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New Orleans – My Prior Trip that Nearly Destroyed the City For Me

This is a tale of traveling with family. Traveling with family who travel differently than you do. Traveling with family over a holiday. Traveling with family following a death. Traveling with family.

I love New Orleans. I don’t get to visit very often, but when I do I love the City. I love the food. I love the drink. I love the people. I am so filled with joy when I am in New Orleans.  This trip nearly destroyed those feelings for me.

2009 was a year of transitions for my family.  My parents moved in with me in Chicago – my dad was very sick and one of his hospice wishes was to move to Chicago and live in the City with me, before he died.  Six weeks after they moved to the City, he died – as he wanted. Surrounded by family, in a City I called him. He even had about 4.5 weeks to live in the City – to run errands and enjoy springtime in Chicago.  5 months later, my Aunt’s husband died.  Like my father, he died of cancer, at home surrounded by family.  This second death was in October.  Knowing the holidays would be a tough time and how my family enjoys ignoring issues (like proper grieving, etc), I decided that maybe we should take a trip – me, my mother and my aunt – to a City they’ve never been. Let’s explore one of America’s great Cities and help take our minds off of the recently departed.  They were game.

I laid our a couple ground rules before we actually pulled the trigger:

  • Everyone pays their own way (this isn’t a Tim Funded Vacation)
  • We will find a hotel that we all agree is acceptable and stay there (easier to meet for breakfast and to close out the night)
  • Everyone will make a list of things they are interested in doing PLUS a list of things that if they don’t do while in New Orleans they’ll consider the trip very disappointing
  • I will plan Thanksgiving Dinner – and give them the opportunity to weigh in on options
  • I am not your tour guide – we do this together or we don’t do it at all.

The rules were laid out and mutually agreed upon.  We decided to stay at the Marriott on Canal – it was very reasonably priced (Marriotts are consistent in quality) and in a perfect area – close walk to everything to do in the French Quarter and easy access to the Street Car and taxis.  I booked the hotel for the group.

I also asked my mom and aunt to share with me their list of things to do – so I could start to plan a general itinerary, book tours/excursions that needed to be coordinated beforehand, etc.  Both my mom and aunt wanted to visit an old plantation house.  They took it upon themselves to find a tour of Oak Alley Plantation – about 50 miles from New Orleans.  They also wanted to see the Lower 9th Ward and explore more of the Katrina history.  This being 2009, New Orleans was in a much different state than it is now. The tour that goes to Oak Alley also has an add on for the Lower 9th Ward and a Cemetery Tour.  While I’m not a big fan of day long bus tours, this seemed like a perfect avenue to hit 3 of their must see items in a single day – AND they planned this themselves.

Now I was a little naive at this point. Things were going surprisingly well – we agreed on a City, they created their lists of must-see items, they even booked a days worth of activities.  Would this be the start of an annual excursion with these ladies?  We pick a City, explore the history, the culture and start to recover from a very tough year?  New Orleans is up first? What’s next? Savannah? Charleston?  Do we work our way up to a quick international trip?  Neither of these ladies had left the country before – is this their renaissance?

We arrive in New Orleans. My mother and I fly down together while my aunt comes in from West Virginia arriving about 3 hours after we do.  My mom is a nervous traveler.  She and I struggle flying together.  She prefers to be sitting at the gate 2.5+ hours before departure (just in case they need her — need her for what is unclear, but that’s who she is), while I prefer to arrive at the gate just early enough to buy a bottle of water and walk aboard.

My aunt is tired from her journey as she had to connect in Atlanta – her travel time was about twice as long as ours. We decided to rest up for a couple hours then head out for lunch.  They retire to their separate rooms and I spend 2 hours catching up on some work.

We meet at noon in the Lobby and decide to head out for a meal in the French Quarter.  I suggest we hit the Palace Cafe for lunch.  It is close to the hotel, will allow them to get their bearings.  They review the menu and enthusiastically agree.  We sit down and there is nothing on the menu they want to eat – despite reviewing and approving it less than 5 minutes before.  We decide to leave and try another place.  After spending 20 minutes walking between restaurants and finding nothing at all to eat, we decide to visit Shula’s in the J.W. Marriott.  Hotel chain restaurant for our first meal in New Orleans.  Ok.  Let’s ease into this trip.

This was Thanksgiving weekend and the restaurant was quite empty, except for me, my mother, my aunt and a table at the far end of the restaurant full of screaming children (5 or 6 kiddos) and two parents who were at their wits end.  This display caused great angst for my aunt which had ripple effects on my mother.  The meal was delightful — as delightful as an extremely salty, loud, chain restaurant meal could be of course.

I asked again for my mom and aunt’s list of things to do in New Orleans so I could build the itinerary of spur of the moment things.  “What list?” they ask.  I remind them.  They tell me this is the first they’ve heard of it – even though we’ve been chatting about it for 6 weeks now.  They both say that they are just along for the ride and that I’m planning everything.  Ok – maybe a miscommunication.  I’ll build the itinerary, but I need their must-dos.  Nope.  My aunt then says “The man plans the vacation.  Are you telling me you didn’t plan anything??  Oh god, I need a Xanax.”  My mother follows suit.  This evidently was too much for them and they both needed a nap after lunch.  I get it, travel can be draining – especially when you are getting up for the first flight of the day, etc.

We all retire to the hotel and agree to meet in the lobby at 16h30 for dinner (yes, 16h30 for DINNER).  I go off and explore the French Quarter.  The witching our approaches and I find them sitting in the lobby of the hotel enjoying a coke (they don’t drink alcohol — yeah…I know!).  It was 16h15 at this point.  I am immediately scolded because I am tardy (evidently 15 minutes early is the new late…who knew?).  I ask what they are in the mood for, to which is met with a glare of frustration.  “You don’t have this planned, still?”.  They offer the suggestion of visiting the Palace Cafe for dinner.  The same place just 4 hours ago had NOTHING they could eat.  They said the checked the dinner menu and it had a wider selection.  They were excited about going. We go.

We sit down and the menus are delivered.  You guessed it. There is nothing on here I can eat, they say in almost unison.  We leave again.  They decide the best bet for them is to grab room service at the Marriott and call it a night.  Mind you, it is 17h15 now.  Once I tell them I can’t do Marriott Room Service for dinner (we are in one of the best food Cities in North America for God Sake).  They frustratingly tell me that they’ll see me tomorrow morning at 09h00 in the lobby…and that we should have eaten breakfast by then.

I leave them and wander off into the French Quarter to find a meal and some solitude.

The next day is Thanksgiving.  I arrive in the lobby at 09h00 and am informed that I am late again.  It is cool and rainy in New Orleans.  Our plan for this morning was to go to Cafe du Monde for beignets and coffee.  But since no one planned for it being 10C (~50F) we had to wait until the mall opened to get a sweatshirt and rain jacket.  We take the 15 minute walk to Cafe du Monde and a new complaint was launched with every step.  “It’s too cold”; “I didn’t know it would rain today”; “It’s too far”; “This better be worth it”; “Why did you pick New Orleans, Tim?”; “Why can’t we take a cab”.  We arrived at Cafe du Monde. “We have to sit outside!?”; “This coffee tastes gross”; “There is too much powdered sugar on these beignets”.

Ok, we finally checked something off of their must-do list. At first pass, it appears they hated everything about this place.  I suggest we talk around the French Market.  “Walk? Are you kidding me, I can’t walk any more”.  We get in a cab and go back to the Marriott.

By now it is 12h00.  My aunt says that it is lunch time.  I ask her for a suggestion on where to eat and she goes over to the concierge to ask for advice.  I found the front desk people at this Marriott to be very helpful in previous stays – I’m sure they are use to catering to the less seasoned traveler.  My aunt comes back with a map and an excited glint in her eye.  She explains the concierge has provided a few great recommendations and my aunt leads the way.  We go out the side entrance, cross Canal Street, go down an alley and enter a back door of a building.  We snake through what appears to be a service hallway.  I’m excited at this point, did my aunt get a recommendation on where locals eat? Will this be a great little lunch counter with fantastic po’ boys?  We walk into a side door and we are at Shula’s at the J.W. Marriott.  Again. My aunt had made reservations this time.  We sit down and order the exact same thing. Two days in a row.

I am visibly frustrated at this point, but am trying to be a good sport — and obviously failing.  Since this day had already stressed my mom and aunt out, they decided that they should return to the hotel for the afternoon and relax before dinner.  Now remember, our day had consisted of a 15 minute walk to Cafe du Monde, a taxi back to the hotel and a 7 minute convoluted walk across the street.  We go back to the hotel and agree to meet at 17h30 before our 18h00 Thanksgiving dinner reservations at the Ritz-Carlton.

They nap.  I wander aimlessly, trying not to let their attitude impact me.  I find the list of things to do that I created based on my mother’s comments.  Mind you, the list of to-dos from my mom and aunt never materialized, but my mom said that she wanted to go to a real Jazz Club; wanted to eat gumbo; try turtle soup; see the garden district – all in addition to the plans she and my aunt organized for the Friday after Thanksgiving.  I use this afternoon to put together an itinerary for us, which limited the walking and maximized the immersion into the life of an average resident of New Orleans.

We meet up for Thanksgiving dinner and walk the handful of blocks to the Ritz-Carlton.  We are seated and the excitement is palpable.  There is a change in menu tonight – instead of the prix fixe and an a la carte option, only the prix fixe is available.  The traditional Thanksgiving items are no longer available other than one course which is either a beef or turkey option.  I will admit, I was quite disappointed.  I was afraid this would happen and knowing my travel companions, I need to get ahead of this.  I called ahead and was assured that both menus would be available.  The food was perfectly fine – it was not a Thanksgiving meal – I was not happy with the food selection and it was clear that neither were my mother or my aunt.  Dinner was nearly silent (which in hindsight is probably a good thing – I couldn’t take their complaining about how I ruined Thanksgiving throughout the full 7 course meal).

We finished dinner at 20h30 and it was clearly time for bed.  I mentioned that I found a couple places that had a great dessert option – Bananas Foster for example.  I was shot down.  How about a Jazz Club? Nope.  It’s time for bed.  We agree to meet at 09h00 (after breakfast on our own) and head out for the pre-organized bus tour of the 9th Ward and Oak Alley.

I am exhausted and want to go home.  These people are sucking the life out of me.

The next morning we are up and out the door.  The bus picks us up near the Aquarium along the river.  We arrive at the pickup point at 0915 (we took a cab).  The tour leaves at 10h30.  There is no discussion on why we are waiting outside in the mist for 75 minutes prior to the loading of the bus.

The bus trip was perfectly fine.  It was what my mom and aunt wanted.  A no stress, no planning excursion where you are dragged to various spots and you can see what you need to see from your bus seat. No need to get off the bus at all. sigh. I will admit that these guys did a good job on the tour for their demographic.  We scraped the surface of the history of New Orleans from 1800 to present. Oak Alley was interesting and for a quick tour accomplished what my mom and aunt wanted.  Plus, I had a couple fabulous mint juleps – just what I needed to stomach the day.  We return to New Orleans around 17h00 and evidently it was a forgone conclusion that dinner that night would again be Marriott room service in our respective rooms.  I again asked about the Jazz Club and was met with a stern stare and clear response that we were done for the day.  They retire and I grab a drink in the lobby – marginally depressed and promising myself I will never travel with these two again.

I didn’t realize that some of my favorite places in the Quarter closed the entire with of Thanksgiving: Napoleon House; several of the Brennan restaurants; nearly all the po’ boy places I came across.  As I wandered the streets in the early evening that Friday night, I stumbled across a good friend from Chicago who was in New Orleans with another friend celebrating her birthday.  We traipsed through the Quarter stopping by various bars that were open, telling tales and drinking booze.  This was probably the highlight of my family trip to New Orleans.  We even hit the Jazz Club that my mother so earnestly wanted to attend — in theory — but could never pull the trigger when the time came.

The next morning our plans were to visit the Garden District, see the beautiful old houses and spend time in Jackson Square.  We take the street car, hop off and walk a few blocks to start the Frommer’s self guided tour of the District.  It was warmer this day – 22-25C (72F-77F).  We saw some beautiful houses. They didn’t want to stop in any of the little stores or cafes to shop, relax or enjoy a refreshment.  They wanted to power through and get back to the hotel.

During our self-guided excursion they asked what I did the night before.  I told them about running into a friend and the different historical places in which we snacked and drank and even about the Jazz Club we visited.  That was the breaking point. Both my mother and aunt became visibly frustrated.  How could I go out and do all these great things without them.  This wasn’t a friends trip, it was a family trip.  The man organizing this would make sure they had a good time and I would just leave them alone in their rooms bored.  This was where I lost my cool.  I reminded them I gave them every opportunity to join me.  It was agreed that this was our trip – not a trip I was planning for them, we all need to take responsibility and ensure we are the masters of our own trip.  Do not blame me for your bad time.

It was at this point the decision was made that we’d head back to the hotel and call it a night. It was 15h00.  They would take their dinners in their rooms and that would be the end of the trip.  My aunt’s flight was at 06h00 on Sunday.  She was done with New Orleans.  My mom and I were leaving at 14h00 (I’m not leaving at 06h00 return home – I’d rather go in the night before, save the hotel cost and prep for the week ahead).

The next day my mom and I meet for breakfast — again, in the hotel, but not room service.  She says she’s sorry New Orleans isn’t a good vacation City.  She says she wished I had more time to plan their vacation. She says next time I’ll be able to do a better job. She mentioned how the food in New Orleans is so overrated – it’s just like food you get everywhere. She explained how disappointed she was in me that I hadn’t allowed her to check off the things on her to-do list (the Jazz Club specifically).

I had had it at this point.  I reminded her of our agreements (again), we went through all the opportunities she had to “check the boxes” on her travel wish list.  I explained how chain restaurant and hotel room service is just like food you get everywhere – the City is alive with great food, great people and great experiences.  She not-so-politely disagreed – “We’ll agreed to disagree on these points” she said.

We returned home that afternoon. I was drained.  My plan of a leisurely exploration of one of America’s great Cities – a place that I had grown to love – was dashed.  I knew I could not travel with my mother or aunt again.  They had different ideas of fun.  Together their negative energy fed off of each other (and was directed to me).  My plans for a fun filled weekend where we could put the sadness of the first holiday without your spouses were a failure.  On that note, they only brought up their recently departed husbands when they were talking about what a disappointing tour guide I was.

A few months later my mom provided a real apology. She said she felt like she couldn’t go out to the Jazz Club or these other restaurants because my aunt didn’t want to try new things and she didn’t want her to feel bad or left out.  My mom said she was taking one for the team so my aunt would feel better.

I learned a lot from this trip.  I learned that people travel differently.  I learned that people thrive off of different things and that people are sometimes afraid to speak their feelings on what it is they really want.  Why is that?  Are they fearful they are the only one wanting it and they’ll be ridiculed if they make their real desires known?

My mom wants to return to New Orleans – this time without my aunt. She wants to eat, to explore, to sit and people watch.  She wants to stay up late and listen to jazz.  I told her that I am willing to travel again with her, but before we book anything, she needs to do her planning.  Not like last time with a theoretical list of stops, but a firm checklist.  I want to see restaurant ideas, names of Jazz Clubs, walking/bus tours. This will be her trip – her foundation, but I will help string the various items together.  She needs to lay the groundwork.  She talks about visiting Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans.  Every couple months she asks about our future travels and I respond accordingly each time with “Let’s see your list”.  She says she’s built a great list of things, but she never shares it with me.

How do you travel with your family? Do you have the same travel style?  What are your biggest struggles when traveling with family – and more importantly, how do you overcome those?


New Orleans – Places to Shop

I don’t really travel to shop. I travel to eat, drink, see and experience.  I do enjoy a lovely walk around a market, Les Puces or a iconic shopping street (Banhoffstraβe in Zürich, Avenue Montaigne in Paris or even Rush Street in Chicago).  That being said, I do love the antique shops in New Orleans situated just a block off of rowdy Bourbon Street.

There are two things on my shopping list that I am not sure I will ever find, but I will continue to look – and if I do find them, I will likely be saddened as I think I enjoy the hunt as much if not more than the actual items.  I am looking for a beautiful antique set of silver – you know, the fancy stuff your great-grandma had and when your mother asked if you wanted it, you said “No, that’s OK”, and she got rid of it.  To my credit, I was 19 – my mother should have known better than to ask me at that point.  The other item on my wish list is something that will get much less use than the fancy silver (when I say fancy, I emphasize the first syllable: FAN-see…with a bit of a nasally tone too – purely in jest, but it’s now common pronunciation among me and my friends) – I want an antique duck press.  This press will ideally be from the 19th Century, have been well used, so the ornate design will be slightly worn away, but will still be 100% functional.

I figured if there was any City in the US where I could find a beautiful silver set (or maybe even a duck press) it would be New Orleans.

I found myself with about 2 hours one day between afternoon meetings and evening events and I decided to hit a couple antique shops in the French Quarter.  I started at Canal and Royal – just one block southeast of Bourbon and walked northeast staying on Royal.  Shop after shop I came across the most gracious and inviting shopkeepers.  They (genuinely) asked where I was from, why I was in town, where I had eaten/drank and if there was something I was looking for specifically — yes, in that order.  So inviting, so civilized and so different from the debauchery on a Wednesday afternoon just a block away on Bourbon (especially when the insurance conference happens to coincide with Fleet Week).

At each shop I asked about a full silver service (full setting for at least 12 people) and a duck press.  At most shops, I found the silver service – mostly they were too ornate for my liking, missing a couple salad folks or just too expensive.  When I asked about the duck press their eyes opened wide and then sadly said they didn’t have one, but if someone in New Orleans did it would be the fine folks at Lucullus a couple blocks away on Chartres.

Luculus Antiques on Chartres in New Orleans.

I made my way over to this quaint little shop. I was blazing hot. Wearing a full suit / tie when it is 30C (~86F) with the thick sticky air of New Orleans and without a breeze, I was quite warm and a bit uncomfortable.  I entered Lucullus and was promptly greeted by Mr. Kerry Moody.  We exchanged the same pleasantries as I did at the other shops.  I was offered a glass of ice water (served in a beautiful crystal glass) – like I said, I was hot and I’m sure I looked like an uncomfortable mess.  I hadn’t made it more than 15 feet into the store at this point.  I saw a ton of silver – again, I was looking for an outrageous bargain. Unfortunately, the items at Lucullus were of such great quality, I wasn’t going to get a beautiful set for next to nothing.  I then asked about the duck press.  It was then that Mr. Moody said he needed to call the proprietor Mr. Patrick Dunne.  Mr. Dunne appeared – immediately offered to have my water glass refilled upon seeing me (I’m not sure if this was because I looked like an utter mess or Mr. Dunne is the epitome of a gracious host — or a little bit of both).

I asked about the press and Mr. Dunne scoffed a bit – not in a condescending way at all, but more in a “boy, do I have a story for you” way.  He asked what I would pay for a duck press in perfect condition.  As I danced around the subject – thinking we were in initial negotiations – he cut me off and said “I don’t have one.  I don’t carry them. I don’t even look at them on buying trips in France. They are such unique and lower demand pieces, they cost me too much to buy, refurbish then hold. The casual buyers don’t exist here.”

He asked me to sit and we found some beautiful chairs arranged as a quaint little seating area in his shop and chatted about our prior trips to France.  I told the tale of finding a single duck press at Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, and the dreadful condition it was in.  He told tales of finding beautiful presses in the Loire and in Burgundy in the 1990s – for a steal – but there was no market for them.  The open marketplace has bought up all these presses and sold them to restaurants who do elaborate Canard à la Presse services which fetch $150 per.

Mr. Dunne then pointed to a beautiful armoire filled with exquisite china and glassware.  He said, I could sell you that entire setup there – china, glassware and the armoire for what it would cost me to make a tiny profit on buying and refinishing a duck press.  He continue by saying my best bet was to find a restaurant that has one and wait for it to go out of business and make them a reasonable offer before their creditors come knocking on the door – cash is king.

While I was disappointed a duck press wasn’t in my immediate future – I was thrilled to have been welcomed into Lucullus with open arms and been allowed to listen to travel tales and to share tales of my own.  I so wanted to invite these two gentlemen out for a drink and dinner to hear more of their experiences, but unfortunately I was double booked for dinner that night and I’m sure they had better things to do than to tell tales to a fanboy.

Mr. Dunne was a gracious host and the epitome of a gentlemen.  Upon my entering his shop, I felt like a member of the family and felt I could stay there listening to stories long into the night.  I will promise that on my next trip to the Crescent City, I will pay a visit to Lucullus and hopefully next time pickup some flatware or some decanters.  This place was a slice of heaven.

When you travel do you shop?  Is that a main reason for your travels?  Where do you shop – modern stores or antique shops?  Have you ever had the urge to just drop anchor and while away the time chatting with a shopkeep?

If you are in New Orleans and have even a passing interest in culinary antiques, Lucullus is the number one destination for you.  If you go, send my regard to Mr. Dunne and the rest of his team.

Vietnamese Roasted Chicken

A few years ago we took a two week trip to southeast Asia – spending a good portion of our time in Vietnam.  I fell in love with Hanoi – the people, the food, the Old Quarter.  I can’t wait to return.  Since a return trip to Hanoi isn’t on the short list (so many places to see and so few vacation days), I like to bring the flavors of Vietnam into our home as frequently as possible.

Since I’m in control of the kitchen this weekend, I pulled out a couple Vietnamese cookbooks and decided to do a simple roasted chicken with Vietnamese flavorings.  When I was single I use to roast a whole chicken and make several meals out of the meat throughout the week.  I haven’t roasted a chicken in a while.

I decided to make  a flavored oil to put under the skin and use as a basting liquid during the roasting process.

Here are the ingredients for my tweaked recipe:

  • One 3.5 pound chicken (for two people, which is enough for two entrees and leftovers for a small soup the following day)
  • 1 tablespoon dried diced garlic
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce (the most quintessential Vietnamese ingredient)
  • 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons of honey (I used orange honey)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 cups of water

Preheat your oven to 180C/350F.  Rinse your chicken in cold water in the sink.  I like to start with a nice, cold, fresh, clean bird.  Some cooks recommend against this, but I’ve been doing this for years and can’t see stopping anytime soon.

In a medium bowl, whisk the garlic, lemon juice, fish sauce, pepper, honey and olive oil until combined.  Divide this mixture in half – one portion is used right now and the rest is the glaze, used throughout the cooking process.

Flavorful marinate / glaze for my Vietnamese Roasted Chicken

Flavorful marinate / glaze for my Vietnamese Roasted Chicken

GENTLY slide your fingers under the chicken skin on the breast – being ever so careful not to tear the skin.  Once a nice deep pocket has been made around the breast, spoon in a few tablespoons of the seasoning and rub it all over the breast meat (again, under the skin).  Flip the chicken over and make an ever so slight slit through the skin on the chicken thigh.  Slide your finger through the little slit and make another pocket of space on the thigh and the drum stick.  Spoon in a couple tablespoons of the flavorings and ensure the entire thigh/drumstick is covered.  Repeat on the other thigh/drumstick.

If your chicken was like mine – and I’m sure it is – you’ll need to truss the legs together so they don’t flop to the side.  If they do, they’ll end up cooking faster and being very dried out.  Just Google the best way to truss a chicken.  I will admit that chicken and I danced a bit in the kitchen sink. He just didn’t want to be bound.  I eventually figured it out and the only thing that was bruised was my ego.

Place the chicken, breast side up, on a rack in a roasting pan.  Fill the bottom of the pan with water – make sure the chicken itself isn’t touching the water.  You aren’t cooking the chicken in the water, mind you, the water will slowly evaporate while the chicken roasts, keeping it more moist.

Flavors packed under the skin and all trussed up. Let's hop in the oven!

Flavors packed under the skin and all trussed up. Let’s hop in the oven!

Before you throw the birdie in the oven, use the marinade to glaze the chicken breasts, thighs and drumsticks (the skin this time, since you’ve already flavored the area between the meat and the skin).  Place the chicken on the center rack of your preheated oven.

I set my timer for 60 minutes (our oven is a bit temperamental).  I also set another timer for 10 minutes – at which time I’d reglaze the chicken.  Until the bird was done, every 10 minutes I reapplied the glaze.  Popping the oven door open every 10 minutes definitely delayed the cooking time, but it made the skin so flavorful – it was totally worth it to me.

About 50 minutes into the cooking process, the breast and thighs were getting a bit dark, so I covered them with aluminium foil – this allows the bird to continue to cook, but keeps the direct heat off the skin so it doesn’t char.

I mentioned a few days ago the importance of using a instant read thermometer when checking the temperature of your steak – you must do the same thing with your chicken, moreso actually.  After 60 minutes check your check in the thigh and the meaty part of the breast – though don’t touch the bone or the empty cavity with the thermometer as it will give a false reading.  The temperature the first time I checked came in at 130F.  I cook chicken to 160F then remove from the oven, and let the carryover heat finish the cooking process.  I reglazed (this was the sixth and final reglazing time) and closed the door.  I waited another 15 minutes and checked the bird again – he had reached 163F.  I removed him from the oven and let him cool for a bit.  The water in the roasting pan had all evaporated at this point too.

I moved the bird from the roasting pan to a cutting board and after about 10 minutes of him just hanging out, I carved  both breasts and both thighs/drumsticks and plated them.  I was concerned that my goal of using the leftover chicken for a Phở the next day wouldn’t happen, but luckily after the bird cooled more (and after we ate our lovely dinner) I was able to pick off another 3/4 cups of meat (breast, thigh, the oysters and whatever other little bits I could find).  This should work perfectly for our quick Phở lunch on Sunday.

Back to the roasted bird.  The meat was so moist and tender, even I was shocked.  The flavors of the bird were there, but still quite subtle.  I think I was expecting a bit more of an intense flavor.  Don’t get me wrong, it was amazing.  I will definitely make this again – and when I do, I may try to accompany it with a spicy Vietnamese inspired dipping sauce.

As I said before, I fell in love with Hanoi, much more so than Saigon.  The flavors in Northern Vietnam (to me) seem much more blended.  Fewer spices and peppers are used and there is a much greater depth of flavor.  This dish reminded me of a quick appetizer we had one evening while biking outside of Hanoi.

I paired this with some asparagus and broccolini.  I threw some butter, olive oil and some shallots in a frying pan on medium high heat until the shallots were soft and fragrant.  I removed the butter/shallots and tossed in the veggies, covering tightly with a lid.  The hot pan on direct heat added a little crunchiness to the asparagus and broccolini, while the lid kept in their moisture allowing them to cook quicker.  After about 6 minutes they were tender  – but still with a nice crunch.  I plated them, drizzled the butter/shallots over top and sprinkled some sesame seeds and crushed peanuts as a condiment.  We use the sesame seed/peanut mixture quite a bit with veggies – and as a separate condiment when we make homemade curries – the crunch and saltiness is quite nice.

Final Product - carved, plated. It was delicious - and very easy to make.

Final Product – carved, plated. It was delicious – and very easy to make.

Do you have a Vietnamese go-to recipe you’d like to share?  Do you prefer the food of Northern or Southern Vietnam more?

Portuguese Seafood and Sausage Stew

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve commandeered the kitchen this weekend, since MS is sick.  I’ve reviewed some new cookbooks that I’ve never tried before (gifts from prior Christmases) and found some great foundation recipes.  I’ve tweaked these recipes a bit before I tried them out.

For lunch on Saturday I made a Portuguese Seafood and Sausage Stew.  The ingredients I used – which made a perfectly sized lunch for two – are as follows:

  • Olive Oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan)
  • 6 ounces (or so) of cured Chorizo (I was lucky enough to use Olympia Provisions Chorizo)
  • 1 half yellow onion – diced
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 large bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup of dry white wine – I used a vinho verde from Portugal
  • 1/2 cup rustic cut tomatoes (from tetra pak – not garden fresh, unfortunately)
  • 1/2 pound peeled and de-veined fresh shrimp
  • 10 little neck clams
  • 4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

I had never cooked clams before.  So I asked the guy at the fish counter at my local grocery is there was anything special I needed to do here and he said I should put some ice water in a bowl with a lot of salt and soak the clams for about an hour.  After an hour rinse several times with cold water and use a clean town to scrub the shells – you want to make sure they are clean before they go into your pot.  No one wants some sandy/dirt in the stew.

Vintage Label - Olympic Provisions Chorizo

Vintage Label – Olympic Provisions Chorizo

Here’s my technique on this recipe:

Heat the olive oil, over medium high heat, in a medium stock pot.  Toss in the chorizo and cook until it is browned around the edges – don’t worry, if you use a cured chorizo (which I recommend) you don’t have to cook it through, you are just giving it a browned edge and a warming it up.  By the time this dish is done, the chorizo will be warmed throughout.  Don’t overcook it – which is easy to do in this step.

Olive Oil and Olympic(a) Provisions Chorizo - saute for X minutes

Olive Oil and Olympic(a) Provisions Chorizo – saute for a couple minutes until browned

Once chorizo is browned (about 3-5 minutes) toss in the onions, garlic, bay leaf and red pepper flakes.  Cook uncovered until the onions are soft – around 5-7 minutes.  When the onions are soft add the wine and let reduce to about half the volume (about 2 minutes), then add in the tomatoes and stir while cooking for about 3-4 minutes.

Add in the diced onions, garlic, bay leaf and red pepper flake - cook until onions are tender.

Add in the diced onions, garlic, bay leaf and red pepper flake – cook until onions are tender.


After you've added the wine and it cooks down, add in the tomatoes.

After you’ve added the wine and it cooks down, add in the tomatoes.

Add in the clams and cover with a tight fitting lid.  We want to keep the steam from these ingredients in the pot.  Continue to cook for about 5 minutes.  At this point you should see the clams opening up.

Soaked, cleaned and scrubbed clams are then dumped into the tomato mixture.

Soaked, cleaned and scrubbed clams are then dumped into the tomato mixture.


The clams open quite quickly when the lid is secured - trapping in the steam.

The clams open quite quickly when the lid is secured – trapping in the steam.

Place the shrimp in the pot (on top of the clam shells).  Replace the lid and cook until the shrimp is done.  My shrimp took about 4 minutes to turn a translucent pink color.  Keep the lid on the pot!  Keep all that steam in – it’ll keep the shrimp tender while cooking it through.

Toss in the peeled, de-veined shrimp onto the clam shells and cover with a tight fitting lid.

Toss in the peeled, de-veined shrimp onto the clam shells and cover with a tight fitting lid.


Shake the pan a few times to make sure everything is getting proper heat/steam.

Shake the pan a few times to make sure everything is getting proper heat/steam.

Divide this recipe up between two bowls – each bowl should have the same number of clams and shrimp.  If you have any clams that didn’t open, trash those.  You don’t want to try to eat these – it’ll make for a truly awful day.  Finish it off with the chopped cilantro – and while you’re at it, pour a couple glasses of that vinho verde you used earlier.

Voila -- a blurry reveal unfortunately. I was just too excited to eat this to check the quality of my final pic.

Voila — a blurry reveal unfortunately. I was just too excited to eat this to check the quality of my final pic.

There isn’t a ton of sauce with this dish, but I wish I had a small baguette to mop of the bit of sauce that was left over.  Live and learn.  This recipe took me right at 30 minutes from kick off until first plated bite.  While the clams are soaking you can prep everything else and just start tossing them into the pot at go time.

Other than the 60 minute clam soak time, this is a recipe that could easily be used as a week night meal but also flavorful and elegant enough to serve to guests.

How would you tweak this recipe to make it your own?  Personally, next time, I’d add more tomatoes and a baguette as a side utensil to sop up the extra tomato sauce. If I doubled the tomato sauce, I’d like add 50% more red pepper flake and a touch of salt and pepper. You’ll notice I didn’t use salt in this recipe (other than in the clam bath) – the cured chorizo had a bit of salt that carried through nicely.  As always, taste as you go and built flavors!

Filet Mignon Surf and Turf with Chilled Lobster Salad – Recipe

We were planning on attending Diner en Blanc Chicago on Friday night, but MS had an awful cold and we couldn’t attend.  I had purchased all the items for our planned picnic dinner the prior night (before he got sick), so I had all this food to use.  We may not be attending Diner en Blanc, but nothing is stopping us from having a fabulous dinner at home.

I only made one minor change to the menu at home from the picnic menu – instead of serving the Filet cold, I decided to serve it hot off the grill.  I made the Lobster Salad earlier in the day so it could properly chill and the flavors could fully meld.

Chilled Lobster Salad

Ingredients (for two servings as a co-entree)

  • Two 5.5 ounce lobster tails – in shell
  • 1 tablespoon of minced shallot
  • ~3 tablespoons of fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • Mayonaise
  • 2 teaspoons thinly sliced tarragon
  • Salt and fresh pepper to taste

I ended up purchasing two 5.5 ounce lobster tails at the local grocery store.  These tails were previously frozen but were completely thawed when I purchased them.  I filled a pot with enough water to cover the lobster tails – with about 1.5 inches more water than I needed.  While the water was coming to temperature, I rinsed the tails under cold water for about 30 seconds.  Once the water came to a roaring boil, I dropped the lobster tails in and boiled them for about 5 minutes – in general I cook lobster about 1 minute per ounce.  I usually am just cooking small tails, so I can’t confirm if this time works for whole lobsters though.  The tails will curl, so if you want them to remain flat/straight, you should stick a wooden skewer through the tail (towards the top of the shell) – this will hinder the curling.  Since I was planning on chopping the meat for a salad, I didn’t care if it curled up.

Two Lobster tails boiling away - 1 minute per ounce usually does it for me!

Two Lobster tails boiling away – 1 minute per ounce usually does it for me!

After about 5 minutes, I drained the water and tails into a colander and rinsed the now cooked tails with cool water.  Once the tails were cool to the touch, I used kitchen shears to slice down both the top and bottom of the shells releasing the meat.  Cut the tail meat into 1/2-1 inch cubes.  Put these in the fridge and let them chill for a couple hours.

Cooked tails cooling in the sink. Cool just long enough so you can handle the tails and snip the shells off.

Cooked tails cooling in the sink. Cool just long enough so you can handle the tails and snip the shells off.

An hour or two before you want to serve this chilled salad, put the shallot and lemon juice into a small dish and let the flavors meld for 20-30 minutes.  Whisk a dollop of mayo into this mixture and then mix this thinned out mayo mixture over the cubed chilled lobster meat.   Mix in the tarragon.

Depending on how much you love mayo, you can either add more dollops of mayo into the mixture until it comes to the consistency that you like or you can leave it as is.  I added another two tablespoons of mayo – purely personal preference.

Finally I mixed in some lemon pepper and kosher salt to taste.  You can use fresh cracked black pepper too – but I really dig lemon pepper and don’t get a a chance to use it all that frequently.

When it comes to the Filet Mignon, I’m a traditionalist.  With good quality meat (I picked up two 4 ounce Filets from the butcher counter) a little salt and pepper is all you need to make a great meal.  I turned the gas (propane, not natural – I prefer the heat of propane vs natural gas) on high, dropped the lid and let the grill heat up to 500F.  Once at temperature, I reduced the heat from high to medium high and placed the small steaks on direct heat.  After about 2 minutes I turned the steaks 90 degress (so I could get the lovely grill marks).  After another 90 seconds I flipped the meat.

You can’t cook a steak based on time – there are so many variables (starting temperature of the steak, temperature of the grill, thickness of the steaks).  The only way to really know when the steaks are done is with an instant read digital thermometer.  I pulled our steaks off before they hit 140F and let them rest for about 10 minutes on the cutting board before plating them.

I paired the steak and lobster with some grilled asparagus and some boiled new potatoes.

Plated dinner - paired with a mediocre Pinot from the Okanagan Valley

Plated dinner – paired with a mediocre Pinot from the Okanagan Valley

The lobster was quite tasty.  This isn’t a meal I would cook every day, but it was a nice little treat for us.  I would definitely cook this lobster again – it would be great on a long sandwich roll.  I can’t enough enough of a refreshing lobster roll.

Do you do a surf and turf at home?  Do you dig chilled lobster salads as much as I do?  How do you cook lobster?