Imagine if all the cooks in every restaurant kitchen disappeared on Christmas Eve. What if Santa finally granted our truest wish?
No alarms would ring. No flashing yellow lights.
A puff of air. A whispering wind.
Walk a mile in our shoes on Christmas night and taste regret.
A rough night for cooks and servers: two hundred confirmed reservations, all here to celebrate and share the holiday with family and friends. The dining room is filled with a mélange of well-dressed socialites with deep pockets and a thirst for fine champagne.
The adrenaline level is high as the house band competes with the clatter of sauce pans and the rattle of plates rapidly filling the pass. The kitchen is humid and our jackets soak up the sweat.
Try to keep up with the constant chirping of the ticket printer.
It’s approaching midnight, and tempers flare as tired knees and elbows ready for the final push.
Our chef, expediting all night, struggles to remain calm.
Frantic servers try to squeeze by at the pass.
“Ok, guys… fire the ten top, I want three amuse bouches for table 52, make that six all day.”
“I need a mushroom risotto to sell this deuce on 60, gimme that risotto now!”
What goes through the mind of a cook when the chef is screaming?
Mangoes, apples, pears…. Are they pleasant thoughts?
The sauté cook seeks frantically for the pan with extra risotto from a previous ticket.
He shoves another pan to the back, cranks the heat up, zaps with chicken stock and parm.
A little more salt and truffle butter, and the plate hits the pass.
Christmas for line cooks… Every one is tired.
But this year, a wish was granted and a prayer was answered.
This Christmas Eve, the fire in the grill will remain unlit.
Whisks will fall and stay where they lay. Nothing will be prepped, the door will be shut.
A puff of air. A whispering wind.
There will be no cooks for Christmas, if only for this year.
This has probably been the hardest post for me to write. I’ve sat with these beautiful pictures for months, thinking on how best to put my experience in New Orleans into words. How do I describe the quiet majesty of the Mississippi River? It’s easy to imagine how commerce and trade and eventually towns and cities sprouted along its banks.
The streams I knew as a child were easy to ford and were only good for swimming with the help of a bamboo pole as a raft. I grew up with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. I’ve traveled this river a thousand times in my imagination, but never had the opportunity to see it for myself.
I can only show you some of the things I’ve seen and hope that each picture is worth a thousand words. Sitting on the pier taking these pictures brought images of Forrest Gump and river boats and shrimping. Finally, I was able to appreciate the love great authors had for this river.
Crayfish… by the pound, boiled with a blend of spices and sold in the local corner store. I quickly learned that some of the best food that the city had to offer was to be found in the little neighborhood stores. In New Orleans, corner stores sell everything from crayfish to cigarettes, and that’s just aisle C. These critters were delicious, but only if you were willing to spend the time extracting the meat from the body. In true New Orleans style, take the head and drain the juices between your lips: the flavor is sweet, salty and spicy at the same time. It helps if you have a bottle or two of beer to wash everything down. I have a preference for Stella Artois with my crayfish, but I leave the choice of beer to you.
One of my favorite places to eat was a restaurant chain called Tastee. It’s actually a cross between a doughnut shop, White Castle burger and a diner. This one was located in a strip mall and had an unassuming store front.
But eating is an adventure, where the true value of a restaurant is measured by the quality of its food. This one was worthy of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives hosted by Guy Fierri on the Food Network.
I had six tiny burgers. Each thin patty fit perfectly on a dinner roll and were cooked with onions on the flat-top and garnished with a generous squirt of yellow mustard. The server/cook/cashier wrapped each one in its own deli-paper before handing me my order.
New Orleans is a city that should be explored in spoonfuls, each spoonful distinct from the first: the smell of the Mississippi River, of mud and silt flowing to the ocean, the festive echo of music and parties. Music and the Mississippi – plus a distinctive social grace – have sunk into the brickwork and decorative ironwork of Bourbon Street.
The heritage of this city is as rich and inviting as a warm bowl of gumbo on a cold night. Like gumbo, it should be ladled from a slow cooker into warm bowls, with friends who appreciate a hearty meal and stimulating conversation. This complex mélange of flavors, history, and culture has simmered on the Mississippi delta for hundreds of years, giving the city a unique imprint found nowhere else in the continental United States.
Whether at a local restaurant in the French Quarter or the home of friends on Canal Street, the smell of deep brown, nutty, cooked roux, melding with peppers and andouille and okra and history, was meant to be savored and shared. Gumbo, a stew made from the vegetables of African slaves and the techniques of their French masters, exemplifies the character of the city. In fact, it’s impossible to separate New Orleans from its past. Walking along the streets in the Downtown area or Garden district is like embarking on a time warp to the early 1800s.
Initially settled by the French in 1718, followed by rich Spanish plantation owners in 1765, and their African slaves, the city grew as wave after wave of Haitian, American, Irish and Filipino immigrants moved to New Orleans. The architectural influences of the French and Spanish are well preserved in the historic buildings and houses all over the city.
The city bears the signs of the people who have lived here: French, American Indian, Haitian, African. Walking through the streets of the French Quarter, one can easily imagine the lifestyles of its inhabitants of former days. This is a city wrapped in the past where time has stood still and preserved the history and culture of another era. Tourists can still enjoy a tour of the city in a mule-drawn buggy: you learn about history as you ride in a piece of it. What is now a tourist attraction was once the primary means of moving cargo from the barges that came to dock at the pier, to the warehouses located nearby.
There to serve the hungry dock workers and revellers as they recuperated from a night spent carousing and drinking was Cafe Du Monde.
They serve one thing and one thing only: beignets. Hot, fluffy and dusted with a generous coating of icing sugar, these deep fried treats are the French equivalent of the doughnut. The recipe for beignets was brought to Louisiana by the Acadians. Cafe Du Monde, which is in essence a coffee shop, has been serving beignets in the French Market since 1862. It is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and only closes on Christmas day. Your beignets come three to a plate with your choice of coffee, soda or orange juice.
As the day draws to a close, and the ebb and flow of people on Canal Street swirl around me, I’m ready for my next adventure. Tomorrow it’s the City of the Dead and the Lower Ninth Ward. I’m tired; tonight, I’m going to sleep and dream of gumbo and “life like a box of chocolates” and Tom Sawyer and the mighty Mississippi river. My dreams will be pleasant, and I hope yours will be, too.
Shame on the inattentive cook who cooks okra to death. But not today: Grandma Davis’ okra stew is delicious. Grandma has a few okra plants along the siding of her house, enough for a steady supply of this vibrant green Southern staple.
A relative of hibiscus, okra is a hardy flowering plant in Grandma Davis’ New Orleans garden. Okra grows easily from seeds planted in good earth bathed in sunlight and water daily. When the plant has matured, take time to sit and watch as yellow blossoms unfurl, as delicate as butterfly wings greeting the rising sun. Scrumptious pods follow the flowers with a regularity that ensures Grandma’s cheerful disposition.
I repeat, okra is scrumptious. Today, we are having stewed okra, fried chicken, potato salad and steamed brown rice for dinner. Outside the screen door and down two steps from the porch, Grandma is filling a small Tupperware container with okra pods. Each long and tapered lady’s finger seems perfectly ripe, fat with sunshine and juicy with the flavor of green growing things.
Okra Sunny Side Up
Try Grandma Davis’ recipe for stewed okra sunny side up with good cheer and hearty appetite. Select 20 young okra pods that are tender but not soft and without bruise or blemish. The juiciest pods are those less than four inches in length. You’ll also need 2 large globe tomatoes, the riper the better. The acid from tomatoes keeps the okra from becoming slimy when cooked. Gather your other ingredients:
A single green sweet pepper
½ a Spanish onion
A large spoonful of good salted butter
3 sprigs of thyme
A pinch of cayenne pepper, just a little for flavor
A pinch of salt and pepper to taste
A pinch of granulated sugar
Slice okra into rounds, about ¼ inch thick. Dice the tomatoes, sweet pepper and onions.
Use a suitably sized Dutch pot or one that has a thick bottom to melt the butter on medium heat. Add your mirepoix of onions and sweet pepper, and let simmer in butter until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. On low heat, add tomatoes , let cook another 2 minutes, then add okras.
Add thyme and your dry seasonings; don’t forget a pinch of sugar.Cover pot with a lid and let simmer for ten minutes; taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Remember to stir occasionally while simmering.