Search This Blog

Monday, February 15, 2010

Gold Country Travels and Eats: A Birthday Feast

Gold Country Travels and Eats: A Birthday Feast with a Four-Tooth Minimum

California is absolutely close to everything. From 50-foot swells on the coast (Maverick’s of recent bone-crushing mini-Tsunami fame) to 7800 feet of powder and a cornice slicker than greased owl shit (Kirkwood, the Ice Master), one can experience both in the same day if you plan your travels right. Jackson, Ca. exists in between both extremes, leaning a little closer to the mountains.

We are lucky to know a couple friends who own a nice little bungalow in Jackson. Jackson is a historic Gold Rush town with a rich cowboy and Native American history to back it up. It has lots of un-reinforced masonry in the form of old brick buildings from the 1800’s with fading paint banners right on the soft edged bricks boasting “Chicken – Steak- Rib Dinners!” and a myriad of antique stores all selling the same pink and gray Franciscan 8-piece dish set. Funny thing is, my mom has that dish set too and she is not parting with it.

Fat Freddie’s Hot Doggery jostles cheek by jowl with a crystal-fossil shop, and several foo-foo boutiques (Pronounced Boo-ti-cues by the local wags). Fat Freddie has a penguin mascot on the sign and the interior is decorated with all sorts of penguin memorabilia. I have yet to see a penguin in Jackson, but I seem to remember that the owner's daughter has a "thing" for penguins. The fellow behind the bar is a hard-bitten and hard-biting local in his 70s who says he can still jump over the bar and chase down a deadbeat bill shirker. He dared us to walk out on our bill so he could demonstrate. We politely paid and left. The hotdogs were decent, but certainly not worth fighting over.

Good food in the town of Jackson is hit or miss, mostly miss if you give in and frequent the chain and fast food restaurants. If you land at Swingle’s Meat Market, and are a serious carnivore, you’ll be a happy soul. Swingle’s has steaming chafing dishes of that day’s special meat or sausage brewing. Browsing shoppers can get a pretty good protein hit just sampling sausage or tender tri-tip, one toothpick poke at a time. Like the pusher on the corner said, “the first one is free…..” Garlic chicken sausage, or pesto pork or whatever, it is all good.

Swingle’s does have some of the best steak I have ever cooked, and a mix of interesting game meats too. They also have the heads of many exotic African animals mounted on the wall and staring over the meat counter with liquid, life-like eyes. They seem to beseech, “Help me! My body has been grilled and eaten and my head has to hang out here and look at the hungry pink faces of two-legged carnivores all day!” That creeps me out.

Zebras, wildebeasts, duikers, antelope – I would like to see those animals alive rather than staring reproachfully at me over the meat counter. Of course I thought the male meat master and shop owner was responsible for all these safari trophies, but a local told me his wife killed most of them. Now THAT’s a wife to make a country boy proud! She’s not going to flinch when the bear challenges her for the Hefty bag late at night. She’ll pull out her sawed off shotgun and it’s BOOM, lights out, Boo-Boo.

Pine Grove is a little pissant town 10 miles north towards the mountains and it boasts a huge old-fashioned Italian restaurant called Giannini’s’s. We decided to have a multi- course Italian meal there for my birthday Après ski.

Giannini’s’s is a huge, historic hulking house of a place right off of Hwy 88. It is cave-dark inside with glowing red vinyl booths and sticky plastic red tablecloths. Red is the color old-fashioned restaurants always used to be to inspire hunger. It reminds me of countless diners and fish restaurants of my youth and it tweaks me to order a fried seafood platter or a grilled cheese with pickles.

Mr. Giannini was apparently Mr. California, at some point in his career before he started slinging garlic-infused hash. The walls are adorned with signed photos of him posing with various town luminaries and other celebrities. In most of the pictures he is wearing a shirt several sizes too small or is full on shirtless, muscles bulging aggressively, his long lupine face grinning out into the blare of a flash. He is unabashedly handsome and the many pictures speak to the success of his restaurant. Perhaps people were afraid NOT to eat there at some point in his muscular career.

“Try the canolli if you know what’s good for yous!” I can hear him saying, but I digress.

Giananni’s offers both “light” and “Deluxe” Italian dinners. A light dinner will have salad, soup, bread and an entrée guaranteed to drop anchor on your innards. The deluxe dinner includes a “cheeseboard”, a wooden cutting board slathered with a lava flow of polenta, tomato sauce and cheese. Diners scoop this up with chunks of hot bread and apply it directly to their hips. It is delish, but hardly leaves room for the quarter of cow, or the metric ton of steaming pasta to follow. The “Deluxe” also includes dessert, to be applied to other weight-bearing parts of your anatomy.

Because I am officially on a diet, we opted for the “light” Italian dinner. The salads are fresh and served with fresh-made Italian dressing, which is basically celery, peppers, garlic and garbanzo beans chopped up into oil and vinegar. It is a chunky dressing and is quite tart and heavenly. Soup that night was a plain brothy lentil, VERY salty, but savory. In times past, we got some odd soup brewed up from the pan juices of too many wild beasts with a few carrots thrown in for ballast. Not their finest effort, that.

The lentil soup was passable, but the lentils were a little undercooked and potentially packed a high fart-factor. It arrived in a huge (Fransciscan) bowl with enough soup for three bowls each. We eschewed second helpings both to save room and to lessen the afterburner effect.

We ate raviolis and tortellini as our entrees. They served us about a bucket of each with a heavenly, slow-cooked meat and savory tomato sauce that could only have been fresh-cooked and reduced from real fresh tomatoes. This is definitely their forte. They are the Gold Country Meat Sauce kings! Their pasta was tender, stuffed with fresh ingredients and truly a worthy vehicle for the sauce.

We had good intentions of eating half and taking some home, but the addictive sauce won out and we polished our plates.

Desserts are classic Italian for the most part: Spumoni, Zabaglione for two or MORE. I failed to see tiramisu on the menu that night, but I am sure it is a frequent visitor.

The friendly and garrulous waitress extolled the virtues of the special “Mudpie” dessert. We don’t do Mudpie. Period. We might order nice fresh slice of flourless chocolate cake maybe, or a crème brulee, or a heavenly custard but no Mudpie. Mudpie is a redneck dessert and don’t let anyone tell you differently. Even though I could have played the birthday card and probably scored a free piece, no Mudpie for me.

Just to be fair, I’ll finish this treatise off with a charming redneck recipe for RV Mudpie and you see what you think. No hard feelings, but no Mudpie for me. I don’t eat mud with my pie.

I did have a latte, but it was an effort. Ordering a “skinny” latte in this Old Family style Italian restaurant was like inviting the anti Christ to the all mighty altar of Frank Sinatra (which you can experience at the Beppo’s chain Italian family -style eatery ANYTIME, and even leave offerings – but I digress).

I heard the proprietress and the waitress scurrying around saying “Skim milk? We NEVER have any stinking skim milk!” I acquiesced and said any milk would do, but I was punished with weak coffee, thin milk and no sign of a crema.

A complimentary ride out on a hand truck would have been a nice perk, but alas, we had to walk our own lardasses back to the car. An entire day of skiing hard was negated by one depth charge birthday dinner. Happy birthday to MEEEEEE.

RV Mudpie

This is a dessert to make while camping ,when you don’t feel complicated, or have no one to impress and your guests are tolerant. It requires some ingenuity, but little skill or finesse. The better the ingredients you use, the better it will be. Or use cheap ingredients and serve it up to your four-tooth minimum friends.

9 x 13 cake pan, lightly buttered (greased)

10-12 ice cream sandwiches

6-8 Heath toffee bars

Marshmallow goo topping

Hot fudge topping or Hershey’s syrup in a squeeze bottle or both

Canned whipped cream topping or coolwhip, softened

Nuts – crushed peanuts, almonds or walnuts – your choice. Or make it vasectomy style and have NO nuts

Take the ice cream sandwiches, unwrap them and lay them out symmetrically in the cake pan. Cut the extras to fit to cover the entire pan.

Crush the Heath bars in a plastic bag and lay down a layer on top of the ice cream sandwiches. Pour whatever goop you like over the heath bars. Sprinkle a layer of chopped nuts. Slather on more topping – fudge or marshmallow. Spray entire thing with canned whip cream, or dump on the softened Coolwhip and spread it around. Top with nuts if desired. Heat some hot fudge, let it drip through fork tines and decorate like Martha Stewart. If you really want to dude it up, bust out the maraschino cherries and place them symmetrically all around the top, or be a minimalist and use one.

Freeze it a little, if you have a freezer, otherwise turn it loose at the campsite and start shoveling it into bowls. This dessert goes over really well with big scout troop parties and any group of people who have been smoking doobies all day.

Bon apetit! (I’ll bet Julia Child’s is rolling over in her grave on this one – or passing the roach)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Cajun Chronicles of California: South meets West

Cajun Chronicles of California: South meets West Gumbo and other tales.

I am a Louisiana girl. There I actually said it and admitted to it. Once a year around Mardis Gras, I am willing to do that. I knew I needed to live in trendy and liberal California by the time I was 12, or about the time the Catholic Church got tired of my questions and excommunicated me. But no matter. You can take the girl out of the south, but you can’t take the south out of the girl. I am proud of my southern cooking, and I am proud to know Cajun folk who have taught me a thing or two about the value of a well-seasoned black iron skillet and the patience it takes to make a heavenly brown roux. Besides, you have to understand that Louisiana and SOUTH Louisiana are really two different states, almost two different countries.

Every year around this time, I celebrate Mardis Gras, my birthday and my husband’s birthday with a huge authentic gumbo fest. I make seafood file gumbo, which is vegetarian based, and chicken andouille sausage bacon gumbo for the carnivores. This has become a tradition over the past 12 years or so, and at some point in January people are harass me for a definitive date so they can calendar it, punch it into the blackberry, Iphone it, put it in Outlook, write it on a post-it, tattoo it on their hand or do whatever they need to do to stay organized and not miss a great party.

Not only is this a traditional Cajun food fest, it is a White Elephant gift exchange just for fun. This allows people to clear out the flotsam and jetsam of Christmas crap their clueless friends and relatives have dumped on them during Christmas 2009. Or it allows them the excuse to go out and purchase something off the wall, totally filthy or bizarre. But I digress.

I want to discuss the value of South Louisiana church lady cookbooks. In 2002, I asked my friend N. to write down her family recipes as a wedding present for me. She came up with two small town church lady-published cookbooks as well as a handful of hand-written recipes picked from her 90-year-old grandmother’s gray curly head.

In the St Peter’s Altar Society Cookbook, Every other contributing cook has one of her family names and there is so much inter-marriage and so many related cousins it makes my head spin. I spent some quality time jotting family anecdotes by several of the recipes.

N. is easily related to 2/3 of the entrants by blood or marriage, or by incident. Everyone in Bordelonville is way less than 6 degrees of separation from each other.

Three recipes for both banana and bread pudding, three for pralines, two recipes for Te Gateau cookies. These ladies are competitive. Where else will one find Okra roll ups and red cinnamon cucumber pickle rings?

I noticed the Church lady committee members got more than one recipe each in the book. Closer to God than thee and perhaps sleeping with the publisher! Mon Dieu!

I expected to find good wholesome ingredients in those church recipes and was amazed to see…..PET milk and Velveeta cheese food as a primary ingredient for many sauces! Holy Merlitons! My heart hurts just thinking about it, both emotionally and physically. “One can of PET milk, melt in 1 pound of Velveeta in cut into cubes and stir until smooth…..” Oh my. I know it would taste great but give me Chez Paul’s cream sauce with butter if I am going to have a coronary. Tony Chachere’s Cajun seasoning is a mainstay too, and original Tobasco sauce. None of this green tomatillo or Chipotle flavor crap. Give me that original pepper taste from New Iberia, Please.

Glorified potatoes! (AKA get into heaven with a covered dish)

Add the ½ pound of Velveeta, ½ cup margarine, real bacon bits, ½ cup sour cream, chives, dash of Tobasco and Tony Chachere’s and Sacre Bleu! It sho be hard to get up them stairs.

(Thank you Dardene and just kidding. You know we’ll eat them up and love them.)

Glorified Gumbo

N’s parents favor a dark brown watery roux with sausage and chicken, poured over a liberal bowl of rice. I always liked the taste of their kitchen. My dad still makes “Hamburgers ala Stanley” with Tony Chachere’s and soy sauce. That is a burger that bites back.

In spite of me attempting to get adopted into the Cajun kitchen down the street, my mom has always used the Better Homes and Gardens recipe for Creole gumbo, which is a tomato –based variety. My mom and I both make thick stewy gumbos rather than the watery brothy kind favored in the deep south. A thick stew doesn’t always set well in hot weather.

I diverge from the BHG recipe, but still make my chicken gumbo tomato-based with andouille sausage. Being the health conscious person I am, I have seriously cut down on the grease and I often just bait the pot with one or two andouilles and fry up diced turkey kielbasa or chicken sausage to add some meat impact to the sauce.

Andouille is such a distinct hot flavor, one can have just a little and it informs any other lower fat sausage you choose to use.

I do fry a pound of bacon and use the grease to fry everything – just because bacon is righteous. It doesn’t take all that much bacon grease to make a gumbo savory.

Even when I am making my “vegetarian” seafood gumbo, I sometimes still fry the vegetables in a pan that has recently known bacon. Trust me, they are better for it, both the vegetarians and the vegetables, whether they realize it or not.

The triumphant trio: celery, red/yellow bells, onions – all get fried in a black seasoned iron skillet informed with bacon.

I don’t like green bell peppers and I think they overpower the gumbo and make it bitter, so I eschew them. I feel the same way about oregano, which is a common spice in Cajun mixes, and I don’t like Bay leaf either. I feel like all these spices can get out of hand and hide the simple taste of all the other fresh ingredients.

I do use some of my Cajun seasoning while softening these veggies. I avoid traditional Tony Chachere’s because I don’t want that much salt, but I occasionally will use salt-free Tony’s. I am a big fan of Andy Roo’s salt free stuff, which I originally bought in the street Market in New Orleans. Back in the day (10 years ago? 18?) you could get it in an unmarked plastic bag but it kicked ass all the same. Now you can buy it online. no doubt.

I have also been making my own Cajun spice for a number of years. When I am feeling generous, I package it up in little bottles and give it as gifts to my party guests. I call it “Hoochie Cootchie Hot stuff” or “Hootch” for short. I sprinkle this over the veggies, and onto any sausage I might be frying up, then I’ll fry my raw chicken pieces in that pan with the bacon fat, sausage grease and veggies. I could give you the spice recipe but then I’d have to kill you.

I like a mix of thighs and breasts, but if you are feeling guilty, skinless chopped breast meat is the healthiest choice. Once I have fried up a couple pounds of bacon, I’m less conservative about fat and throw caution to the wind. After all in parts of the south, a third ass cheek is actually a prized possession. I crumble a little of that bacon into the soup too after the fact. Bacon is righteous!

I add cans of tomato sauce, paste and chopped fresh or canned tomatoes depending on my mood and supplies. If I am using fresh chopped tomato, I sauté the tomato in my ever-ready bacon pan. Do you see a theme forming here? Bacon bacon bacon!

I like to make my own chicken broth too, which entails taking the bones, skin, any leftovers and fat from any chicken dinner and boiling hell out of it, cooling it, skimming off the solids and freezing it. I usually always have some in my freezer, and I thaw it near the stove to add as liquid after I have browned my chicken, sausage and such. It is super easy to make and tastes about 100 percent better than the old stuff that comes in a can or box. Try it and your soups will thank you.

I dump all of these goodies into a large gumbo pot (Mine is 16 quarts large) and let it simmer while I make my roux. I will usually throw in my okra at that point too. I like fresh okra when I can get it, but I am not averse to frozen sliced okra. It tastes fine and adds the right amount of slime to make the “gum” in gumbo actualize. Okra makes some folks’ hands itch when processed fresh. Wear gloves or deal with it.

The roux is the piece de resistance of the soup. Seasoned flour, whisked into cold water, slowly poured into hot grease and stirred furiously to keep it smooth, then cooked to whatever shade of brown tickles your fancy. I find my roux takes 15-20 minutes to make. My dad has always had the impression that one cooks a roux lovingly all day long. Utter nonsense that, but it is a romantic thought.

I like a mahogany roux but others prefer a more savory burnt flavor and go for walnut hue. Once the roux is the right color and consistency, I pour it into the huge pot, let the whole soup simmer for 20 or 30 minutes or so, cool it overnight and serve it the next day. This allows the flavors to marry instead of just having a one-night stand.

I do the same steps for a seafood gumbo, except I will thicken the broth with cans of white crabmeat and I will boil in white fish fillets to make a fish based broth. I won’t add the fresh seafood until the next day 30 minutes before I am about the serve the dish, so all fresh fish, crab ,shrimp, and squid go in at the last minute to keep all the little sea creatures from turning into rubber bands. If you like living dangerously, throw in some fresh oysters too, especially if it is the right time of year and you trust your source. I eschew the tomato and use file spice instead in seafood gumbo.

This is finely ground sassafras leaves and it has an earthy flavor that marries well with the seafood and turns the soup gray green. Zatarain’s is a fine brand for this and for some other Cajun spices, like crab boil.

Serve over rice and experience a little piece of southern heaven!

Now, I have quite a collection of hot sauces that have come my way over the years. I have the whole collection of Tobascos : traditional pepper, Chipotle (which I hate) the garlic tobasco I am most partial to and the mild green tomatillo type sauce. I also have habanero tobasco for the more daring, and some hotter than the hinges of hell scotch bonnet and piquin stuff called “Submission”, given to me as a joke. Word to the wise: Don’t even touch that stuff! Not only can it burn skin I had to suck an ice cube for 30 minutes to get the pain out of my mouth and it wasted a heavenly dish of soup. I can take stuff plenty hot, but that is ridiculous.

If your mouth heat receptors are that fired up, you aren’t really going to enjoy that sneaky bacon flavor so carefully crafted into the gumbo. Plus if you get macho and eat too much hot sauce, you will feel like you have been smoking menthol cigarettes with your nether parts the next day. I know of what I speak. I’ll write about trying to get on the “Wall of Flame” at the Prince of Wales Pub someday, but that is still a tender subject.

Laissez Les bon Temps Roulez!