Sunday, September 17, 2006

Life's a crock

I've discovered the magical, wondrous world of crockpots.

One of my new San Diego friends is a connoisseur of crockpotting. He makes everything in his: meatloaf, stew, soup, pork chops, baked beans. After hearing about his food exploits I had to try it myself. So I bought the biggest crockpot I could find at my neighborhood BigLots and started experimenting.

My first attempt, at meatloaf, was less than successful. I readjusted the temperature mid-way through the cooking process and forgot to restart the pot. Six hours later I arrived home with much anticipation only to find a room-temperature, half-cooked, two-pound mound of ground beef well on its way to spoilage.

Happily, I quickly figured out my mistake and the meals I've attempted since have all been successful.

One of the things I love most about crockpot cooking is that it closely mimics the cooking style that I learned from my Maw Maw (grandmother in Cajun speak). Practically everything is cooked in a single pot at a low temperature for a good while - usually the longer the better - until fat is rendered from meat, flesh peals easily from bone, vegetables break apart and blend in with gravy, and flavors mix and fuse into new ones.

My latest crockpot meal is traditional New Orleans red beans (shown in pictures that can be made larger by clicking on them).

Here's how I did it:

- One 1 pound bag of red kidney beans (Camilla if you can find the brand) soaked in water overnight
- One large onion, finely chopped
- Three stalks of celery, finely chopped
- Seasoning ham (I usually use a good sized ham hock)
- Two minced garlic cloves
- One bay leaf
- One cup of chicken stock

What to do
- Throw everything into the crockpot and fill with water until the liquid clears the bean mixture by about an inch and a half. Cover with the lid, set the temperature on high and cook for 10 hours. Then go do something fun and productive with your day.
- When you get home, 10 hours later, uncover, stir and mash those beans real good, but make sure you leave the mixture lumpy
- Continue cooking with the lid off and stir periodically until the beans reach a medium thickness.
- Season with cayenne pepper, salt and hot sauce.

If you've had red beans before you know they're usually served on rice with grilled sausage or fried chicken on the side. Ca, c'est bon!

Some of you red bean purists are saying, "But Keith, what are you doing cooking and eating red beans on a Wednesday?" The rest of you should know that this dish is a traditional Monday meal in New Orleans. In fact, many restaurants in the city only serve red beans and rice on that day of the week. I figure the rule doesn't apply once you're west of the Rocky Mountains.

Coming in the future: my crockpot versions of jambalaya, smothered chicken and okra, gumbo and catfish courtbouillon.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The price of being Cajun

It ain't cheap being a coonass on the West Coast.

I had an envie (that means craving in Cajun French) for red beans; you know, as in New Orleans red beans - cooked for hours with ham hocks and onions and celery into a chunky mush that spreads across the plate when served.

So I finally found my way to the Mardi Gras Cafe & Marketplace almost hidden in the elbow of an indistinct strip-shopping center in the Point Loma neighborhood of San Diego. What a treat though. Walking into the shop was almost like stepping into a corner grocery along Decatur Street in New Orleans.

The walls of the small store were lined with metal grill shelving units piled with nearly every packaged food product imaginable from the Bayou State. There was the obligatory oversized row of Louisiana hot sauces. (Is hot sauce really that popular?) A nearby wall freezer was filled with boudin, andouille and alligator sausage, crawfish tails, shrimp and even frog legs.

The menu behind the counter offered muffalattas, po-boys, gumbo and other traditional south Louisiana fare.

I made groceries and here's what I bought: a bottle of Steen's cane syrup ($7), a jar of Savoie's roux ($5.50), a bottle of Zatarain's Creole mustard ($5), a pack of Savoie's andouille sausage ($8), two bags of Camillia red beans ($2.50 each) and one pound of frozen crawfish tails ($14) - for a grand total of $44.50 before sales taxes.

Now, back in New Orleans I could have bought all of those things for around half that amount.

I suppose it was a worthwhile expense. It's nice to open the refrigerator or pantry and see a little bit of home staring back me.

I can't wait to get those beans cooking! More on that later.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Really Big Love

With news breaking last week of the capture of polygamist-renegade Fundamentalis Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints prophet-FBI fugitive Warren Jeffs, our trip to the Utah-Arizona border area wouldn't have been complete without a stop in Colorado City and Hildale.

The towns, which run together across the state line, are home to members of the church known in shorthand as FLDS, a group that spilt from the Mormon church decades ago and practices plural love.

We tried to be discreet as we drove through town snapping photos of locals wearing traditional FLDS garb - a late 19th Century-inspired dress code that reminded me of the Pentecostals whom I used to encounter in central Louisiana.

The large, rambling houses that fill the towns leave little room for doubt about living arrangements.

Zion Canyon

Bryce Canyon

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Canyon hopping

We're spending the Labor Day weekend hiking Zion and Bryce canyons in southern Utah and the Grand Canyon.

Our first stop out of our base in Kanab, UT, (site of numerous Western movie productions in the 1950s and 1960s) was the G.C.'s north rim, which I favor over its southern side because of its higher elevation (cooler temperatures), old forests, more plentiful wildlife and more spectacular views.