The Best Weekend Cheap Thrills
A couple of weeks ago my suggestions for dining out – or at least acquiring food from somewhere other than your own kitchen – on the cheap were received with enough enthusiasm as to warrant additional exploration of the topic. So many of us are unnervingly close to the edge in one way or another, if not several. Persistently lingering Covid and hurricanes flying into Gulf like cockroaches threaten our physical well being while financial insecurities persist along with record high unemployment. Political “leaders” bicker while dithering so, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, there is plenty enough vitriol, drama, and disquietude to cause angst.
Where to turn for solace? A fine meal – and by this I do not mean expensive, as that would probably cause more angst— has the power to soothe our senses. To serve this need there is COOLinary, New Orleans’ annual summer celebration whereby some of the city’s finest dining establishments offer specially curated prix-fixe menus at thrifty prices—two course luncheons for $20 or less, and 3-course dinners and brunches for $39. This year most menus are available for dine in, takeout and delivery and many restaurants have outdoor seating. COOLinary menus will be offered at 865 restaurants through the end of September throughout the metro area. Here are a few of my favorites.
Uptown, Apolline is offering special Coolinary menus Wednesday-Sunday. Brunch ($30) choices include starter choices of Panzanella Salad or Sweet Potato Bisque; entree choices of Crispy Chicken Confit & French Toast or Johhnycakes topped with Carnitas and a tart apple slaw; dessert is Cappuccino Panna Cotta or Housemade Lemon Bar with raspberry coulis. Dinner is $39 with a choice of Panzanella Salad or Sweet Potato Bisque; entree choices of Creole Gulf shrimp, blistered cherry tomatoes, okra, herbed rice; Pan Roasted Gulf Fish with sautéed zucchini & squash, topped with a Louisiana crawfish cream sauce; Crispy Chicken Leg Confit with roasted fingerling potatoes; or Seared Pork Tenderloin sweet potato puree, and Bourbon demi glace. For dessert chose from Peach Cobbler Cheesecake or Cappuccino Panna Cotta.
Over in the Warehouse District Rosie on the Roof in the fabulous Higgins Hotel is offering a daily dinner COOLinary menu that is hard to beat for $29. Choose from starters of Curried Blue Crab Stuffed Creole Tomato with gazpacho dressing or a Pig Ear Salad with field greens, grilled peach, tomato, and sauce Ggribiche. Entrees include Old World Red Fish & Chips with malt vinegar ,hand cut fries, and herb aioli, or a decadent burger that this battered then friend before it is assembled into a poor boy sand served French dip style. Dessert choices bring Peach Cobber with ice cream for Bread & Butter Pudding with butterscotch sauce.
Bywater jewel Bacchanal, will offer a $32 brunch on Saturday and Sunday with first course choices of Panzanella with eggplant, green beans, piquillos, caper, mint, or a salad of Little Gem lettuce, red onion, smokey almonds, and buttermilk dressing. Entrees include Meatballs with spicy tomato jam, gouda, poached egg, herb salad, or Shakshuka (poached eggs with peppers, squash, smoked tomatoes, and herb salad. For dessert choose from Coconut Panna Cotta with summer fruit, Alfajores, and mint, or Dark Chocolate Bark with almonds, olive oil and sea salt. The $32 dinner menu, offered Thursday – Sunday, starts with a surprise Amuse Buche then segues into a choice between the Panzanella and the Little Gem salad to start then moves on to entree choices of Meatballs with spicy tomato jam, gouda, and herb salad; or Spaghetti with Taleggio, truffles, white wine, and herbs de Bacchanal. Dessert is a choice between the Coconut Panna Cotta or Dark Chocolate Bark.
If your choice is to stay home and cook, allow me to suggest what I did last weekend as I hunkered down against the impending atmospheric malady that was to be Marco. I took a cue from my friend and fellow, Beth DAddono, and attached Chef Rick Bayless’ recipe for All Day Red Mole. With several locations around town Ideal Market is an excellent resource for everything you will need to make about a gallon the this not-difficult-but-definitely-time-consuming sauce everyone seems to welcome with a smile. A massive pot with plenty for sharing and freezing will set you back about $15. While not spicy, the mole is deeply flavorful and satisfying and works in an array of applications. Enjoy.
Classic Red Mole (Mole Rojo Clasico)
Courtesy of Chef Rick Bayless
- 10 ounces (5 medium)tomatillos, husked and rinsed
- 1 1/3 cup (about 6 1/2 ounces) sesame seeds
- 1cup vegetable oil
- 6 ounces (about 12 medium) dried mulato chiles, stemmed, seeded and torn into large flat pieces
- 3 ounces (6 medium)dried ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded and torn into large flat pieces
- 3 ounces (10 medium)dried pasilla chiles, stemmed, seeded and torn into large flat pieces
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1cup (about 4 ounces) unskinned almonds
- 1cup (about 4 ounces) raisins
- 1teaspoon cinnamon, preferably freshly ground Mexican canela
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, preferably freshly ground
- 1/2 teaspoon star anise, preferably freshly ground
- 1/4 teaspoon cloves, preferably freshly ground
- 2 slices firm white bread, darkly toasted and broken into several pieces
- 2 ounces (about 2/3 of a 3.3-ounce tablet)Mexican chocolate, roughly chopped (I used Abuela brand)
- 3 quarts chicken broth
- 1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar, optional
On a rimmed baking sheet, roast the tomatillos 4 inches below a very hot broiler until splotchy black and thoroughly soft, about 5 minutes per side. Scrape into a large bowl. In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the sesame seeds, stirringly nearly constantly, until golden, about 5 minutes. Scrape half of them in with the tomatillos. Reserve the remainder for sprinkling on the chicken.
Brown other mole ingredients. Turn on an exhaust fan or open a kitchen door or window. In a very large soup pot heat the oil over medium. When quite hot, fry the chiles, three or four pieces at a time, flipping them nearly constantly with tongs until their interior side has changed to a lighter color, about 20 or 30 seconds total frying time. Do not toast them so darkly that they begin to smoke—that would make the mole bitter. As they are done, remove them to a large bowl, being careful to drain as much fat as possible back into the pot. Cover the toasted chiles with hot tap water and let rehydrate 30 minutes, stirring frequently to insure even soaking.
Remove any stray chile seeds left in the fat. With the pot still over medium heat, fry the garlic and almonds, stirring regularly, until browned (the garlic should be soft), about 5 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove to the tomatillo bowl, draining as much fat as possible back into the pot. Add the raisins to the hot pot. Stir for 20 or 30 seconds, until they’ve puffed and browned slightly. Scoop them out, draining as much fat as possible back into the pot, and add to the tomatillos. Set the pan aside off the heat.
To the tomatillo mixture, add the cinnamon, black pepper, anise, cloves, bread and chocolate. Add 2 cups water and stir to combine.
Blend, strain, cook.
Into a large measuring cup, tip off the chiles’ soaking liquid. Taste the liquid: if it is not bitter, discard all about 6 cups of the liquid. (if you are short, add water to make up the shortfall). If bitter, pour it out and measure 6 cups water. Scoop half of the chiles into a blender jar or food processor, pour in half of the soaking liquid (or water) and blend to a smooth puree. Press through a medium-mesh strainer into a large bowl; discard the bits of skin and seeds that don’t pass through the strainer. Repeat with the remaining chiles. Return the soup pot to medium heat. When quite hot, pour in the chile puree—it should sizzle sharply and, if the pan is sufficiently hot, the mixture should never stop boiling. Stir every couple of minutes until the chile puree has darkened and reduced to the consistency of tomato paste, about a half hour. (Bayless suggests it is useful to cover the pot with an inexpensive spatter screen to catch any spattering chile.)
In two batches, blend the tomatillo mixture as smoothly as possible, adding some water if needed to keep everything moving through the blades, then strain it in to the large bowl that contained the chiles. When the chile paste has reduced, add the tomatillo mixture to the pot and cook, stirring every few minutes until considerably darker and thicker, 15 to 20 minutes. (Again, a spatter screen saves a lot of cleanup.)
Simmer. Add the broth to the pot and briskly simmer the mixture over medium to medium-low heat for about 2 hours for all the flavors to come together and mellow. If the mole has thickened beyond the consistency of a cream soup, stir in a little water. Taste and season with salt (usually about 4 teaspoons) and the sugar, if using. Serve, freeze, or share.