Flying into New Orleans on a Friday afternoon, what struck me from the window of the airplane was how pervasive and dramatic the serpentine waterways were. It was a landscape of water upon water, broken just barely by clumps of small brownish dots – the water-loving plants of the bayou. It was, of course, the fluid, overlapping topography of the Missisissippi river, the gulf coast, and the bayou. Louisiana, it seems, is defined by water.
And Louisiana has an unbelievably powerful sense of place. It was intense, triggering all the senses (the colors! the smell of the bayou and the river and the humid air, the foods, the music and the birdsong and the straggly kitties and everyone, everywhere saying hi), and it was present everywhere: in the gorgeous, slightly dilapidated, colorful shotgun houses that characterize the neighborhoods of New Orleans, in the cooking, in the regional accent, in the music. It’s a vibrant, wonderfully warm, amazing place, and I’ve never been anywhere like it.
Here’s my experience on Avery Island, the homeplace of the McIlhenny family and Tabasco sauce, mostly in photos:
In the greenhouse learning about Tabasco peppers!
Talking about the Tabasco mash in its early and later stages. We tasted the mash – the concentrated pepper and salt blend before vinegar is added. It’s as intense as you would imagine!
The mash is aged for 3 years in old whiskey barrels that are re-used for decades!
I am so inspired by the unique topography and color palette of the swampy bayous. It’s gorgeous, and rich, and fecund, and a little spooky. And yeah, there are totally critters hiding out in there.
Chef Brian Landry did an awesome demo on his Spanish and Creole-inspired cooking, before executing the MOST EPIC MEAL ever for us that evening.
Before our epic feast, I snuck out for a stroll along the empty roads of Avery Island. I wanted to get deep in that landscape and have a moment with the bayou. I made my way down a dusty dirt road to a small dock. Stepping onto the dock I heard a loud commotion – I had surprised a giant water snake who slithered in a hurry back into the murky creek! Yikes. Sometimes my curiosity gets the best of me.
Also, I am completely obsessed with Spanish moss. I learned that it’s an air plant – does that mean I can grow it at home? (Somebody send me some?)
The next day was equally epic. After an intense morning in the capsaicin-heavy air of the rooms where the mash is produced, we sped through the surrounding waterways to an old shack in the middle of nowhere.
We were greeted by these awesome guys, who were totally busting out the zydeco jams.
We went on an air boat ride through the marshy bayou. It was gorgeous and grey and empty out there – and the boat was so fast and loud and awesome. I felt like I had been on a roller coaster after. Look at our badass captain!
Then we feasted on the best crawfish boil ever, and some of us got down with the band. What an amazing trip. So much great food, an awesome group of bloggers, a really rare opportunity to understand the story of an impressive family-run business, and a whole heck of a lot of inspiration. I’m still processing it. I feel so lucky to have been invited to join!
CAJUN-SPICED SWEET POTATO BURGERS
Yield: 4 large or 6 medium patties
I knew that if I wanted to draw on the cornerstones of Cajun flavors for these guys that I had to step outside of my comfort zone a little bit. (Red bell peppers out of season, heaven forbid!) But the Cajun holy trinity – celery, bell pepper, and onion – felt like a necessary component to bring these to life. And it did. I very loosely adapted a basic Cajun seasoning to give these the big flavors that I was looking for, and rounded it out with Tabasco’s smoky Chipotle Pepper Sauce, because I love a smoky element with the flavors of sweet potato. I am so stoked on how they turned out. Since these patties are a little bit delicate, I don’t think they’d work too well on a grill, unfortunately. Get that skillet super hot to give them a nice, blackened crust. It’ll help them hold together. Smother them with all of your favorite condiments, squish em inside a bun, and have at it.
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for cooking
1/4 cup finely diced red bell pepper
1/4 cup finely diced celery
1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion
1.5 cups cooked and mashed sweet potato (from one large sweet potato)
1/2 cup cooked and cooled short grain brown rice
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon dried garlic
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 or 2 teaspoons Tabasco chipotle pepper sauce
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1 egg, whisked
Micro greens or lettuce
Condiments of choice
Warm a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the tablespoon of olive oil, along with the diced bell pepper, celery, and onion. Saute, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, mix together all ingredients except for the second teaspoon of Tabasco sauce, the cayenne pepper, the breadcrumbs and the egg. Taste the mix and add the second teaspoon of Tabasco and the cayenne pepper if you’re fond of a little spice. (This is why I add the egg last – I don’t mind a smidge of raw egg, but it’s great to be able to safely taste this and adjust the season to your preference.) Add the egg and the breadcrumbs and mix until just incorporated.
Shape into 4 large or 6 medium patties about 3/4 inch thick, place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and chill until firm, at least 1 hour.
Heat a large cast-iron or non-stick skillet over medium-high heat and let it sit for a few minutes to get nice and hot. Add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan.
Remove the patties from the fridge. Using a spatula, carefully place two at a time in the hot pan, reshaping a little if necessary. They’re delicate – be patient and forgiving with them, and know that they’ll still taste good! Cook, completely undisturbed, for about 5 minutes, until a nice, dark crust forms. Flip and repeat, again being careful not to disturb them, for another 4 to 5 minutes. Repeat with the remaining patties, adding more olive oil as needed.
While the patties cook, toast the buns.
To serve, place the patties on a bun with lots of mustard, mayo, ketchup, relish or whatever you prefer. Top with micro greens or lettuce and the bun. EAT and be happy.
I have always loved that the Persian New Year, Norooz, coincides with the beginning of spring. It feels right, to begin the year anew now, when everything is crawling out from the heavy cloak of winter, the year’s new growth tentatively unfurling. It is the easiest time to slough off the old and look forward. Every year I am dumbfounded by the proliferation of the green and the fresh: the fluorescent tips of spruce and pine and the baby nettle plants poking out everywhere in the hills of Marin, the flower blossoms and flowering bulbs and tiny tree buds in San Francisco, the doves who announce their arrival on my deck daily and circle each other awkwardly before surprising into flight at the sight of a crow. That, coupled with the miracle that is that extra hour of golden light following daylight savings, makes this time of year a little intoxicating. I feel like I’m floating through the days, and those days are full of possibility.
There is nothing more perfect with which to celebrate this greenest season than the Persian kuku sabzi, an herbed frittata of sorts that is, as my pal Samin describes it, “mostly greens and herbs …. just barely bound together with egg, so it’s like eating a mouthful of greens.” It’s a traditional dish served at Norooz, the green herbs and eggs a perfect iteration of renewal.
I would like a mouthful of greens with a lacy web of golden eggs barely holding it together. It’s a flexible and forgiving dish – frequently it’s made with parsley, cilantro, dill and chives, but nearly anything leafy and green is welcome. I folded some pea and fava shoots into it – they are my own signifiers of spring. I love their subtle legume flavor and they worked beautifully in this context. Add whatever bright, delicate herbs or greens you like. Here’s to every green thing, and to long evenings, and to the possibility of the new.
KUKU SABZI, AN HERBED FRITTATA WITH PEA + FAVA SHOOTS
Yield: 8 slices
Adapted from Louisa Shafia’s The New Persian Kitchen, with inspiration from Samin Nosrat
1 tablespoon butter
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 bunch green onions or small spring onions, diced
1 cup chopped flat leaf parsley, stems removed
1.5 cups chopped greens, such as pea shoots and fava greens, or cilantro, dill, mint, or spinach
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
7 eggs, whisked
Feta, to serve
Sliced radishes, to serve
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat an 8 to 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium low heat. Add the garlic and green onions and sauté until soft, stirring, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the parsley and the chopped greens, and cook until just wilted, stirring often, about 2 minutes more. Remove the pan from the heat.
Gently fold in the whisked eggs until incorporated. Place the skillet in the oven and cook until the center is firm, about 15 minutes longer. Set aside to cool for five minutes.
Serve with crumbled Feta and radishes, as Louisa suggests, or try mayonnaise and hot sauce, as Samin suggests. I ate it both ways: both were awesome.
All winter I have been dreaming of winter. I know: most of you are ready for it to be done. You’ve had snowmageddons and polar vortices and ice storms and all kinds of ridiculous, frigid, challenging weather. In California, there’s been hardly any winter to speak of, owing to a different kind of ridiculous: our crazy, record-breaking drought. It’s been weird: record strings of dry, warm days that make typically cool and foggy San Francisco feel almost like the perennially warm Los Angeles. Many fruit trees need a dormant period of cold to bear fruit the next summer. Perhaps I am the same. A sense of the seasons makes the passing of time feel right.
That’s part of why I went to Montana: I ached to feel a deep sense of winter in my bones. And I got it in spades. It snowed every day. It was cold, and windy, and snowy, and invigorating. I snowshoed, cross-country skied, explored the snow-packed roads with big winter boots on, took my camera everywhere, witnessed a lot of magnificent wildlife, experimented with gluten-free sourdough (more on that soon!!!), and was really, really happy to have brought this soup along with me, where its flavor increased exponentially with the plummeting temperature. The cold and the challenges of winter bring the little luxuries of our lives into such sharp focus. I like to be reminded of these things.
There’s something lovely in having a period of time dedicated to rest, even if our culture hardly allows for it. I think that’s where winter becomes frustrating: when we have to function at the same level against circumstances that ask us to stay put and to pause. Soups are, I think, a celebration of slowing down, resting, and hibernation. A few weeks back I had a version of this at one of my favorite restaurants, Nopalito, and I was smitten. What I’m most blown away by is the simplicity and richness of the broth: it’s just vegetable or chicken stock in which dried chipotle chiles are soaked, and a can of fire-roasted tomatoes is added for good measure. Caldo Tlalpeño typically has carrots, chickpeas, and green beans, along with chicken and avocado to finish. Nopalito smartly added winter crucifers: cauliflower and brussels sprouts. I followed their lead with an abundance of leafy winter vegetables: magenta-hued orach (a wild spinach cousin), baby rainbow chard leaves, and baby rainbow carrots. Way to bring the color in winter.
Yield: about 6 servings
This soup is a little bit of a mash-up between caldo tlalpeno and sopa de tortilla. (Caldo Tlalpeno doesn’t traditionally have tortilla strips.) It does typically have chicken, but I made this version vegetarian. The framework is so forgiving. This is definitely a kitchen sink kinda soup: throw in the last of whatever’s in the crisper drawer. It’ll likely all taste good in there.
2 leeks, white and pale green parts only, rinsed and thinly sliced crosswise (or use diced onions)
2 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
4-6 whole dried chipotle chiles
1 (15 ounce) can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons dried epazote
2 large carrots (or 1 small bunch of petite rainbow carrots), rinsed and sliced 1/2-inch thick on the diagonal
1 (15 ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon sea salt
4-6 cups winter leafy greens, such as: orach, baby chard, baby kale, spinach, collards, etc
6 corn tortillas, cut into thin strips, optional
1 or 2 limes, sliced into wedges
Cotija or Feta cheese
In a large stock pot, melt a little butter or olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the leeks and sauté, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and stir for another minute or so. Add the vegetable broth, chipotle chiles, tomatoes, and epazote. Cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, add the carrots and chickpeas, and cook at a simmer until the carrots are cooked through. Add the leafy greens in the last couple minutes of cooking and turn off heat when the greens are soft. Set aside.
Meanwhile, heat the tortilla strips in a toaster oven at 300 degrees, or in a large pan over medium heat with a little oil, until crisp.
To serve, ladle soup into bowls, garnish with the cheese, cilantro, and tortilla strips. Serve with lime wedges on the side.
I’m making my way to Montana, my power state, my spirit animal, my place. I have always wanted to go there in the winter, to experience it outside of its easy summer glory. This year Montana is my valentine. I will bundle up, go snowshoeing, and bear witness to its winter splendor.
I made some muffins for the road. I wanted something with fresh fruit involved so it didn’t feel too cake-y, something befitting winter, something with a note of chocolate, and a nod towards the wholesome. I love what the right balance of buckwheat does in a baked good. Here it feels like winter incarnate: they’re dark, and just sweet enough, with a hint of bitterness and crunch from the cacao nibs, and they’re earthy and rich and fragrant with spices. Share them with everyone you love.
PEAR + CACAO NIB BUCKWHEAT MUFFINS
Yield: 12 muffins
3/4 cup buckwheat flour
3/4 cup almond meal
1/2 cup brown rice flour
3/4 cup demerara cane sugar, plus more for garnish
1/2 cup sliced almonds, plus more for garnish
1/2 cup cacao nibs, plus more for garnish
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup almond, soy, or regular milk
1 1/2 ripe red pears, cut into small dice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk together the butter, eggs, yogurt, and almond milk. Combine the wet ingredients with the dry. Fold in the diced pear.
Evenly divide the batter among 12 paper-lined muffin tins. Top each muffin with a sprinkle of demerara sugar, sliced almonds, and cacao nibs. Bake at 350 degrees until the center is firm, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes. The muffins will hold for a number of days, but the almonds and cacao nibs will lose their crunch over time.
There’s a hike that I try to get to once a week. Nestled in the dramatic, golden Marin headlands, it starts above the Pacific coast just south of Stinson Beach, and makes its way determinedly up the mountain into Mt. Tamalpais State Park. Most of the time, it is the same tangle of trails that I fall into, instinctively. For a while I felt like I ought to explore new trails, step outside my familiar routine, understand the nuances of the park a little more deeply. Then I started to really appreciate going to the same place weekly. There are so many little details that are different, especially if I miss a week or two: the angle of the sun through the dark canopy of trees that I pass under as I make my way into the woods; which flowers are blooming, or not; the colors and textures of the forest floor; the hues of the grassy hills; which animals I might see or hear. (At dusk, I hear owls, other times, frogs, and often, seasonal cycles of birdsong; I’ve seen a young deer leaping out of the canopy; and once, a small, surprised bobcat.) And something else happens: because I don’t have to worry about where I’m going, I just get to be there. The mind relaxes differently when it’s not thinking about the how. Some weeks I go up there with so much angst from my life that I am not very much there at all. Others, I’m so deeply immersed in the shady cocoon of woods that I am caught off guard as dusk falls. Always, I leave feeling so much more like the me that I want to be.
Lately I’ve been fiercely grabbing on to these rituals, those familiar, everyday acts that fill the pockets of our days. Walking through my neighborhood in the evenings, often along the same few roads, or making that same, satisfying preparation of my favorite vegetables, week after week. I think some of it is because so much of my life – especially my work life – is about the new and the unfamiliar, so much of it is me in at the deep end, that I need the anchoring that comes with familiar habits.
Oatmeal falls very much into this camp for me: it’s comfortingly familiar and it is very much a ritual of the morning. It’s one of perhaps three breakfasts in rotation most mornings of the year. To all the naysayers out there, give this a try. It’s got the texture and the sweet/salty balance that is sometimes lacking in this most everyday of breakfasts, and the nuttiness and toothsome qualities of steel-cut oats really redeems it. I like to mix it up a little, depending on what fruit’s in season, and vacillating between the ease of quick-cooking oats and the deeper satisfaction of steel-cut. I love what Megan has done with the initial toasting of the oats in butter; it’s kinda genius and the simplest little step for the depth of flavor that it adds. Make a big batch at the beginning of the week and keep it in the fridge. And add nuts, fruit, cinnamon and cardamom generously, and maple syrup and even some toasted coconut flakes. These details make it feel both like you’re taking care of yourself and treating yourself. It’s a perfect ritual.
STEEL CUT OATMEAL WITH APPLES, PECANS + TOASTED COCONUT
Yield: 4 servings
adapted from Whole Grain Mornings, by Megan Gordon
I’ve been so excited for this gem of a book to be released. Now that it’s here, I’m smitten. Breakfast is such a rich subject, and Megan’s aced it. Steel-cut oats, I learned long ago, benefit from a little salt to bolster the sweet – don’t be shy here. Do whatever you like with them to finish, but give this method a whirl to start. The toasting of the oats is an awesome first step.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup steel cut oats
3 cups water
1 cup unsweetened almond milk (use whichever kind of milk you prefer, of course)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
For each bowl:
1/2 firm apple, diced
In a medium, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat, warm the butter until it is frothy. Add the oats and toast, stirring often, until they’re golden and fragrant, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the water and almond milk, along with a generous pinch of sea salt and as much cinnamon and cardamom as suits your fancy, and bring to a boil, partially covered. Reduce heat to low and allow to simmer, stirring often enough to prevent burning, until the liquid is absorbed, about 25 to 30 minutes more.
To serve, top with the diced apple, a generous sprinkle of coconut flakes, and a small handful of pecan pieces. Finish with maple syrup – this is truly among the greatest of vehicles for this fine sweetener. Or start with the method above and finish with your favorite fruits and nuts. Regardless, enjoy.