Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Rethinking Joe

Back in January, my friends Ashley Brown, +Ryan Stotz , +Steve Jackson and I wrapped up a great weekend with lunch at Milo's City Cafe. The specials included an array of scrambles, one of which sounded very familiar. "That sounds like a Joe's Special!" Which it did and which it was but the rest of the table looked lost. I almost never get to give Ryan the jaw-dropped "you've never heard of?" face (which he regularly greets me with) so I did it twice.

As it turns out, a Joe's Special is still very much a regional dish, which I must have picked up while living in the Bay Area. In theory, a San Francisco chef created it for a last-minute customer after the rest of the kitchen had been shut down and blah blah -- and it has become a standard for quick family dinners and late night, post-drinking sustenance. It's cheap, quick and free of exotic ingredients.

It's a simple scramble, combining ground beef, spinach, onions and eggs. It's also filling and comforting; judging by the number of recipes floating around, it's been family food for generations and the only correct recipe is Mom's. (Milo's version, incidentally, is typically excellent.) I hadn't even thought about the dish in years but after that lunch, I decided to put something together at home.

The online barrage of recipes vary only in the extra bits and the technique remains the same: soften diced onion in olive oil/butter, brown ground beef with onion, plop a thawed package of frozen and drained spinach on top, cover and heat through. Meanwhile, beat eggs with some seasoning, stir that into the spinach/meat until the egg sets and serve. Most, but not all, include garlic with the onion and it's not uncommon to sprinkle Parmesan cheese over the dish just before serving. Mixed in with the beaten eggs is some combination of Worcestershire, basil or oregano, salt, pepper and occasionally hot sauce.

I put together a reasonable facsimile of this as my first effort and it was a nice treat on a cold evening. But it is, frankly, a bit dull. I found myself slopping on a good bit of Crystal at the table to pep it up.Since my mom never fixed this dish (and would likely have ruined it anyway) I could range freely in my own version. And a casual reference in one of the recipes to "sometimes subbed sausage" gave me some direction. The Original Joe's was, after all, an Italian place in San Francisco so it made sense to use bulk Italian sausage. I got mine at New Seasons and it was surprisingly good, with lots of fennel. I switched to sweet onion, doubled the garlic and dumped the frozen spinach for fresh. While I can see the convenience for the home cook of thawing burger and spinach to feed the kids, there's no substitute for the fresh stuff.

Simple prep: dice onion, mince garlic and soften in some olive oil and butter, then bung in something like 1/3rd pound of sausage. Prior to this, rinse, dry and chop up about one bunch of spinach and lightly beat two eggs with sauces and some dried basil, salt & pepper. When the sausage has cooked, cover with the spinach and then the lid. Spinach takes very little time to cook, so then it's time to stir in the eggs and finish. Top with freshly-grated Parmesano Reggiano. Scoff it down.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Alex and Jeff's Excellent Adventure, Part IV

Alex gains a hat

Saturday, oddly enough, was pretty subdued. Maybe the staying up late drinking had worn us out. When I got up late (especially for me) that morning, Alex appeared to be in the midst of a near-death experience and obviously wasn't ready to charge into the day. I went in search of breakfast and the nice lady at Reception recommended Mother's, which was only a few blocks away. I believe it was her responsibility to tell me ahead of time that the recommendation came with an hour+ wait out in the sun--it's a very popular place.

So I ended up where I started, crossing St. Charles from our hotel to the Hilton, which has a terrific brasserie on the ground floor, Lüke. Only drawback? Insane portions.
That's the Plat Lyonnais, which I believe should have come with a warning "delicious potatoes buried under four huge sausages." My waiter told me I wasn't required to finish, although he had seen a few people manage it. Everything, including the presspots of coffee, was fantastic. After I'd finished as much as I could and the waiter took away the evidence of my failure, I got a text message from Alex wondering where I was and reporting that he was raring to go. Or, anyway, ready to eat. He ended up with the Croque-Madame et Frites.

A few days earlier, I'd commented to Alex that I thought he'd look great in a pork pie hat, and he said he'd been thinking the same. We spoke to several people about hats, because New Orleans seemed like a good place to look. Everyone said the same thing: go to Meyer the Hatter. Period. Meyer the Hatter has been in the same location since 1894, providing all manner of hats to musicians, movie stars and hipsters for more than a century. It's also about two blocks from our hotel, not far from Canal Street. The jam packed store floor is topped by two more stories of hats in storage. More colors, more sizes, more styles...
Alex was fitted by a tiny French lady (one of the staff told us she'd been there since the French Revolution) who peered up at him and announced "7 1/2 long", pulled out a hat and plunked it on him. Perfect fit.
I have no idea what we did after that. Walk around? Eventually we decided on an early dinner and landed at one of Ryan's many recommendations: Coop's Place. Walked in, grabbed two bar stools, ordered Sazeracs and dinner and watched as people began standing around outside, out of the rain. It wasn't until we left that I realized that was the line to get in, which hadn't existed when we arrived. Timing is everything.
Coop's Place is an unassuming bar with no attempt at slickness, on the walls or behind the bar. The kitchen is out back, outside, where they also smoke the most incredible tasso I've ever tasted -- well, that's not adequate, because I haven't had that much tasso. Let's say some of the most incredible smoked meat I've ever tasted. The tasso was in my jambalaya supreme (rabbit, sausage, shrimp and tasso) which was brilliant. Very poor photo follows.
We were beat. Another trip to Cure was considered but seemed overwhelming. Back to the hotel it was.

On Thursday, waiting for Jenaya to pick us up, Alex and I had briefly sat in the hotel bar, which specializes in champagne cocktails and is a very pleasant space. The bartender spoke to us and then left to serve her tables, and we decided to go outside instead. She ran over just as we reached the escalator to ask where we were going, and we promised we'd come back later. So we did, two days later. Courtney was born and raised in New Orleans and pretty much fulfilled every story I'd ever heard about the warm and friendly locals. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, and talked with her about the city, cooking, music, and what we'd experienced over the last few days. Even though she built us no original and complicated cocktails, Courtney goes on the list of best bartenders ever.

Sunday it rained, New Orleans style. During a break in the downpour, Alex and I headed to the French Quarter for a muffaletta, except Napoleon House is closed on Sundays. A quick check with Ryan steered us down the block to Johnny's Po-boys, a relative newcomer that's only been open since 1950. Johnny's was packed.
After awhile the crowd thinned out a little, because people left and it was raining so hard that no one was swimming through it to come in for a po-boy. As ordered by Ryan, we had a roast beef po-boy, dressed. We split it.
That was pretty much it. Walking in the rain was not fun and we were drenched. We drank hot tea in the hotel bar for awhile and eventually headed out for our evening flight back through Houston (bbq in the airport!) and home.

I believe I promised deep thoughts, but I've misplaced them. This I will say: New Orleans is not like any place else. It's not like any other American city (although outside the city proper a lot of it looks like the worst of Southern California). I really had no idea what people were getting at when they told me of their affection for the city, or why people would put up with storms and heat and even move back after huge sections of New Orleans had been pounded and flooded and dismissed by the rest of the country.

I don't believe anyone can have even a faint grasp of how special New Orleans is without actually being there. Me? I don't know anything about NOLA at all, except that there is so much there to experience and immerse myself in. I'm definitely going back.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Alex and Jeff's Excellent Adventure

Some time in the spring my son, Alex, asked me if I wanted to travel with him to Tales of the Cocktail, a bartenders' convention. In New Orleans. In late July. I scoffed.

Weeks later I gave it more serious thought. After all, how many times in my life would I have the opportunity to go on a real adventure with one of my kids? Here was the opportunity to share our mutual enjoyment of cocktails and food in a city and a culture neither of us had ever experienced. I wasn't particularly interested in attending programs at Tales, but I figured I could do a little exploration on my own while Alex and two of his friends soaked up knowledge, booze and networking connections. I was only worried that it would be so godawful hot and muggy that I'd never go anywhere.As it turned out, the friends dropped out and neither Alex or I attended Tales. We did, however, have a great time and my preconceptions and view of New Orleans were turned upside down.

Wednesday--We have landed

Although I was braced for the sort of horrid humidity and heat I faced in DC last year, when we landed at mid-afternoon it was warm and almost cozy outdoors. Our cabbie seemed eager to get rid of us, one way or the other, and rocketed along well over the speed limit. The hotel was a great score, thanks to Hotwire, very quiet and located a short walk from the French Quarter. And, as it turned out, our first destination, Herbsaint, was only a few blocks in the other direction on St. Charles. The highpoint at this little bistro would have been the frogs' legs but the day's amphibians were too wily for Herbsaint. I did, however, get my first Louisiana gumbo and it was good. It also reassured me that I was on the right track at home.

Next stop, and one of our primary destinations was Cure, a fairly new and serious cocktail bar on Freret. Just getting there was entertaining enough; our cabbie was full of information and advice delivered from the filthiest mouth I've ever heard. Driving everywhere, over some seriously torn up roads, he insisted we tour the Garden Distrct, which is filled with the most beautiful and exotic mansions I've ever seen. (Sorry, no pictures. Look it up.)

Cure was everything we'd hoped for and more and immediately moved to my short list of best American bars. Fantastic service for food and drinks, an enormous selection of spirits and cocktail ingredients, homemade bitters and terrific original cocktails. I was ready to stay the week.

First up for me was the Gun Shop Fizz on the right, and Alex's Disappearing Ink (Dolin Blanc, Sherry, Strawberry Bitters, Rosewater, Lemon Peel, Mint) on the left. Cocktails are generally made with one or two dashes of bitters, but the fizz uses two ounces of Peychaud's. I expected a puckering challenge to my mouth, but the Gun Shop is bright and refreshing. More wonderful drinks followed, including Rhiannon Enlil's delicious Bees for Pele. (Rhum Agricole, Yellow Chartreuse, Lemon, Honey, Spice Bitters, Angostura Bitters) and a Sazerac made with Thomas H. Handy rye.

We had chosen to sit on the short side of the bar, opposite the kitchen rather than the bottle display. This made it very handy when the cooks reached over to deposit our small plates, including the fresh crab and watermelon salad. We were later given a dish of white chocolate-dipped blackberries with crumbled bleu cheese and walnuts.

Later, our server told Alex and I we should follow Rhiannon and it didn't appear that we were being ejected. Instead, we were taken to a pair of tall glass-fronted cabinets near the door which was storage of their most special beverages. "Do you see anything you're interested in?" Well, yeah, hell yeah, but it was too overwhelming to focus. Rhiannon ended up choosing a bottle of Byrrh, a rich and delicious aperitif, and then offered to make us each our drink of choice using the Byrrh. Alex was served a variation on the Negroni, and I on the Manhattan. And I've run out of superlatives.

Rhiannon above, Alex's Negroni below.

Off we went to the hotel and off I went to deep sleep. As it turned out, Alex was restless and went for a walk, thereby discovering that the French Quarter was only a few blocks away and that drunken college boys fling strings of beads even when it's not Mardi Gras.

More to come.

Alex and Jeff's Excellent Adventure, Part II

Thursday--A Full Day

Although New Orleans was our primary destination, I wasn't going to travel that far into the Deep South without seeing countryside and the Gulf, and knocking another state off my list (it's now down to six unvisited). Thursday was a beautiful sunny day, and we drove our rented car east on Hwy 90, through the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, past Lake St Catherine into Mississippi and along the Gulf Coast's Long Beach.The car's air conditioning was very welcome, for as beautiful as the day was it was also hot and humid.

I admit to real bigotry about the region, wondering why the hell anyone would want to live there, especially outside New Orleans. I also admit to being a dumbass. The drive to Gulfport, through a wide variety of woods and waterways and beaches, was utterly beautiful (and some of the most picturesque, seen from bridges and causeways, frustrated the photographer).

The Hwy 90 bridge over Chef Menteur Pass, which connects Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne. The highway then travels along an isthmus bordering Pontchartrain and soon enters Mississippi.

We saw ample evidence of the rebuilding along the coastal areas with homes built on platforms high above the ground. Virtually every residence we saw was brand new or under construction.

A long stretch of white sand (appropriately called Long Beach) runs from the mouth of Bay St. Louis all the way to Gulfport, Mississippi, and almost certainly all the way to Biloxi. It was hot and nearly empty. In contrast to the ocean I'm most familiar with, the Gulf was extraordinarily warm and murky. The temperature really was like a bath, but neither of us was tempted to swim in it.

The "goal" of the trip, or at least the target, was lunch at the Half Shell Oyster House. Lunch turned out to be very late, and we were ravenous. Grilled oysters got us started. Alex had a seafood pie and I ordered the Royal Red shrimp, which were luckily in season. Big shrimp, with a flavor more like lobster than the usual taste. The only downside was that they resisted peeling.And grits.

And for dessert, my first-ever real Key Lime Pie. It was good. Alex had to get his own.

And a busy evening

Our great friend, Jenaya, had recently repatriated to New Orleans, having been washed out by Katrina in 2005. She had made us promise to give her one night to get a taste for her city, which we looked forward to eagerly. Jenaya picked us up at our hotel and drove us on an apparently random and twisted path through the French Quarter to the Bywater neighborhood. On the way, we saw our first "second line", this one for well-loved club owner Ray Deter, and a huge brass band of youngsters in bright yellow t-shirts. (Our first brass band but by no means the last. Music everywhere!)

It's almost impossible for me to describe Bacchanal, other than to say it's just about the coolest place I've ever been. From my perspective, it's in the midst of nowhere immediately across from an old Army depot, railroad tracks and the Mississippi River. It seems obvious that Chris, the owner, isn't relying on pedestrian traffic for customers. This is a place that you make an effort to go to, because you've been there, or you've heard great things about it, or you're fortunate enough to be taken there by a friend. If you were looking for it, you might easily pass by entirely.

When you watch the first season of Treme (which you absolutely must), Bacchanal is featured in at least two scenes. In the first, Sonny buys his girlfriend a bottle of wine--the interior of this brick building is a funky and well-stocked wine shop, and was the original Bacchanal. Customers enter, choose a bottle of wine or two and take them and their glassware out to the large and wild backyard. We got there early enough to select a table, but later on, with the band playing and the chef knocking out superb food, it was filled with happy guests in the warm and sticky night. Many of the guests were attractive women of all ages.

Jenaya's friend Chris had been out fishing the day before, and provided 60 pounds of tuna for the chef. And, oh god, was it good, along with our ceviche and flatiron steak. And wine. Lots and lots of rosés. In Episode 9 of Treme, there is an entire scene set in the back yard, and Janette's portable kitchen is set up exactly where the new outdoor kitchen is now located.

Which seems like a good time to apologize for the general craptastic nature of the photos. I've come to the conclusion that a combination of good photos and a rousing night out is difficult to pull off. Bacchanal has much better photos on their website and their Facebook page. Check them out.

Update (9/15): Bacchanal is having some problems because of their live music. There's a good piece here.

Much of what followed is a bit blurry. The three of us walked through the neighborhood, visited her shotgun house, and then two of her local dive bars. In the process we twice passed the bar in which Kermit Ruffins was playing, with a huge crowd spilling outside during a break. Both the bars were called JP's or JJ's. I think. The one we landed in was packed and the music being played was excellent. In New Orleans, the rules about smoking in bars are very different than they are in Portland. As far as I can tell, the rule is: whatever the owner wants is fine. I think people in this bar were required to smoke. Next to the jukebox was something I hadn't seen in years, a cigarette vending machine.

Still more to come after a good night's sleep.

Alex and Jeff's Excellent Adventure, Part III

Friday it rained

Living in Oregon for years has gulled me into thinking I know something about rain. After all, everyone knows it rains constantly here, day after day. In New Orleans, apparently, they've decided it's more efficient to pack two weeks worth of rain into two hours. Step out in it and you will be soaked to the skin in minutes and scampering from balcony to awning just doesn't cut it. (Note: next time bring an umbrella.)

Since walking around town was a really poor option, we decided to travel north to Abita Springs and visit their brewpub. First stop, though, was the justifiably famous Cafe du Monde in the French Market, where it has resided since 1862. Open 24/7 except for Christmas and days when hurricanes "pass too close to New Orleans." Most of the seating is outdoors, under a roof, and most of what is served is a cup of café au lait (with chicory) and three beignets buried under a cloud of powdered sugar. It's all just as delicious as it looks.

As the rain started in earnest, we drove for about 30 minutes to cross the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest continuous bridge over water in the world. Along the way, Alex discovered WWOZ on the radio, a listener-sponsored station playing an amazing blend of New Orleans music and local culture--and it's available streaming on the Internet! All of which made for great entertainment while driving over an endless bridge through pouring rain.

And more pouring rain. All I can say about Abita Springs, other than the rain, is that they have a very nice brewpub and a lot of very pretty houses. And cats. They have at least four (one ran off) trying to find a dry spot to sit outside the pub. None of them looked happy and particularly not about being disturbed.

As the day dried out, we headed back to New Orleans and our date with piggies.

Alex had gotten us early dinner reservations at Cochon, a restaurant specializing in, uh, pork. (And I note that the owner/chef has been awarded the James Beard Award for Best Chef South, 2011.) And thanks to Alex, we received a warm greeting from the lovely Naomi aka Elaine (ask Alex), one of his former co-workers. Most of the menu items were "small plates", which can be a relative term. Oysters the size of my hand. Below that, pork cheeks and something yummy. An amuse-bouche with they called head cheese, which has no resemblance to any thing I've ever seen with that name and was delicious (as was the pickled okra). And finally, the main dish, braised pork with cracklings and peaches. I probably could have had apple fritters with southern pecan sherbet if there I had any room.

The rest of Friday involves drink.

After porking out, we found another bar on Alex's list, which turned out to be a not very exciting hotel bar where I had an indifferent Sazerac (I think). We got excellent advice from the bartender, however, including a warning that we really did not want to walk to the next bar on the list, down a very sketchy street. Instead, he suggested Arnaud's French 75 bar in the French Quarter next to Arnaud's Creole Restaurant, which has been in the location since 1918--a beautiful and elegant bar with a superb and attentive staff. In the spirit of Tales, the bartender had created some new specialties. I think (but can't guarantee) that the new drinks included a specific Amer. I got stuck on their version of a Martinez and never wavered.

Arnaud's was a perfect place to spend the evening, with a lively crowd that included spill-overs from the restaurant (a wedding rehearsal dinner with exceptionally lovely Southern Belles), a friend from Portland, and more people from Portland! And to top it off, it was only a few blocks (stumbling distance) from our hotel.

A little bit more to come, although mostly much quieter, and perhaps some deep thoughts.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Battling the Starlings

Over the course of a year, I get a lot of visitors to my balcony, drawn in by four different feeders offering options for birds. I added a suet feeder late in 2009 after being briefly visited by a Townsend's Warbler in the snow. The suet feeder gets regular visits from chickadees, bushtits, nuthatches and a flicker. Drop-ins have included warblers and a Downy Woodpecker.

A week ago, the starlings found my suet and proceeded to demolish it. Researching the problem, I ran across a few discussion boards where someone inevitably asked "why all the hate? They're just birds." So, briefly: starlings are a non-native intrusive species that some idiot introduced to this continent years ago. They are large, noisy, and they crap everywhere. They descend in a flock and eat all the suet while chasing off any other birds (except the flicker, who is much too large to be intimidated). Starlings are also persistent and creative, more or less the rats of the sky.

The nice people at the Backyard Bird Shop offered a couple of different solutions to replace my feeder and discourage the starlings. One approach is to use a bottom-only feeder that has the suet cake lying flat with a roof over it; birds have to cling underneath to eat the food. This is no problem for most of my visitors, like bushtits and nuthatches but in theory, starlings can't do that. In theory. Like I said, they're persistent and I read reports of starlings that had learned to cling.

So I went with the cage within a cage. The inner cage holds two suet cakes comfortably and the holes in the outer cage allow little birds simple access as you can see. (I was taking a photo of the feeder with my cell phone, standing about three feet away when the nuthatch showed up.) So I crammed in two cakes and came home to find that the starlings had eaten about half. It turns out that they can easily stand on top and drill down to the suet quite easily. Furthermore, the juvenile starlings can cram their heads in from the side and reach the food.

Back to the shop, where it turns out that my only real problem was putting in all the suet. The trick is to cut one cake in half lengthwise and put the two pieces in side by side. Then the starlings can't reach it from the top and the juveniles haven't been all that successful from the side of the cage. Soon their nasty heads will be too large to fit in. Meanwhile, not only can the little birds get in and out with ease but the flicker is actually having a much easier time hanging on to the feeder and his long neck fits through the outer hole easily.

So yay me. Boo starlings.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A different beverage entirely

When my friend Ryan and I went to San Francisco the last week of April, we did not limit our drinking solely to wine, cocktails, wine and beer. On occasion, we started the day with coffee, thanks to the good folks at Blue Bottle Coffee (follow that link because it's a very interesting company). As good as many of the Portland and Eugene roasters are, I would instantly shift my loyalty to Blue Bottle should they ever open a roastery here, even though the World's Cutest Barrista works elsewhere.

That's the second-best latte ever, by the way, along with the remains of a Parmesan-fennel-sea salt shortbread cookie. The remains lasted only seconds after the photo. 

First stop was at the Mint Plaza cafe, home to the world's first five-light siphon bar.(which is apparently a big deal, besides looking extremely cool). UPDATE: And then I realized that the five-light is off to the far right in this photo. I still have no idea what the Frankenstein-looking thing in the clear box is supposed to be.

The Japanese have apparently gotten very serious about their coffee (Japanese always seem to get very serious about anything interesting), and their approaches to brewing coffee and the equipment designed for their techniques are finding their way to the US.
One adopter — and importer — of Japanese gear was James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland, San Francisco and now Brooklyn. Freeman and his wife, the pastry chef Caitlin Williams Freeman, recounted a visit to Chatei Hatou, a Tokyo coffee shop where brewing coffee isn’t exactly a ceremony but is ceremonious. They said beans were weighed, ground, emptied into a filter and preinfused with a little bit of water that let the coffee bloom and release carbon dioxide. Cups and saucers were warmed, a slice of was set in the fridge to firm up. Only then was the coffee brewed, slowly.

“They’re going for a mastery of technique, then a mastery over all the important details of service,” Freeman said. “It adds up to an incredibly elusive experience. It’s hard to manufacture splendidness. It seems as though they have something very difficult figured out.”
And that giant siphon? There's a really beautiful slideshow about it at the NY Times, along with a YouTube video of the thing in operation:

While I was sucking down my latte, Ryan waited patiently for 10 minutes while his siphon coffee was prepared.

Showy, huh? And then the pot comes to the table.

I couldn't for the life of me figure out how the siphon worked, but YouTube came through again.

Was the coffee better? You'll have to ask Ryan, who seemed pleased (which might have been because he finally got his coffee). I stuck to the latte.

The next day, we visited the Ferry Building for the second time, and I had the Greatest Latte Ever at the "secret" coffee bar with the shockingly short line. It didn't take 10 minutes to brew, either.