Saturday, October 17, 2015

God Bless You, Paul Prudhomme

A week ago, Paul Prudhomme died at age 75. A lot of ink has been spilled about his passing and his enormous contribution to the American culinary scene. Chef Paul was an important piece of my own food background, so I am going to spill just a few more drops in his honor.

Paul Prudhomme was the youngest of 13 children. His parents were sharecroppers in south Louisiana, near Opelousas. This is the heart of Cajun Country. It's about an hour or so straight west of New Orleans. Lafayette is the epicenter. The towns of Eunice, Breaux Bridge, Church Point, and even Avery Island (the source of Tabasco) are within striking distance. If you ever have a chance to visit-- go. The area is rich with food and music traditions. We're talking country people. Small towns. It's a lot like any other rural part of America, except instead of corn or soybeans, you see vast tracts of sugar cane, and bayous and rivers instead of lakes and streams.

Paul Prudhomme grew up in that tradition, watching his mother and siblings using the foods they could grow or raise to make delicious, belly-filling and heart-warming meals. If you have an older relative who waxes philosophically about how his mother toiled to bake bread weekly and put meals on the table every week, while preserving meats and vegetables to get the most out of a hog or beef-- same thing, just with a Cajun French accent. This was original farm-to-table cooking, because it was essential to survival.

So, Paul learned these traditions, and perfected them really, eventually landing in New Orleans to become the executive chef at Commander's Palace. He then opened his own restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen on Chartres Street in the French Quarter. I confess, I've never eaten there, but I have walked by several times. It's hard to say what we are looking for in the French Quarter at any given time, but it usually is not fine dining. At any rate, if you are a fan of Emeril Lagasse, John Besh, or Donald Link, just keep in mind that Paul Prudhomme made straight the path that these chefs travel.

No, my encounters with Chef Paul were in cookbooks. I have a copy of Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen and another I will get to in a moment. If you want to make credible Cajun or Creole, this is the one you need. I studied it at length. Back in the early 1990's, it was extremely difficult to find some of the ingredients one needed to make basic dishes like jambalaya or gumbo. It was nearly impossible to find fresh jalapenos in a produce section, let alone tasso ham or andouille. But with a few substitutions, you could come close and now, those ingredients are widely available and there are even great south Louisiana retailers who will ship the real deal to you for a price. These dishes are eye-opening and delicious. One of Prudhomme's hallmarks is the use of spice mixes- heady mixes of cayenne, white pepper and black pepper, along with a few dried herbs like basil, thyme, or oregano, depending on the dish. But the peppers are a given and it's a magical mix. It's the blend that is responsible for delivering a brand of heat that only Cajun food can- a deep, slow, round burn that demands you take another bite. This isn't light fare and some of it is a bit of a project. For instance, making chicken andouille gumbo requires frying the chicken first- in oil, lots of it. Everything, and I mean everything in the house smelled of fried chicken, including socks in a dresser drawer. It's also one of those times it occurred to me that having a fire extinguisher nearby was probably a good idea. We survived and the smelly house was worth the gumbo.

Louisiana Kitchen also contains the method for making your own Turducken, just in case you want to test your patience and knife skills boning three birds. (Make sure you attempt assembly a few days before Thanksgiving in case you need the aid of a surgeon after you sever some tendons in your hand with that boning knife.) It also describes how to blacken redfish, chicken, or burgers. (Hint: do NOT try this in the house.) It's true that blackened redfish became so popular that Louisiana had to impose a commercial fishing ban on it.

The Prudhomme Family Cookbook is another sort of critter entirely. It contains recipes contributed by Chef Paul, as well as the Prudhomme siblings. I've never seen a cookbook put out by a south Louisiana Catholic parish Lady's Altar Society as a fund raiser, but I bet it reads about like this. In addition to the sorts of recipes you'd expect to find- jambalaya, shrimp Creole, gumbo, you are also going to find recipes that were selected to preserve them. I'm talking things like boudin rouge (a pork sausage that requires about a quart of fresh pork blood) and paunce bourre (stuffed pork stomach, yep, Cajun haggis). This book is out of print, so if you ever see a copy, grab it.

One quick diversion. I received a copy as a gift in 1990. I used to love to read it, especially one recipe for something I thought was absolutely nuts. About three or four pages are dedicated to the concept of getting a couple gallons of peanut oil together and frying a whole turkey. I thought the concept was fascinating and crazy, but by the end of the decade, you could purchase a rig to attempt this stunt at home. And by now, that craze has mostly passed after any number of wannabe Cajun rednecks have burned down their deck. However, that burner is exactly what you need to blacken redfish along with a big cast iron pan. How's that for irony?

Fall always makes me crave Cajun food, and Cajun music. The chill in the air demands something spicy that requires a cold beer and begs a dance in the kitchen after dinner.

Au revoir et bon chance, Chef Paul. Merci beaucoup!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Example of Odd Things in The Friendly Aisles

One thing that I find a bit more than a tad irritating is the odd pricing of those block cheeses at Hy Vee. 

The other day I was obsessed with making Eggplant Parmesan. I had some beautiful eggplants from The Good Earth, but needed a couple items to complete the dish, including fresh mozerella. So, off to the friendly neighborhood Hy Vee. 

I look in the usual spot where I find the balls and logs of soft, "fresh" mozerella. Out. All gone. Nada. Finis. I even checked up front to see if they moved it up front as some feature. Not there either. I really wanted the fresh cheese, but I wanted the eggplant dish more, so I set off clear across the store to the location of the everyday block-style cheeses. Why all the different cheeses can't live together in peace is beyond me, but that's a whole other rant. 

Upon reaching the block cheese area, I was confronted with the usual wacky pricing problem. Here's what I mean: The block cheese is sold in three different sizes- 8 oz, 16 oz (that's a pound in case you forgot), and 24 oz. the question is what's the best deal? You'd think it would be the big 24 oz, sort of a bulk discount thing. Nope. 

Check it out yourself. Here is the price for 8 oz blocks. Neato! A sale!

Here is the one pounder. 
And the 24 ouncer. 

What to do, what to do .... Well, the little 8 oz blocks were the best price, so I grabbed two and got the hell out of there. And made eggplant. It was good. 

Enjoy the local produce and brush up on those math skills!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Is Your Favorite Bar Divey Enough?

With all the recent kerfluffle over the comment of a downtown saloon owner considering turning the former Sid's Liquor store into a new bar featuring live music, similar to the legendary Pomp Room, or potentially named The Pomp Room, I got to thinking about what the local scene is looking like these days.

It occurs to me that a lot of the legendary sketch factor has been lost to the ages. My idea of dive bar probably wouldn't make the cut for the third D in Guy Fieri's idea of DDD. A good dive bar is dark, located in an area you're not quite sure you should park your car, smelly (once with the combination of stale beer and stale smoke), some broken furniture (like the booth with the spring that pokes your butt or a chair missing a back), and when it comes to food either a glorious cheeseburger or perhaps only a rack of potato chips and beer nuts and a jar of pickled turkey gizzards. These are places where you can generally find a group of regulars that not only day drink, they morning drink. Ideally, the place has been a somewhat recent crime scene- people forget there was a stabbing at the Pomp Room in the 1990s.

About the time the Pomp Room closed down, the Sioux Falls dive bar scene started disappearing in earnest. Let's take a little inventory to clear up what sorts of places I mean: Smoe's, certain iterations of Skelly's, Phil's Corner, The Arrow Bar, The Rainbow, The Lime Light, the original Crow Bar, The Stockman's, The Sportsman's, and the mac daddy king of all dive joints- The Frontier. Now, there's a memory, or rather a foggy string of vague semi-connected recollections. If the front of the house wasn't scary enough, with semi-catatonic patrons and people eyeing you wondering why you are in there, you could push through the back doors of swinging plywood where there was a stage set up for the, ummm, errr, "performers" and a bunch of bicycles lined up against the back wall that Charlie Johnston had collected for the law enforcement bike give away.

It seems like a lot of these sorts of places are gone, but a few are most definitely disbursed around town. I think people like to wax romantic about the old dives as they stand in line to get into the latest greatest strip mall sportsy, chicken wing-serving bar and grille. I don't often find lines to get into the Coalinga or Walter's Hi Ho. But if you want to go, they are out there, here's a short list: Little Coalinga (a cheeseburger nirvana), Walter's Hi Ho just up the street, Silver Moon over by the Farmer's Market, Log Cabin, just to name a few. These are great places to go check out, and I strongly encourage people to do so. I suspect we may lose a few more as 8th Street starts to change as the rail switching yards are relocated.

What else makes your list?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Credit Where Credit Is Due: Charcuterie at Hy Vee

I had to stop by Hy Vee today because I needed a relatively obscure ingredient (for Sioux Falls, anyway) and I sort of had a hunch this particular Hy Vee might have it. The ingredient? I needed some veal for a little cooking project. They had it.

On my way back to the meat department as I was winding through the maze of renovations, I walked by the new Charcuterie counter. And I must say . . . pretty forking impressed! When I heard Hy Vee was doing this, I figured the product would look a lot more like the deli counter and a lot less than the selection at Look's. I took a quick inventory and noticed a fine offering of cured meats, including speck, prosciutto, pancetta, double smoked bacon, mortadella, soprasetta (regular and spicy), and others. Overall, a very respectable offering. I have needs for these sorts of things in my life and I am very glad to have them here. At the Charcuterie, Hy Vee also sells a nice assortment of pickles and other accompaniments. Don't know what you want? They will slice you up a tray. And I bet the helpful smiles slice faster than the artisans at Prairie Berry.

In the future, I am looking forward to the other new features at Hy Vee, especially in the Grille or whatever they are calling it, where beer and wine will be offered. There are a lot of things about Hy Vee that drive me to drink, like their total rip off meat pricing. So, at least when I get pissed off, I can just wheel my cart over there and take a brief pause. Way to gauge consumer demand Hy Vee!

And thanks for the nice selection of tasty salted meats!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Legend's Steakhouse: A Nice Addition in Deadwood

Deadwood has some great dining options. Truly, there is something to fit most Midwestern tastes and budgets. You want prime rib and crab buffet? Ok. I don't. But good ones are available. Want fancy schmancy like a sorbet palate cleanser before your main course? Jake's can take care of that. Want a really nice steak at a really decent price? Legend's. 

This is a new venue. It is located in the lower level of the Franklin Hotel. Yes, in other words where Durty Nelly's Salloon used to be. For those without recent Deadwood history, the Franklin is Deadwood's version of a grand dame of an old hotel. Built in 1903, the Franklin is a commanding presence on Main Street. This is one of several buildings that will remind you that Deadwood was the epicenter of commerce and culture in western South Dakota back when Rapid City was just a hay camp. Be forewarned though, this ain't the Brown Palace and Durty Nelly's could make the Crow Bar look rather ritzy in comparison. 

Well, it's all gone. All the busted furniture. The bar. The stage. The poker area. The scary bathrooms. Gone. All gone. 

Now it is a relatively bright, well furnished dining area with a separate bar. Bare rock walls. Hardwoods. White tablecloths. Nice lighting fixtures, even though they are using them all to make the room quite bright. 

The staff is gracious and helpful. The menu is very steak-centric. There are five steak choices on the menu plus a chicken and lamb selection. Steaks are sirloin, ribeye, filet ( two cuts) and a prime rib. There are also pasta and dinner salad choices. All steaks are CAB cut and aged in-house. And get this! Legend's is bucking the trend of offering a la carte sides, so with your order you have a choice of potatoes or a rice and a choice of soups and salads! Kind of refreshing. 

Great wine selections by the glass or by the bottle. 

We had steaks at our table. And here's the low down. Not bad. The ribeye was good and tasty although not cooked to a barely medium rare as I prefer. But it was good and well seasoned. The salad was fresh and tasty- a steakhouse salad of greens, olives, blue cheese in a basil vinaigrette. Other choices included Caesar and a wedge. My au gratin potatoes were good. One of my guests had mashed potatoes. They included gravy, which I found odd. Nice wine glasses and great service. Did it blow my mind? No. Was it like a trip to a meat museum like Peter Lugar or another legendary protein palace? No. Was it outstanding? No. But for a party of four the entire tab was under $150 before tip and that included an $80 bottle of cab because I am dangerous with a wine list. At that price, I can't bitch and really, there was nothing to bitch about. Had that meal cost $400, there would be hell to pay. It was a reasonably good, well-prepared and well-presented meal at a very, very reasonable price. I'd go again. 

A couple things to pass on. One, if you are up to the challenge, go for the prime rib. A ribeye is $19.99. The prime rib is $29.99. I had to be reasonably functional for a business thing the next day, so I blew the 10 bucks on better wine instead of a more serious case of the meat sweats. Next time, it's prime rib. Remember the Flintstones intro where Fred gets that huge hunk of meat? Well, that's basically what you're going to get at Legend's. I'm getting sweaty thinking about it and teary because I didn't get it. Next time. Two, get there early enough to go have a drink on the veranda. It has also been refurbished and the view is awesome. 

Trust me. Legend's is one of the best bets you can make in Deadwood. Just make sure to call for a reservation. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Live, from Rapid City! It's Philly Ted's!

There was a time when Rapid Citians had a serious dining inferiority complex compared to Sioux Falls. Oddly, this mainly had to do with the fact there was an Olive Garden location in Sioux Falls. The fools!

Well, they certainly aren't doing too shabby these days thanks to Philly Ted and a very authentic cheesesteak experience. 

Located in a strip mall on North LaCrosse and appropriately divey between a video lottery joint and a payday lender, this is THE location of THE BEST cheesesteak in South Dakota, iif not almost everywhere outside of South Filly. 

Ted is the guy behind the counter and he will patiently guide you through your order and even encourage you to get a small drink since refills are free. 

If you want the real deal: a steak with onions and Cheese Whiz (yes, Cheese Whiz) this is it. House baked bread. Boom. If you get one of those and an order of cheese fries, you'll only need a shower and a long nap for dessert. 

I could go on and on, but this witty sign (only one among several) really says it all. 
Get there you won't be sorry and you won't think Pepperjax has America's best later. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Oh, Keg Chicken, How Do I Love Thee?

Assuming this blog has themes, one of them must certainly be how lucky we are to have such diversity and variety in food here in Sioux Falls. Hell, we have variety within variety! What do I mean by that? Take pho, for instance.  It's a huge steamy bowl of noodles, tasty broth. a variety of meats (er, proteins, since tendons and tripe might not be considered "meat") and delicious sprouts, herbs, lime and hot peppers to garnish. Well if you are a devotee of this ubiquitous southeast Asian comfort food like I am, you can not only get pho here, you can get it at several places-- Saigon Panda, Lam's, Dynasty, Pho Quyhn, and Phnom Pehn.

The same is true with one of my all-time favorite comfort foods: fried chicken. It is truly one of my favorite guilty pleasures. It's one of those things I just crave once in a while and need to spend time alone with enjoying every juicy morsel and crispy bit I can extract off the bones.

Although there are a number of places that serve a respectable fried chicken, including Mama's Phried and Phillies, Jono's/Botski's, and even groceries and buffet joints, let's face the facts. If you love fried chicken like I do, in this town, you fall into one of two camps that are as separate and distinct as the East and West sides of town. Yes, you are either a disciple of Bob's or The Keg. Period.

Both Bob's and The Keg are awesome. Bob's seems to be more of a straight-forward seasoned flour coating while The Keg has a bit more crust suggesting some sort of batter. Both are probably brined or marinated to some extent to make it juicy and plump up that meat. Both are fried to perfection- crispy, juicy, hot and good. Whoever invented the pressure fryer should have received a Nobel Prize.

I got absolutely nothing bad to say about Bob's, but my heart belongs to The Keg. And boy, am I ever glad they are back in town. The Keg was an East side staple, once located at 10th and Bahnson and later at 26th and Sycamore where OT is now. I LOVED that place. In an ill-fated expansion attempt, the Keg opened a branch office on the West side at 57th and Marion. Based on nothing more than keen observation and rank speculation, I suspect the West side joint became the drain that required closure of the East side location and then eventually sunk the whole ship. After a brief hiatus, Keg chicken re-emerged at the Hillside on Lake Madison. That was good for the folks of Lake County and the Soo Foo folks with lake homes, but bad for me.

Well, The Keg is back. Unfortunately, it's landing spot is the former location of Sneaky's Chicken (yet another Sioux City outpost that couldn't fly here) which is the former location of Taco Villa. As much as I'd like to bitch about the location, it's a Sioux Falls zip code and I'd rather jaunt across or around town, than go without.

So, welcome back Keg chicken! I've missed you! Now start checking out some of the East side vacancies and come all the way home.