Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Welcome to Cajun Country: the deliciousness that is Lake Charles, Louisiana

Fresh boudin sausage from Cajun Cowboy's Restaurant Vinton, LA
So, I just spent the past week eating my weight in boudin sausage (and lots of other local goodies) while visiting the Cajun culinary mecca of Lake Charles, Louisiana.  Lake Charles lies in the Southwestern part of the state, not too far from the Texas border, yet still deep south enough to be less than an hour and a half from the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

Lake Charles is a charming place, where deep Southern accents prevail and just about everyone you meet is quick to offer a handshake, or when you're lucky, a big 'ole Cajun-style bear hug.  It's the kind of town where folks spend the afternoon crowding around unadulterated diner tables sipping coffee and sharing tall fishing and hunting tales.  The vibe here is pure Cajun pride, and locals are quick to share with visitors their favorite haunts to get real deal crawfish etouffee, shrimp gumbo, fried catfish or homemade deer sausage.

Yet, it's the Cajun boudin sausage that triumphs with pride throughout the area.  Hearkening back to the area's French culinary roots (by way of a mass Acadian exile from Nova Scotia in the 1700's), Southwest Louisiana's boudin sausage is akin to North Carolina barbecue, with numerous variations (and consequent debates as to whose is best) ranging from spicy smoked boudin to fresh boudin rouge spiked with pig's blood.  However, while each sausage tastes just a tad different, several constants remain in all forms of boudin. First, there's got to be plenty of cooked Louisiana long-grain rice mixed in with the roasted pork.  Second, there are spices galore, many of which are top secret, never to be revealed.  There's always a generous helping of fresh green onions, and finally, all this Cajun goodness is packed into fresh hog's intestines.

People are happy here, with an innate pride and joy that is most evidenced in the foods they create, especially their particular brand of boudin.  It's all about Cajun cooking.  From pork cracklin's to crawfish pistolettes, every bite that hits your palate simply bursts with spice, texture and the flavor of the deep south.  If you're serious about good eating, the many off-the-beaten-track pit stops that circumvent the town of Lake Charles are must-stops for any lover of real home-cooked food.  From diner dives to gas station gems, Lake Charles is one place where you can eat like a king on a peasant's salary.

Here's a little slide show primer of some of the best of the best that this unique area of Cajun country has to offer.

Boudin expert, Glenn Earl of Cajun Cowboys
Shrimp Po'Boy, fried catfish & collards from Hollier's Cajun Kitchen
Pork cracklin's and smoked sausage from The Sausage Link

Green onions, hog's intestines (used for natural boudin casings)and homemade hog's head cheese (bites).  The Sausage Link.

Fried crabs, frog legs, crab claws and crawfish pies from The Seafood Palace

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sweet As Sugar and Ugly As a Toad

Fried Sugar Toads from Arnest Seafood
Sugar toads.  They're not what you think, so put those images of deep fried frog outta your head.  Sugar toads are what we coastal Virginia folk call the Northern Puffer fish, which is a seasonal bottom-dwelling fish unique to the Chesapeake Bay.  Sugar toads primarily feed on shellfish, and have earned their nickname due their less than Vogue-worthy appearance.  For many years, puffers were considered as nothing more than an annoyance that needed to be thrown back until several well-known (and high-end) restaurants began serving this sweet, flaky fish with the unusual name to rave reviews.

Sugar toads, like all puffer fish, have ability to fill their stomachs with water as a defense and puff up, making them a not-so-easy to digest prey.  From a culinary standpoint, it must also be noted that Chesapeake Bay puffers are completely non-poisonous, and unlike their Fugu brethren, pose no threat to those who eat them.  As a result, if you can get your hands on a platter of these fried delicacies, it's a prized meal indeed.

So, last weekend when the hubby and I took a jaunt to one of our favorite seafood dives, we were thrilled when the special of the day was fried sugar toads.  Sugar toads, when lightly battered and deep-fried maintain just a hint of crunch to offset the soft, sweet meat inside.  Most often, they are deep-fried whole (sans head and skin).  Also, because the spine of the puffer is still intact once prepared, they're an excellent eat-with-your-hands kinda snack, much like a fried chicken leg.  Give your toad a little spritz of fresh lemon juice while dipping it into a plastic tub of homemade tartar and you won't care that you're dining alfresco with a view of a strip mall parking lot.

Arnest is about as no-frills as you can get.  Not only is it in a half-vacant strip mall right smack in the middle of nowhere (a.k.a. Manquin, Virginia, about halfway to Tappahannock out Route 360) but it sits right next to a hunting and fishing shop complete with a giant outdoor statue of a galloping seven-point buck for your viewing pleasure.  Part seafood store (you can get anything to go) and part dine-in, Arnest is the kinda place you visit to get a taste of the Bay without the waterfront price.
A specialty of the house are their steamed local blue crabs, and Arnest sells nothing but number one males, otherwise known as "jimmies", for a mere $24 a dozen.  Jimmies are well-known to be the largest and meatiest of blue crabs and can command upwards of $65 a dozen at a tourist-ridden waterfront seafood establishment.  When I asked about females, which some folks prefer due the substantial price difference, our server replied, "Here, it's males only."  My kinda place.

As the saying goes, when the work is hard, the rewards taste that much sweeter.  Such is the case for picking crabs, so plan on staying a while.  We picked for two hours and still had four large crabs leftover for dinner the next night.  

All of your accouterments, including melted butter, Tabasco, Old Bay and, my personal fave, cider vinegar for dipping that precious jumbo lump, come out with your crabs which are gloriously presented on a plastic tray.  Crab picking is messy business, and while there are plenty of paper towels, I recommend bringing your own bib.  Either that, or I dare you to wear white.

If crabs, or heaven forbid, fried sugar toads just ain't your thing, no worries.  You can get most any seafood goody, either fried or steamed at Arnest.  For the fried seafood junkie, Arnest offers up a selection of "Straight-Up" platters, where diners can get a plastic basket full of fried oysters, scallops, jumbo shrimp, fish of the day or frog legs, sold by the pound, and ranging in price from $9.99 .lb (frog legs) to $18.99 .lb (shrimp).  
Steamed options include Rappahannock oysters (also on the half shell), local clams and shrimp. When it comes to fried dinners with sides, crab cakes, scallop cakes, fish of the day, soft shells and various combinations thereof are served with two sides and homemade hush puppies without a single platter costing over $19.00.
Standout sides included Arnest's vinegar braised collard greens, housemade flash-fried crab chips dusted in Old Bay and creamy deviled eggs. If you're looking for fine wine, you're in the wrong place, and same goes for cocktails, since Arnest sells neither, but you can get an ice cold Corona or Budweiser, which to me, suits fried seafood and crab picking just fine.
Who: Arnest Seafood Where: 109 Commerce Park, Manquin, Virginia (804) 769-3315 When: Wed., Thurs. and Sunday 11:30-9pm and Fri. and Sat. 11:30-10pm

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Crab Cakes: Chesapeake Bay Style from The Tides Inn

Chef Flynn's pan-fried crab cakes over buttery succotash w/ shrimp

So, let me start off by asking, who doesn't like a good crab cake?  Other than those poor souls bearing shellfish allergies, most folks turn into the human version of Pavlov's dog at the mere mention of the words: "crab" and  "cake". 
And let's face it.  Crab cakes are frightfully good.  From sandwiching one in-between two butter-brushed buns with crisp lettuce and homemade tartar to nesting a couple of fresh-fried cakes in pool of chive infused buerre blanc, the ubiquitous crab cake has stood the test of time to become one the most popular menu items featured in restaurants from coast to coast.
This past weekend, I was rewarded with a crab (and oyster, lamb, and local wine) adventure of epic proportions while visiting The Tides Inn  in historic Irvington, Virginia.  The Tides is a magical place located along the Chesapeake Bay with gorgeous water frontage right on Carter's Creek.
It's an Inn that boasts an incredible history.  From its opening day in 1947, where the first dining room menu proudly offered its guests, "Native Soft Shell Crabs Saute in Almond Butter" and "Baked Filet of Rappahannock Trout in Lemon Butter" to today, where Executive Chef T.V. Flynn surprises with "Cedar Roasted Lamb Porterhouses topped with Garden Fresh Mint Pesto" and "Virginia Coast Diver Scallops with Oven-Roasted Cauliflower and Farmer's Market Butternut Squash Puree", The Tides Inn has consistently remained a culinary retreat offering some of the best of what the Chesapeake region of Virginia has to offer.

Many of the ingredients served at the Inn's restaurant are culled locally, either from the local Irvington Farmer's Market or from General Manager, Gordon Slatford's extensive personal gardens, where he grows everything from tomatoes and peppers to his own luffa sponges.  Naturally, seafood follows suit with local delicacies such as oysters, clams and rockfish (a true Virginia specialty) being drawn from the waters right outside the Inn's back door.

On the evening of our final night at the Inn, it was all about the crab cake.  All lump with very little filler, we scarfed these guys down in two quick bites and fought for more.  Chef Flynn served his crab-laden creation atop a buttery succotash accented with fresh, local butter beans and a lone sweet shrimp.  And, as if these small plate goodies weren't enough on their own, the Chef then grilled up a couple dozen local Rappahannock oysters just as the sun was beginning to set over the creek.
The oysters, after being drizzled in a little butter were beautifully accented by the Chef's homemade pickled watermelon rind, making these one-slurp wonders an immaculate combination of zing and brininess.  Once paired with a glass of Virginia's own Ingleside Pinot Grigio, it became clear that the food gods were shining down on Carter's Creek that final evening. What a send-off it was....

My first inclination is to suggest, that in order to properly relive this seafood extravaganza, you must book a weekend at The Tides ASAP.  Yet, for some folks, especially those on temporary vacation hold, this may not be immediately possible. For you, the Chef has agreed to generously share his virtually-no-filler recipe for crab cakes, Chesapeake Bay style, so you too, can experience a little taste of The Tides Inn when making these fried gems within the comfort of your own home.
But first, a couple of pointers on creating swoon-worthy crab cakes that every home cook should know.
It goes without saying that jumbo lump is where it's at, so it's worth every penny to invest in the good stuff, and that means, no cheating with backfin.  Also, we lover's of the Chesapeake Bay must recommend our own blue crab as the almighty best.  
When it comes to picking the shell bits out of your crab meat, which are almost always there, be gentle.  While you might be in a hurry, it's important not to crush the crab meat, especially the lumps.  You want those in there.  Hence, the words "jumbo lump".

When it comes to seasoning, less is most definitely more.  Go easy on the mayo, breadcrumbs etc....  If you find you're having trouble with your cakes falling apart when frying due to minimal binder, after shaping them, pop them in the fridge for about 30 minutes so they'll set up a bit.  And, speaking of frying, it's always best to fry in small batches.  Avoid crowding your cakes or they'll steam and not develop that crispy outer coating we all know and love.

When it comes to oil and pans, I'm a cast-iron and peanut oil gal myself.   However, you can just as easily fry in nonstick with vegetable oil or a combination of butter and oil if you're feeling decadent.  To serve, all you may need is a dollop of tartar, but if you want to emulate the Chef's dish, you can serve your crab cakes atop a pile of succotash or my recipe for sauteed butter beans with bacon.

Chesapeake Bay Crab Cakes  

Courtesy of  Executive Chef T.V. Flynn of The Tides Inn

2 pounds jumbo lump crabmeat
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
½ teaspoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
½ cup cracker crumbs
2 eggs
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
½ teaspoon Tabasco
Salt and Pepper
Cooking oil, for shallow frying (about a 1/4 cup)
Pick through the crabmeat to check for shell pieces, being careful not to break up the lumps.
Place crabmeat in a large bowl and add the Old Bay, dry mustard, parsley and cracker crumbs.  Gently mix.
In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco. Whisk to mix and pour over the crabmeat mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Mix lightly and portion in cakes. 

Preheat a cast iron pan or skillet to medium-high and add the oil. When it's shimmering, fry your crab cakes in batches.  Drain well and serve hot.

Serves 8-10

Note: This recipe is easy to halve.

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