New Orleans: Red Beans and Rice, with Freezers.

Langlois, New Orleans

What: An "interactive dining experience," with personal instruction in a small-class setting.

Where: 1710 Pauger St., New Orleans, LA

Best for: Serious home cooks, or food enthusiasts, who want a lesson in preparing authentic Southern meals in the New Orleans style. And people who like a good history lesson with their food.

The secret to good red beans and rice is the freezer.

Same goes for fried chicken.

The cooking lesson at Langlois in New Orleans more than just freezing food, but that was the biggest of any eye-opener. I went in late January for a one-off session in cooking dishes endemic to the area: Fried Chicken, Red Beans and Rice, and Bananas Foster.

Red beans and rice hold a special place in my strapped-for-cash personal history. It was staple dish when I worked early in my newspaper gigs. Budgeting went like this: Rent, beer money, food. Use the change to do laundry. The beer was usually cheap, and the food similar. A box of Zatarain's red beans and rice can last you half a week with a pound of smoked sausage and an extra can of beans tossed in there. So I'd have it for lunch - and often after a late night out before I went to bed. Economical and plentiful are the culinary goals of anyone who is broke, and that's often found in one-pot stews, soups, casseroles and such. I still think fondly of those pots of beans and rice. Maybe this class would put me in touch with that part of my past, or show me how to redefine it into adulthood.

At the door of Langlois I was greeted by Lauren, with tattoos hidden under a long-sleeved shirt, who handled front-of-house stuff, and Chef Tess, in glasses, with the countenance and control-the-room presence of a kitchen boss.

Lauren made sure water glasses were full, coffee was refilled and we were generally comfortable. Chef Tess would spend the next three hours in a working lecture, demonstrating knife skills, kitchen tips and plenty of history about the ingredients - including a small sermon on food allergies. She stopped short of being preachy, but Chef Tess does speak with authority on her food.

A middle-aged father and his daughter, perhaps in her mid-20s were in the class too. That's three of us total for the hands-on cooking class. The place has larger sessions that aren't as handsy. But I wanted to get a little dirty.

We were greeted with a biscuit, hard-boiled egg, a grapefruit with cartelized brown sugar and a praline. Hell, you can see the menu right up there. I wolfed my portion down, and wish I could've had a little more, even. But we had to get to cooking and I wasn't there to simply eat.

This kitchen belongs to Chef Tess. She's big on being the boss of the food, which is one of the first concepts we were explained. It means being in control.

And one of the most important parts of being in control is having the right knife. So Chef Tess had us select our knives. I chose something close to the old 8-inch Dexter-Russell I have at home. But, you know, chef-ier looking.

Out knife skills lesson stuck with vegetables, so we didn't have to worry about handling raw meat. I was able to bone up on cutting dice for onion, and learned about cutting peppers the Chef Tess way. Be the boss.

The biggest takeaway, other than the freezer, was cutting green onion on the bias. All these years I've been holding my knife at a perpendicular off angle. Really I should just stagger the ends of my green onions about one-half inch in a little flat stair step and hold the tip of my knife at angle in relation to where it points from my body. I've already employed that one at home. Also used a trick to deal with some of the sulfur-based compounds released when cutting an onion - just have a lit candle nearby. Tears averted.

Oh, and I got the reminder on using a little pile of salt to create a paste when you're smashing up garlic. Totally forgot that one.

We also learned how the freezer can be used as a gadget. Chef Tess put the single-breaded (once and only once) chicken pieces in the freezer for about a half hour prior to frying. I forget exactly what the science was behind this, but it made for a tasty single piece of breading/skin instead of breading, then skin, then chicken.

As for the beans, you soak them overnight, then stick them in the freezer on cookie sheets. Water expands in the beans, the tissue inside breaks down and you have creamier beans. Too bad I didn't know this in the beans-and-rice days.

There was a lesson in dietary restrictions, and how the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and chilis) creates compounds some people can be allergic to. We dwelled on histories behind the dishes we cooked - got some interesting stories on how the region influenced the food. Bananas Foster, for example, is a N.O. signature dish built on chefs trying to figure out how to get rid of a whole pile of bananas at once.  I also learned the fun of throwing a dash of ground cinnamon at an open flame. Yes, it's cool. We also made crepes.

In all this was on of the better plates of beans and rice I've ever eaten in my life, including those days when I showed up at home at 2 a.m. after a hefty bar tab. The fried chicken helps add oomph to the tasty factor. (Don't ask how that tasty factor math works.) But it's important to say that you're not paying simply for the food here. You're getting a history lesson, some personal instruction and a terrific meal. And you end with recipes to take back home at try on friends and neighbors. So my people in Knoxville can expect some of that in the future.

I'd recommend it to those folks who are serious home cooks or just general food enthusiasts and want to have a good time in a class that's more than watching someone cook under a mirror from a table in the back of the room. Here you're standing next to the flame, chopping up ingredients and being led by a deft hand. You get a little dirty, but nothing much more complicated than you'd deal with at home by making a salad and using a sharp knife to do it. I had a great time, learned new things and had a tasty meal from the morning.

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 Chef Tess is the boss.

Chef Tess is the boss.

 Breakfast waits for guests upon arrival.

Breakfast waits for guests upon arrival.

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 Garlic paste, and chopped garlic.

Garlic paste, and chopped garlic.

 My second crepe.

My second crepe.

 Cooked in butter, rum, cinnamon.

Cooked in butter, rum, cinnamon.

 Red beans and rice, with chicken.

Red beans and rice, with chicken.

 Not too shabby.

Not too shabby.

Kiawah in Pictures

And here's another post about an island - Kiawah Island, S.C.

A friend of mine whose inlays live on the island compared it to the Hamptons of the South. And when you see a recommendation from the resort managers to stay in your neighborhood - you really get the sense that there's exclusivity to the place.

And rightfully so. It's beautiful, a resort place, but a little wild too.

We drove down so Lauren could run the Kiawah Half Marathon. There's a marathon, too. But that's not why we were there.

This is the second trip I've made there in three years. And this time we stayed in a cozy one-bedroom condo with a lagoon view. Basically that means no beach view. Spring for the beach view if you can afford it. It's better to go to sleep with the sound of waves crashing in the background.

And the sounds of yuppies and little kids. This is the place where people look you in the eye and say good morning. It's a morning kind of place. Golfers. It makes sense. They're an early lot. I'm not a golfer.

But my wife is a runner, so she's an early riser. I'm more likely to stay out drinking beer.

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But the mornings can be nice, no? Up above is a typical shot of sun-dappled trees on a typical road on the island. I took a bike out on the beach too, and while it was a pain to ride on the sand it was ultimately worth the visit to my old friend, the Atlantic Ocean.

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The bike rental came as a part of the marathon registration. They're heavy and slow. But it's a rental.

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Even the wild stuff looks manicured. Beware of alligators. And even in December there are mosquitos.

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I only wish I could say I was responsible for this. Looks like a good time for someone.

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The scene on Bohicket Road, which leads to Kiawah Island, and takes you by plenty of less-expensive places to live. 

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The Friendly Island

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We had just gotten married, it was February, and about to snow in Knoxville. But not for another night or two. The first few duties of married life for me included moving out of my old place and shampooing carpet. For all you at home - just hire a guy to shampoo it rather than doing it yourself. Time is money. Give someone else money for the time you would otherwise spend shampooing carpet.

Anyway, we took off for our honeymoon a few days after the actual wedding, for beautiful St. Martin! Or Sint Maarten, depending on how you want to say it. The island is one of the few in the Caribbean that are split nationalities. Haiti and the Dominican Republic make up Hispaniola, and on St. Martin the island is split 60/40 between France and the Dutch. It's also much friendlier - reflected in the car tags, too, which read "The Friendly Island."

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Our destination would be the Grand Case Beach Club, a few rows of condos behind gates on the French side of the island. Cocktail hour happened almost straight upon arrival - strong rum punch and snacks like crudités, ceviche and olives and fruit.

Most of the crowd was not what you would consider much younger than middle-aged. But we were there for other purposes, being on a honeymoon and all. We were chasing the obvious (and the beds are comfortable and quiet, yes), but also some sun, a beach and good food. Fortunately the hotel is located walking distance from a foodie's dream row in Grand Case - what they self-proclaim as the Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean.

 Seating by the water at L'Effet Mer   

Seating by the water at L'Effet Mer

 

On our first night we ate at Le Pressoir, in an old house across from the salt press - hence the name. I had a vanilla-crusted tuna steak that was out of this world. The meaty richness and light ocean flavors paired well with the charred vanilla exterior. I'd fly back just to have it again. Also - my French is not good, but I try.

On night two, it was L'Effet Mer, on a patio over water. The most striking part of that place was having the water roll in under our chairs on the patio that hung out over the sea. We also watched a couple of people smoke a joint on the dock nearby and down some tequila. Another exceptional meal, and the open-air, beachside seating is unique. The place was somewhat warm, but fans kept the air moving. And yes, the food was well-prepared French cuisine with special attention to the flavors of the tropic and fresh seafood.

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We also checked out Orient Beach. We saw naked people. (There's one in the background of the picture at left - check the sideboob.) I downed Presidente beer under an umbrella and watched the white, and really tan nakey folks walk by. Here's the thing, though: The people you actually would want to see naked never get naked. Bummer. And I kept my shorts on because nobody wants to see that.

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Here we're at the Grand Case resort again, on a short boardwalk over water. They have plenty of places to sit outside and let the ocean spray hit you while you read, draw or just let life roll by. Truly relaxing. One of my happy places is the morning I hung out in a hammock with a magazine in 80 degree temps with a little breeze rattling the palm trees overhead. A pretty paradise - but that's what the point of a resort is, right? That bruise on my arm is from the doggone carpet shampoo machine.

The final day of our stay took us up to Phillipsburg. We had a time to kill before boarding the ship, so we shopped. I bought duty-free rum at a dockside stores and Lauren picked up a pair of sunglasses. Her shades were knocked off by a giant wave at the nude beach. It's pretty hard to look at naked people when you don't have shades. Not that she would do that, anyway. Or me, either. No way. Not at all.

 The view off the Blue Bitch Bar balcony (see what I did there?)

The view off the Blue Bitch Bar balcony (see what I did there?)

We dropped in to have some lunch at a place where I didn't expect much from the food. I was mistaken. This Blue Bitch Bar looked inexpensive and quick, and it was both of those things. The name was corny, but it's the beach, and you let some things go. So we dropped in for a quick bite. Then there was the curry.

This curry was coconut, and spiced but not spicy, unlike any curry I've had before.  I wanted to lick the plate. Afterward we asked for the recipe and were nearly laughed out of the place. Service was neither slow nor quick, even as we sat somewhat apart from the rest of the people during some kind of off-hours in the afternoon.

The curry wasn't heavy, as some curries tend to be. I could put this on an old shoe and I'd chew on it like a puppy all afternoon.

The waitress told us that it was a Dominican recipe. I have no idea what that meant.

Later I would find out more about how to make it at home. The secret? Some damn ketchup. How about that? There's got to be something else to it.