Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Flash! You Can Cook Cajun and Creole Food Without Shouting Bam!

My love of Cajun and Creole cuisine go way back to those olden dark BE years.  You know, that ancient period that was before Emeril.  My first forays into this style of cooking was informed by the very low budget PBS shows of Justin Wilson.  This safety engineer by day, Cajun chef by night, created a fun gumbo of a show by mixing in equal parts of education, showmanship and Bayou humor.  The end of his show usually resulted in a mad dash to the grocery store to assemble the ingredients to whip up that day's spicy and garlicky wonder.

Fast forward to today and Emeril has a frickin' variety show of all things, Justin Wilson has gone to the Great Bayou in the Sky and I don't get to eat much Cajun food anymore.  E doesn't like food that is spicy and she doesn't really like seafood.  How does someone in my situation get in touch with their inner Cajun?  By taking a Cajun and Creole cooking class of course!

When I saw that the Astor Center was offering a Cajun and Creole class, I signed up quicker than you could say "***!"  Oops I almost said the banned B**! word. Only of course I didn't say "***!" because I grew up in the BE era remember.  I didn't know how much I would learn, I only knew I would have fun and have my hot sauce hand liberated.

The class attracted the usual diverse crowd, from people that don't cook to those thinking of opening their own restaurants.  Many of the people lived in New Orleans and/or had family from the city.  This of course, is the stuff that I love.  People connecting to a place, person or family through cooking.  As you know, I feel eating Grandma's gumbo is one thing, trying to recreate Grandma's gumbo is another.  Bringing the family together to help you in this quest?  Well, we all know that answer to that question.

The class was taught by Chef Emily Casey, making her Astor Center debut.  She was a font of knowledge about Louisiana culture and cuisine, as well as a engaging educator.  We broke into groups to attack the days recipes and the cooking commenced.

I was in a great group of people and we had a ton of fun making a gumbo and a spinach salad.  Everyone jumped right in prepping the ingredients.  Soon our shrimp and crab meat gumbo was simmering and our strawberry jam vinaigrette was keeping cool in the fridge.  Yes, you read that correctly, strawberry jam.  The dressing ended up being a perfect foil to the spinach, pecan and strawberry salad.

While we tackled the gumbo, other groups took on jambalaya, deep fried oysters and shrimp stuffed mirliton.  The oysters were the first dish ready and the group pounced on them just as quick as they were being fried.  The remoulade sauce that was served with them was spot on in terms of flavor and spice.  A selection of wines was chosen to go with the dishes we were about to eat.  A very nice, minerally Muscadet was served with the oysters.  This was just a perfect match to this dish.  The wine on its own was very nice as well.  For once, I enjoyed the least expensive wine the most!  That's not to say that the other wines were not great in their own right.

To top things off, we enjoyed a decadent Bananas Foster.  Rum, brown sugar and fire make just about anything taste good.

All too soon, it was time to leave our virtual Mardi Gras and make it back to the real world.  But one thing we did prove was it was possible to create a table full of Louisiana goodness and not once shout ***!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Losing One's Focus

There is no one correct way to photograph food.  Depending on the purpose of the shot, you have myriad ways to approach how you will take the photograph.  A shot to illustrate a step in a recipe will be taken in a much different manner than one destined for your kitchen's wall.  You need to have a vision of what you visually want to convey.  You need to be focused totally on your photo, but your photo need not be totally in focus.

If your photo is not for how to or documentary purposes, using selective focus may result in a more successful image.  It can be used to highlight one part of a dish or to eliminate a distracting background.  Often, the results are dramatic.

Here is an image where I strived to have everything in focus:

Not the most compelling of photos seen here in Sautoir Land.

Here is the same image using selective focus:

I find the second image much more interesting.

This is all great you may ask, but how can I do it?  Glad you asked dear reader.  All SLR's will be capable of doing it as well as many point and shoots.  It requires you to take your camera off the fully automatic mode and move it to what is called aperture priority(It can be done in manual of course, but this is the easiest way to obtain it).  You will have to consult your manual on how to do it on your specific camera, but most cameras will have a control dial on top.  This dial is where you have the different modes your camera can shoot in, marked by cryptic glyphs.  You will turn this dial to Av on Canon cameras.  Most other makers will have this mode marked with an A.  This mode allows you to set the aperture on the camera while the camera sets the shutter speed.  If your eyes started to glaze over, just stick with me.  I will spare you the camera geek speak and just set you up to take photos.

You now have to decide how much of your dish you want in focus.  If you want a lot of your dish in focus, dial in a large aperture number.  How you adjust aperture varies by camera and lens.  Setting the aperture to f8 or f11 will have your entire plate pretty much in focus.  Dialing in a small aperture, like f2, will have much less of you dish in focus.  If the part of your dish that you want in focus is not in the center of your frame, here is what you have to do.  This technique should work on most cameras.  Aim at what you want in focus and press the shutter half way down.  You should get some audible confirmation of focus.  Holding the button halfway down, compose the photo you want to take.  When you have the shot set up to your artistic ideal, press the shutter button the rest of the way.  What you wanted in focus should be in focus and the rest should be artfully blurry.

Keep practicing until you get the desired effect.  Go ahead and play with the aperture setting as well.  In fact, you should play with all the wonderful things your camera can do.  Hey, you paid for those features.  Most important of all, have fun.  If you don't  like what you see, just delete it.  Remember the number 1 secret of great photographers is to only show other people great photos.      

Saturday, April 17, 2010

No Whining About Sonoma County Wines

Ah, Sonoma Valley, Napa's less glitzy, but in no way lesser neighbor.  Sonoma conjures fun, vibrant, but ultimately bittersweet memories for me.  It takes me back to my explorations of the backroads of Sonoma some 20 years ago.  Cruising along country lanes with my good friend Marty and his wife,  searching out vineyards like we were on a oenophile's Easter egg hunt.  Marty is no longer with us, but memories of those sun and wine filled afternoons live on.

A recent dinner at the James Beard House brought Sonoma Valley to the forefront of my thoughts.  Called "Sonoma in the City"  it celebrated the food and, of course, the wines of the region.  The evening of the dinner was unseasonable pleasant for mid-April.  The welcome weather allowed us to enjoy the appetizer hour outside.  Those of you who abide in less urban environs do not realize how much a nice outdoor space warms the hearts of us city dwellers.  We enjoyed three small bites, prepared by three Sonoma chefs.  All the dishes were good, but the smoked sturgeon and Tsar Nicoulai caviar push-ups were a stand out.  Imagine your favorite childhood ice cream truck treat, not filled with some sweet frozen delight, but filled with a smoky, creamy and salty one.  It was eaten the same way as those summer classics, pushing up a stick to access the wonders inside.

The reception set up the trend that was continued throughout the dinner, multiple wines served with each course.  The appetizers were paired with a Gloria Ferrer sparking wine and a Pride Mountain Vineyard Viognier.   These were both terrific wines and matched the dishes well.  The other courses, except for dessert, were also served with multiple wines,  allowing the diners to compare and contrast among them.  This was a welcome touch and sparked many conversations at the table.  Having the wine maker from Dutton-Goldfield at the table added another dimension to the discussion.

Each of the four courses were prepared by a different Sonoma County chef.  Many of the ingredients used to prepare these dishes were also from Sonoma County.  The wonderful duck, lamb, foie gras and other succulent edibles showcased the fact that Sonoma's bounty is not limited to grapes.  A standout course for me was the slow roasted Liberty duck leg cooked by Chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart.  The duck along with the chicories, almonds and sour cherry vinaigrette hit all my favorite tastes.

Sonoma will always have a special place in my heart.  The "Sonoma in the City" brought back some very good old memories and made some good new memories on its own.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

John T Edge at "Beard on Books"

Southern food culture has found its Boswell in John T. Edge.  Whether the topic is fried chicken, apple pie or race, John T. writes in a compelling and engaging manner.  Few things can trump reading John T. Edge.  One of those is hearing him speak, which I had the privileged to do so on Thursday.

The periodical, "Oxford American", recently published its second food edition.  John T. served as guest editor for this volume.  He was invited to speak at the monthly "Beard on Books" event at the James Beard House.  "Beard on Books" is a series of events where authors read from their food related publications and engage in a conversation with the audience.  These events are usually well attended, but John T. brought in a standing room only crowd.

John T. started off with telling the audience about pitching his first article to the "Oxford American".  He was going to New Orleans to work as a Lucky Dog vendor.  Lucky Dog is the ubiquitous food cart found throughout the French Quarter.  They took a chance on him, and now five James Beard Award nominations later, it appeared the gamble paid off.

John T. had some of the other contributors to the issue with him to read from their pieces.  Tod Kliman's piece on the ever in motion chef Peter Chang was a standout.  An award winning chef back in his homeland of China, Chef Chang moves from non-descript Chinese restaurant to non-descript Chinese restaurant almost on a whim.  This leads to a gustatory hide and seek game for the author, eager to eat more of Chef Chang's creations.

It left me salivating to devour the rest of the stories in the issue.