Monday, February 27, 2012

Pirogue

I spent a lot of time in Louisiana working for the company I was tied to for several years.  I had to visit stores in Shreveport, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lake Charles enough that the hotels I frequented not only knew me on a first name basis, but they also let me keep some clothing in a suitcase in their offices so I would have clean clothes available when I arrived after already spending a week or two on the road.

The Louisiana stores weren’t any more or less important than any of the other stores I visited throughout the United States and Canada, but I simply enjoyed the people, the lifestyle, and the food a bit more than some of the other places.  Especially the food.  The Creole/Cajun flavors are almost impossible to duplicate outside of Creole/Cajun country.

I never cease to be amazed at how people find ways to put food on the table.  Admittedly some methods are more difficult than others, but few are more interesting than in Louisiana.  I traveled on a shrimp boat for a few days just to see how it was done.  I won’t do that again.  They made me work, and it wasn’t much fun.  I also went out on an oyster trawler (at least that’s what I think they called it), and again they made me work.  I quit going out on the boats after that.

Crawfish farms were found in some areas where rice was raised part of the year.  After the rice was harvested crawfish were turned loose in the flooded fields to eat the stubble and multiply, which they seem to do with great efficiency.  Once I participated in a boucherie where a number of pigs and hogs were transformed into hams, ribs, pork chops, and sausages.  What an experience.

I grew up in rural Fort Worth where farming and all that goes with it had been in my family for generations.  When we prepared an animal for the table, it was just preparing an animal for the table.  But in Louisiana such occurrences were not just for the purpose of eating.  It was an excuse for a party; however, in Louisiana just getting up in the morning was an excuse for a party.  And invariably someone would bring an accordion.

By the time I arrived at the boucherie at the designated hour of 6:00am, the party had already been underway for hours.  The pigs, hogs, a few chickens, a steer, a few thousand crawfish, and several beaver like critters (I think they were called Nutria) were all in cages, pens, boxes, or buckets.  Water was boiling in big pots, and portable cook stoves were everywhere.  Pies were already coming out of the oven in the house, and breakfast was almost over.  At least I got there in time for breakfast.

The details of the day aren’t important, but it was a party that had happened on this very weekend for more than a hundred years, and no one in town missed it.  The music was non-stop, the dancing was spontaneous, and the beer was flowing.  Barbeques were filled with every animal named above, and smoke houses were filled with hams and sausages.  By the end of the day, little of the cooked food was left, but everyone went home with a supply of meat that would be further processed to individual preferences.  And that was just the first of two days.

On one trip to Lake Charles, I had some down time available from my job, and I was invited to go fishing.  Great!  I like to fish.  I went to purchase a license, but I was told that no license was needed where we were going.  Hmm.  So I grabbed my ever-present fishing pole from my car, but I was told to put it back.  Where we were going no fishing pole was needed.  Hmm.  Well, I was ready to go, but I was told that where we were going we needed to wait until after dark.  Hmmm…

Suddenly I wasn’t so sure about going on this adventure.  Something about this smelled a bit, well, fishy.  I was, however, caught in a situation I did not wish to exacerbate.  The people that invited me were the store manager and his assistant whose help I needed to promote a new store policy among the employees.  Not that it was a bad change, but in some stores any change was usually unwelcome even if it made life a bit easier.  So I waited until the store closed that evening, and I went fishing.

We got into an ancient battered pickup truck with a bunch of old junk piled in the bed and drove out of the small town toward some destination in the distance.  I know we left the road at some point and drove into the trees, and after a few twists and turns with the lights off, the truck stopped and we got out.

I was handed a flashlight with a red plastic covering over the lens, and I followed one of the two men into the swamp.  It was so dark I couldn’t tell which one I was following and which one was following me.  And the red light flashlight didn’t provide any help.

After some thirty hours (it was probably about five minutes, but the bugs…) we came to the edge of some water.  One of the men shuffled aside some brush, or maybe it was an old piece of carpet, and pulled out a hollowed out log and pushed it into the water.  I was told to get in.

One of the men (the assistant manager) walked to the front of the log, I crawled to the center, and the manager stepped onto the back end of it.  And they pushed off into the water with a long pole.  I was not happy.  I have a rather poor sense of balance, and I’m kneeling in a hollow log with the water level just an inch or two from coming over the edge, and there is a man bouncing around on each end of this thing.

We poled around for a short while (to me it was an eternity) and finally stopped while the man in front hooked a big chunk of meat on a giant treble hook tied to a rope.  He threw this out into the swamp and slowly dragged it back.  He did this a few times, then we moved on another seventy-five feet or so, and he tossed it out again.  After we had moved several times, we had a strike.

I didn’t know at first what had taken the bait, but I assumed it was an alligator since I could see quite a few eyes glowing in the very marginal moonlight.  But after a wild sleigh ride—more accurately a wild pirogue ride—a very large catfish was brought up beside the small boat.  Suddenly I saw just how we were going to deal with this big fish.  The assistant manager pulled out a pistol and fired a few shots into it.  Then we poled our way back to the edge of the swamp.  We pulled the fish up on the ground, stowed away the pirogue, cut the fish into three pieces and carried them back to the truck.

The next day nothing was said at the store about the fishing trip, but behind the store, a large grill was set up, and the employees were having catfish for lunch.  And someone brought along an accordion.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mac 'n Cheese

Last year a friend of mine passed away.  He had had a long battle with cancer, and he didn’t win.  He had been instrumental in starting a monthly luncheon at our casting club, so a number of friends gathered together to have a luncheon to remember him.  It was a simple affair and very appropriate for his memory, and that day I found out macaroni and cheese was one of his favorite foods.  Now each time I have mac ‘n cheese I think of Burt.

I don’t care what you call it—Cheese and Pasta, Cheesey Pasta, Pasta Casserole, Macaroni and Cheese—it’s still just Mac ‘n Cheese.  But the ways it can be assembled is endless, and I’ve yet to find one I don’t like (although there were some I questioned).  There is something about pasta and cheese that borderlines perfection.  It can be as simple as two or three ingredients and a few minutes worth of work, or as complicated as working a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded in the dark.

I grew up eating the stuff out of the box, and I still like it, and I don’t apologize for liking it.  But sometimes I get out the Rubik’s Cube and a blindfold and turn off the lights in the kitchen.  That’s how I came up with the recipe for Pasta Medley with Five Cheeses, Oysters, and Caramelized Shallots.


Pasta Medley with Five Cheeses, Oysters, and Caramelized Shallots

Makes 24 servings

    6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for baking dish       
    6 slices bacon                                                 
    4 1/2 cups sliced, large shallots                               
    8 cups fresh spinach, washed, stemmed, and coarsely chopped    
    24 to 30 jumbo pasta shells                                    
    8 ounces small spiral pasta (rotini)                           
    8 ounces miniature cheese ravioli or tortellini                
    12 ounces penne pasta or elbow macaroni                  
    1 1/2 cups half and half, or more if needed                    
    1/3 cup heavy cream                                            
    3 teaspoons hot sauce (such as Tapatio)                        
    1 1/2 cups (packed) coarsely grated Gouda cheese or Edam cheese
    1 1/2 cups (packed) coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese 
    2 tablespoons all purpose flour                                
    1/4 cup Pernod or Herbsaint                                           
    24 shucked medium oysters, reserve liquor for another use      
    2 cups (packed) coarsely grated Monterey Jack cheese           
    2 cups crumbled soft fresh goat cheese or shredded mozzarella  
    2 cups medium cheddar cheese                                   
    2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley or chervil          
    1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon                     
    Coarsely ground black pepper                                   
    1 1/2 cups Japanese panko                                      

Note:  The volume of the pasta medley varies according to the brand of pasta used.  If more pasta is needed, add about 4 ounces of small to medium size shell pasta.

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Butter two 9x13x2-inch glass or ceramic baking dishes.  Melt 1 tablespoon butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat and add bacon slices.  Cook until crispy; remove from skillet, and drain on paper towels.  Without draining the skillet, add the spinach (in batches if necessary) and sauté until wilted, about 3 minutes.  Remove spinach and set aside in a small bowl.  Add remaining butter to the skillet, then add shallots; sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Cover and cook 5 minutes, stirring often.  Reduce heat to medium.  Cook, covered, until shallots are deep brown, stirring often, about 6 to 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook jumbo pasta shells in large saucepan of boiling water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally; drain well and place in a large bowl.  Reserve pan.

In the same pan (or another), cook spiral pasta in boiling water just until tender but firm to bite, stirring occasionally; drain well and place in a separate bowl from the pasta shells.

In the same pan (or another), cook ravioli or tortellini in boiling water just until tender but firm to bite, stirring occasionally; drain well and mix together with the spiral pasta.

In the same pan (or another), cook penne or elbow macaroni in boiling water just until tender but firm to bite, stirring occasionally; drain well and mix together with spiral pasta, and ravioli or tortellini.

Bring half and half, cream, and hot sauce to barely a simmer in same saucepan over medium heat.  Toss the Gouda cheese and the extra-sharp cheddar cheese and flour in medium bowl to coat; add to half and half mixture.  Whisk in Pernod and continue whisking until sauce is smooth and just returns to simmer, about 3 to 4 minutes.  If sauce is too thick, add more half and half by tablespoonfuls up to 1/2 cup.  Mix into a large bowl with the combined pastas leaving the jumbo shells aside.  Season with salt and pepper.

Divide the pasta mixture into 4 parts, and spread 1 part of the pasta mixture evenly in each of the prepared dishes.  Stuff 1 oyster in each jumbo pasta shell and place a single layer of the stuffed jumbo shells into each dish (spaced evenly, 12 to each dish), then distribute the sautéed spinach evenly into each dish.  Top with the Monterrey Jack cheese working some of the cheese into each of the jumbo shells with the oyster. Then spoon remaining pasta mixture over the oysters, spinich, and cheese.  Top evenly with shallots, finely crumbled bacon bits, then the goat cheese, the medium cheddar cheese, and the parsley and tarragon.  Sprinkle with coarsely ground black pepper to taste, then top evenly with panko.  Bake until heated through, about 18 to 20 minutes.  If needed, place in broiler for 1 to 2 minutes to lightly brown the top.  Remove from oven and place on a wire rack for 10 minutes.  Serve hot.  Serving size approximately 3 inches by 3 inches including 1 oyster.

Rockefeller never had it so good.

Note:  If the oysters are to be omitted, just leave them out and change the Gouda to a smoked Gouda or smoked cheddar.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Horseshoe Meadows

The Brookie Bash was actually the second fishing event I went on sponsored by the Long Beach Casting Club.  The first was a local trip to the San Gabriel River near Los Angeles.  But the Brookie Bash was not local, and I believe I was the only beginner in the group of fly fisherpersons.

Traveling north on highway 395 from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes, I took a break in the town of Lone Pine.  I like this town.  I’ve traveled through it many times over the years, and I always stop to gaze at Mt. Whitney to the west.  On occasion I’ve driven the Whitney Portal Road to its terminus just to enjoy the views of the giant mountain.  But on this occasion I drove only a few miles before turning back to finish my journey to Mammoth Lakes.  However, this time I noticed a road leading off to the south called Horseshoe Meadows Road.

I don’t know why this stuck in my head, but it did.  I didn’t know anything about Horseshoe Meadows, nor did I care.  Anyway, I needed to finish my drive, find the condo the club had rented, and get on with the Brookie Bash.  I was on a mission to catch and release all five of the trout species found in the area—golden, rainbow, brown, cutthroat, and brookie—and I needed to stay focused.

At the condo I found out that several people had stopped at places along the journey from Los Angeles to fish for golden trout.  Kennedy Meadows was the most utilized location, but there were others as well.  One place everyone seemed to know about, although no one stopped there on this trip, was Horseshoe Meadows.  I decided that if I had time, I would stop there on the way home to see what it was about.

The Brookie Bash was great fun, but all too soon it was over, and on the final morning I reluctantly packed the car to drive home.  When I stopped in Lone Pine for my Mt. Whitney break, I realized I was several hours ahead of schedule, so the drive to Horseshoe Meadows was on. 

The drive was a bit longer than I had expected.  At first it was a relatively straight road with a gentle rise, but then it made a sharp turn to the right and the switchbacks began.  “Onward and upward” as the saying goes.  It was a good road, but there was no room for error, and there were no guardrails.  I didn’t keep track of the miles, but I would guess it to be about twenty-five from bottom to top.  And probably the same back down if one could stay on the road.

At one sharp turn there were a number of hang gliders waiting to launch, so I stopped to watch for a few minutes.  I put hang gliding in the same bucket as bungee jumping, skydiving, bull riding, and noodling.  Interesting to watch, but not for me to do.  One of the individuals awaiting her turn to jump off the mountain came over to my car and told me I was late, and where was my gear?  Then she noticed that I probably weighed more than any three of them combined, and she realized most likely I wasn’t there to hang glide.

I finished the drive to the campground at the meadows, and there I saw some people returning to their vehicles after some fly-fishing.  So I walked over and asked how they did.  “The golden are hungry” was the basic reply, so I grabbed my 5-weight (all I owned at the time) and journeyed into the meadow. 

This stream was three to five feet wide at the most, but it was full of trout.  I could see them, but this meant they could also see me.  So I slowly made my way upstream about fifteen feet from the water’s edge.  I had a #16 elk hair caddis still tied on my line from my last fish, so I tried it.  I flipped it into the water and the water churned as several of the little golden fish leaped for it at the same time.  I brought out a beautiful six-inch long golden trout.  I stepped up to the water’s edge and released it and threw the caddis back to the same place and pulled out another small golden.  There was nothing to this.  I spent about an hour and a half walking along the small stream pulling out fish at will, until it was time for me to hit the road.

It couldn’t have been a better ending to a perfect fishing trip.  But then there was the return to Lone Pine back down the switchbacks.  This time I was on the outer edge of the road looking down instead of the inner edge against the mountain.  Where are the guardrails when you need them?  Actually I didn’t need them to keep me on the road; I needed them more as a security blanket than anything else.  Forty-five minutes up the road, and two hours back down.  I wasn’t going to take the shortcut.

The hang gliders were gone, but there were several cars and trucks parked along the side of the road.  I’m sure they figured out some way to retrieve them.  At the bottom of the switchbacks I stopped to look back up the road, and I decided I would definitely be back.