The persistence of memory: boiled seafood and family

boiled seafood

I’m headed to visit extended family in my hometown in Louisiana this weekend, and I admit, with no shame, that one of my top priorities is sitting down to a table heaped with hot boiled crawfish and crabs, corn, potatoes, and sausage. My mouth waters for a year in advance between each trip south, especially as I peruse Facebook photos of the ongoing crawfish boils starting in the spring. It’s like looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner, but this is a Cajun supper of which I feel I can never get enough.

I don’t remember the first time I tasted boiled seafood, but I know it was probably before I could walk or even talk. To that end, I can’t remember when I first would have truly enjoyed, or looked forward to sitting down to a seafood boil, an essential element to family gatherings back home. I only know how much I’ve craved it and relished it in the years since.

But there is one particular image that sticks in my head and won’t go away: I was a little girl, perhaps about seven or eight, and my parents and I had already moved from Louisiana, so we were in on a visit, probably at Christmas. We are at my grandparents’ house, in their avocado-colored kitchen and avocado dining room (The chairs, the buffet, the bar, the table, the cushions, the carpet, the cabinets, the countertops! All avocado.). My grandfather, Richard, obtained a few dozen crabs, and probably as many pounds of shrimp, and it was all laid out on newspapers. I recall my mother drinking a beer, and at that young age, it seemed surprising. “I like a beer with seafood,” she told me. I wouldn’t understand that until I was of drinking age myself years later.

This is a Cajun supper of which I feel I can never get enough.

There was no music and no commotion; I think it was only a handful of us eating. I remember PawPaw cracking crab claws in a way that produced the most amount of meat, and saving the good ones for me. I remember my tongue and lips burning, and the juice squirting onto my shirt and down my forearms. I hear the small talk at the table, my mom and MawMaw catching up, and PawPaw chiming in here and there, in between crabs. I already knew how to use a butter knife to crack crabs and clean out the meat, and that I dared not to waste any of it, or someone would call me out. I knew to pinch, twist, and pull the tail off the shrimp, and that it’s best dipped in cocktail sauce. I knew the potatoes were a great way to take a break from the spicy meat, but if you didn’t let them cool enough, they too, would burn your tongue.

That evening eating a favorite meal with my grandparents was uneventful, yet momentous. It was simple, yet delicious. And it was fleeting, yet ever-lasting in my mind. Perhaps that was the first time that I truly appreciated the deliciousness of boiled seafood – and the delight in a family tradition. While I have eaten crabs and crawfish and shrimp many times since, and will in the future, that early enduring memory provides nourishment to this day, to my belly, and to my soul.

Food, Culture, & Youth: Culicurious Blogger Shares Her Story

Culicurious-My-South-La-Food-CultureHi everyone, I’m Addie K Martin of Culicurious. I live in New Orleans, and I’m originally from a very small town called Golden Meadow, in the heart of Cajun Country in South Louisiana. Food is a big part of the culture and daily life in my hometown. And also here in New Orleans. When we’re eating lunch we’re usually talking about what we’ll have for dinner. Here in South Louisiana, we don’t eat to live, we live to eat. Everything we do is focused around food. And that’s pretty awesome.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a household where home cooked meals abounded. My mother was and is a very active home cook who had a very wide cooking repertoire. We grew up eating Cajun classics like gumbo, shrimp stew, crawfish (or shrimp) étouffée, redfish court bouillon, jambalaya (both red and brown), and boat loads of beans (red or white) and rice. We also had a wide assortment of fried foods: shrimp, oysters and many types of fish. Of course, special treats included crawfish, crab and shrimp boils, but my dad was usually the one doing all that heavy lifting in that arena.

White beans and riceMy mom also cooked great American dishes like spaghetti and meat sauce, baked chicken and curried rice, spinach pie (aka quiche), fried chicken, stuffed breads (homemade bread stuffed with a ground meat and cheese mixture), roasted meats (pork, chicken or beef), and the best spread of Mexican food I ever have seen. While we ate primarily South Louisiana foods, we still also ate these American foods quite often. We rarely ever ate out at restaurants. That was mostly unheard of. Nearly all of our meals were prepared by my mom at home. And we ate very well, as you can see.

So now that you’re hungry from me setting my childhood home food background, I want to dive into how all this fits into and influences what I do now in my own life for cooking and food. The first thing I can say is that having a mom who cooked nearly all of my meals helped me to know that food is primarily cooked at home. Even when I was in college before I knew how to cook, I was buying foods to cook and prepare at home. It seemed natural to me to cook at home. I would even make things like roasts and spaghetti. I always remember knowing how to do that stuff.

chicken & okra gumboGrowing up in a food-centric culture also heavily influenced my decision to attend culinary school. I had the fortune of attending a public university that also houses a culinary school so I was able to go to culinary school and get my degree all within about 5 total years. Thankfully many of the classes I took switched over and helped me fulfill those requirements. I loved culinary school so much. I loved learning how to prepare food and really think about it from a scientific and technical stand point (I’m pretty left-brain oriented). We even had a Creole and Cajun Cuisine class which was pretty amazing. I learned even more about my native cuisine than I’d ever known.

And now, some 10+ years after earning my college degree and some 15+ years since living at home, I feel like I am finally growing into my own with cooking. I cook primarily with seasonal ingredients, buying local wherever I can. I also use very little processed food in my kitchen, much like my mom used to cook for us when we were growing up. While we do eat out about once per week, I am the primary cook in our house (which makes sense since I am a full-time blogger working from home), and I take that job very seriously.

Boiled crabs with fixinsToday I take those values my parents instilled in me at an early age and apply them to my every day cooking. There’s still nothing better than a huge pot of gumbo to feed friends on a Sunday afternoon while watching a Saints game. My sister and her family along with me and Jeremy (my husband) still hold several crawfish, shrimp or crab boils each year. The seafood is still very affordable overall so we love to indulge as often as we can. Golden fried shrimp po’ boys are still one of my favorite things on the planet. Period.

In an age where traditions are being shoved by the wayside, I aim to keep mine alive and well. I seek to help preserve the cooking and food traditions of my South Louisiana culture. It’s actually very easy for me to do since I still live in New Orleans, only 50 miles from my hometown. But I do try. Because I must. The only way our cuisine can continue is to keep making the dishes and teaching the younger generations how to do it, too.

What about you? Do you come from strong food culture background? How does it affect your life today?

And finally, since you’re one of Jenna’s readers, check out her food culture post on my site today.

If you’d like to connect on social media, follow me at @culicurious on Twitter, and you can also like my page on Facebook.

Everything’s better in a box: food delivery experiment

ScratchDC meal

Since I love to cook, I’m always on the lookout for new recipes and options to make meals easier, more tasty, and fun. And although I don’t mind spending an hour putting dinner together, there are some days when I just won’t have gotten to the store to get everything I need, or I come home not wanting to start from scratch.

But these days, food delivery services of all kinds have been popping up to help both seasoned cooks and amateurs pull together something fabulous in just half an hour or so. I remember when I was younger and the idea of home grocery delivery was a novelty still, and now I regularly order from Peapod Giant when I need a bunch of stuff at once. Then when CSAs started to catch people’s attention and the slow, local, and organic food movements became trendy, businesses like Washington’s Green Grocer have become easier than ever to find. (Thank you, WGG, for recently adding a “single” size box to your inventory – it’s a lot of produce otherwise for one person!)

Chicken curry and naan from Plated

But in addition to being able to order a whole fridge full of produce and meat, there are now a  few other options out there take it one step further – entire meals prepped and delivered to your door, ready for you to cook. I first tried ScratchDC about a month ago – and loved everything from the personal delivery to my office to the adorable packaging and the bonus cookies ready to bake inside. Here’s how it works: each week, ScratchDC posts their meals for the week, and you can go on each day and order what you want, where you want it delivered, and when, up to 20 or 30 minutes before you’re ready to cook. I tried a chicken lemon basil fettuccine with peas that made enough for three meals. All of the ingredients were fresh, local, and individually packaged in the simple brown box, and the recipe sheet had exact instructions, and told you where the food was sourced from.

ScratchDC even followed up and asked for my feedback on the dish…and of course, you get to keep the recipe to try again or tweak.

Mole chili and quesadilla from Plated

Next up, I checked out Plated, which serves on the East Coast. To order from Plated, you again check out each week’s dishes, but then you must pick a minimim of four plates – two of one dish, or one of each kind, or even more. The delivery comes all at once – so I got mine on a Tuesday, all packaged up in one of those space bags with ice packs. I had two plates of a chicken curry, and two of a mole chicken. Again, great recipe cards, and the instructions are precise. The only complaint I had was that the chicken was bone in, so it was a bit annoying to eat it that way for a curry. Other than that, the dishes turned out fabulously. My coworker ordered from Plated as well, and loved her meals. Moreover, their use of referral links gets you and friends free plates when ordering.

Lastly, I tried Graze box, a fun little weekly snack pack for $5 with a variety of healthy (with some treats thrown in) treats like nuts, trail mixes, granola bars, and more. Three of us in the office get it now, and love it. Graze is perfect to throw in your bag for travel, conferences, or to head out on a hike or picnic.

Graze boxes

The great thing about all of these services is that they’re customizable to your needs, taste buds, and schedule. You don’t have to order every week, and you can swap things out, or have leftovers for days if you want. All of the businesses have also had great customer service so far – especially on social media.

Have you tried any of these food delivery services, or others? What do you think?

My 30 day commitment…to myself

Tomato & Red Pepper Soup

When my trainer Grant first asked me to join a 30 day transformation challenge on the Whole 30/Paleo diet, I was skeptical at first. Despite having done some background reading when I first began training with Grant a year ago, and testing the waters a little here and there, I wasn’t sure I could dive into a month-long departure from dairy, grains, legumes, and alcohol. But after the reality of my holiday binging had set in, and knowing I had some big races to start training for, I signed up to begin the challenge on January 2.

Committing to anything for 30 days can seem daunting at first — heck, I haven’t been able to commit to running daily for a month, or doing pushups, much less giving up some major food groups. But as I saw throughout the process, it got easier with time, and now that it’s over, I kind of want to press that “Easy” button in my colleague’s office. So how was it, really? Here are some of the finer points of my 30 day challenge…and the not so great ones:

Bison Meatballs
Bison Meatballs

Why It Was Awesome

  • I cook a lot already, but this challenge forced me to be even more creative and come up with even more recipes. I made more meals with meat in one month than I usually do in six months, I baked paleo muffins, made a delicious brisket in my oven, and tried different snacks.
  • At restaurants, I tried new things because I couldn’t order sandwiches or items with cheese or beans. It also made me value vegetable dishes more.
  • I felt empowered ordering water, tea, or coffee at bars, despite the weird looks the servers gave me. And I still had fun at happy hour.
  • I lost weight — over 7 pounds. Weight loss was just one of the goals in this process, and my skinny jeans are now loose, and some dresses fit better than ever.
  • I was held accountable by others, and I could hold others accountable. The entire group of us recruited by Grant shared recipes and tips and words of support in a Facebook group. I could text my friend Tammy to remind me not to have wine after a bad day, and I could send off quick pointers to someone who wasn’t sure what to order at a restaurant.
  • There’s nothing like the pride I felt after saying “no” to cookies and cakes on the office counter, or for having water and salad at a sports bar on the night of the college football championship. Huzzah for willpower.

Read more

Cooking Lessons as Life Lessons

Yesterday I had the chance to attend the DC Metropolitan Cooking Show with my friend Julia. She loves being in the kitchen and cooking beloved family Italian recipes as much as I love my Cajun food.

As we sat and listened to Giada De Laurentiis and then Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio, we noticed that their tips for the kitchen could also be applied as life lessons…and we both were waxing nostalgic about our years growing up at the stove hanging on every word of our parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. As traditional family cooking goes, Julia and I have it covered. So many of my best memories are of watching my grandfather make pralines, my uncle cook a big pot of gumbo, or my mom making her shrimp and corn soup.

I was just in Louisiana for a family wedding, and I loved sitting around hearing stories (again) from my aunts and uncles about growing up on a farm, and how my grandfather would make sure that any guy that wanted to date his daughters had to also show up at the crack of dawn to pick peppers and corn. And then there was the story about my grandmother, who cooked so many things so well, had no idea how to do a pot roast right until she visited one of her daughters’ homes years later.

For me, one of the very first things I learned was how to make a roux. Equal parts flour and oil go into the pot, and the cardinal rule is to keep stirring, and to never, ever walk away. If you turn your back for a second, you could burn it and you have to start over. The golden brown roux is a foundation for a great Cajun meal, whether it’s gumbo or red beans and rice. I’ve written before about how making a gumbo can be like making your life — you have the foundation (family, work, friends), then you add the Holy Trinity (hobbies, activities), and then you add in meat and seasoning and all the other elements to make a delicious meal…or the life that tastes just right. I wanted to know what other pieces of wisdom and advice people heard in the kitchen over the years — some were strictly about cooking, some were funny, and others could be applied to life if you think about it in a certain way. Have others? Add them in the comments.

When cooking meat, take it off the heat few minutes early to let it rest and finish cooking. – Giada De Laurentiis

When I travel, I go to the local grocery stores. Travel is the best way to get out of yourself. – Gail Simmons

A pint’s a pound the world around. 

How to tell when oil is ready – tilt/rock the pan gently back and forth so the light reflects off the oil…it should start to shimmer when it’s the right temperature.

Always wear an apron. Especially if you’re not wearing clothes. 

A recipe is just a suggestion.

Per my Grandma: Baking is like chemistry. Don’t fudge the measurements.

Don’t cook with wine/liqueur/beer you wouldn’t want to drink on it’s own.

The more you spill, the less cookies they’re gonna be.

The safest knife is the one that’s most comfortable in your hand, not necessarily the most expensive.

Wrap cake pans with damp towel.. It will help it rise. And don’t play with matches.

One potato for each person, and an extra for the pot.

Clean as you go.