July 30, 2011

New Orleans: My First Meal and What Was Almost My Last Meal

I landed in New Orleans at just about supper time on a Friday evening. I rode a shuttle bus full of librarians from Kenner to downtown New Orleans. The ride was pretty interesting, since the driver kept pointing out sites we were passing, like levees, above-ground cemeteries, the Superdome, and "neutral ground." In New Orleans, they don't call the medians in the center of the street medians, they're neutral ground because in early New Orleans the French and Spanish could do business by meeting in the "neutral ground" between each group's side of the street. We passed Magazine Street where the Mardi Gras parades pass. We arrived at the New Orleans Convention Center, which is a mile long! And before Katrina, there were plans to expand it to a two-mile long building!

I met up with my friends and we freshened up at our hotel, the Iberville Suites, then walked a very short distance to the Acme Oyster House, on Iberville and Bourbon. There was already a line out the door, but it moved quickly. It's difficult to describe the smell outside, which wasn't pleasant in the least, certainly not what you want to smell before dinner. The smell wasn't from the restaurant; I attribute it to the drunks staggering around Bourbon.

Acme Oyster House

Before we were even seated and had menus, I knew what I wanted - oysters, of course! I got half a dozen oysters on the half shell and half a dozen chargrilled oysters.

Acme Oyster House

The chargrilled oysters came off the grill topped with butter and cheese. Honestly, I preferred the raw variety.

Acme Oyster House

I also got a bowl of red beans and rice for good measure. I can eat a dozen oysters as an appetizer, so I needed something else. Red beans and rice is one of my favorite Creole dishes.

Acme Oyster House

My first meal in New Orleans was very good, but not quite a home run. For breakfast on Sunday morning, I walked from my hotel around the French Quarter and ended up at Croissant d'Or. Getting in was the hardest part. The building looked to have two entrances, but the first door I tried was locked; only the "ladies' entrance" was open. I don't know why or when the separate entrances originated. I wolfed down an almond croissant before taking any photos. There were very pretty stained glass windows along the wall I sat next to. Eating right beside a foot didn't diminish my appetite in the least.

Croissant d'Or Patisserie Croissant d'Or Patisserie Croissant d'Or Croissant d'Or Patisserie

That night, my friends and I decided to try to get into Green Goddess for dinner. I don't remember when the torrential downpour started, but since it seemed to rain around 8 pm every night in New Orleans, I'm guessing it was around that time. We were almost soaked by the time we reached Green Goddess, and though they didn't take reservations (a rarity in New Orleans where the best restaurants practically require them), there was a long wait and no room in the tiny restaurant for three dripping wet travelers. The hostess suggested we try across the street at the Pelican Club.

We entered the Pelican Club, which looked rather snooty, and that made me feel awkward about the puddles forming around me as I stood inside the doorway. Shoes squeaking, we walked to our table. I opted for escargot as an appetizer.

Pelican Club

The snails came baked with a mushroom duxelle and puff pastry. I foolishly popped a boiling hot bite in my mouth. It was one of those situations where as soon as the food is in your mouth, you know it's much too hot to chew, but then you're in a social situation that prevents you from aborting the operation to spit it out. So I severely burned every taste bud on my tongue. My situation did not improve throughout the meal. My next course was the trio of duckling: leg confit, pan-seared breast, and Asian BBQ duck with Louisiana citrus and cranberry sauce (which inexplicably came with blueberries), with green beans and corn on the side.

Pelican Club

Despite a track record of eating successfully for many years, I had another dining mishap with the duck. I took a bite of the medium rare duck breast and chewed and chewed, but the meat seemed to be so soft and cooked so rare that I made no headway chewing it into smaller pieces. After making what I thought was a sufficient attempt, I swallowed the bite of duck, but it felt like a ball of fat in my throat where it lodged. I started coughing and choking loudly. Not my brightest moment. I held my linen napkin to my mouth and pondered my options while continuing to cough. Could I run to the bathroom before passing out? I imagined myself being sent home to my parents in a pine box after choking on undercooked duck. How embarrassing.

Somehow the bite of duck came unstuck and continued on its way, and I was able to finish the meal without further incident. Needless to say, the Pelican Club was not a positive dining experience.

Nobody wants to hear about mediocre food, but the tales are about to get much better. I promise.

July 21, 2011

Why New Orleans Matters

On the plane to New Orleans last month, my in-flight reading was Why New Orleans Matters, by Tom Piazza. The author writes about how he visited New Orleans, fell in love with the city, and decided to make it his home, going into great detail about what makes New Orleans a special place, very different from anywhere else in the U.S.

I felt the same way about New Orleans. Besides The Crescent City and The Big Easy, New Orleans is also known as The City that Care Forgot because its residents are so easy-going and carefree. Everyone I met and talked to was incredibly nice and welcoming and people smiled and talked to you on the street. There's a laissez-faire attitude about everything. I decided to adopt their ways and I found myself saying hello to everyone and talking to anyone I stood next to for more than a moment. Typically I would have been irritated by the hot, hot, sticky weather and the constant stream of sweat running down my face, but I decided to go with it. So what if my bangs were stuck to my forehead and my face was beaded with sweat? Everyone else was suffering the same effects.

I walked on Canal Street every day to get to my hotel. It didn't look too different from other big city's main streets, except for the Canal Streetcar running through the center and the Voodoo Marts at periodic intervals. The statue of the A Confederacy of Dunces character Ignatius J Reilly was in front of my hotel -

Ignatius J Reilly statue

- where there used to be a DH Holmes department store.

There were streets with names like Tchoupitoulas and Carondelet. (Bourbon Street, too, but it's dumb.) Lubbock has a lot of things going for it, but one thing it doesn't have is beautiful architecture and it's not walkable in the least. In the French Quarter, I must have walked up and down Royal Street a dozen times. On Royal there were dozens of lovely old French-style homes that are now storefronts or are still old homes. They were painted in bright colors and adorned with hanging flower pots.

French Quarter

The Quarter is centered around Jackson Square, named after Andrew Jackson way back in 1814. The Pontalba Apartments bordering the square are oldest continuously rented apartments in the States. The Louisiana State Museum/Cabildo by the square was where the Louisiana Purchase documents were signed in 1803. The St Louis Cathedral in the square was built in the 1700s.

St Louis Cathedral

Something about this last photo captures the magic of the Quarter for me. The charming building's yellow walls, blue shutters, and red railings. The gas lamp. The address! 1114 1/2! The young lady walking and carrying her art to sell on the street.

French Quarter

And the food, oh my, the food! I definitely ate some of the best food of my life there. Twenty-four hours of dining I'll probably never top was a lunch at August, my dinner at Cochon, and breakfast the next day at Brennan's. I almost ate my last meal at The Pelican Club. More to come on all of that.

The last day I was in New Orleans, I had an airport shuttle to catch, but I missed it because I took too long of a ride through the Garden District on the St Charles Streetcar. I had such a fantastic time, I was reluctant to leave. If you haven't visited before, New Orleans is a must see. And now, on to the foodie stories!

July 19, 2011

Double Chocolate Raspberry Tart

A million thanks to my favorite chocolate brand, Callebaut Chocolate, for the amazing prize and for all of their generosity! I can't wait to visit the factory in Belgium. Below are sections of the press release and the recipe.

This delectable tart, created by Kimberly Vardeman of Lubbock, Texas, won the grand prize in the Callebaut Chocolate Recipe Contest. As the grand-prize winner, Kimberly will receive a trip for 2 to Brussels where she will be treated to a tour of the Callebaut Chocolate Factory and a pastry class at the their Chocolate Academy.

The Callebaut contest is designed to give amateur chefs from across the country a chance to put their culinary skills to the test by submitting their favorite recipe that involves the use of Callebaut Belgian Chocolate.

Callebaut chocolate is the world's leading manufacturer of high quality cocoa and chocolate products. Callebaut chocolate was once only available to professional chefs but it is now available to non-professionals food enthusiasts through specialty food markets and fine grocers throughout the United States.

The winning Double Chocolate Raspberry Tart features a homemade chocolate crust filled with a rich combination of semi-sweet and bittersweet Callebaut chocolate. The dessert is then finished with fresh raspberries and whipped cream. All of the entries were judged on sensory appeal, creativity, presentation, and clarity of recipe. Here's the winning recipe:

Chocolate Raspberry Tart

Double Chocolate Raspberry Tart
Grand Prize Winner of Callebaut Chocolate Recipe Contest
by Kimberly Vardeman

Servings: 12
Prep Time: 40 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
1 extra-large egg yolk
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup Callebaut cocoa powder
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, diced
6 oz. semisweet Callebaut chocolate
6 oz. bittersweet Callebaut chocolate
2 tablespoons unsalted butter softened
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons raspberry liqueur
Crust: Combine egg yolk and cream in a small bowl. Place flour, cocoa, sugar, and salt in bowl of food processor. Pulse a few times to combine. Scatter pieces of butter over flour mixture. Process in one-second pulses until butter is incorporated. While processor is running, pour egg mixture through feed tube. Process until moistened, about 30 seconds. Turn the dough into a 9 1/2-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Gently press dough into an even layer against the bottom and sides of pan. Spray a piece of aluminum foil with nonstick cooking spray and set inside pan, against the crust. Freeze for at least one hour. Preheat oven to 375° F. Place tart pan on baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes. Carefully remove foil and bake for 5-8 minutes or until crust is set. Allow to cool.

Filling: Chop the chocolate. Place chocolate, butter, and salt in a large, heatproof mixing bowl. Bring heavy cream to a simmer in a small saucepan. Pour heavy cream over chocolate and let sit for 5 minutes to melt chocolate. Add raspberry liqueur. Gently stir until combined. Pour mixture into cooled tart crust and smooth top with an offset spatula. Chill tart in refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Before serving, allow tart to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes. Serve with whipped cream and fresh raspberries.

More information about Callebaut chocolate and mouth-watering recipes can be found at callebautrecipes.com.

July 15, 2011

Callebaut Chocolate Recipe Contest

Back in November, Auntie sent me a tip about the Callebaut Chocolate Recipe Contest, a contest "designed to give amateur chefs from across the country a chance to put their chocolate skills to the test for the chance to win a trip for 2 to the Callebaut Chocolate Factory in Belgium!" A trip for 2 to Belgium?!? There were also multiple runner-up prizes of $500 or $250, plus a year's supply of chocolate. I hadn't entered a recipe contest before, but since Callebaut is my favorite chocolate, and chocolate is my favorite ingredient, and traveling is my favorite pastime, this sounded like a contest I could get excited about!

I mulled on possible recipes for awhile. Mostly I thought about entering a truffle recipe, such as my recipe for chocolate goat cheese truffles. I made another batch of the goat cheese truffles and decided that they weren't as good as I remembered. Perhaps I could create a blue cheese chocolate truffle? I knew my go-to standard truffle recipe (not created by me) would be hard to adapt and make my own since good truffles don't have too many ingredients, and I couldn't improve upon perfection.

I pondered doing a chocolate tart, after making some delicious Dorie Greenspan tarts of late. By then it was March and the contest deadline was April 30, and I settled on entering a chocolate tart recipe.

Surely I'm not the only baker who prepares to enter a recipe contest by creating an Excel spreadsheet to compare results. My first tart trial went okay. The filling was pretty good but the crust was way off - turned out hard instead of crumbly like shortbread pastry should be. I tried again with a new crust and got really good results, but the filling wasn't perfected yet according to my trusty co-worker taste-testers. For the third trial, I added a little salt and some raspberry liqueur to the tart filling, and I thought we had a winner.

The day of the contest deadline (I know! Last minute!) I made the final tart, so I could take some pictures to enter with the recipe. I asked my friends to vote on a recipe title and the best photograph. Then I submitted the recipe via the online form. And then...nothing except waiting. The contest rules gave a date when the winner would be announced. That day came and went, and I decided I hadn't won anything, but I checked the contest website occasionally, waiting for an announcement of the winning recipe.

Then one Friday afternoon while I was in my office, my cell phone rang and the number calling was one I didn't recognize. I went ahead and answered, then I got a long spiel of an introduction from someone whom I still didn't recognize. I was probably curt with my responses. At the point when I thought it must be a sales call and began to lose patience, I heard something about "Callebaut chocolate recipe contest..." at which point my ears perked up and I instantly became more courteous.

The lady on the phone said, "I need to confirm that you're Kimberly, and that your recipe is the Double Chocolate Recipe Tart."

"Yes, that's right," I answered sweetly.

"I have some good news."

My heart started beating faster. At least I won something! "Alright..."

"Are you sitting down?"

Ooh, I won something good! I responded with a nervous chuckle and "I am."

She continued, "You've been selected as the grand prize winner of the contest. They were very happy with your recipe..." I listened in shock as she detailed the prize - a trip for 2 to Belgium, a tour of the Callebaut Chocolate Factory, a Callebaut Chocolate Academy pastry class, spending money, plus a year’s supply of chocolate!

We talked for a few more moments about sundries, could they use my name in a press release?, paperwork to sign and return, etc. After that call ended, I don't know how anyone could be expected to focus on work. The feeling of butterflies in my stomach lasted for days. I felt like I had won a sweepstakes on the Price Is Right.

I called to tell my family first. Katie asked if that was better than winning Best of Show for my cake at the South Plains Fair. Just a little bit, of course. Just the most amazing thing that's ever happened to me.

Chocolate Raspberry Tart

July 7, 2011

The Summer of Kimberly

I was riding on a wave of general "happy" after a great but busy April. Then May came along and then school was out, so that changed my work life quite a bit. With the kids students being gone, I hoped I might be able to breathe a little easier and work fewer hours. I wanted to use my leisure time wisely, and I didn't want to stop riding the happy wave.

I decided to make this the Summer of Kimberly, inspired by (what else?) a Seinfeld episode, The Summer of George. George gets a 3-month severance package from the Yankees and decides to do something with his summer, like actually read a book. "Time to taste the fruits and let the juices drip down my chin. I proclaim this The Summer of George!" It's better if you just watch the clip.

Sure, it sounds self-absorbed, but hopefully I'd be inspired to do worthwhile things for a change. I decided I, too, might actually read a book... or more than one. I wanted to volunteer more. I wanted to entertain more. I wanted to plant flowers. I wanted to visit people I haven't seen in awhile. I wanted to make a difference to someone.

I launched my endeavor by volunteering at the Texas Tech Museum at a six-hour workshop for kids on digital photography. (By the way, the Museum hosts great free programs for kids and adults: http://museumttublog.com/) That weekend I read A Confederacy of Dunces and loved it. The main character Ignatius J. Reilly's sloth and sloppiness was hilarious in the story, but it made me reexamine my life and house, and a little reorganization definitely fit into my summer plans. The book was set in New Orleans, and reading about life in the Crescent City also prompted me to schedule a trip to New Orleans at the end of June.

The Rapture on May 21 didn't interfere with The Summer of Kimberly! Time marched on, and I did plant some flowers. I did meet up with people I hadn't seen in awhile. I hosted a brunch at my house. We had scrambled eggs and ham in puff pastry and honey panna cotta. Some of the coolest women I know came over. I threw a Summer of Kimberly party because one Seinfeld-themed party per year just wasn't enough. We had Baked Alaska for dessert and so I got to pull out the torch to brown the meringue.

I found some dang good ice cream: Ben & Jerry’s Clusterfluff. It's like a fluffernutter plus caramel in ice cream form. I may or may not have eaten this stuff for dinner a couple of times this summer. I know, I know, perhaps the Summer of Kimberly should involve a little less gluttony. Maybe next summer.

Ben & Jerry's Clusterfluff
Photo by the Impulsive Buy

And the most exciting news of the summer is so exciting that it merits a separate post... Until then, life is good. Really good.

July 4, 2011

Red, White, and Blue Pavlova

Patriotic Pavlova

Patriotic Pavlova

1 cup egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups sugar, plus 2 tablespoons, divided
1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon raspberry vinegar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, divided
2 cups heavy cream
1 pound strawberries, hulled and halved
1 pint blueberries

Preheat the oven to 175°F. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a half sheet pan. Use a 9x13 inch baking pan as a guide to trace a rectangle on the paper. Don't even think about trying to free hand this one.

Mix the egg whites and salt with an electric mixer on high speed for 1 minute. With the mixer still running, slowly add 2 cups of sugar. Then add cornstarch, vinegar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla and continue beating until smooth and glossy, a few minutes more.

Pile the meringue on the parchment paper inside the rectangle and smooth it to an even height. Bake for 1 1/2 hours. Turn off the oven, prop the oven door open, and let the pavlova cool in the oven for one hour. The meringue will crack and there's nothing you can do about it.

When pavlova is cool, whip the cream, 2 tablespoons sugar, and vanilla to soft peaks. Spread the top of the pavlova with whipped cream. Arrange the blueberries and strawberries patriotically. Don an American flag pin for the occasion. Give the pavlova a light dusting of powdered sugar. Serve immediately in large scoops.