Saturday, January 9, 2010

The First Meat

A great story was recently published about the oldest ever walking animal footprints. I'm a big fan of trace fossils (footprints, tracks, trails, etc., that preserve the activity of ancient animals). It's an important find because these tracks are older than the earliest body fossils (actual remains) of land-living animals. They are also important because these tracks occur in marine sediments, even though for a long time paleontologists have thought that the fish-to-land animal transition took place first in freshwater settings, possibly low-lying swamps (of course, this transition could have happened multiple times).

But the reports thus far have missed out on the most


important part of the story: this was the first-ever MEAT. When I say meat, I exclude seafood, in the Catholic tradition (even though, technically, fish are made of the same tissues as land animals). Still, we are talking about the animals that may have eventually led to chicken, steak, and pork chops. And that begs the question, what did these things taste like?

This is a surprisingly tough question to answer, because at least in the West, we don't regularly consume any animals like these. It would have been amphibian-like in its basic biology (so we could think frog),

Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus).Saltwater Crocodile

but modern amphibians are almost exclusively freshwater, and this animal lived in the sea. In its way of life, it probably would have been more like a reptile, maybe like an alligator. And we do eat crocodilians (alligators and crocodiles). Except again, the crocodilians we consume are all freshwater (I can't find any recipes for saltwater crocodile - maybe growing to be 20' long frightens off the chefs).

So we have a large amphibian (over 6 feet long), that lived in saltwater but came out on land, and it's made of meat. I suspect, that like alligator, the texture would be fairly firm compared to most fish. I hate to compare it to chicken, but 'gator often

Alligator SteakBlackened Alligator Steak

does get that comparison. However, unlike chicken, it would have had the distinct taste of the sea. This animal was, after all, living in, breathing (probably), and drinking saltwater almost constantly. I suspect, then, we can think of strong, muscular fish, with firm textures. Like shark or swordfish, for example; less fishy in flavor, more steak-like in texture. Like chickens, amphibians, and reptiles, it may have been composed of both light and dark meat, and probably more oily (like a fish), than these animals, and with a distinct taste of the sea.

So we don't have a great modern analog for this creature, but like all meat, I'm sure that it would have been delicious. One of the unfortunate facts of life is that extinction is inevitable, and these creatures, like more than 90% of species that have ever lived, are extinct. This means that there is probably greater than a 90% chance that an extinct animal was the best tasting meat EVER - and yet we'll never know. But I'm sure that had we been around 400 million years ago, we'd have thrown one of these on a spit, by the beach, to find out first-hand what it tasted like.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Site Design

I made some changes to the layout and header tonight. My hope was this would invigorate me to get back to posting (I won't make excuses... but I could). Suggestions are welcomed, but my HTML/CSS expertise is weak, especially with the prefabbed blogger layouts (it seems easier when I start from scratch.

Upcoming will be some restaurant reviews, including about a trip "Up North" in warmer days, a great restaurant in the Big Apple, and to eve for New Year's Eve (Ann Arbor's most hip food establishment, owned by Eve Aronoff, short-lived recent contestant on Top Chef).

As a teaser, here's what I said about eve in 2005:

eve has a great website, and you're best looking at the menu offerings and seeing if any of it appeals to you. eve is in the tradition of the trend in fusion restaurants, and can be a little non-descript for that reason. I would characterize it as world-wide ingredients and concepts prepared in a classic French tradition. The restaurant is named for the head chef, in a self-aggrandizing manner that only artisans can pull off. She deserves it for what she's done, creating a gem of an establishment in the Kerrytown market district. I like to sit at the bar and enjoy the excellent wine list. By the glass you will be hurt, so going with someone else so you can enjoy a wine from the restaurant's reasonable list of bottles is recommended. There are lot of good values in the $20-$30 range. The ambiance is wonderful and it tends to be a romantic destination spot for Arborites. As far as deals go, well, no one goes to eve for the deals. But the food is the best in town, and as with most good things in Ann Arbor, you're gonna pay for it. The Thai chicken dumplings appetizer is a crowd favorite and if you're really hungry the tenderloin chimichurri is guaranteed to please.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cochon Restaurant, pseudo-reviewed

I recently had an amazing dinner at Cochon Restaurant. Known for "Cajun Southern Cooking", my friend Bruce and I shared appetizers of grilled oysters drizzled with a spicy oil, and stuffed crab shell with thin garlic toast. For dinner I had a spectacular catfish filet court bouillion, while Bruce had the fish on a half shell - served in skin and scales, so the fish easily flakes off the "shell". But I did not take notes on the meal, or pictures, so I can't provide a full restaurant review. Instead, I will share with you my memory of the dessert, which well symbolizes the excellence and inspiration at this restaurant.

Simply labeled as chocolate and chickory custard with whipped cream and cayenne pepper, it would be easy to expect little from the dessert, especially when it arrived in an unassuming Mason jar - maybe the presentation could be altered, but it would come at the expense of the surprising intensity of what lays within the jar.

Chocolate with peppery heat is everywhere lately: spicy cinnamon or cayenne hot cocoa, high-end dark chocolate bars with chiles, etc. Cochon capitalizes on this trend by combining a simple dessert, chocolate custard, with flecks of cayenne pepper, in perfect balance. A dollop of whipped cream adds richness, while staying true to the roots of New Orleans cuisine, by the subtle influence of chickory - reminding you that this dessert won't be found anywhere else on the planet. And then, just when all seems perfect, the taste and crunch of a fleck of rock salt shocks the mouth to life. Salt chocolates and salt caramels have similarly become ubiquitous recently - it seems that everyone is experimenting with chocolate and seasonings. Cochon took these trends, and juxtaposed of all these flavors into one small jar: sweet whipped cream, rich chocolate, distinctly New Orleans chickory, spicy flecks of cayenne, and the unexpected, invisible impact of the salt. It made for one of the most simply inspired desserts I've experienced.

On top of this, Cochon suggests dessert beverage pairings, and I went with their recommendation of a ruby red Italian dessert wine, slightly frizzante (bubbly). Initially it had a taste of plum, reminiscent of tawny port. But the dark flavors of the wine disappeared once the taste of the chocolaty dessert was in my mouth, and rich, red fruit flavors of strawberry sweetness emerged from the wine.

This is the kind of dessert experience that makes a restaurant. And that's why on a Thursday night, in the slow season, every table was full.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Po' Boys for a Po' Boy - The Saga Continues

I've posted previously about adventures with the po-boy. Today I continued my journey, by hitting up a local joint in the CBD (Central Business District).

4th Po' Boy: P&G Restaurant on Baronne (no website, as far as I can tell), on recommendation (over Mother's, which I've been told is a tourist trap, but I plan on visiting anyway before I leave since living here for only 3 months I think technically makes me a tourist). I went for my standard po-boy: roast beef with gravy, dressed. P&G is a turn and burn, cafeteria-style establishment - you get the feeling you are being served by lunch ladies while you are there, and, in a sense, you are. On the other side of a long bar with a sneeze guard is the po-boy fixin's, but also other cafeteria items like meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

The sandwich was standard fare, in my opinion. Nothing special, but better than Court Tavern's. The price was outstanding. Our total lunch consisted of two roast beef po-boys, red beans & rice, an order of mashed potatoes with gravy, and one beverage - total cost with tax, $18 flat. For lunch in the CBD, that's not a bad deal.

On a side note, the red beans & rice were bland to the point of being inedible - luckily hot sauce was on the table.

Also, to give another shout-out to Gumbo Tales, the book has a chapter on po-boys and their likely origin, told through the eyes of another Yankee. Next on my list is to find a place to get a good fried potato po-boy - supposedly the first variety ever made.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Being a kid again: On Snow Cones, Icees, Slushies, and Sno Balls

This post is about Sno Balls, a great New Orleans culinary tradition. But first, a little history of what life is like in the absence of this treat.

I grew up with the snow cone - and what a horrible way to start life. Sold by ice cream trucks, you'd quickly suck out all the juice, and then were left with hard chunks of flavorless ice (or worse - ice that tasted amiss). The best part of the damn things was the rock hard gumball at the bottom of the paper cup.

Some stores served the Icee - this drink in the polar bear-adorned cup was an upgrade over the snow cone. While flavors were limited (cherry, coke, sometimes others), the softer consistency of the ice made for longer-lasting flavor. The problem was that you had to wait for the thing to melt, as they were only served with a straw which seemed to take forever. And you were eventually left with a flavorless ice hash at the bottom of your cup.

Slushees are definitely next up in the ice-syrup hierarchy, with the many flavors of Slush Puppy being a favorite sight for me as a kid. So many choices: at least 8, like a box of crayons! The mix of syrup with liquified ice was a big improvement over the Icee, allowing a drink you could slurp through a straw, though with a sickening sweetness that effectively prevents anyone over 13 from ordering one.

And that brings me to New Orleans, where "Sno-Ball" shops are ubiquitous. Northerners have seen sights like these before - shacks that serve shaved ice soaked in syrup - nothing new to see here, move along.

You have no idea what you are missing.

Thanks to the brilliant book "Gumbo Tales" by food writer Sara Roahen (which I'll review in a later post), I recently discovered that I live blocks away from the premier home of New Orleans Sno-Balls: Hansen's Sno-Bliz.

I can't help but provide a brief history of the shop, as I've learned it. Started by Ernest and Mary Hansen in 1939, it's still run like day one. Ernest had the inspiration for a hygienic, efficient ice-shaving machine (original pictured above) after watching street car vendors scrap ice by hand in carts on hot New Orleans days. Mary cooked the syrups - all her own recipes, kept in meticulously cleaned pouring bottles. The shop was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and around that time the Hansens passed on, leaving the shop in the hands of their granddaughter, Ashley, who Roahen describes an audience with as "like a teddy bear hug." I highly recommend the book, if for nothing more than this chapter, especially if you are a northerner whose found yourself in this city (the book is subtitled "Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table"). Ashley rebuilt the shop, and has taken the place of her grandparents, keeping the Sno-Bliz coming for more generations of kids (and big kids).

Now let me tell you what a Hansen's Sno-Bliz is not: It's not a snow cone, it's not a slushee, and it's not like anything you've ever had up north.

The genius of the set-up is the ice shaved straight from fresh blocks (bought from an icehouse) using Earnest's machine. After each scoop of ice, Ashley pours the syrup, 3 times for full-flavored effect. And the flavors! Cream of Chocolate, Bubble Gum, Coconut, Root Beer, Limeade, and many, many more, available in combos of your choosing for added effect. And then there's the toppings (more on that below). Cream of Nectar is the house specialty and most popular flavor, described by Ashley in Roahen's book like this: "When you grow up in New Orleans, that's the flavor that makes it all real. That's the flavor that you makes you remember your childhood. It's fluffy. It's pink." Roahen goes on to talk about nectar being the drink of the gods. I think it's better to see it as the drink of eager birds and bees, and there's a reason we are drawn to the brightly colored flavor. It's undefinable, amazing, but feels so life-sustaining - what it must be like to be the fluttering butterfly seeking out the most brilliant blossoms.

But the Sno-Bliz does not stop at syrup. Toppings galore await, like crushed pineapple (add it to coconut syrup for a take on pina colada), marshmallow fluff - another flavor to make you a kid again, condensed milk (found at most stands - try it, you'll love it), or you can get what Hansen's calls a "hot rod" - a scoop of ice cream in the middle of your Sno-Bliz.

So on a hot and humid, typical New Orleans summer Sunday, I strolled the few blocks to Hansen's, waited a while in the line (there's always a line), snapped a few photos, and ordered the ice & syrup concoction I've been waiting for my whole life: A Cream of Nectar Hot Rod. I've not felt more like a kid since the days I sprinted out the door at the sound of the ice cream truck.

Ignore the facial hair. I'm six again.

And as for Ashley, she told me she liked my shirt. And I felt like I had been hugged by a teddy bear.

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