Reveillon Closes. Yule Log. Pfefferneusse. Chestnut, LA. Whipping Cream. Trifle. Alive! Harry Shearer. Night Of Radishes. Swimmer.
Eating Around New Orleans Today
Today is the final day for the Reveillon menus in most of the restaurants serving them. This wonderful New Orleans dining custom, now twenty-five years old in its latter-day version, treated me to five unusually good dinners this year, as it always does. If you haven't been to one, you still have a chance tonight for all of the thirty-one restaurants offering the Reveillon. A few ill keep it going a little longer. All the menus, the schedules, and the whole story of the Reveillon is here.
Two Days Till Christmas
Nine days till New Year's Eve. The turkey must be defrosting now, if you have a frozen turkey. In the refrigerator, of course. Stand the wines up if you're bringing anything out of the deep collection. (I don't recommend Christmas as a day to open the best wines, unless you have major oenophiles in attendance. Make restaurant reservations for New Year's Eve now. A list of restaurants open Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, plus all the Reveillon menus (served for the last time tomorrow night in most of the restaurants offering them), and our favorite Christmas recipes, are all on our Christmas Page.
This is Bûche de Noël Day. Or, if you insist on speaking English, Yule Log Day. It's a french creation, however, whose origins were in a decree from Napoleon that people keep their chimneys closed to keep the cold air from coming in. That meant that the fireplaces could not be lit. To take the place of the burning logs, patisseries made these cakes in the shape of logs. The story is suspicious, but the cake does seem to date back to the time of Napoleon.
The bûche de Noël is a fairly difficult cake to make, the hard part being making a cake light and thin enough to be able to be rolled up. Genoise (sponge cake) is the usual formula used. The rolled-up cake is then covered with light-brown frosting, etched to resemble tree bark. Powdered sugar sprinkled on the top is the snow. An artfully-made bûche de Noël will have a stump of a branch sticking out of it, and marzipan decorations that resemble mushrooms or lichen. It's more impressive to see than to eat, but it's an essential dessert for the Christmas holidays.
Somebody who probably has a German heritage says that it's National Pfefferneusse Day. Pfefferneusse (it means "pepper nut") is a hard, powdered-sugar-coated cookie made with a lot of baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, and even a little bit of pepper). A young Indiana woman who loomed large in my twenties loved them enough that she baked them every now and then. The spice gives it a holiday feeling, and I think it is traditional to serve them this time of year. There's a good recipe
Bad Moments In Airline Food
On this date in 1972, sixteen survivors of a plane crash in the high Andes mountains were rescued. They managed to stay alive for ten weeks by eating deceased fellow passengers. Their ordeal was chronicled in the book Alive! by Piers Paul Read.
Eating Around The World
This is the Night of the Radishes in Oaxaca, Mexico. Large red-skinned, white-interior radishes weighing as much as six pounds are carved into fanciful figures and displayed in the main plaza of the city tonight. Because of the time of year, many of the sculptures are Nativity scenes. Thousands of people come to see the competition among radish growers and carvers.
Food On The Air
On this date in 1928, the National Broadcasting Company hooked up the first coast-to-coast radio network. A few months later, WSMB affiliated with NBC, and became the first major network station in New Orleans. A reminder of the illustrious past of the little radio station (now called WWWL) on which I broadcast The Food Show every day from 4 till 7 p.m. One of the shows on NBC was The Breakfast Club, which appeared on WSMB for most of its thirty-four-year run. Its host Don McNeill was born today in 1907.
Foodies In Sho-Biz
Today is the birthday in 1943 of actor, writer, and satirist Harry Shearer. He started as a child actor (he was in an Abbott and Costello movie), was part of the Saturday Night Live culture, and made a bunch of memorably whacko movies. He also does plenty of voiceover work, including more characters on "The Simpsons" than any other actor. He likes New Orleans and its food, lives here off and on, and was a big help after Katrina. Harry has a radio program called Le Show on NPR, aired here on WWNO.
Annals Of Coffee
On this date in 1675, King Charles II of England ordered all the coffeehouses closed. He had nothing against coffee, but he didn't like the tenor of the conversations going on in the places where it was dispensed. Two weeks later, he had to rescind the order, such was the caffeine-addicted public's outcry. Besides, Starbucks threatened to cut off the king's Frappuccino.
Alluring Dinner Dates
Canadian swimming champion, model and actress Estella Warren took the plunge into The Big Pool today in 1978. May as well book the corner table, and seat her in the corner, so everybody can get an eyeful.
Jack Ham, a linebacker for the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, was born today in 1948. . . Chet Baker, a jazz trumpeter who had an extraordinary style of singing that sounds fresh even today, let his first notes out today in 1929.
Words To Eat By
"In medieval times the habit arose of expressing a man's wealth, no longer in terms of the amount of land in his estate, but of the amount of pepper in his pantry. One way of saying that a man was poor was to say that he lacked pepper. The wealthy lacked pepper. The wealthy kept large stores of pepper in their houses, and let it be known that it was there: it was a guarantee of solvency."--Waverly Root, American food writer.
Wednesday, December 16. Cold And Dry. Bon Ton Café. We finally have a rain-free day. And it's cold. The perfect day to scratch the itch I get at this time every year: to have dinner at the Bon Ton Café. This year, it's a two-year itch, because I didn't scratch it last year.
And, unlike the dinner in 1974 that triggered this tradition, I would not take this one alone. Doug Swift called me a few days ago wanting to meet up so I could autograph some cookbooks for him. The perfect time and place would be over dinner. Doug and his wife Karen became good friends of ours during the years when we both had sons at Christian Brothers School and then at Jesuit. They made the mistake, the first time they came to dinner at our house, of bringing a bottle of Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon--one of the best wines from California. I've invited the Swifts as often as possible ever since. Mary Ann says there's more to this than the wine. "You and Doug were twins separated at birth," she says. "You're the only ones who get each other's jokes."
I beat Doug to the Bon Ton (it's across the street from the radio station). I ordered a Rum Ramsey, the house cocktail. It predates the present restaurant. When Al and Alzina Pierce bought the 1925-vintage Bon Ton in 1953 and completely transformed its character, they kept Rum Ramsey. It's a good, generous, refreshing drink, probably better suited to summer than winter, with a sour secret-ingredient mix.
We started out with too-small, overfried crawfish tails and cubes of fried catfish with "Alzina sauce." It looks like mayonnaise, ketchup, and hot sauce mixed together, but tastes much better than that. The manager then sent us a few oysters Alvin--fried, plump, and moistened with a brown sauce with mushrooms.
I recommended the crabmeat au gratin, the best in town and probably the best dish in the restaurant. The waitress added, "You know what's good? A filet with the crabmeat au gratin on top!" I'd never heard of that, although crabmeat on top of steak has become a common local atrocity. (I think it adds nothing to the steak, and takes everything away from the crabmeat.) The idea intrigued Doug, who agreed to try it. That changed my order to the sirloin strip, so we could color-coordinate the wine. I noticed that the menu now claims USDA Prime grade for its beef, which I think is something new. The Bon Ton's steaks have always been reasonably good, but few locals think of that as a specialty here.
We ordered a bottle of Guenoc Petite Syrah, which I figured would be nice with all this beef. I'm glad we went down that road. The filet with the crabmeat looked terrific--the crabmeat in its only lightly-cheesy bechamel had been glazed under the broiler, giving it a very appealing look. Doug said it was delicious. The sirloin strip was first-class in every way except one, and that was my doing. I asked to have some butter sauce with the steak, and they don't make that here for this purpose. Nevertheless, this strip was first-class by any standard.
So was the company. I think Doug reads everything I write and listens to much of the radio show. Our conversation is like that between two people who speak every day. Doug is a medical doctor, so his life is interesting. I learned some new things about him. I knew he grew up in Mexico City (although you would never guess this to talk with him), but I didn't know that his mother was an emigre from France after World War II. I knew he was a UNO grad like me, but not that he met his wife there.
He had information about one of my radio sponsors. "That Volkswagen Toureg you're always touting originally had such a powerful V-10 engine that they had to retool the engine mounting," he said. How did he know that? Because he's a car nut, he said--something else new to me.
I signed the books, we split a bread pudding, and fought over the check. He won. Mary Ann will be happy to hear that, not because we feel Doug and Karen owe us anything, but because she says I pick up entirely too many checks when I dine out with others.
Bon Ton Cafe. CBD: 401 Magazine 504-524-3386. Cajun.
WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
During the three years that Maximo's remained closed following the hurricane, its many fans never gave up hope it would return. It did, early in 2009, with new owners but one of the lead chefs from the old regime. They reopened it with all the hipness, the Tuscan-style roasting, the great fresh ingredients and the first-class wine list it had before. It's now as if nothing had happened.
WHY IT'S GOOD
The kitchen relies heavily on roasting and grilling, olive oil, garlic, and fresh herbs, all applied to an array of first-class main ingredients. They're not afraid of searing and encrusting meats and seafood dramatically. A convincing spike of red pepper turns up in many (and perhaps most) dishes.
When Maximo's opened in the late 1980s, it gave ambitious diners something they'd not often seen in New Orleans: a Northern-style Italian menu with all the sophistication you'd find in the best restaurants of Tuscany or Rome. It also opened with one of the very few excellent collections of Italian wine, and has long held the local lead in that department. The original owner chose not to return after the hurricane, but three years later new owners and the former chef brought Maximo's back to life.
From the street, it looks like another converted old French Quarter building. Inside, the dining room is striking and contemporary. Booths run along one brick wall and tables are just inside the front door. But the focus of the restaurant is its open kitchen and its famous diner-style counter. The music is of the current era, and a little too loud for those who might not relate to it.
Mushroom bruschetta (sauteed atop a crouton).
Sicilian shrimp (wrapped with prosciutto and grilled).
Arugula and prosciutto salad.
Crabmeat Caesar salad.
Daily soups (especially red pepper and shrimp bisque).
House ravioli (changes daily).
Pasta Rosa (very spicy penne with shrimp, garlic, and arugula).
Seared scallops piccata.
Seafood mixed grill.
Chicken with Italian sausage.
Pappardelle pasta with duck confit and arugula.
Rack of lamb.
FOR BEST RESULTS
All the action is in the front of the restaurant, where the regulars keep a party atmosphere going. But if you want to relate with the chefs and get the freshest food, sit at the counter.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The levels of red-pepper spice run through too large a percentage of the menu. It's good, but not for every dish in a dinner.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +2
- Consistency +1
- Service +2
- Attitude +2
- Wine and Bar +2
- Hipness +2
- Local Color +1
- Good for business meetings
- Small private room
- Open Sunday dinner
- Open Monday dinner
- Open after 10 p.m.
- Reservations accepted
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
Although it's far from full most nights, other restaurants in the French Quarter would kill for a crowd like the one that keeps Maximo's humming. A hip crowd of customers who obviously know the restaurant well concentrates near the front door--smart seating on the part of the manager, because nobody could walk past and not feel the buzz. Maximo's does more with a bowling-alley-shaped building than any other restaurant in town. Not only that, but as you walk back you feel as if you've moved from one restaurant into another. And you catch fleeting glimpses of people who feel securely hidden in their booths. Romantic possibilities abound. Meanwhile, the aromas emanating from the kitchen make this the most delicious-smelling place in town.
Every day, a new suggestion on where to celebrate whatever it is you're celebrating, right up to the end of the year. A collection of all these menus can be found here. Our snowflake ratings are for the holiday menu only, with three flakes being the top rating.
Hunt Room Grill
Monteleone Hotel, 214 Royal. 504-523-3341.
CER CDR NYE NYD
Price noted for of entree is for four courses.
Smoked Muscovy Duck Breast
Celeriac, apple and walnut salad port and ginger gastrique
Dariole of Salmon
Creamed shrimp and artichokes with salmon and scallop mousse, sorrel sauce
* * * * * * * * * *
Puree of White Asparagus Soup
With St. André Cheese
Salad Saint Sylvester
Wild greens, grilled black forest bread marinated forest mushrooms, apple, fig and apricot vinaigrette
* * * * * * * * * *
Christmas Grill $60
Veal with morelles, duck with red currants, lamb loin with English mint sauce
Braised Grouper $50
Carta fata style with creamed spinach and chanterelles white truffle sauce
Roasted Goose and Red Cabbage $45
Traditional Christmas goose with braised red cabbage and apples caraway sauce
Petit Filet of Beef $65
With foie gras and caramelized cippolini onions, perigueux sauce
* * * * * * * * * *
White Chocolate Bread Pudding
Hazelnut crème brûlée with amaretto sauce anglaise
Yule Log with Raspberry Sauce
English Trifle or Zuppa Inglese
An English trifle is so colorful, light, and delicious that it seems frivolous--hence the name. But a lot of work goes into making a good one, so the maker is within his or her rights to take great pride in its making. The most challenging part is making pastry cream, a recipe for which follows. But you do that in advance. The rest is easy. This is the same dessert that Italians misleadingly call zuppa Inglese ("English soup"). It should not be soupy, however. This is best made in a glass bowl, because the colorful fruits make it very pretty. Don't hesitate to substitute other fruits. A trifle is also a great use for leftover cake, even if it's a little stale.
- 3 cups sponge cake or lady fingers, cut into cubes
- 1/2 cup Kirsch (cherry brandy)
- 3 cups pastry cream (see recipe)
- 1 pint fresh ripe strawberries, sliced
- 2 ripe bananas, sliced
- 2 kiwis, peeled, cut end to end, and sliced across
- 1/2 cup blueberries
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 cup crushed pistachios or slivered, toasted almonds
1. In a bowl, soak the cake or lady fingers in just enough Kirsch to soften them but not turn them to mush.
1. In a chilled metal bowl, whip the whipping cream until soft peaks form. Add the sugar and continue whipping until the peaks stiffen and no gritty sugar remains. Do not overwhip! The cream might break.
3. In a glass bowl than can hold about three quarts, make a layer of the cake at the bottom. With a spatula, spread a half-inch-thick layer of pastry cream on top of it. Cover (incompletely) with some of the strawberries, banana slices, cake, and nuts. Spread a layer of whipped cream over the fruit, then top with a layer of kiwis, blueberries, cake and nuts. Spread more pastry cream, and make two more layers as above.
4. Top the bowl with whipped cream and stud it with some of all of the ingredients in the layers below. Refrigerate until serving time.
5. To serve, use a big spoon and scoop through two layers to get all the ingredients. It's prettiest when served in glass dishes.
Serves eight to twelve.
Pastry cream is the made-from-scratch version of the canned Bavarian cream gunk you find in doughnuts and eclairs from most bakeries. It's not difficult to make, except in one particular: it must be cooled very rapidly after you're finished making it, because it's highly prone to bacteria-caused spoilage. So follow Step Three to the letter.
- 1 quart milk
- 4 Tbs. cornstarch
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 4 Tbs. butter
- 1 cup sugar
1. In a bowl, dissolve the cornstarch into 1 cup of milk. Beat the eggs and stir into the milk-cornstarch mixture. Stir in the vanilla.
2. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the remaining milk with the butter and sugar and bring it to a boil.
3. Whisk the reserved cornstarch-milk-egg mixture into the boiling milk. Continue whisking energetically until it returns to a boil and thickens. Remove from the heat, and keep whisking for another minute.
4. It is very important to cool the mixture as rapidly as possible. The best method is to spread it out on a clean metal sheet pan, cover it with plastic wrap, and put it into the coldest part of the refrigerator. Keep refrigerated until ready to use.
Makes about a quart of pastry cream.
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