Friday, May 30, 2014

The Poor Porker - Lakeland, FL

One of the presents that our kids received from Santa this past Christmas was an annual pass to Walt Disney World for 2014. Although neither I nor the missus are big fans of the giant mouse and its far-reaching tentacles, we reckoned that we couldn't move to Florida without acquiring the passes at some point, if for no other reason than to get the whole Disney thing out of our system while the children were in their prime Magic Kingdom years. For those of you who haven't done the math on your own, we determined that we'd need to visit the park a minimum of 4 times in the calendar year in order to recoup our investment (and, make no mistake, it WAS an investment), which we've now done twice and had scheduled a third time over Memorial Day when we regained our senses and realized just how patently moronic it would be to show up there on a holiday weekend (perfect if you like waiting in lines all day). With our Saturday schedule suddenly free of fairy dust, we made alternate plans to spend some quality time at the off-brand amusement park Dinosaur World in Plant City (which was probably a thousand times less crowded than that other place) and stop in beforehand at the downtown farmer's market in nearby Lakeland.

There are two things that the small city of Lakeland (located about halfway between Tampa and Orlando) is known for - it's the corporate headquarters of the Publix supermarket chain and the Spring Training home of the Detroit Tigers; however, my interest in going there was purely culinary as the downtown farmer's market hosts what appears to be the Southeast's only artisanal maker of beignets, the Poor Porker (PP). I had first read about PP in one of the local magazines (Southern Living, maybe) in an article referencing their beignets, but quickly discovered that the two-person collective behind PP (Jarred Massie and Robyn Wilson) purports to be about much more than just fried dough; rather, they're preaching an entire hipster lifestyle of art, fashion, farming, and DIY ethos (their motto, in fact, is "for the swanky, rugged, and self-reliant"). When I went to their website, I found little to no mention of food and actually had a difficult time distinguishing it from J. Crew or Pottery Barn both in look and in content. The two founders are just so darn photogenic (as evidenced by numerous, caerfully-arranged photos) and have such a perfect backstory (musicians! circus! modeling! Hawaii! California! tv show! welding!) that the cynic in me found the whole thing to be, well, way too crafted and contrived for my liking, the kind of thing today's young and cool media outlets are falling all over themselves to feature. At the end of the day, I wanted to see if there was any substance behind the abundant style, that is, are the beignets any good?

The four of us arrived in downtown Lakeland close to high noon, at which point the thermometer had already surpassed 90 (not the ideal environment for keeping kids happy). As far as farmer's markets go, this one was a little smaller than I had anticipated, with an interesting mix of craft and food vendors.

It didn't take us long to locate PP's trailer, which appeared just as if it had been transported from the website, all cobbled together in just the right places.

There were 3 varieties of beignet on the menu - the traditional (simply dusted with powdered sugar), one with applewood-smoked bacon and maple syrup on top, and the "Aztec" (topped with a dark chocolate sauce, cayenne pepper, and cinnamon). Unable to decide, we ended up purchasing all 3 types for a total of about $17. I will give the proprietors credit - they were working very hard in a cramped, humid space (one person taking orders, one rolling fresh dough, one manning the fryer, and one finishing/wrapping orders, all of them wearing jean overalls) striving to meet the sizable demand of their customers. They appeared to have by far the longest line of all of the vendors and, had we arrived 15 minutes later, we may have been out of luck as they were starting to exhaust their daily allotment.

We wandered over to a nearby park bench to consume our quarry under the gaze of a stone Civil War soldier glaring down at us from a tall pedestal in the center of the square. The beignets were very hot (just out of the fryer, you know) and a little sloppy (we made good use of the moist towelettes that came with the order).

Well? I would say they were good, but probably not worth a special trip. My favorite was the beignet topped with bacon and syrup, although I suspect that's largely due to the toppings and not the dough, which, frankly, was a little on the bland side. I reckon I liked them as much as what you'd get at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans (my only other memorable beignet experience), a most un-artisanal experience if there ever was one. Maybe the hipster press and presentation set the expectation bar so high that disappointment was inevitable, I don't know. In any case, I wish them continued success and hope that they won't be insulted if I stay closer to home to get my fried pastries next time (Nicola's anyone?)...

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Sauteed Baby Squash with Basil and Feta

What you see above is called a pattypan squash. Although I'd encountered a number of different squashes up North from our old CSA (especially in the later months of the year), this particular variety was new to us when it showed up in our most recent haul of veggies from the local farm. Pattypan is a summer squash (hence its affinity for Florida climate) commonly used in Indian cooking and resembles a large toy top in size/shape. Not really sure what to do with it, I searched around online a little until I came across a simple, decent-sounding recipe for sauteed baby squash with basil and feta. I discovered during prep that, unlike most larger squashes, you don't have to either peel off the outer skin or scoop out the seeds inside (think of it as more like a zucchini or cucumber) - just the kind of low-maintenance gourd I want in my kitchen. Except for the leeks, I had all of the other ingredients on hand to make the dish, and, within 10 minutes or so, our vegetable side was served with the mustard salmon I'd made along with it. As usual, the progeny declined further consumption beyond a courtesy nibble, but Mrs. Hackknife immediately gave her stamp of approval and I thus added it to our library of squash recipes (the main question, of course, will be where to find more pattypan once my CSA concludes for the summer in a couple of weeks)...

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Galatoire's Remoulade Blanc

The April 2014 issue of Saveur Magazine primarily focuses on what they call "coastal cooking" (in other words, recipes heavy on seafood) and, since we reside in a coastal state a mere 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico as the crow flies, I took particular interest in the associated articles. Special attention is given to the seaside cuisines of Croatia, St.-Pierre & Miquelon (a pair of small islands off the coast of Newfoundland that are French protectorates), and the Oregon coast; however, it was a small writeup on versions of shrimp remoulade commonly found in New Orleans that started my cooking juices flowing. For those of you unfamiliar, shrimp remoulade consists of medium-sized cooked shrimp in a zesty sauce that is either white (i.e., mayonnaise-based, more common in early-20th Century French gastronomy) or red (i.e., spicy mustard and paprika-based, first conceived at Arnaud's Restaurant in New Orleans around 1920) served on a bed of fresh lettuce. When my neighbor invited us over one Friday afternoon to eat up some leftover pork ribs he'd made in his smoker and I needed an appetizer to bring by, this was the dish that immediately came to mind. Although my initial preference was to make the red remoulade, my local Winn-Dixie didn't carry the Creole mustard (Zatarain's is the brand specifically mentioned in the magazine) that comprises the bulk of the red sauce, so I opted for the white version, which uses just a tad of mustard (I was able to substitute Dijon for the Creole). The recipe itself is provided courtesy of Galatoire's (open on Bourbon Street since 1905), where the house shrimp remoulade is still found on the menu today. Combining the ingredients (Duke's Mayo, Dijon mustard, dry white wine, lemon juice, horseradish, parsley, cayenne, white pepper, scallions, and salt) and pouring the resulting sauce onto the already shelled, cooked, and deveined shrimp was a breeze, but I felt like it needed a little flavor boost, so I doubled up on the cayenne and white pepper. Later on, we plopped the coated shrimp onto some iceberg lettuce, added another healthy pinch of salt, and our pre-bbq snack was ready to go, enjoyed by all of the adults present and none of the children. I'm anxious to try the red version of this dish and will be on the lookout for Creole mustard - if any of you good readers have a line on some, please feel free to send it my way...

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Church Lake Farms Blueberry Picking

The time has finally come for me to end my extended blog silence - various construction projects around the house (along with Hackknife Jr.'s first Communion and the long-term guests in town to attend the blessed event) have conspired to keep me away from my laptop over the past 3 weeks, but it's time to begin writing again with a short story about blueberry picking. One of the mothers from preschool clued me in to a nearby farm that opens its blueberry orchard to the public for a month or two each spring when the bushes are producing fruit. Church Lake Farms is little more than a 5-minute drive from the Canteen and a world away from the manicured environs that we normally inhabit, which made me think that the progeny might enjoy a taste of country life (if even for an hour or less).

Although you can arrive as early as 8 am, we got there closer to noon on a Saturday. I was initially afraid that the midday tropical sun might sap the kids' energy level (they're not exactly known for their outdoor hardiness); however, I needn't have worried as a bit of cloud cover and the thrill of the hunt kept them pretty motivated. At first, we had some trouble finding bushes that hadn't already been picked over, but after poking around a little harder, our bucket started filling up.

All told, our family harvesters collected over 4 pounds of ripe blueberries, a relative bargain at $4 per pound! A lot of the berries ended up on cereal or straight up down our gullets as a tasty snack, although the majority (6 cups' worth) were used in the blueberry cobbler I threw together for some new houseguests (see photo below).

The blueberry season around here is now mostly over, but if you need any next year, you'll now know who to contact...