsuits Aplenty

A man in Morgantown, West Virginia is suing fast-food giant McDonald’s for $10 million because they put cheese on his hamburger.

According to a recent story in the Charleston Daily Mail, “The man says he bit into a hamburger and had a severe allergic reaction to the cheese melted on it. Jeromy Jackson, who is in his early 20s, says he clearly ordered two Quarter Pounders without cheese at the McDonald's restaurant in Star City before heading to Clarksburg.”

“His mother Trela Jackson and friend Andrew Ellifritz are parties to the lawsuit because they say they risked their lives rushing Jeromy to United Hospital Center in Clarksburg.”

According to the report, “the three drove to Clarksburg and started to eat the food in a darkened room where they were going to watch a movie, Houston said.”

Anyone who has ordered fast food at a drive-through window in the last 10 years knows to check their order at the window before pulling out of the line. There is a humorous scene in one of the Lethal Weapon films in which Joe Pesci delivers a profanity-filled rant about the high probability of having one’s order messed up when using the drive-through window. I am not sure what movie the threesome was planning to watch, but if they would have rented Lethal Weapon, they could have save a little pain and suffering.

Mr. Jackson must be the most lactose intolerant man on the planet. Actually, I didn’t even know that McDonald’s used real cheese on their hamburgers. I thought that they used one of those cheese-food type products.

In 1992, a lady received $2.9 million after spilling McDonald’s coffee in her lap. In 2002, two overweight girls sued the largest burger chain in the world claiming that McDonald’s food made them fat. Before long, McDonald’s will have to change their corporate symbol from golden aches to a huge bullseye.

Everyone is suing everyone else nowadays. Maybe I’ll find an open-minded judge, a few sympathetic jurors, a billboard lawyer, and sue some people, too.

In today’s legal climate I could have a field day. There are tons of people who have caused me irreparable harm over the course of my life. I’ll sue them all.

I will sue the Mattel toy company for using those evil twist-ties when packaging Barbie dolls requiring a mechanical engineering degree just to free Barbie from her box.

I will sue Led Zeppelin for the hearing loss I sustained while listening to their music with headphones on during high school. Add the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Van Halen to that list.

I will sue Sony because the clock on my DVD player is still blinking.

I will sue movie director, Martin Scorsese, for making movies so well that I have spent approximately 1,235 non-productive hours in a sedentary state— time which could have been spent in community service or in the pursuit of world peace— watching his films.

I will sue all of the major disco groups of the 1970s because I never learned to do the Hustle.

I will sue Bobby Brown for messing up the life and career of Whitney Houston, and then I’ll sue Whitney Houston for marrying Bobby Brown in the first place.

I’ll sue the makers of mousse hair gel, because I applied so much of it to my mullet-style haircut in 1986 that my hair began to fall out— a serious condition that continues to this day.

I will sue my wife for making my son and me sit through the movie version of the musical Hairspray. I will then sue John Travolta and the movie’s producers to have those 177 minutes of my life given back to me.

I will sue the producers of the TV show So You Think You Can Dance because, at one time in my life, I actually thought that I could dance. It turns out that I was terribly terribly wrong.

I will sue the makers of Milk Duds— $1 million for each silver amalgam filling in my mouth.

I will sue the makers of amalgam fillings because they allegedly lead to a loss of memory.

I had other lawsuits in mind, but I have forgotten them.

If a lady can get almost $3 million for coffee burns and a guy can get $10 million because they gave him cheese on his burger, I should certainly be entitled to a cash award for all of the horrible atrocities that I have been forced to endure over the course of my life.

Black and Blue Burger

3 pounds Ground Beef
1/3 cup Blackening Seasoning
1 Tbl Kosher Salt

1/2 pound Blue Cheese Crumbles

6 Hamburger Buns
1/4 cup Unsalted Butter, melted

6 Slices Red Onion
8-12 slices Ripe Tomato
2 cups Iceburg Lettuce, shredded

1 recipe Blue Cheese Dressing

Divide the ground beef into 6 equal parts and form 1-1/2-inch thick patties.

Sprinkle patties with the blackening seasoning and salt. Cook over direct high heat for 8-10 minutes for medium- medium well burgers (155-160 degrees). While the burgers are still on the grill, top with blue cheese crumbles dividing equally between burgers. Close the grill lid to melt blue cheese.

Brush the inside surfaces of the hamburger buns with the melted butter. Place on grill and cook over medium-direct heat for 2-3 minutes. Place burgers on the grilled buns and top with onion, tomato and lettuce. Serve the blue cheese dressing on the side

Yield: 6 burgers

Blue Cheese Dressing

1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/3 cup sour cream
3/4 cup half and half
1/2 tsp paprika
1 Tbl garlic powder
1 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
1/2 tsp white pepper

Use a wire whip to combine the mayonnaise, blue cheese, sour cream and half and half in a stainless steel bowl. Mix these ingredients together thoroughly and then add the remaining ingredients and blend together. Refrigerate until needed. Best if made a day in advance.

2 1/2 cups

Monday, August 06, 2007

From Sausage Gravy to Snails

In Georgia, on the border of North Carolina, sits a restaurant and inn that has been serving great home-cooked meals since 1917.

I discovered The Dillard House several years ago on the recommendation of a former classmate. I have returned every year since, when my friends and I gather for our annual whitewater rafting trip.

The Dillard House is located in Dillard, Georgia, a town settled in 1794, when an officer who served in the American Revolution, Captain John Dillard, was awarded a land grant of 1,000 acres. The Dillard House offers cottages, chalets, and very nice hotel rooms. It has horseback riding, swimming, tennis, trout fishing, and even a small petting zoo for children. But where the Dillard House shines is in the kitchen. The Dillard House is all about food.

Throw me in the briar patch.

People travel great distances to eat at The Dillard House. In a town of 198 people, the Dillard House serves over 1,200 hungry diners for Sunday lunch, alone.

The dining room at The Dillard House is expansive, with huge windows overlooking a beautiful valley nestled among the Blue Ridge Mountains. The restaurant is large and comfortable and as casual as the food that is served.

Posted at the entrance is a large menu which changes with each meal period. A dinner menu might read: Fried chicken, baked chicken, country-fried steak, country ham, bbq chicken, fried corn, tomatoes, potatoes au gratin, peas, cole slaw, butter beans, fried okra, fruit, rolls, cornbread, and peach cobbler with ice cream.

Once your party is seated, a server approaches the table and says, “Welcome to the Dillard House. Have you dined with us before?” I have, several times, but I always say no just so I can hear the next line in the servers pitch.

“Did you see the menu out front?” he says.“Yes,” I say.

“We’re about to bring it to you.”

I love that. My guests are always stunned. They bring the entire menu to your table within minutes of being seated.

The restaurant is a family style restaurant. Trust me. If you’re going to pick a family with whom to eat family-style food, the Dillards should be at the top of the list.

On a recent breakfast visit, the menu consisted of eggs, grits, pancakes, cottage fries, sausage (link and patty), sausage gravy, bacon, country ham, red eye gravy, pork tenderloin, baked apples, blueberry muffins, buttermilk biscuits, cinnamon rolls, and sliced fruit, all for $14.95.

The meals arrive in large serving bowls, and when they are emptied, they are refilled until you throw in the towel (or the napkin, in this case).

The food is good. The menu claims that many of the vegetables are locally grown. They must be doing something right; Southern Living magazine has listed The Dillard House as the South’s “Favorite Family Restaurant for Country Style Cooking” in its Reader’s Choice Awards for the last 10 years.

While in the area, I traveled 14 miles north to Highlands, NC, where I ate one of the finer Italian meals I have eaten in a long time. Ristorate Paoletti has been in business for 54 years on Main Street in Highlands. The wine list is extensive, the room is dark and crowded, and the food is excellent.

It’s been at least a decade since I have eaten escargot— the fine-dining staple of the 1950s— but as I was dipping my bread in to the last remaining pool of the herb-scented butter remaining in the bottom of the Escargot alla Bourguignonne dish, I wondered why.

The wine-laden, garlic-spiked herbed butter that remained in the snail dish was so good that I abandoned the marinara served with the calamari and resorted to dipping my fried squid into the escargot butter.

Fresh figs wrapped in prosciutto and finished with a balsamic reduction is another staple that has been done and overdone throughout the years. Though left in the hands of the kitchen crew at Ristorate Paoletti, it was taken to another level.

Our group ordered several pasta dishes, all of which were well above average. But the hit of the evening was a risotto feature with grilled lobster, scallops, and shrimp. It was rich and creamy, and the grilled lobster added the perfect texture contrast to the rice.

Highlands is a quaint resort town with mid-century charm, no crowds, and great restaurants and shops. It sits in stark contrast to Dillard, just 14 miles south at the base of the mountain.

Two distinct towns, two distinct restaurants, two distinct attitudes, all in one geographic area, Dillard and Highlands are a great escape— all this and rafting, too.

Lasagna with Spinach

1 Tbl Olive oil
2 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 10-oz package Spinach, frozen, then thawed and excess moisture squeezed out
1 10-oz package Spinach, fresh, cleaned and roughly chopped
1 /2 tsp Salt

2 Eggs
15 oz Ricotta cheese
1 cup Romano cheese, shredded
1 1 /2 tsp Black pepper
1 1 /2 tsp Salt

12 Lasagna sheets, cooked until al dente in boiling salted water
2 cups Mozzarella, shredded
1 recipe Tomato Sauce (recipe below)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Sauté garlic for 30 seconds, add fresh spinach and cook until wilted. Season with salt. Add drained spinach and set aside. In a mixing bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, Romano cheese, eggs, salt and pepper. Stir well.

Ladle two cups of tomato sauce into a three-quart baking dish. Place a layer of three pasta sheets on the sauce and top with half of the ricotta mixture. Spread half of the sautéed spinach on the ricotta mixture. Lay down another layer of pasta sheets and top with two cups of sauce. Spread out evenly. Sprinkle the sauce with half of the mozzarella cheese. Repeat these two steps again. Cover the baking dish tightly first with plastic wrap and then foil. (The plastic will not melt. It will prevent the cheese from sticking to the bottom of the foil). Bake covered for 1 hour. Remove foil and plastic and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Allow lasagna to set 20 minutes before serving. Spoon the remaining sauce on top of lasagna just before serving. Yield: 8-12 servings

Tomato Sauce

1 /4 cup Olive oil
2 cups Onion, small dice
2 cups Carrots, shredded
1 /3 cup Garlic, minced
2 tsp Basil, dry
1 tsp Oregano, dry
2 Bay leaves
2 tsp Salt
2 tsp Black pepper, fresh ground
6 oz can Tomato paste
2-28 oz cans Tomatoes, diced
28 oz can Tomatoes, crushed
1 1 /2 cups Water
1 tsp Balsamic vinegar

In a large heavy duty saucepot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, carrots and garlic. Cook vegetables 10 minutes stirring often. Add herbs and tomato paste and cook for five to six minutes (This helps to caramelize the tomato paste resulting in a sweeter tomato sauce). Add remaining tomato products and the water. Turn heat to low (very low). Allow sauce to cook for 3 1 /2 hours, stirring often. Add vinegar. Yield: approximately three quarts.

Sauce is best after two or three days in the refrigerator. Sauce freezes well.