Recently, Rob went to New Orleans without me. I know, I know, Sam I went to Florida without him, and it was delightful, but New Orleans is the foodie capital of the world. (Or one of them, anyway). I tried to be a good sport. He was there on business, but still…the pictures of oyster po boys and shrimp and grits and oysters on the half shell (!) kept coming to my phone and breaking my heart. I was in New Orleans once, at the age of 20, visiting a “boyfriend” who subsequently turned out to be playing for the other team. He lived in Metairie, he worked all day, I had no way to get in to the city, it was August and 112 in the shade, there were roaches in the apartment, I accidentally broke his roommate’s cherished Purdue Boilermaker glass…you get the picture. Rob went to New Orleans and stayed at the Omni Crescent where one of his brothers is a high level employee. The brother forced him to try new foods (raw oysters), took him drinking after hours, took him to Morning Call for Begniet and coffee…you get the picture. Clearly a karmic imbalance.
Since the last day that Rob spent enjoying fresh seafood and touring the city was my birthday, he bought me a present. It was a cook book, but for reasons which will become clear in a moment, I will not reveal the name of the book. Suffice it to say that it was not written by Paul Prudhomme or Emeril Lagasse. It was pretty, it had interesting information about the author’s Cajun family, and since I was still on my post-Panhandle Southern cooking kick, and Rob was still seeing grits and gumbo in his dreams, I planned our weekly menu around the recipes in the book. Chicken fricassee sounded good, although I have to confess that I wasn’t exactly sure what it was supposed to be like. I picked it for Sunday night, along with greens. I also wanted to make red beans and rice, but the author provided a recipe for “white beans and rice” instead, explaining that her family preferred white beans, but that the preparation was essentially the same. That was last night’s dinner, with cornbread. I also decided to make pork chops in tomato gravy with baked cheese grits, and a slow-cooked Cajun Pot Roast with plain grits and coleslaw.
The chicken fricassee was a complete, unmitigated failure. I am haunted by the accusing eyes of my family as I dished out the beige glop and (to Sam’s horror) an accompanying bowl of slimy green stuff with liquid in it. Apparently, chicken fricassee is meant to involve chicken with it’s skin on, which is at least nicely browned, if not caramelized, and then cooked in a roux-based sauce that may or may not include sausage or mushrooms, but almost certainly involves onions and green pepper. This was a recipe for fricassee using boneless, skinless white meat, and while it did involve the preparation of a roux, and the use of green pepper and onion, it had less flavor than the Chicken a la King served to cardiac patients in a hospital. Rob’s comment was that it reminded him of the canned Chop Suey he had been forced to consume in childhood. Being the hopeful, trusting person that I am, I believed that even though the recipe shouted “BLAND! TURN BACK!” I was missing some mysterious alchemy of which only the author was aware. I should have learned a lesson based on that dinner, but as you will see, I didn’t. As for the greens, it turns out (and this was our second try) that Northerners who do not grow up eating greens do not love them as much as Southerners who do. If I prepare something that calls for that much bacon, and they still won’t eat it, we’re done.
Yesterday, considering the fricassee to have been a fluke, I embarked on Project White Beans and Rice. I read through the recipe, as I generally do, noting casually that an hour and a half didn’t seem like much time to cook dried beans, and that 6 cups of water wasn’t a lot of liquid to cook them in for that period of time. Once again, I suspended my judgment in favor of the Cajun Lady, figuring that she must know something I didn’t. (I could, by the way, write an entire series of self-help books about this particular self defeating behavior. Instead. I will say this to you: if you think a recipe sounds like it won’t work, and it isn’t from a source you trust, and it doesn’t have a word in the title like “amazing” or “impossible” to explain away it’s patently impractical aspects, don’t waste your time. Trust yourself).
I cooked the bacon, removed the bacon, added the beans, water, bay leaves, spices, onions and peppers, brought it all to a boil, and then left it to simmer for an hour and a half. It smelled good, but at 5:30 when I fixed the cornbread and put it in the oven for 30 minutes, the beans were still rock-like. During the half hour when the bread was baking and the beans were supposed to be ascending to tender deliciousness, I smelled a bad smell. It was a burning sort of smell. Looking into the bean pot I observed that, even over low heat, in a very heavy pot, the beans had sucked up all of the water called for in the recipe, and were now dying horrible deaths in the bottom of the pot. This had happened since my last visit. It occurred to me, at this point, that if this was really how her ancestors fixed beans on wash days in Louisiana, leaving them to cook all day as the women scrubbed and rinsed, the family must have had a real craving for carbon.
I went into triage mode, removing as much un-burned bean as possible and putting it into a fresh pot, and adding peanut butter, which I had just read would make burned foods taste less burned. (It actually helped, by the way, and didn’t make the beans taste like peanut butter). I added more water, and removed the poor cornbread from the oven, hoping that the beans might be finished while it was still warm enough to melt butter. I continued to nurse the beans for another hour and a half (for a total of three hours, instead of the hour and a half promised by the recipe), adding at least another 5 cups of water (in addition to the 6 cups called for). When we finally sat down to dinner at 7:45, the beans were less repellent than the previous night’s chicken, but they were not wonderful. The cornbread was stone cold, and the family was sliding from mutinous to depressed and resigned. This is not the desired response when one has spent hours making dinner (even though it was supposed to be cooking itself while I did loads of crinolines and starched collars).
I am not saying what the cookbook is (yet) because I still want this all to be a fluke. I still want to think that this relatively unknown author could have written a great book, with fabulous recipes, and that I just picked duds. After all, I haven’t loved every recipe I ever tried, and many of my least favorites come from the kitchens of fairly prominent cookers. On the other hand, most of those people have also provided me with a counterbalancing number of “keepers.”
Tonight I will try one more of the recipes from the book. I have adopted a “three strikes, you’re out” policy, and if this one sends my poor family into the Outer Darkness of Dinners, I am going to come right back here and tell you what this book is, so that you may save yourselves and those you hold dearest. If, on the other hand, the third time is a charm, I will give credit where credit is due.
No matter what I say, though, don’t try the boneless chicken fricassee or the white beans and rice.