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October 12, 2009

Slashfood Archives: 'My New Orleans' - Cookbook Spotlight

'My New Orleans - The Cookbook: 200 of My Favorite Recipes from My Hometown'
By John Besh
Photographs by Ditte Isager
Andrews McMeel -- 2009
Buy it on Amazon

Chef John Besh's magnum opus on the food of his hometown could easily be mistaken for a coffee table-style photography book edited by someone with one heck of a food fetish. That'd be only partially correct.

Besh celebrates and contextualizes New Orleans cuisine within a reverent, passionate travelogue and memoir based around the ingredients and food rituals of a full year in the Big Easy. In this 374-page volume, the chef, restaurateur (including August, Lüke, Besh Steak, Domenica, La Provence and the upcoming the American Sector at the National WWII Museum), "Next Iron Chef" contender, former Marine and father of four weaves an intimate, illustrated narrative of a life lived deliciously in one of the world's most important food cities.

Through touching vignettes from his childhood, emergence into chefhood and post-Katrina rebuilding efforts, as well as informative sidebars about key Creole and Cajun ingredients and paens to his favorite food haunts, Besh stokes and slakes a multitude of hungers for lovers of this city on the mend.

It's also one hell of a cookbook.

See what we tested and find out whether the book's worth buying after the jump.

Takeaway tips: Visit New Orleans. Stay for a while and eat as much as you possibly can. Wander down odd little streets and take a chance on unfamiliar dish names and humble digs. And bring back as much spice, seafood and produce as you can fit in your suitcase. You're going to need them.

Quality of pictures: The photographs alone took five years to amass, and it's evident why. Yes, the hero shots of completed dishes, ingredients and process are soulful and unfailingly appetizing. What makes the book a fully realized work of art are the archival images of New Orleans architecture, celebrations and food purveyors, as well as warm, intimate contemporary photographs of Besh family feasts, portraits of local food figures and farms, and stunning depictions of the natural surroundings, from which spring the region's distinctive ingredients.

We tested: Pork Shoulder Rillettes, Pork Cheek Dumpling, Ham Hock Pot Liquor and Mustard Greens, Pumpkin Soup, Fall Greens Salad with Blue Cheese and Pumpkin Seed Brittle

Dinner was served late. After midnight late. These are not recipes for busy weeknights, cooks who mind a trip or 10 to the local market or online store in service of culinary authenticity, or those daunted by labor-intensive, multi-step recipes. That said, they're utterly worth the devotion of an entire weekend day.

Complex flavors, while hard won, were undeniably worth it. Though we were half asleep once we finally sat down to dinner -- having started prepping at 3 p.m. -- both my husband and I kept stopping and closing our eyes, savoring the smoky undertones of the porky pot liquor, silken sips of chill-staving pumpkin soup and fat-be-damned indulgence of smooth-spreading rillettes. I wasn't just dreaming, he confirmed -- that was the best salad either of us had ever made.

Chef Besh includes building block recipes for roux, core stocks and basic sauces, doughs and spice blends. Get to know them. Even if one of the more ambitious recipes isn't on the menu, any one of his stocks, some aioli or a versatile vinaigrette can loft the tenor of a meal, or even transport it right to Creole country.

Worth the investment: Without question. It's a stunning gift for anyone who's ever lived in, loved, passed through or known what it's like to miss New Orleans.

October 06, 2009

Zero Mostel's Calf's Foot Jelly

calf's foot jelly

It would seem that Zero Mostel was a sucker for foot jelly -- a veritable fiddler on the hoof. And it must be said that there's a tremendous visceral appeal in having a trotter all a-bubble on the stovetop for the better part of a day. For goodness sakes, many a savory pie or festive aspic demands it, and heaven forfend that boeuf go sans gelée.

It's the "pleasant gas" part of this recipe that perplexes. Sure, Sammy Davis Jr. was all peppy for petrol in this early '60s Shell Oil ad, but it's not especially likely that the Candy Man was tapping out "What a Gas!" in celebration of cholodetz. Seeing as I had a Styrofoam tray full of cow feet in the freezer on this past, rain-drenched Saturday, it seemed written in the stars -- or by the stars assembled by Ms. Dinah Shore in her 1966 "The Celebrity Cookbook" -- that I find out for myself.

calf's foot jelly

"You bring the calf's foot to a boil and skim it. Put in the bay leaf and simmer it a good three hours. Then remove all the meat and gristle from the bone. Chop it up and add to the strained liquid. Add the other ingredients and boil for a further 15 minutes. Slice the eggs and put them in the bottom of a very decorative dish. Put in the gristle and pour the liquid slowly over it. Then chill it and enjoy!" -- from "The Celebrity Cookbook"

It's not often that one encounters the directive to reintroduce extracted gristle to a recipe, but as a friend of mine pointed out, "Something tells me that what Zero Mostel didn't know about calf's foot jelly wasn't worth knowing." Back in it went.

I've no basis for comparison, but the gelatin set up solidly in the fridge, with the eggs and gristly bits suspended amusingly throughout and the flavor was ... well it was meaty. Very meaty. Nearly unnervingly meaty and grimly nutritive -- like something that would be administered by a starched Victorian nurse after a faint, or possibly the vapors. It wasn't entirely unpleasant or even un-tasty -- just a tad joyless.

Neither my husband nor I detected any of the aforementioned "gas," either pleasant or unpleasant after consumption (come to think of this, it'd probably cure a case of consumption as well), but that might have been resultant of the insufficiently decorative dish in which I made it. Dunno -- I'm all ears should anyone care to share hooves-on experience in the comments below.

phyllis diller's garbage soup
It's not so much the invocation of "garbage" as Ms. Diller's curious notions of kitchen hygiene that gives pause.

jim backus's chili
And I'm both intrigued and alarmed by the notion of Mr. Magoo's false morning after hunger.

So, which Celebrity Cookbook recipe ought I attempt next?

Phyllis Diller's Garbage Soup
Jim Backus' Chili
Bette Davis' Red Flannel Hash
Dean Martin's Burgers
Carolyn Jones' "That Fish Thing"

Originally published at Slashfood