Archive for February, 2012

Oscar Banquets

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

Oscar night looms. Commentators are dusting off their pre-show red-carpet patter, craftsmen are fashioning gold-plated statuettes, Price Waterhouse officials are counting ballots in secret sessions, and Hollywood is preparing to dazzle its colleagues and the general public with its annual orgy of self-congratulation.

Today Wolfgang Puck and his minions are working on the food for the Governor’s Ball. According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, this year’s menu will feature my favorite edible for ANY occasion—lots and lots of finger food, served buffet style. I would LOVE to taste Puck’s lobster tacos, not to mention the gold-dusted chocolate Oscars now being fashioned.

The first Academy-Awards banquet was less elaborate than the one planned for tomorrow evening. Held in Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel in May of 1929, it fed about 270 people instead of the 1500-odd nominees, presenters, and guests expected this year.

The overall ambiance, according to later recollections, was one of a small community celebration. First best-actress winner Janet Gaynor said decades after the fact, “It was just a small group getting together for a pat on the back…. Hollywood was just one big family then, and [the award] was a bouquet—thrown to me, I think, because I was new and because they thought I had certain freshness. It was nothing then like it is now.”

Janet Gaynor in "Sunrise," one of the three films for which she won the best-actress trophy in 1929.

The food was less sophisticated than that being planned for this year. Hollywood and the American public were a little simpler then. I think it sounds pretty tasty, however.

According to the official Awards Librarian at the Academy, the menu consisted of:

Assorted Nibbles (rolls, olives, etc.)
Consommé Celestine
Fillet of Sole Sauté au Beurre
Half-Broiled Chicken on Toast
(The librarian noted that she hoped this meant “broiled half-chicken” rather than underdone poultry.)
New String Beans
Long-Branch Potatoes
Lettuce and Tomatoes with French Dressing
Vanilla and Chocolate Ice Cream
Cakes
Demitasse

Nostalgia is always on the menu at the Academy Awards, so I am supplying a version of one of the dishes consumed in 1929. Happy viewing … and eating. Enjoy Billy Crystal’s return!

Billy Crystal and Friend. Courtesy of AMPAS. Photo credit : Bob D'Amico/ABC

Original Oscar Night Fillet of Sole

I love sole—and so, apparently, did diners in Hollywood in 1929. This is my favorite way to pan fry this fish in butter. If you want to make the fillets look more beautiful, dredge them in flour before cooking them.

I haven’t made this recipe lately so I don’t have a photo to share with you. But I do remember that it was delicious.

Ingredients:

1 small juice glass almost filled with sprigs of parsley
about 1/4 cup clarified butter
1-1/2 pounds sole fillets
salt and white pepper to taste
the juice of 1/2 large lemon

Instructions:

With kitchen scissors cut the parsley into small pieces in the glass. In a large frying pan, melt about half of the butter over medium heat. Put in a few sole fillets; they should not touch each other.

Fry the fillets gently for a minute or two on each side, until they become flaky, adding salt and pepper as you cook. As each fillet is done, place it on a platter in a 250-degree oven so that it stays warm until its relatives have finished cooking. Add butter to the pan as needed for sautéing.

When the fillets are all cooked and on the platter, throw the parsley and lemon juice into the frying pan, and stir to allow them to mingle with the pan drippings. Ladle the parsley-lemon-butter mixture onto the fish fillets, and serve.

Serves 4.

This postcard of the Roosevelt Hotel, currently for sale on ebay, was postmarked in 1929.

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A Little Mardi Gras in New England

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Nan Parati in Mardi Gras Regalia (Courtesy of Nan Parati)

Western Massachusetts has a lot of character—and characters.

One of the characters who have given our hilltowns a lot of character in recent years is Nan Parati. Originally from New Orleans, the artist-turned-storekeeper lives in Ashfield, where she is the proprietor of Elmer’s Store.

She was visiting a friend in Ashfield in August 2005.

“I was heading back to New Orleans,” she told me recently, “when a friend of mine called from New Orleans and said, ‘Hey, we’re about to get a big hurricane. Maybe wait until after the weekend to come back. Everyone’s evacuating.’

“So I came back to wait out the hurricane, which turned out to be Katrina, which took out my house and my studio and I said, ‘I reckon I live in Massachusetts now!’

“I had some investment money from a house I had just sold in North Carolina and used that to build Elmer’s instead of going back to rebuild in New Orleans. (I had just spent 25 years building a design business in NO and decided I didn’t want to start that all over again—I wanted to do something new!)”

Elmer’s is a general store, as it has been since 1937, but under Nan’s direction it has become a restaurant, a gallery for artists and local products, and a hub for musical events—particularly those highlighting Louisiana music.

This weekend Elmer’s is hosting its first annual Winklepicker Festival. (If you want to know what a Winklepicker is in this context, just visit its web site!) The festival’s theme, for this year at any rate, is Mardi Gras. After all, this signature holiday of Nan’s native state falls next week.

The festival will feature lots of Louisiana-style music, a gospel brunch, a kids’ music camp, and Cajun and Creole cooking classes given by Nan’s New Orleans chum Michelle Nugent.

“Since I’m from New Orleans, people ALWAYS ask me about Louisiana cooking,” Nan told me. She met Chef Michelle Nugent two decades ago at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. A passionate advocate for Louisiana food, Michelle is the food coordinator for this annual April event; Nan creates the festival’s signs and serves as art co-coordinator.

I called Michelle Nugent to interview her for one of our local papers. She told me she was enthusiastic about coming to New England. “I lived in Massachusetts when I was a little bitty girl,” said the chef. “I love snow!”

She plans to offer three classes. Friday’s session will present a classic Creole dinner party, from Oysters Rockefeller to Bananas Foster. Saturday’s class will focus on a classic New Orleans-style brunch. On Sunday Michelle will explore Cajun Country cuisine.

Michelle noted that she isn’t sure what to expect in terms of an audience for her classes. “It might just be people who go to the festival to hear the music and come on a whim,” she said. “I’ve traveled enough around the country to know that people are fascinated with New Orleans and fascinated with our foodways.”

Chef Michelle (Courtesy of Michelle Nugent)

She explained that the classes are structured to help people learn more about the different types of food in Louisiana. “It seems to me that when I talk to people that aren’t from New Orleans they’re often confused about what’s Cajun, what’s Creole, what’s authentic, what’s nouvelle. And they think everything’s too hot, which isn’t usually the case.”

I asked her to elaborate a bit on the origins of Creole versus Cajun cuisine.

“Creole comes from the Spanish criollo, which means ‘born here in this place,’” she said. “In New Orleans after the Native Americans we had French and then Spanish and then French and then Spanish. And then New Orleans was a large port city and of course we had Africans come over with the slave trade, but we also had a lot of free people of color from what is now Haiti.

“So Creole could really mean a little bit of everything. It was encouraged for the French aristocrats to take Black mistresses. So we got pretty mixed up pretty fast!

“The Creole food has French aristocratic traditions and some traditions from Africa such as okra and then the use of hot pepper and things like that, which is not nearly as severe as people think it is.”

In contrast, she explained, the Cajuns were the Acadians—French refugees from Canada, with a little German blood mixed in for good measure. Michelle described their cuisine as “more countrified food.”

“It reflects the fact that these people make their living off the land with fish and shrimp and crawfish and rice,” she said.

Asked what she likes to make and eat on a daily basis, Michelle thought for a minute. “At home I just ‘pot cook,’” she noted. “I love to pot cook whether it’s beans and rice or gumbo. I find that things like that, especially gumbo, always taste better the next day. I will break my rule for these classes, but normally I make gumbo the day before and put it in the refrigerator overnight.”

It was a little harder for Michelle to identify her favorite Louisiana food in general.

“Hmm,” she mused. “Probably boiled crabs. I eat them plain. Some people eat them with saltines or cocktail sauce. I loved all boiled seafood, but crabs are my favorite.”

She sighed.

“And then there’s nothing better than an oyster po’ boy.”

Since I had only met Michelle over the phone, I asked Nan to describe her to me.

“Michelle … is wild, determined, strong, serious about what she does, fun to work with on my part and fun to stand back and watch when vendors [at the New Orleans Jazz Fest] sneak out of line,” enthused Nan.

“She loves a good time, she’s extremely smart and talented, has great taste in clothes and belt-buckles, is a wonderful, wonderful cook—and I am looking forward to spending a week with her up here!

“It’s always fun to me when New Orleanians come up here to visit because if you put New Orleans on one end of a stick and were trying to figure out where Ashfield went on that stick in relation to New Orleans, you’d have to go all the way to the very opposite end of that stick to find Ashfield. They couldn’t be further apart in way of life!”

If you’d like to enroll in this weekend’s cooking classes, call Elmer’s Store at 413-628-4003. For those who can’t make it to Ashfield Michelle has given me her recipe for a classic Louisiana dish. I made it for my family recently, and we adored it.

Modern Times Shrimp Etouffée
Courtesy of Michelle Nugent

Michelle Nugent uses the words “modern times” because, she notes, “local lore suggests that the original Acadian settlers would not have had flour or tomatoes when they first arrived in Southwest Louisiana.” She adds, “You may also substitute crawfish tails or chicken for the shrimp.”

Ingredients:

6 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups chopped yellow onions
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper (Michelle likes red for its sweetness)
4 to 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 bay leaves (fresh if possible)
2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked off the stem
2-1/2 to 3-1/2 cups shrimp stock (see recipe below)
1 cup tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped (optional)
1-1/2 to 2 pounds fresh shrimp, peeled (save the shells for the stock recipe)
Worcestershire sauce to taste
kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste (I used 1-1/2 teaspoons salt, 8 twists of the pepper grinder, and about 1/4 teaspoon cayenne)
liquid pepper sauce (Michelle prefers Crystal®, but I used what I had in the house; I put in only 7 drops so it wouldn’t overwhelm my diners)
lemon juice to taste (I used the juice of half a large lemon)
1 bunch whole scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
hot, cooked white rice

Instructions:

In a large heavy saucepan or cast-iron skillet heat 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium high heat and whisk in the flour. Cook this roux, stirring frequently, until it is the color of peanut butter. This is the trickiest part of the recipe since one has to watch and stir A LOT to keep the roux from burning.

Add the onions to the roux; they will darken the roux a bit further as the sugars caramelize. Stir in the celery and peppers and cook until the vegetables start to soften, about 5 minutes. Again, stir to keep everything from burning.

Add the garlic, bay leaves, and thyme. Whisk in 2-1/2 cups stock and the tomatoes if desired, and bring the mixture just to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer, and add more shrimp stock if the stew looks too thick. (Be careful: I added a bit too much, and the final product was a little wet although delicious.)

Add Worcestershire sauce, salt, peppers, and pepper sauce to taste. Cook for 30 minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally.

Add the shrimp to the stew and cook for 5 minutes longer. Add lemon juice to taste. Adjust other seasonings to taste. Stir in half of the scallions and the parsley and cook for 5 more minutes or until the shrimp is just cooked through and flavors have melded.

Finish by gently stirring in the last bit of cold butter for richness and shine. Serve with hot cooked rice. Garnish with the reserved scallions (and a little more parsley if you like), and put a bottle of pepper sauce on the table for individual adjustment.

Serves 4 to 6.

Shrimp Stock

Ingredients:

the heads and shells from 1 to 2 pounds fresh shrimp
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 tablespoons brandy
1 carrot, chopped
1 yellow onion with peel, roughly chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1-1/2 quarts water
1 to 2 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme
a few whole peppercorns

Instructions:

Heat the butter over a medium-high flame in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the shrimp shells and sauté until they start to brown; then add the tomato paste and the vegetables and sauté until brown. Carefully add the brandy and then add the water and the seasonings. Bring the liquid to a boil and then simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.

Strain the stock, discarding the solids, and set it aside to cool.

A Perfect Balance

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

I don’t have a romantic Valentine right now. I have lots of love, however. Friends, family, and my dear little dog Truffle (with the prospect of a kitten later this month) fill my life and my heart.

I tried this Valentine recipe out on my brother David, his wife Leigh, and my nephew Michael. Like most 11 year olds, Michael is fascinated by fire. So he was tickled by the idea of flambéing up some Bananas Foster. This dessert was so quick he didn’t have time to get bored.

The recipe below isn’t original—at least, it isn’t original to me. It comes from Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans, where the dish was invented in 1951 by Chef Paul Blangé. It was named after Richard Foster, a friend of the restaurant’s owner.

The Dutch-born Chef Paul is said to haunt the restaurant to this day, banging pots and pans and supervising the kitchen workers. He is particularly likely to look over their shoulders when they are making Bananas Foster.

I hope he doesn’t decide to haunt me. My version of his signature dish was a tad inelegant since I didn’t have the right pan with which to flambé. Most of my skillets are nonstick, and I had a feeling their coating wouldn’t like flames. So I used a stainless-steel pan with sides that were a little too high. As a result not quite all of my rum burned off.

The thing still tasted pretty darn wonderful. In fact, young Michael requested it for his birthday party. When I explained that we couldn’t legally serve a dish with alcohol (albeit flambéed alcohol) to his young friends he decided he would just have it for his FAMILY birthday party. “It balances hot and cold perfectly,” he pronounced. We are obviously teaching the child well.

Being cheap, I almost omitted the banana liqueur since I had to go out and buy it. Valentine’s Day falls only once a year, however, so I went to the liquor store. In any case, if Michael has his way, the liqueur won’t go to waste. I will be hauling it out to make Bananas Foster on a regular basis.

And I have sympathy for the child’s viewpoint. I have never seen the point of a banana split. Why would the texture of a banana add anything laudable to a sundae? Take that same banana and add a little butter and brown sugar and booze to the mix, however, and I swoon when it’s put on ice cream. A perfect balance, as Michael pointed out.

If you don’t want to make this dessert for Valentine’s day, wait a couple of weeks. As a New Orleans standard it makes idea fare for Mardi Gras. Let the good times—and the bananas—roll!

By the way, before I leave you with the recipe, please let me introduce … MY NEW BLOG! Since my blog about caring for my mother is winding down, I am starting What’s a Girl to Do, which will enable me to keep communicating with my readers. Of course, this blog will continue as well. How can I communicate if I don’t eat? I hope readers will read and subscribe to the new one as well, however.

Bananas Foster

Courtesy of Brennan’s Restaurant

Ingredients:

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (a really nice touch; the cinnamon is there but subtle)
1/4 cup banana liqueur (I still think this could be optional!)
4 slightly under-ripe bananas cut in half lengthwise, then halved again
1/4 cup dark rum
vanilla ice cream

Instructions:

In a stainless-steel flambé pan or skillet combine the butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Place the pan over low heat and cook, stirring, until the brown sugar dissolves. Stir in the banana liqueur; then place the bananas in the pan.

When the banana pieces soften and begin to brown carefully add the rum. Continue to cook the sauce until the rum is hot; then remove it from the flame, tip the pan slightly, and ignite the rum. (I used a long lighter for this; be careful!)

When the flames subside serve the bananas over ice cream and ladle sauce over all.

Serves 4.