Sunday, January 06, 2008

Boudin sausage at Bergeron’s, exit 151

Emily and I got to Bergeron’s Cajun Meats around three. The I-10 freeway, between Beaumont, Texas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana is dotted with specialty Cajun meat shops—Gautraux’s, Boudin King, Don’s, Poche’s—so Bergeron’s was kind of a random pick. We saw a sign for it on the freeway and went for it. After a mile or so, and forgetting the name, we stopped at a gas station for directions. The woman at the counter asked me “Eighteen or four?” And when I looked confused she said, “Wheels.”
“Four?” I said.
“Cause the parking lot’s not big enough for eighteen wheelers.”
“Oh,” I said.
The woman told us to keep going another mile or so, and we’d see it on the right.

When we got there, we knew we’d found the right spot.

From the outside, Bergeron’s looks like a little wooden shack with two doors and a small porch in the front, and as soon as we opened the car doors, we could smell that something great was happening inside. The front is more like its ghost town façade. There are three more houses tacked on behind it—which, after walking inside, offer plenty of room to smoke, stuff, grind, stuff, bbq, stuff, and stuff, as many meats as you can think of: smoked rabbit stuffed with andouille; turduckins (turkey stuffed with duck stuffed with chicken), with your choice of crawfish, shrimp, corn, or boudin dressing; smoked chicken breasts, stuffed with jalapeno cream cheese, and wrapped in bacon; quail stuffed with boudin…etc. But boudin was what we’d come for.
There are very few cultures that don’t contain at least one or two recipes for offal. And though we sometimes idealize so-called “primitive cultures” for a use-it-all kind of philosophy, in polite society, the sausage, one of many recipes created to use up the extras, exists a priori—a form without an origin. It simply exists. The pinnacle is the Vienna sausage. Where does this tiny pink wiener come from? From a tiny blue can, which you buy at the supermarket. In The Great Outdoors, Dan Aykroyd says that hotdogs are “lips and assholes,” and that’s pretty much what boudin is—various cuts of pork, roughly chopped, heavily spiced, cooked, mixed with rice, and stuffed into a pork casing. It isn’t a typical sausage though, as the filling is often scraped out and the casing tossed away. It can be boiled, baked, steamed, fried, bbq’d, smoked or simply stuffed into something else. However you want it.
We ordered fried boudin balls—as there were some other things we wanted to try too: crawfish and meat pies, crab and crawfish pistolettes, cracklins, boudin rolls, tasso and andouille sausage. All the Cajun specialties. The boudin balls were breaded in cornmeal, and they reminded me more of deep fried, chunky, dirty rice, than sausage. They had the unmistakable taste of the Cajun holy trinity—celery, onion and green peppers—but they were less spicy than I would have thought. I cut mine in half and doused them in Louisana brand hot sauce, while Emily ate hers straight. They were good.
The pistolettes—which are crab or shrimp, mixed with cheese (Velveeta a lot of the time), stuffed into a brown-and-bake roll and deep-fried—were also good. But Bergeron’s pistolettes were more like crab-stuffed puff-pastry. There were lots of good chunks of crab, and you could tell that it was fresh—not from a can; and the outside was flaky and sweet. I doused these with hot sauce too.
But the real treat was the crawfish pies. They’d run out when we got there, so when they brought them to us, the pies were deep-fried hot and fresh. The outside was a great, crisp, flaky pie pastry; and the inside was filled with whole crawfish tails, peas, and, of course, the trinity. The mix was bound up in a nice béchamel sauce. All of which, again, I doused in hot sauce. These, were amazing.

We left Bergeron’s stuffed and content; and carrying two pounds of turkey tasso and the same in andouille—dreaming of jambalaya. To be honest, the boudin was pretty good, but next time I’d get the pistolettes and the crawfish pie—and maybe take home a smoked, stuffed rabbit with corn dressing. I don’t think it’s that boudin is the acquired taste people have made it out to be. Unless you look up the specific ingredients. In fact, it’s pretty mild. It may be that, like all Cajun food, it’s damned good—but there are some things that are so remarkable, everything else can seem just so-so. This is food that can get recommendations like, “The Shell Station at the traffic light in Livonia has the best crawfish stuffed pistolettes…it is on the right side of HWY 190—‘Louisiana's Highway of Death’—as you head west”—which might completely disarm you for how good it’s going to be. Because when you bite into that homemade tasso, it just makes it feel that much more fun, and you feel that much more lucky, that you’re eating it at some out of the way little unassuming shack.
You’ll find no recipes for boudin sausages in traditional garde manger. And certainly, most of the people preparing boudin are not celebrated chefs. Boudin is sold next to hog’s maws, cracklins and pickled pig’s feet. It steps aside to Bratwurst. It gets no special recognition, like menudo or barbacoa do. And, as far as I can tell, it’s only sold between Beaumont, Texas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Is it worth it? For sixty-five cents, go buy a boudin ball and find out.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Butternut Squash Soup Is So Passe

“Butternut Squash Soup Is So Passé”

Butternut Squash (2.5 lbs)

Right now, the squash is roasting in the oven. As an afterthought, I’ve put a clove of garlic in each of the hollowed out bulbs, and they are now floating in a sizzling puddle of butter and maple syrup. The combination of smells tells me this was a good idea.

I turn on the oven light every few minutes or so just to watch: watch the garlic turn glossy, and then a deep brown; watch the squash form a crust of caramelized sugars. And I know: This isn’t about fall; It’s not about wearing sweaters, huddling up to a fire, or drinking cider or mulled wine. It’s about watching a squash caramelize at 450º, with a little jazz in the background, and the house empty and quiet.

Later, I’ll mash the squash, the roasted garlic, add a touch more maple syrup, some salt and pepper, a little Plugras butter. The mash will go into a simmering chicken stock, and then I’ll puree it into a soup. I’ll sit down to the table, scoot in the chair, lift the spoon, and sip.
In other words, this, is about cooking and about eating.

Roasted Garlic (2 cloves)

When I was a baby, my mom made most of my baby food. She liked to cook. She made everything, and she made everything well, from pot roasts to soups to meatloaf to latkes to applesauce. We used to go up to Strawberry, Arizona, to fill baskets of apples that we’d bring back down to Phoenix. We’d jar the applesauce with those little red-checkered pieces of cloth, and give them out as Christmas presents.

And I’ll tell you, it wasn’t nostalgic—homemade such-and-such that gets shelved and then gathers dust. It was damn good applesauce.

My dad cooked too, though he went in for the big stuff: baby-back ribs; tamales; shredded beef tacos—project food. Which might explain why, last year, I dug a pit in my backyard to make pit-smoked ribs; or why I convinced Emily, my wife, that we could cater our wedding; or why most of my kitchen is stocked with restaurant-grade materials.

But it wasn’t until my parents got divorced, my mom going back to work full time, my dad moving away, and my sister and I becoming latch key kids, that I started cooking.

My sister and I had time after school, and besides watching a lot of TV, fighting like crazy, or building bombs (me), we cooked. Maybe it was out of boredom. Or maybe it was because, if either of us had a hankering for a cake, and we didn’t just happen to have a cake hanging around, we knew what flour, water, eggs, and sugar did, if mixed in the proper proportions, and baked at 375°. Some parents hide the cookies—my mom had to hide the baking powder. And that’s what it was about—what it came to mean: it was what we wanted to eat. We didn’t have much money, but we had developed taste; and we had to figure out a way to satisfy that taste.

Chicken Stock (3 quarts)

For the soup, I made the chicken stock from the roasted bones of a chicken I carved up earlier in the week. Lunchmeat goes for $7.99 a pound; add that to the fact that I’m in Alabama, where it’s harder to find natural meats, and it doesn’t seem trivial to take the 15 extra minutes to cut up a whole, organic, free-range chicken. The cost still works out to be a little cheaper, and I can freeze some parts for dinner, roast other parts for lunchmeat, and use the bones for, well, soup.

I learned about the all-important stock in at my first real cooking job, which, oddly enough, was managing a kitchen. Pronto Ristorante was small, fast-paced, and did a brisk lunch service geared towards a business crowd who wanted something just a little bit better—which means, though the food was good, and the menu original, it was still a no-brainer. There was no mention of Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, or Charlie Trotter. We didn’t need them to make Pasta al Pomodoro, Chicken with Gorgonzola Cream Sauce, or Open-faced Focaccia Pizza.

Andy, the chef, had called me when the person they’d just hired for the job didn’t work out. He was in a jam and he needed someone to fill in for a while. I was smart, I showed up for work on time, I did what needed to be done, and I could follow recipes—I could cook. Plus, I was dating Andy’s sister.

“A week or two” turned into two years.

After working there a year or so, I became pretty efficient in the kitchen. I read books on cooking, practiced knife skills, experimented with new foods; and I became a real cook insofar as I drank, smoked, and watched, no longer in disbelief, but with a casual disinterest, as my salad man poured his daily half-gram of speed into his Mountain Dew, and my line cook hollowed out a carrot stump, removed the screen from the bathroom sink, packed his newly made vegetable pipe, and smoked it, there on the line, blowing the smoke into the fume hoods.

But I also learned about stocks. The one thing that is essential to cooking, the thing I learned to love, the thing that took me over a year to even become aware of (under proper apprenticeship/tutelage, it would have been principle #1), is that when it comes to good food, everything worth anything starts with a good stock. And this is no metaphor. Sure, if you want you can apply it to life, to love, to money, to business—whatever. I could probably write a book titled, Everything I Need To Know I Learned By Making Stocks. But there’s something more to a stock. Something that exists, in and of itself, that, if metaphorized, or made into something else, takes away from the natural beauty of a perfect stock. Even calling a stock “beautiful” takes away from what it is, which, in some ways defies definition.

I must have made a hundred soups before I realized that. And the best soups are the ones with only one or two ingredients added to a well-flavored, nicely reduced stock. Roasted Garlic; Potato Leek; French Onion; Bouillabaisse. Don’t get me wrong—the word “stock” is misleading—it doesn’t just mean carrots, celery, leeks and parsley. Some stocks are insanely complicated and essentially require a Frenchman, with a penchant for beating people with wooden spoons, to get them right. But once I figured out the basic stocks, soup making became something entirely different—as did cooking.

And that is when I understood why. Why I cooked. Cooking is a craft, a deeply rewarding craft. Each step can be improved upon, improvised upon, in infinite ways—as long as one has the basic principles. It’s like music. And that’s why I’m at home on a Tuesday night, making butternut squash soup, which is so passé anyway.

S+P (To Taste)

The squash is resting on the counter. I scoop the fruit into the stock, along with the roasted garlic, and then carefully pour the little bit of maple syrup and butter that’s left in the bottom of the hollowed-out shell. Then I puree it with a hand mixer. I taste it, and decide it needs a little more salt, a little more ground pepper. I taste it again and it’s good. Really good. I ladle some into a bowl, slice off a nice piece of bread and sit down at the dining room table. Emily isn’t home yet—won’t be until later—so I’m eating alone. But that’s the point. I’m not using the good ingredients—scratch stock, Plugras butter, fresh grated nutmeg—to impress anyone. Unless it’s myself. This isn’t about fall. It’s not about Saveur or Gourmet or Food and Wine. It’s not about conjuring images of sweaters, fires, or cider and mulled wine. It’s about watching a squash caramelize at 450º; then mashing the squash, the roasted garlic, adding a touch of maple syrup, some salt and pepper, a little Plugras butter, adding it to a simmering chicken stock, and then pureeing that into a soup. It’s about sitting down to the table, scooting in the chair, lifting the spoon, and sipping, and tasting.

I sit back, in the, quiet, empty house, listening to a little jazz, and enjoy a well-made, well-crafted soup.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Good Salad For Two

"A Good Salad For Two"

I’m standing in line behind a man with a really bad comb over. Looking at the back of his head I can see what he probably can’t—has maybe never seen—the three-inch horizontal part that runs along the middle of the back of his head. I touch the back of my head and feel where the skull stops—the place where a massage feels best. I’m guessing that’s where he starts the comb on its journey toward his forehead.

I guess he’s about forty. Give or take. Forty-years-old with a comb-over. I guess that happens. But then I look at his groceries on the conveyor-belt: two baguettes, a head of green-leaf lettuce, package of blackberries, and some feta cheese. That will be a pretty good salad. And somehow my opinion of him changes.

Now he’s a forty-year-old guy with a bad comb-over who’s going home to fix a really nice salad. I wonder what kind of dressing he’ll use. With the berries, I’d say something with balsamic vinegar. A little sweet, a little tart—which would complement the blackberries well. If the blackberries are ripe—where they’re just as sweet as can be, not tart at all—then I’d go with a nice, light, lemon and champagne-vinegar vinaigrette. That would be so, so good—but the blackberries would have to be perfect.

The man turns around and I’m surprised; he’s a young, good-looking guy—maybe twenty-five. He’s a little chubby, but that sort of adds to the boyish quality. Why the comb-over, I think? You’re not old enough, buddy. But I picture him with the alternative—the close-cropped buzz that makes no bones about the lack on top, and I’m not sure about that, either—at least for this guy.

He looks at the groceries I’m loading onto the conveyor belt and spots the Feta cheese that I have, as well. “This stuff any good?”

“Yeah,” I say. But now I’m hesitating. “You making a salad?”

“I guess that’s what she’s doing.”

Now I know—he’s just buying the groceries. Someone else is dreaming of this salad.

I start thinking about the Feta—that it’s a very particular taste; and certainly not to everyone’s liking. This guy has never had it, and I wonder if he’ll like it. I wonder if, when the salad arrives, and he takes the first bite, what he’ll be thinking—and in turn, what he’ll say to “she.” I can easily imagine that he’ll hate it; but of course, that’s not what he’ll say. “Mm. Pretty good.” [Grimace].

I imagine that maybe the “she” has picked up a new cookbook, has maybe been watching Rachael Ray or Bobbie Flay or Iron Chef and decided that trying new things would be good for them. And so she’s decided on the old greens with berries and cheese—a mad-lib salad that is almost impossible to get wrong: Spinach, walnuts and Roquefort; Mesculin, piñon nuts and raspberries; Butter lettuce, spiced almonds and Maytag Blue. It’s a great move—interesting salads—for anyone who wants dinner to be something, “a little extra.”

But Feta—I wonder. I wonder if, when he does sit down to eat, and takes that first bite, if he’ll remember me and silently curse my name, thinking: “What the fuck was that guy talking about?”

The man’s groceries are rung up and then there’s a little commotion, and from what I can gather, the man was supposed to get blueberries instead of blackberries. My inclination is to tell him that the blackberries will probably be better—but then I remember the man sitting there, cursing me for telling him, “yeah, it’s good,” and meanwhile “she” is saying, “you would have liked it if you’d just bought the damn blueberries instead of listening to some asshole in line.” And then the man would curse me doubly.

So I say nothing. I think of the salad that I’m making—just a simple Greek salad that my wife and I will eat with some bowtie pasta with a simple marinara, some spiced turkey sausage, and a bottle of red. Sounds good.

Friday, September 29, 2006

BBQ And The Corn Liquor Fairy

“Searching For BBQ”

Somewhere in Northport, Alabama.

The road has turned to dirt. The forest has become a real forest (not just the outcropping between neighborhoods that it is in a lot of Tuscaloosa). And we are clearly in demilitarized territory—i.e. the kudzu is making its presence known (unlike in the city where it is tame, captive, and trimmed for ornament); but we are not yet in the true wilderness (where that house-shaped kudzu plant over there is just that—a house that has been ingested by the dreaded kudzu vines).

In other words, we’ve sort of left civilization and we’re beginning to worry.

There are houses out here: a little outcropping. They are old, but well-maintained. And they are close together, almost huddled, sharing a common front yard. But beyond them? To our right the dirt road is single-track. It goes from “my car can make it,” to “my jeep might make it.”
From one of the houses come two women and some kittens. “Y’all need somethin’?”

We stare. “Um…BBQ?” We want to say.

It’s apparent that MapQuest has failed us (not an entirely new predicament). Though I want to believe that down that little road, which seems to go straight into the unknown—the true Alabama—the one that I imagined before I moved out here, when I was in still in Colorado humming “Dueling Banjos” (yes, that scene from Deliverance)—though I want to believe that down that road, there really is a BBQ restaurant called Archibalds, where some crazy old magician cooks up ribs, I know, in my heart of hearts, that we’re lost.

We take the plunge: “Do you know a BBQ restaurant called Archibald’s?”

“Archibalds?” The woman looks as if she’s swallowed something, sucking sourly at her lips. Or maybe she’s just thinking—that would be the optimist’s point of view anyway. “ARchibalds? Y’all lookin’ for ARchibalds? Chile—you done gone way past ARchibalds.”

I stop listening. I’m not driving so I don’t really need to absorb the directions she’s now giving—though I do hear something about the bridge, and I wonder if she’s giving us (accidentally or on purpose) directions to Dreamland—the tourist Dreamland no less—which is exactly the kind of place we don’t want to go.

As she talks, it’s as if the kudzu (which is known to grow over a foot a day) covers the entrance to the little road—which is the entrance into the real Alabama. It’s as if the portal to the land of War Drobe, where there is a little Alabama goat man, playing the banjo, drinking corn liquor, and ready to lead us to the real BBQ, is vanishing. All we had to do was keep driving—just go—and we would have come upon the Shangri La of BBQ.

But no. I’m not the only one in the car. And besides that, it’s kind of scary (I’m not above admitting that Deliverance had a real, lasting effect on me). So I make no argument that we should just go for it, and I watch as the entrance is covered. War Drobe is lost. Goodbye Spare Oom. And we are forced into that situation that no one likes—turn around.

We discus the particulars with one of the women. She gives an intricate set of directions, with every landmark being either a convenience store, a supermarket, or a fast-food joint, and with our new directions in hand, we head back. Back to civilization. But I still have my doubts as to whether or not we’ve been led astray. The corn-liquor fairy may not exist, but I’ll be damned if I go to Dreamland (1). So, when we stop for gas, I double-check with a toothless old man inside and he confirms: “Y’all go on pass the Piggly-Wiggly….”

I ask him, “Is it any good?”

And he says, “It’s the bess.”

At this point, I’m pretty sure we’re going to make it to Archibald’s. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be really good. And, when we do find it, and it’s just this little shack-like structure, with the brick smoker being at least as big as the actual restaurant, and we walk inside to see nothing but a counter with five stools, the BBQ pit, two big men who look as if they love BBQ, a soda-cooler with a hodge-podge of sodas (different sizes; one of one brand, six of another; some juice thrown in for good measure), and a sign that says:

Rib Plate
Small: 6.95
Large: 7.90
Pork Plate
Small: 6.95
Large: 7.90
Pound of Ribs: 8.95
Slab of Ribs: 12.95

I know it’s going to be good.

How do I know? Because of the small menu on the wall: two items, four different sizes. Because the difference in 95¢ (between the small plate and large plate) is not 95¢ worth of food—it just means that, by ordering the large, you are entering into an agreement whereby you agree to pay the 95¢ and they agree to place a small mountain of food before you. Because there are no sides—just meat. Because once you order they place a paper towel and two toothpicks in front of you, and when you’re done they put another paper towel down along with a bottle of hand-sanitizer. Because these two men obviously love ribs.

And it is good. Really good. The outside is crispy—almost like pork skins or chicharones (2). The smoke flavor comes through. And, (though my plate doesn’t quite measure up to the others), most of the ribs are the big, thick ones (3). They are dowsed with a mildly spicy, vinegar-based sauce (pretty good), and topped with the ubiquitous slices of generic white-bread.

But, after finishing my small plate of ribs (I’m accustomed to an Alabama portion at this point), and I am picking my teeth clean, I wonder about that other BBQ. The one in War Drobe, Spare Oom, Shangri La. I’m wondering how good ribs can get. Is there a limit? What is it? What is that one restaurant to which everyone else strikes a comparison? The one over which people remark: “This is good, but you should try…” Because Archibald’s is good. I’d recommend it to anyone. Our group reached the consensus that it was the best so far.

But I still wonder about the best. The best.

I still believe in the corn-liquor fairy.

(to be continued)

(1) Not that I have anything particular against Dreamland. It’s just that, well, I’m on a mission from God when it comes to ribs. And God doesn’t need to advertise on a big, yellow billboard. Nor does God need a themesong.
(2) Crispy fat has come to mean the sign of true masterwork when it comes to ribs. I’d say it is almost the mark, moreso than good sauce, because it is all about technique (whereas BBQ sauce is merely recipe work).
(3) I have, since moving to Alabama, come to understand why the big, meaty, inexpensive pork-ribs are far superior to the smaller, expensive baby-back ribs—when (of course) handled by a master.