NOLA Notes

Rendered Speechless. Well, Not Completely…

I was asked to serve and was honored for the asking.
Then I was asked to lead and was stunned by the confidence had in me.
I was asked to write and was honored for the asking.
Then I got busy learning so that my writing would be of value.
I was asked to speak and was honored for the asking.
Then I became friends with someone I’ve known for years but only met today.

Now, basking in the glow of my life’s decisions,
I learn of yet another offer that itself is an honor.

And then I just scratch my head at the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart.

All Quiet on a Saturday Night

I recall the weekend evenings prior to meeting CS as oftentimes quiet. Sure, I’d go out with friends and do the normal stuff single folks do. But more often, I’d stay home and watch rented movies or read a book. CS is a pretty quiet kinda fella. So when we married, the quietness of my life remained. In fact, one of the biggest worries I had about marrying anyone was the whole living-under-one-roof-thing. I CRAVE quiet. I need it like a flower needs sun. As it turned out, CS and I are quite live-together-compatible.

Then we had the bright idea to have a baby. And I KNEW, KNEW, KNEW things would be sacrificed. That I’d have to cross my fingers that this new human would somehow become live-together-compatible with us too. That going out to hear a band or tool around the Quarter would become a rare event; that eating out would become a new, less exciting experience; that long-distance traveling would be cut down until Sun was beyond an age of needing to be carried when she tires; that after-work drinks decided on the spot would cease entirely. All those things left my life with nothing but a whimper. And what we got in exchange—a life with Sun—was ever so worth it all.

However.

The biggest casualty of having Sun enter my life is that quiet has all but exited it. I love that kid of mine. And as far as kids go, she’s on the quiet side. And she listens pretty well too. But, yanno, she’s FOUR and in the evenings she kinda never shuts the hell up for more than, hmmm, four minutes. And usually this talking is TO someone besides herself and 50% of the time that SOMEONE is me. And I LOVE her conversation. I swear, I do. Just, sometimes I wish it were just, well, QUIET.

Thus lending to tonight’s rare gift: the house, entirely empty but for me, for over 12 hours. CS is out of town for work and Sun is with my sister. Both return tomorrow. I get the TV (turned off)! Bed (and comfy pillow pet Sun received for Christmas)! ENTIRE HOUSE!!! All. To. Myself. And all the quiet it has to offer. And, boy, it offers a lot of it!

So here I sit on my sofa. All alone. Waxing philosophic about all the things I can get done in all this quiet.

And dammit. All I can think about are Sun and CS. And hearing them tell me of their traverses.

What’s Wrong with Romney’s Tax Returns

Mitt Romney is releasing his tax returns today, literally reams of paper to cover two tax years. Why hundreds of pages for just two tax years? Well, taking advantage of every loophole in the Tax Code requires many forms to be completed. What Romney risks with showing his return is NOT that we learn he is Richie Rich-rich. We arleady KNOW that. And it’s NOT that we learn he committed tax fraud or did anything illegal, immoral or unethical. I’d bet the farm he did not.

What we will learn, if we but take the time to really pay attention, is just how broken our American tax system is. What we already know, and what much more to-do will be made in the coming days, is just HOW LITTLE income tax Romney has paid, legally and within the rules of the laws now written: tax rates that were put into place under Bush and extended under Obama.

What’s happened is this. Mitt Romney worked in a field where his income was largely in cash and stock. In the year he earned that income, I will assume his tax rate was 35% (although I am curious to see if that is the case or if he found a loophole even for that). In the following years, when he had large amounts of that income still on hand, he invested it. And those investments earned income—dividends and interest. And the income on those investments are taxed at 15%

And here’s the problem: Most middle class Americans (and poor Americans) earn more in “earned income,” ie, from your job, than from “passive income,” ie, investments. Rich folks, on the other hand, often earn much more in passive income than earned income. And the end result is that the middle class ends up paying a higher rate of tax than the rich. And this is juuuust the way many in Congress want it. Why? Because much of what they themselves earn is passive. Duh.

A close look at the Tax Code reveals just how conduct-driven our tax system is. Here’s one example that’s the most obvious: Congress deems buying a home more worthwhile than buying a car. How do I know this? Because the Tax Code allows you to deduct from your income the mortgage interest but not the car loan interest. Who DOESN’T own a home? Generally folks who can’t afford one—the poor and lower middle class. But what DO the poor and middle class have that the rich don’t? Credit card debt. If I own my own home, I can take out a home equity line of credit. And THAT interest is deductible. But interest on my credit card? Nope. And so the divide grows between the way the rich get better tax treatment in this country than the middle class. Making, of course, the rich richer by allowing them to keep more of their assets than the middle class.

I would like nothing more than for Romney’s releasing of his tax returns to stir up Americans—wake them up—to the disparity of the Tax Code in favor of the rich and to demand our Congressmen to make real changes to the system that results is better equality. What I expect, in fact, is nothing but left and right spin to follow with no focus on the real issue: tax reform. In the end, it will be that Romney is rich and followed the law and gosh darn it don’t hate him for being a success. After all, EVERYONE is taxed at 15% for unearned income. Not just the rich. And if you achieve the American Dream, don’t you want the benefit of a lower tax rate on those investments?

I don’t hate Romney for being a success or for following the law and paying a lower overall tax rate on his earnings than me. But I do hold it against Congress. And the Americans who support the current tax system.

Dim Sum and Dragons Too

We returned today with friends to get dim sum at Panda King in Gretna. This was my third visit. The thing about dim sum is that being little dishes, you want to taste a little of everything. But once you have been once or twice, there are some dishes you simply MUST HAVE at each subsequent visit. These are the ones that you will come to crave and have to return for time and again. Then at each new visit, you can get as adventurous on new tasting as you like.

We started with one of the MUST HAVES, Pork Buns. These are sweet and savory and I have it on good authority they are laced with crack.

Pork Buns

Sun got her MUST HAVE dish, stir-fried noodles with vegetables. These are wonderful, and they fully and completely satisfied Sun.

Noodles

 

Then we ate some shrimp in tofu that was not as warm as it should have been and totally disappointed. For even more adventure, we opted for the pigs’ feet. My friend LOVED these. Had her boyfriend not been present, I secretly think she’d have married these feet. I did not share her love. So I leave it to you to try it yourself and settle the tie. I found the flavor not well pleasing and worse was the gelatinous texture. Not a good combo in my mouth.

Pigs' Feet

CS got the scallop dish. And DID NOT SHARE IT. So I’ll take that as a Yes, Please, More.

Scallops

Then, to counter the all-too-bad-taste left in my mouth from the pigs’ feet, I went with my other friend’s recommendation, the custard bun. This oddly reminded me of a stuffed king cake, a really, really GOOD stuffed king cake. Added to my always-growing MUST HAVE list. *Sigh*

Custard Buns

Then we had more mainstream dishes, pork puff pastries, sesame buns (yum!), snails (I admit I wasn’t up for these today but the two that ate them enjoyed them), and my favorite: steamed rice wrapped in a lotus leaf.

Pork Puff Pastry

 

Sesame Buns

 

Snails

 

Rice wrapped in Lotus Leaf

 

And as we were sitting in our respective food comas, enjoying the afterglow of a nice meal spent with good company, the sound of a distant drum was heard. It grew louder and louder and lo! a Dragon Dance had begun to celebrate the Chinese New Year!

They spilled out into the parking area and a crowd formed. Then streamers were pulled. It. Was. AWESOME. We topped it all of with a trip to the Hong Kong Food Market.

Though this requires a trip across the river (and for us, sadly, it also meant the need to use Garmin), it is well worth it.

 

Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours

It’s that time of year in New Orleans: CARNIVAL TIME! And with carnival (yes, I call the season “Carnival,” and the final day of the season only “Mardi Gras.” My Maw Maw taught me right, after all. But I digress…) comes KING CAKE! I am a purist and do NOT eat king cake out of season. I take it as bad form if not outright bad luck. And changing the color of the sugar to red and green does NOT make it NOT king cake. Sheese. Again, refocusing…

Haydel’s Bakery adds a ceramic doll to its king cakes. Each year, it’s a different set of dolls. When the Saints won the Superbowl, they had three Saints-themed dolls, including a flying pig. Post Katrina, a Captain Blue Tarp doll and a FEMA trailer float. The dolls are as uniquely New Orleans as the artist who creates them, Alberta Meitin-Graf. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak at last year’s Jefferson Parish Library king cake party. (Damn, I love this town!) She’s simply fascinating.

This year’s theme does not disappoint in its nod to Louis Armstrong’s famous expression when he ended his letters: “Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours.” I give you the Red Bean Lady and her Rice-ly Escort carrying a trumpet.

New Orleanians took the most mundane day of the week, Monday, wash day, and of course turned their attention to food. A pot of red beans slowly, cheaply, simmering on the stove as the laundry was done. Even today, with mothers working and not doing wash all day on Mondays, we STILL eat red beans on Monday. It’s like going home again.

Why would you live elsewhere than where Mondays are Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours?

Enjoy Carnival! And king cakes! And if you find a king cake offers you too much sugar, do what I do: tap it into your coffee.

Creole Turtle Soup

Every time I go to Galatoire’s, I find it hard to resist their turtle soup. My last bowl of it got me thinking about making it at home. So after talking it over with Pontchartain Pete, we decided to take it on.

Historically, turtle soup gained popularity with the European explorations of the West Indies, where turtles became an important food resource for sailors and pirates and a luxury item on English tables.

~ New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories, edited by Susan Tucker.

Turtle soup has been a New Orleans dish since, well, New Orleans has been peopled. New Orleans’ turtle soup is different from other regions’ soups by the inclusion of another Louisiana food staple: tomatoes. Elsewhere, turtle soup is a thin brothy soup; in New Orleans, it’s a thick, rich stew-like soup.

Pete learned that although there are as many recipes for Creole Turtle Soup as their are Creole kitchens, all of the recipes had these things in common: turtle meat,veal or beef stock, onions, celery, tomatoes, parsley, thyme, chopped hard boiled eggs, lemon, and sherry.

Pete:

For the soup, I looked at several of the recipes available online. On his website Gumbo Pages, Chuck Taggert had two recipes, from Commander’s Palace and Arnaud’s. I also looked at Galatoire’s cookbook recipe and decided that I liked elements of all three.

I also wanted to make a lot of it to freeze for later and kept that in mind. Most recipes call for one and a half to two pounds of turtle meat, which, I learned, is carried in two-pound packages, frozen, at a few local seafood markets and groceries. It ain’t cheap; the two-pound pack I got in Covington at Pat’s Seafood ran about $30. I’ve heard a lot of people say that most restaurant turtle soup is not made with turtle meat but with veal and after spending that much on meat that isn’t filet mignon I can see why.

Turtle meat package.

Turtle meat package.

 

Arnaud’s recipe called for both turtle and veal, and since I wanted to make a lot of soup, I also bought two packages of ground veal, which, at $6.00 a pound, seemed quite reasonable.

As far as seasonings go, the recipes were basically the same, although in addition to the onions, celery and garlic Arnaud’s and Commander’s called for, Galatoire’s also called for a lot of bell pepper and paprika — three peppers and a quarter cup of paprika.

Commander’s calls for beef stock, Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s, veal stock. I took the expensive route. Rather than buy a couple quarts of Swanson’s beef broth, we went with frozen veal demi glace from Langenstein’s, at $14.99 per 2-cup package. I figured 4 cups demi cut with 12 cups water would make for a gallon or so of veal stock. I cooked that down a bit for about 30 minutes with bay leaves, thyme, garlic and two tablespoons–not a quarter cup–of paprika, before adding everything else and it worked out perfectly.

The “everything else” consisted of the turtle meat, veal, vegetables, tomato puree, salt, pepper, hot sauce, lemons and sherry.

I’ve never dealt with turtle before and if any of this required cleaning a dead one, we wouldn’t be here today. Not that getting what was labeled “boneless turtle meat” was a piece of cake. Boneless though it was, there was an awful lot of silverskin and connective tissue that needed trimming, which, with my unskilled knife work, cost about about a half-pound of lost meat.

Here’s the method.

1) Have someone else (Nolanotes) prep all the veggies for you. It ended up being a lot more than needed, but I was thinking big when telling her what quantities to buy and chop.

Nolanotes-chopped veggies.

Nolanotes-chopped veggies.

 

2) Brown the turtle meat. A little salt and pepper on the meat, a little vegetable oil in a hot pot, and brown the turtle meat on each side, just like if you were making grillades or whatever. After cooling a bit, I chopped the meat up in about 1/4-inch pieces.

Turtle meat browned and chopped.

Turtle meat browned and chopped.

 

3) Brown the veal. Same thing, it was ground already and I just browned it and put it in the bowl with the turtle until the stock and veggies were ready. I taste-tested some of  the browned turtle, which tasted more like beef than anything else. Alligator I find to taste like dry chicken with a fishy aftertaste and don’t care for it too much. Turtle tasted much better.

4) Make the stock. Next time I’ll probably start with some boxed stock. This time, though, it was $30 worth of frozen demi glace which I melted down and cut with water, added some bay leaves, dried thyme and oregano, salt and pepper, garlic, one lemon cut into quarters and the paprika and simmered all that while I…

Demi glace from Langenstein's.

Demi glace from Langenstein's. Expensive, but worked well and we didn't have to boil veal bones for two days.

 

5) Made the roux. All the recipes called for making a separate butter roux to add later on to thicken the soup. Two sticks butter, one cup flour, cook until light brown and set aside.

6) Sweat the veggies. I ended up measuring out two cups each of chopped onion, celery, bell pepper and one cup green onion. Sweated with a little butter until clear, then I added 3 cups of canned tomato puree to the veggies and let that simmer for ten minutes.

7) This is some really involved stuff. I’m taking a break now.

And….back.

8 ) Add the tomato and veggie mixture to the stock and 1/2 cup of sherry. Get it back to a boil and simmer 10 minutes.

9) Add the browned turtle and veal meat and all the juices that were in the bottom of the bowl. Bring it back to a boil, let simmer 20 minutes.

10) Chop up the boiled eggs and add the roux. WHAT BOILED EGGS??? Alright, that was another step that Nolanotes had taken care of before I started. Chop up three boiled eggs, add to the pot. The roux was sitting in the pot and the excess butter floated to the top. I just poured it off and put the browned flour paste into the pot. It thickened fairly well, I probably could have used another 1/2 cup. Bring to boil and simmer 10 minutes more.

11) Taste and adjust for salt, pepper and heat. I added a few shakes of Crystal. I would have added Tabasco instead but couldn’t find it.

That’s it. Pour in bowl, splash on some more sherry and some more chopped eggs if you like.

Bowl of Pontchartrain Pete's Creole Turtle Soup.

Bowl of Pontchartrain Pete's Creole Turtle Soup.

 

A note on the sherry: I used Hartley and Gibson’s Amontillado from Martin Wine Cellar. I had chosen a Manzanilla but consulted with Steve Perret, who suggested a nuttier, more full-bodied, Amontillado for use with turtle soup. That’s why it pays to shop where people know their stuff. It was inexpensive, too–only about $12 for the bottle.

Hartley & Gibson Amontillado Sherry.

Hartley & Gibson Amontillado Sherry.

 

This Is It

It’s so easy
Too easy, often,
To say
This is it.
Three short words
To carry the day.
Everyday.
When sometimes
We need reminding
Just to breathe.
To breathe, after all, is to be.
And to be
In just this moment
Is all there is.

Total Eclipse

Today I did something so decadent, something so out of character, that I couldn’t help but relish it: I went to a coffee shop. Alone. To knit. For a whole hour before my appointment with a life insurance agent.

Ahhhh.

And as I was waxing philosophic in my moment, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” started to play over the coffee shop’s radio.

Every now and then
I get a little bit restless
And I dream of something wild

Is my wild dream now of being alone in a coffee shop, knitting?

Every now and then
I get a little bit nervous
That the best of all the years have gone by

Wow. IS sitting alone in a coffee shop really my wild dream? ARE the best of my years behind me?

This damn song was getting under my skin. I put my knitting down and picked up my cell phone to catch up on Facebook. And I read the unsettling news that a friend who went in to have a cyst removed was informed it was not a cyst but a tumor for which they’ll need to biopsy.

Every now and then
I get a little bit tired
Of listening to the sound of my tears

And Bonnie Tyler was just getting to the part in her song where all her raw emotion flows from her voice with such palpable sadness.

Every now and then
I fall apart

Just like that. In the moment it took to read one short Facebook post, I fell apart.

Every now and then
I get a little bit terrified

My knitting stopped. My hands shook too uncontrollably to handle the needles, the yarn. My mind raced. I fought back tears. And I resisted the urge to call my friend and wake her from her fitful rest.

Every now and then
I get a little bit helpless

She won’t know whether it’s really bad news until later this week. But when one’s having a shitacular year such as this friend is having, this is almost more than even I can bear to think of her having to bear.

Every now and then
I get a little bit angry
And I know I’ve got to get out and cry

Life is a fickle state. Happiness and tragedy dancing on a pinhead ready to swap places at a moment’s notice. As I settled in to discuss my even more tangible needs for life insurance, my friend’s worries ate at the edges of my thoughts.

We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks

When it was time to pack up my things and head out, my wild dream of stability in life such that I can sit alone for one hour and knit with a cafe au lait as my companion no longer seemed pathetic or even tame. And I know I still have much light in my life. Enough even to shine some on my friend on her darkest days.

Gumbo: Yeah, Yeah!

Chill in the air, check. Saints playing on Sundays, check. It can only mean one thing. Time to check the freezer for andouille reserves, the pantry for filé powder, and get to the grocery for all the fixins. Yup, this weekend: Operation Chicken and Andouille Gumbo!

I’m going to Baton Rouge at the end of the week, and it seems the perfect opportunity to do a side trip to LaPlace, Andouille Capital of the World.

One of the best, most joyous things about living in South Louisiana is the access to fresh ingredients to make gumbo at the first sign of Fall. And even if it ends up being 90º this weekend, it won’t matter. The sheer act of going all over town for the best ingredients, prepping veggies, getting that roux to a perfect chocolate color, and putting that pot on to simmer, it is always worth the effort.

If food is the religion of New Orleans, then gumbo is its God. And I’ll be bowing at its altar soon. Thanking my lucky stars for my Louisiana life.

Peace be with you.

My Inscrutable Smile

Well, Sun has been perusing the costume magazines for 10 months now and has, at long last, settled on what she wants to be for Halloween: Cinderella. Now, usually I get a tad particular about a Halloween costume having to be scary. But she’s four. And determined.

So after the Saints’ execution of the Texans today, we went out and bought Sun a Cinderella costume. But NOW she’s bent on her daddy and me dressing up too. And, sadly, much of what is available for adult women is on the “naughty” side. You know, naughty nurse, naughty witch, naughty Alice in wonderland, etc. It’s actually pathetic that plain ole scary witch outfits are so outnumbered by the naughty ones.

Then I saw this and thought BINGO:

I shall go as the Cheshire cat. Brilliant, think I, of its minimalist qualities. Slap some cat makeup on my face and voilà!

As we are driving home from the costume store, Sun starts in on me. “Mom, you can’t go as the Teshire cat. It’s NOT a tostume.” To that argument, I pointed out that in the book, sometimes the cat himself was nothing more than a smile. I’d draw that smile on my face and have it PLUS ears and a tail. Score: Mom 1, Sun 0.

Sun, undeterred, argued on: “But Mom. You CAN’T go as the Teshire cat. I am not going as Alice. [Sun 1, Mom 1.] And if you want to go as a cat, then you need to go as Lucifer, the mean cat of Cinderella’s stepmom.”

Well, now, damn. That has the one thing I cannot out-argue: LOGIC. Which brings the final score to Sun 2, Mom 1.

I simply can wear black ears and tail and snarl at people all night AND be in step with Sun’s costume. So even though Sun out-argued me this time, I get to dress as a scary (not naughty) black cat.

And if you look closely, you’ll see that I’m grinning like the Cheshire cat.