August was a weird and eventful month. I joined the ranks of the unemployed, celebrated my 10th anniversary and my Master’s degree at one of the best restaurants in the world, and then spent a week in New Orleans with my two best childhood friends.
Unemployment is not proving to be so terrible!
Although I wish the economy was better, my job situation is not weighing upon me. My office was a support office for Iraq and had been in the process of closing for a year. Working there had become like being a rat on a sinking ship, with all the other rats trying to cling to the side of the boat that will go down last. Some of the rats were clinging a little more desperately than others, which made it really weird and uncomfortable. And I am of the opinion that I have not spent every night of my life for the two years going to class, studying, and writing papers to earn my Master’s degree to be a rat, and as such tried to separate myself from the awkward rat scramble and focus on the next stage in my life, which I was ready to begin.
I’m using my downtime while I’m interviewing for new jobs to start my part-time chocolate business, with the hopes of sustaining it once I accept another full-time position. And my managers were super nice to me, giving me a mission coin, a framed certificate of appreciation, and taking me out to Jaleo for lunch (although I could have done without the awkward lunch, frankly. I hate those things.) But overall, I got what I wanted when I took this position — a chance to get out of the non-profit where I had been employed (that was in dire financial trouble and was laying people off and cutting salaries and benefits), some Federal government experience, a salary increase, and a chance to finish my Master’s degree and get some education assistance (which my previous employer had cut due to their precarious finances).
So, about 24 hours after I left my government job for the last time, I was seated across the table from the love of my life/best friend at Citronelle enjoying the most amazing meal of my entire life. What made it even better was our waiter, who set aside formality and really had fun serving us our 12 courses. Afterward, he took us into the kitchen area and let us look around. It was the end of the night, and the kitchen was winding down. He showed us the chef’s table, and encouraged us to try it out next time we want to visit. The sous chef took a few minutes to talk to us, and it was a great end to a great meal.
I do not have pictures of every course at Citronelle, so don’t look for them. I really hate people who sit at their table with little cameras, setting off their flashes with every course. You know who you are, and you need to stop. It’s rude, and it disrupts the experience of other diners. You want the waiter to take a picture to commemorate your celebration, or you want to take a quick picture of your amazing dessert? Great. You’re setting up a mini-tripod next to your plate, and spending more time photographing your food than eating it? Stop it now. Look around every time you flash. Notice that everyone else in the restaurant is staring at you because we hate you.
So, here’s a picture of the menu. It was awesome. Use your imagination. Or better yet, go to Citronelle for dinner. Order the Promenade Gourmande with the wine pairing. Be very, very nice to your waiter, and he will be nice to you. Be willing to part with a great deal of your hard-earned money. It’s totally worth it.
And Monday morning, I was off to New Orleans to see Tina and Kim. Tina and Kim are my best friends from childhood. We grew up in Catholic schools in Pensacola, Florida — an experience that I think they would agree is much better in hindsight. We haven’t changed all that much. We are older and wiser, but we are still the girls that Sister Letitia dubbed “The Nightmare Club” in the 4th grade, and the girls who sneaked beer into CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) camp. We are the kind of friends who are as comfortable as old socks on a cold day. And I didn’t realize how much I missed them.
The food in New Orleans was awesome. Really, really, really awesome! Was it “Citronelle” awesome? Well, let’s just say that I had kind of forgotten about Citronelle by my second day in New Orleans, and woke up every morning with visions of gumbo and beignets dancing in my head. It was definitely not a “gourmet” week. We skipped Brennan’s, The Court of Two Sisters, and Commander’s Palace, and we stuck to side street restaurants where locals lined up every afternoon for Po Boys and gumbo.
The best thing that I ate in New Orleans was an oyster Po Boy and cup of seafood gumbo at Johnny’s Po-Boys on St. Louis Street. Crunchy, salty, yummy fried oysters on a soft roll “dressed” with lettuce and tomato…. Yum!!!! I could fly back to New Orleans and eat five of them right now.
We had beignets and coffee at Cafe du Monde, and I thought that I could move to New Orleans just for those beignets. How can you go wrong with deep-fried dough covered in soft, powdered sugar? And the café au lait was out of this world!
Of course, we “did” Bourbon Street, and consumed fruity beverages that were mostly sugar with a little liquor. Drinks called Hand Grenades and Horny Gators. Brightly colored daquiris in every flavor dispensed from machines that look like the ones that 7-11 uses for their Slurpees, lined up behind the counter in flavors like Tutti Frutti, Bananarama, and Dreamsicle.
We had Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s. And, unfortunately, we ordered shrimp and grits and crawfish etouffee at Pat O’Brien’s as well. If you go to Pat O’Brien’s for a Hurricane (which is one of those “must do’s” in New Orleans), do not order their food. Don’t do it. It was the only truly awful food experience I had in New Orleans. And it really did suck! The shrimp and grits was barely edible, and the etouffee was completely inedible. There were rice grains that were hard enough to break a tooth, the crawfish tasted rancid, and sauce tasted like it came out of a can. Despite the horrible food, the Hurricanes kept us happy. But I wish I had saved my appetite for the much better food of the French Quarter. They had a great, fancy ladies’ room though.
I wore my “Catholic Girl Gone Bad” t-shirt, and was fielding questions left and right as to where I had purchased it (on Christopher Street in New York, sorry!) and had a few people ask if they could take a picture of it.
We had peel-and-eat shrimp and fried catfish with huge icy cold pitchers of beer on the deck of a marina restaurant on Lake Pontchartrain, away from the tourist spots. I think we drove a few less spirited diners into the main dining room after our second pitcher of beer, which was for the best when we started reminiscing about some of our less “Catholic” Catholic schoolgirl moments and started singing songs from the “The Sound of Music” in memory of Sister Rose’s music class — which I think were the only songs she knew how to play on the black piano that she wheeled from classroom to classroom for her music lesson every day. Julie Andrews, we were not!
And then there was one…
Tina returned to Florida for the weekend, and due to work obligations Kim and her boyfriend, Paul, had to leave before me as well. Tina gave me the keys to her car and her apartment, and I was left to my own devices in New Orleans for a day. It would have been a lot more fun being on my own in New Orleans if the city was not being pounded by a storm, complete with thunder, lightning, and torrential downpours that brought highway traffic to a standstill.
I remembered seeing a sign for the New Orleans School of Cooking across from Johnny’s Po-Boy’s, and braved the storms to check them out. I made it in time for the first class of the day featuring shrimp and artichoke bisque, crawfish etouffee, whiskey bread pudding, and pralines (pronounced “praw-leens”, I discovered). I liked it so much, I stayed for the second class on jambalaya, gumbo, and more “praw-leens”. I watched the sky pour down buckets of rain onto the little courtyard outside of the classroom as the room filled with the smell of browning roux and I listened to wonderful stories about Cajuns and Creoles, and the colorful and amazing culinary history of New Orleans recounted by the accomplished and entertaining instructors as they prepared and explained traditional New Orleans food. I found myself grateful for the rain that forced me to take cover in the school for a day. By the time I left, the sun was finally shining, I had eaten amazing New Orleans food that I now knew how to cook, and I purchased a whole bunch of stuff to replicate the wonderful dishes when I got back to Takoma Park.
On my last evening, after my last cooking class was over, I meandered about the French Quarter by myself, explored used book stores and antique jewelry shops (making a few impulse purchases), wandered surreptitiously into a few of the old, luxury hotels to soak in the Antebellum architecture and painted ceilings, and strolled down to the Mississippi River with a final beignet and coffee from Cafe du Monde as the day came to a close and the sky over the river faded into amazing purples and blues. The powdered sugar from my beignet sprinkled onto its reflection when I leaned over the water to watch my wonderful week in New Orleans come to a close.
And the next day, I flew back home to Washington with a new city to love. I understand now why people who have lived in New Orleans, even for a short time, claim it as home. Even though I was only there for a week, it did capture my soul. New Orleans is a city of so much love, passion, and history. I know I’ll be back. Hopefully soon!
For the first time in years and years, I didn’t feel like a city-weary, middle-aged woman, and for a few days I was just a girl who grew up on the “Redneck Riviera” under the iconic Pensacola Beach sign, drinking Budweiser out of styrofoam coolers, Bushwackers on the beach, pulling heads off peel-and-eat shrimp steamed with beer, and not being ashamed to laugh a little too loud in public, drink a little too much, and sing along with my rowdy friends to a Lynyrd Skynyrd song in a bar.
Rewind before Washington D.C., government and ad agency jobs, grad school at George Washington University, undergrad at Mary Baldwin College, starting out as a wide-eyed and ambitious kid in publishing in Richmond in 1989, and falling head-over-heels in love with a New Yorker under the skyscrapers of Manhattan years later — rewind it all and I was a kid in Pensacola, Florida cutting class to spend days on the beach with my friends.
I felt like my old self again.
I will end this August of unemployment, Citronelle, and New Orleans by saying that one of the greatest gifts one can have in this life are lifelong friends. I’m so grateful that I can say that I have two friends that I have known for 40 years, and who have followed me through my life — the good parts and the bad.
On to the Pralines…
When I was a kid, my family made a yearly summer trip from Pensacola to Sarasota. My mother grew up in Sarasota (and my parents live there now). Just about everyone I’m related to lives in Sarasota and Manatee County, and my mother’s family settled in the area in the 1840′s, so we spent our summers (and most holidays) in Sarasota with my grandparents, cousins, and my mom’s siblings.
Back then, I-75 (the highway that run down the Gulf coast of Florida) did not exist. The trip down the coast of Florida was done on local roads and it was long and ugly. My mother had one of the 70′s era Chrysler station wagons with wood siding, and five kids packed into a car with my dad for 10+ hours was abject misery. The only good memories I have of that awful trip were our frequent stops at Stuckey’s for gas, Cokes, and candy. (Maybe my mom should have reconsidered loading her kids up with sugar on a long car trip, but in the 70′s in the South I think sugar was considered a food group.) I used to load up on pralines and pecan rolls on those Stuckey’s pitstops, and since then I have always associated pralines with those trips and with Stuckey’s. I was, therefore, in for a real treat in New Orleans when I had real pralines that did not come out of a plastic wrapper stamped with the Stuckey’s logo, and were not associated with my parents having a mental breakdown on the side of Old Dixie Highway.
I absolutely fell in love with real New Orleans pralines.
So, I came back home seven pounds heavier, with a great cookbook from the New Orleans School of Cooking (and lots of other stuff). The praline recipe that they give to students has suggestions for pralines made with coconut, chocolate, and brandy. While wandering the shops of New Orleans, one can find pralines in many different flavors, depending on how far from tradition the confectioner is willing to go. Chocolate and coconut are particularly popular.
When I was monkeying around in my own kitchen, the ingredient that called out from my cupboard when I was looking for a spin on the classic praline recipe was Nutella. So, I started experimenting, and I think the result is pretty darned good.
Yes, I know that Nutella is made with hazelnuts, so one might think that using hazelnuts instead of pecans in Nutella pralines would make sense. And I don’t think there would be anything intrinsically wrong with giving it a shot, but I also believe that if you take away the pecans, then you need to stop calling it a praline. I was not willing to go that far.
Other changes I made to the original recipe include using unsalted butter and adding a 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the recipe, and adding the pecans to the end of the process, after the mixture has reached soft ball stage, rather than at the beginning (as it was written in the original recipe). And, of course, I added Nutella.
So, here it is…
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
6 tbs. unsalted butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup light cream or whole milk
1 ½ cups pecans, roughly chopped
1/4 cup Nutella
1 tsp. vanilla
Combine all ingredients, except pecans and vanilla, in a heavy saucepan, and bring to boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until mixture boils. Stop stirring once mixture boils. Keep at a rolling boil until mixture reaches softball stage. (I brushed down the sides of the saucepan with water at this point.) The chef gave instructions to time the boil for exactly 3 minutes. I used a candy thermometer, but also kept an eye on the time, and I must admit she was right on the money. Three minutes brought the praline mixture exactly to softball stage.
Remove from heat and stir in pecans and vanilla extract. Keep stirring until mixture cools down a bit and the pecans stay suspended in the mixture, and it becomes more opaque.
Drop onto parchment paper with a spoon and let harden. These are very good warm.
Makes about 24 candies.