Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
Hot, Hot, Hot
New Orleans' summer heat can affect the appetite.
Thin-fried catfish from Middendorf's
About this time every year I begin to assess the number of months left in the year in which we’ll experience the current levels of heat, and I start to get the sort of depression that medical science usually associates with people who live in the very far north and go without natural light for three months at a time. I know I’ve said this before, but if I’m not suffering from a form of seasonal affective disorder (sub-category: mosquito-sauna), I don’t know what’s going on.
Heat tends to affect our appetites negatively, or at least it does mine. Here is the perfect example: I had lunch at High Hat Café
the other day, and do you know what I had? Before you answer, bear in mind that I love fried catfish, and apart from the thin-fried catfish at Middendorf’s, they do some of the best I’ve had at that joint. To be fair, I’ve been eating at Middendorf’s since I was a wee little jackanapes, because my mother’s family is from Amite and Middendorf’s was just about halfway between Amite and New Orleans.
Bear in mind as well that there is nothing on the “sides” portion of High Hat's menu
I do not love, and a couple of things I love more than an adult should. The first time my wife and I had the pimento mac and cheese, we ended up getting two more orders because between the two of us and our then year-old daughter we kept running out.
Knowing those things, and without the context of my heat-related appetite suppression, the smart money would be that I ordered fried catfish with greens, the aforementioned mac and cheese and perhaps okra and tomatoes or sweet potato salad. But as most of you will have guessed, that wasn’t the case. On my most recent visit to High Hat I ordered a special, watermelon with jumbo lump crabmeat and mint. I love watermelon in savory dishes, and in this case the melon really works well with big lobes of sweet crabmeat dressed with a little vinegar, a little mint and a few shavings of onion.
My point is that as delicious as it was, it was not a substantial dish. It is not a trencherman’s lunch. It would not satisfy a longshoreman or even a lawyer-food writer of delicate constitution under normal circumstances.
The hot weather has me cooking differently as well. I’ve even modified a recipe that I cook often during the summer months that includes orzo pasta, basil, grape tomatoes, sliced olives and diced feta cheese, cucumber and grilled zucchini and yellow squash. Apart from the pasta and the olives, it’s about as seasonal as it gets, but when the temperature outside hits the mid-90s, I’m not anxious to fire up the charcoal. Instead, I resort to a cast-iron grill pan/griddle for the “grilling” portion of the recipe, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work out pretty well.
Apart from cooking over actual fire, the process is the same – slice the zucchini/squash length-wise into quarter inch strips then marinade in some olive oil, salt and minced garlic. Preheat your oven to the maximum temperature with the grill pan already inside on the middle rack, and just before adding the vegetables to the grill, switch from the oven to the broiler, again on maximum heat.
It doesn’t take long to put some serious grill marks on the strips; in fact it takes just about enough time for the vegetables to cook while still retaining some texture.
From that point it’s pretty simple to dice them up and combine with the rest of the ingredients, season with salt and depending on your taste some acid, some chile, or a little sugar before adding the cooked, rinsed and drained orzo.
Next week: ask me about how to use all of the chile peppers you’ve grown in your garden when nobody in your house likes chiles but you. (Or don’t ask, I’m going to give you a recipe for roasted garlic and tomato chile sauce anyway).