March 10, 2012

The Big Easy, Christmas Leave Part 2

I AM A SLACKER.

There, I've admitted it! It's true! I am a slacker. Whew, I feel so much better getting that off my chest.

Now that you know the truth about me, you understand why in the month of March, I am finally posting about the second half of our Christmas leave. (If you don't remember what 'leave' is, or you want a refresher because it's been sooooo long since Part 1 of this post, check it out here: Speaking Civilian and Christmas Leave, Part 1)

All caught up now? Good.

After visiting with family for a bit in Dallas, the Hubs and I took advantage of our location and decided to drive 9 hours to the wonderful city of New Orleans. I've heard mixed reviews about the city. Some say it's just for party people and Mardi Gras. Others talk of the amazing food. Still others think the city is dirty, while some adore the unique atmosphere. We chose to make the decision for ourselves. A new adventure begins!

The Mississippi 

Of course, if you know me at all, you know vacation is not a simple thing. I need reams of data, maps, plans, and back-up plans. I like to be prepared (ahem, understatement of the century). Shockingly, I was not as well-planned as expected. While we had a list, as in a singular list, we left many things up to chance. New adventure indeed...

What we discovered is this: New Orleans is a colorful city, full of amazing people. The opportunities for an amateur photographer like myself are plentiful. Music and artwork take over every street corner, while the scent of Cajun food fills the air. The city's history is rich and unique. Museums and attractions abound. A simple walk through downtown is enough to overload the senses and leave you in a euphoric frame of mind.

Or maybe that's just me.

Regardless, we loved our visit there, and we can't wait to go back again. As much as we accomplished, there were many, many things that didn't fit into our schedule. If you have time for a visit, you won't run out of things to do, that's for sure!

One of the first attractions we decided to visit was Mardi Gras World. Inside an enormous warehouse, the crew diligently works to produce the floats that grace New Orleans' city streets during the annual festival. The tour begins with a brief video and explanation of Mardi Gras, then all guests are served slices of the traditional 'king cake'. King cake is baked with a small plastic baby inside of it. Whoever receives the baby in their slice of cake is required to host the next party... loving this fun idea, I might have to steal it for my next party!

The process of creating a float may seem boring to some, but this turned out to be one of our favorite afternoons. After a guided tour of the warehouse, guests are allowed to wander on their own. It was so much fun to see this year's floats before they made their debut in the parade! Check out the slideshow for a quick peak inside the magic at Mardi Gras World:





My second favorite place to visit was not a specific location. Downtown New Orleans, including the infamous Bourbon Street, was a real pleasure to wander around. The Hubs and I spent an entire day walking the streets, stopping anyplace that caught our fancy. We started the morning in a cafe that no one should miss, Cafe Du Monde. Famous for their coffee and beignets, this early breakfast kick-started a wonderful afternoon.

Can you say YUM?! 

Although it might not be for everyone, I was fascinated with the quaint buildings and architecture of downtown. The balconies, courtyards, and hidden doorways called out to me and my camera:



As we wandered the streets, artists and musicians clustered in the courtyards and on every street corner. Jazz music drifted on the air, seemingly from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Guitar cases were open, prepared to collect change and bills, as people gathered 'round. The Hubs and I stopped for every performance. The energy of the crowd and the lively music made stopping impossible to resist. Although this isn't a long clip, it can give you a taste of what the street music was like (and please excuse the quality of the picture, just listen to the music!):



video

Besides musicians, there were other street performers as well, like this gentleman here: 


With so many sights and sounds, we wandered for hours, completely losing track of time. UNTIL.... the Hubs' stomach rumbled. We all know what that means. Either the Hubs eats or there will be mutiny.

New Orleans cuisine was something greatly anticipated with us. We had a long list of items that were an absolute must. Shrimp Po'Boy, Crawfish Etouffee, Beignets (already consumed at Cafe Du Monde!), Gumbo, Jambalaya, and many, many more. The Big Easy is well-known for it's cajun flair, and we were eager to try everything.




Of course, we didn't eat all that in a single afternoon. Our New Orleans adventure spanned five fabulous days. We tried at least one new thing each day, a fun policy that has never failed us before on any vacation.

Among the many places we visited, the National World War II Museum was at the top of the list for the Hubs. We found the museum to be quite crowded, but the displays were interesting and the staff quite knowledgable. We especially appreciated one demonstration where several people took up positions as servicemen on an aircraft carrier, then acted out their duties. I love the hands-on approach; it kept us interested for sure. However, the best thing about the museum was one tiny detail from  the gift shop:


Seriously?? Thanks for the tip, as well.... remember folks, don't take grenades on your next flight!

The Hubs may have favored the museum, but my chosen activity was a little.... shall we say, different? For those of you out there who love a good scare, New Orleans is the place for you. Graveyard tours are offered everywhere, along with several ghost tours. For the adventurous, you can visit the grave of Marie Louveau, famous voodoo priestess, at the stroke of midnight. Or take a tour of the Voodoo Museum . Recently, New Orleans is the featured city in several vampire book series, including Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books (the inspiration for HBO's "True Blood").

But what I really loved were the graveyards themselves. Much of the city is below sea level, necessitating a need for above-ground burials. For me (and my camera), the graveyards were a place of savage beauty. We toured several over our stay, including Saint Louis Cemetery #1, reputedly the final resting place of Marie Louveau.



The darker side of New Orleans appeals to many, but if that's not your cup of tea, don't worry! There are many, many sites to see that don't involve voodoo or ghosts or vampires (although you may want to be tucked into bed after dark!).

Just a short drive from downtown is Longue Vue House and Gardens, a spectacular home and garden that offers daily tours. Our tour guide was not only knowledgable about the history of the house, but she also knew the family personally, and was able to provide many interesting insights. The tour was a nice diversion and break from the city life.

Longue Vue House and Gardens
Also outside the city, we took a fun tour of the New Orleans Rum Distillery. The rum is sold only locally, hence a smaller operation. We had a slightly difficult time finding the building, but it was worth the effort. Again, our guide was amazing. And the free shots of rum didn't hurt either! 

If you're in the area, I would also check out Laffitte's Blacksmith Shop, traditionally considered the oldest bar in the United States. Or the LaLaurie Mansion, reputed to be extremely haunted. Take an evening stroll through the Garden District, or visit the aquarium. On our next visit, we plan to enjoy a river cruise! 

With so much to see and do in New Orleans, we didn't even scratch the surface. On our last evening there, we took time to see the Celebration in the Oaks, an amazing display of Christmas lights. This is a seasonal attraction; we were so glad we didn't miss the opportunity! 



No matter what your interests, New Orleans has something to offer every visitor. We loved our mini-vacation to this great city. Someday, we'll be back and adding to our list of experiences. If you've never been, I hope our visit offers you some ideas. If you've visited the city before, I hope this post brought back good memories. Feel free to share your favorite places and the items that would make your must-see list.

For now, I'm trying my hardest to stop being a slacker. I promise. More coming soon to a blog near you!

March 4, 2012

Back in the Saddle Again

When life gets a bit crazy, some things get pushed aside and other things take the forefront. It's all about priorities, people... they don't always start with what I want at the top of the list, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.


Lately, home-cooked meals have gone by the wayside. Too many appointments, errands, and other craziness in the way. After the spaghetti sauce incident, (see the post here: http://armylifefromthewife.blogspot.com/2012/02/spaghetti-sauce-is-out-to-get-me.html) the Hubs and I are getting into our groove, and home-cooking is back on the menu. 

Of course, in order to have a stupendous dinner, you need one main thing... groceries. Of which, we had none. But I wasn't going to let that stop me! Normally, I carefully plan out a weekly menu and I shop accordingly (there's that whole OCD problem again). Being frazzled definitely contributed to the strange array of food that somehow found its way into my refrigerator. For example: Purple potatoes. Say what? Accompanying the potatoes, I had one questionable apple, some fancy mustard, frozen chicken, a Lean Cuisine, asparagus, mayonnaise, cream, and a bit of chicken broth. Oh yes, also yogurt, 2 strawberries, and about 6 bottles of wine. Say nothing.  

Not exactly the makings of something fabulous, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. Sometimes the fabulous comes from pure desperation and hunger. I would make do. 

While I stared at the contents of my fridge in horror, I wondered how I could create something out of nothing. I'll give you a free tip that has saved me on many occasions: Look at your possible "main" ingredients, and then... Google. 

Google is my best friend. On this particular night, I typed 'chicken and mustard recipe' into my search window. An exact recipe didn't magically appear, but I found enough inspiration to tweak and create a meal. What came out of the kitchen looked a little something like this: 

Mustard chicken with roasted purple potatoes and asparagus

Please ignore the poor photo quality, we were hungry! Too hungry to take a stylized picture, just enough time for a snapshot. 

Even when you think there's absolutely nothing to eat in your cabinets, something comes together. There are a few staples I almost always have on hand, spices and condiments that I'm never without: Salt, pepper, garlic, olive oil, flour, sugar, etc. With those, I can do anything!! 

Ok, that's a lofty statement, and probably not entirely true, but it worked this night. Let's start with the chicken, since it requires the most preparation, about 10 whole minutes. 



All the ingredients are pretty basic: Chicken, olive oil, white wine, garlic, salt, pepper, chicken broth, and cream. Oh, and don't forget the mustard! You can use any kind of mustard you want, or any combination of mustards. I used this because it's what I had on hand, not to mention it will be expiring soon. Waste not, want not... 


I have to say, it was pretty delicious with the chicken. If I see this mustard again, it will find its way into my cart, guaranteed. 

Now, for the chicken... you can prepare it one of two ways. Naturally, I took the easiest and quickest way. You just don't waste time when the Hubs is hungry. 

There were three fairly large chicken breasts in my package. You can do what I did (slice the breasts in half longways to create six cutlets) OR you can take the time to hammer your chicken thin with a meat mallet, like this one: 


If you go the route of the mallet, make sure your chicken is the same thickness all the way around. This way, it will cook evenly in the pan. Actually, if you're slicing it like me, do the same. You want all the chicken to cook at the same rate. 

Once sliced or flattened, be sure to salt and pepper both sides of your chicken. Don't be shy! A little salt never hurt anyone (ahem), and it adds much needed flavor to your dish. Season as you go, and you won't be disappointed in the end. There's nothing worse than serving a meal to guests, only to have them pile on the salt after a single bite. 

Next, warm a skillet over medium-high heat. To the skillet, you want to add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of butter (not pictured, oops!).  Stir it around until the butter melts, which will take no time at all.  From here, add your chicken to the skillet. You should hear a definite sizzle when the chicken hits the pan... if you don't, the skillet isn't hot enough to get a good sear! 

Why do you want a good sear on the chicken? Because it locks in the flavor, baby! (I tend to channel Buddy Valastro when I get excited about cooking. Pay me no attention). Whatever you do, don't squish the chicken, or shake the pan, or any other crazy thing. All you really have to do is... NOTHING. Not a darn thing. How easy is that? Just listen to the sizzle, inhale the chicken fumes, and smile. 

When the chicken is ready to be flipped over, you should see some browning around the edges. Just flip, and then wait again while the other side turns the same golden color. Mine took about 4-5 minutes per side. You can cook the chicken in two batches if your pan isn't big enough, I did! 

Once brown, just pull the chicken from the pan and set aside. Do not slice a piece open to see if it's done. Big no-no. Why? You want to let your meat rest for a bit. If you slice into it right away, all the juice and yummy flavor will leak right out. Don't do that. The chicken will find it's way back into the pan later, so it doesn't need to be 100% cooked through right now (though it most likely will be, mine was).  

Reduce the heat on your skillet to medium, then add about 3 cloves of minced garlic. I prefer fresh, but I always have a jar of the pre-minced stuff in my fridge. It's one of those staples I don't like to be without. Cook about one minute, stirring constantly. The garlic will smell delicious as it warms. 

Be careful not to let the garlic burn, it really does take just a minute. From there, pour about a cup of white wine into the skillet and deglaze the pan. What does that mean, you wonder? Well, the chicken has left lots of yummy brown bits in the bottom of the pan that actually look kind of gross. But those brown bits are packed with immense flavor. Flavor is what it's all about, baby! (There's that Buddy again). When you add the wine, stir it around and scrape up all those bits. This will be the base for your sauce. 

Let the wine bubble and simmer until it's been reduced by about half. You can use any kind of white wine you have on hand. I opened a bottle my pal Jackie brought me back from vacation. After you use what you need for your sauce, pour yourself a glass and enjoy the rest while you finish cooking. Or serve it as a compliment to the meal. 

To the reduced wine, add about 3 tablespoons or so of mustard. I have to be honest here, I didn't measure. Don't be like me! Whisk the mustard into the wine then add some cream (1/2 cup) and some chicken broth (again, 1/2 cup). Taste the sauce and adjust as you go, this is very important no matter what you're cooking! If you don't try it, how will you know what it tastes like? It could taste like dog food or some other awful thing. Taste as you go! 

Ok, did you taste it? Everything is fabulous? Good. Add your chicken to the sauce and let everything warm and bubble. Cook a few minutes more while the sauce thickens up a bit, maybe 5 minutes. And then.... eat it! 

Oh, wait. You can't just have chicken. Side dishes are required for a well-balanced meal. The two sides I made are simple and require almost the exact same preparation. Saving time = Happier Hubs. I only took a picture of the potato ingredients, but they are so similar, you'll have no problem. Here we go:

Purple Potatoes 

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Wash and scrub your potatoes, then cut them into similar-sized pieces (don't remove the skin). Why do we cut into similar-sized pieces? So they all cook the same!

I'm using purple potatoes, which might seem strange, but they were quite delicious. Unlike your regular potato, the purple variety is rich in antioxidants. It's a win-win situation.

 Ready for the difficult task ahead? I'm kidding! All you need to do is this: Coat the potatoes with a little bit of olive oil (not too much, a little goes a long way), then season with salt and pepper. That's it. You can add other spices if you like; I used a bit of thyme. Then, you just put them on a cookie sheet in the oven and let them roast until tender, at 425 degrees. Mine took about 25 minutes, but yours could take longer if your pieces are larger than mine.

And that's all! To roast the asparagus, you use the same technique. Wash the asparagus, then cut off the woody ends. Toss with the olive oil, salt, and pepper and then roast. The only real difference is the cooking temperature. I like to roast the asparagus at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

Voila! You have a home-cooked, simple and delicious dinner. All in all, this took about 30 minutes to prepare. Roast your veggies while you cook the chicken, then serve it all hot.

Do you have any cleaning-out-the-refrigerator meals? Feel free to share your tips and recipes! This chicken turned out so well, we'll be having it again next week. Happy cooking :)




The Standard Form:



Mustard Chicken

Ingredients:

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup white wine
3 tablespoons fancy mustard (Honey Balsamic, Dijon, Stone Ground, etc)
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup chicken broth
Salt and pepper

Directions:

Cut your chicken breasts in half lengthwise, or pound thin with a meat mallet. Salt and pepper both sides.

Warm the olive oil and butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken to the pan, make sure you hear a sizzle! Cook about 4-5 minutes per side until the chicken is golden brown. Remove chicken from the skillet and set aside.

Reduce the heat on your skillet to medium and add the garlic to the pan. Sauté one minutes, then deglaze the pan with the wine. Let the wine bubble until reduced by half, then add the mustard and whisk to combine. Stir in the cream and chicken broth. Taste as you go, add seasoning as needed.

Return the chicken to the skillet. Cook about another 5 minutes, until the sauce has thickened. Serve hot.  

Roasted Asparagus

Ingredients:

1 bunch asparagus
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt
Pepper

Directions:

Trim the woody ends from the bottom of the asparagus stalks, removing the bottom ½-1 inch.

Line the asparagus spears side by side in a 9x13 pyrex baking dish or on a cookie sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and then sprinkle with kosher salt. Give the pan a few shakes to roll and coat the asparagus.

Roast in the oven at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, removing from the oven when the tips start to brown. Serve.

                                                    Roasted Purple Potatoes

Ingredients:

2lbs. purple potatoes
Olive oil
Kosher salt
Pepper
Thyme

Directions:

Scrub the potatoes clean, then chop into similar sized pieces. Place on a cookie sheet. Drizzle the potatoes with a bit of olive oil, then season with salt, pepper, and thyme.

Roast at 425 degrees until tender, about 25-30 minutes.