A Pastel Pumpkin Field and My Rib Shack

Illinois Pumpkin Fields Canned Pumpkins

So my wife and I went on a mini road trip a few weekends ago to visit an apple orchard two hours from home and then another 45 minutes to The Bar-B-Q Rib Shack in Galesburg, IL. On our way between the orchard and the rib shack we were surprised to pass two huge fields filled with what barely looked like pumpkins.

The pumpkins were so pastel I couldn’t believe it. I had to pull the car over and go in for a closer examination. How could someone mistakenly planted a huge field full of an unseemly variety of seed. My wife suggested they were for canning, which made more sense. But had we stopped our adventure right there, I’d have seen just about everything.

Pumpkins for Canning Illinois Fields

But we didn’t. We continued on to the rib place I’d talked up to my wife since we met but only fantasized taking her. Now the time had come, I imagined, where she might appreciate the unique charm of this place. When we first met, I was relatively certain, however, that she’d have found the neon sign, the mere idea of ribs, and the community seating a little more than off-putting.

To me, this rib shack is just about everything. The food is phenomenal. And the seating, unique. The small town picnic table seating, when packed, has you enjoy your meal side-by-side with complete strangers or soon-to-be new acquaintances.

The Rib Shack Neon BBQ Pig Sign

I was a little nervous. I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to everything I remembered and relived since I’d eaten there last. I was really hoping that their glory was real and not existent only in my head created by time and wishful thinking. The Rib Shack Galesburg IL Community Seating

Luckily, my fears were completely unfounded. It was everything I’d remembered and more. The lady who waited on us made us feel at home. The ribs were beautiful. Succulent, zesty, and not a bit greasy. I was proud as a peacock that my baby lit up and enjoyed herself thoroughly. She loved the slaw and she loved the ribs. I don’t think she would have appreciated The Rib Shack when we met but it made me feel good that she did now.

BBQ Ribs The Rib Shack Galesburg IL

B-Q Rib Shack on Urbanspoon

Savory Nawlins Alligator Cheesecake and the Pursuit of Phò Tàu Bay

So the minutes are counting down. I’m scrambling to squeeze in a couple final hurrah’s in Louisiana before we head out the state Wednesday. I’m pleased to report I got in one item I thought there’d be no way for me to get: Alligator cheesecake.

Enter my beautiful, brilliant wife. She suggested we drive the hour and a half to Gretna for lunch the next day at Phò Tàu Bay. It’d be our last chance to pull it off and complete some unfinished business, as we’d tried unsuccessfully to eat there twice before.

I was stoked. Not only would I get a sexy date with my wife and the best Vietnamese food in Louisiana, but also I could–just maybe–pull off sneaking in the piece of savory cheesecake I’d previously thought impossible.

Though I’ve always loved cheesecake, now that I know there exists more than just dessert cheesecakes, I really love cheesecake. New Orleans is home to variations of shrimp, crawfish, and alligator cheesecakes. These savory cheesecakes are typically lighter than their dessert brethren, being made from Ricotta or Curd cheese rather than Philadelphia cream cheese.  I imagined experiencing a piece of such cakes would give me a good starting point for my own culinary foray into the realm of the savory cheesecake.

This whole endeavor was risky business. My wife doesn’t like seafood. I had a delicate mission. Get the cheesecake without ruining the date or her good favor. I accomplished the former but barely salvaged the latter.

We got down there and, against all odds, our Vietnamese restaurant proved out of our reach once again. It had closed an hour before for a private party. Though we were tempted to try to bribe a member of the party, we moved on to another Vietnamese restaurant in the area. The grilled pork spring-rolls were phenomenal but the chicken in the pho was suspect.

It was fun. The day had been beautiful. We enjoyed the time to talk and smile at each other on the drive. So we got back in the car as the sun was beginning to move lower in the sky, making everything more golden, especially my wife’s beautiful eyes and wavy hair. On our way through New Orleans, I called Jacaque-Imo’s to order a piece of the alligator cheesecake to-go.

We drove along the street cars, under the live oak covered streets, and past the unique old New Orleans architectural homes. Strike one, was piggybacking a quest for anything seafood onto our date. Strike two, was parking the car in a slightly no parking zone. Strike three, was stinking the car up of alligator cheesecake.

My only salvation was that the bartender generously gave me three cornbread muffins with my order. The muffin satisfied her where the pho and our original restaurant had failed. So my savory cheesecake was just that. The cheesecake had a nice light texture  with a rich smoked Gouda and light goat cheese flavor. The alligator added the slight seafoody taste I can’t help but seek in most every meal. It added chewy bites to the cake. Though imagine the alligator could have been more tender, I appreciated the slightly extra time it took to chew. Bits of Andouille added the expected creole flair as did the creamy remoulade-like sauce under the cake. Topped with a couple sprigs of baby mixed lettuce and grated parmesan, it did me right. I enjoyed every last little bite of it and even enjoyed the smell of car the next day.

I was relieved to have gotten my first piece of savory cheese cake, a pretty good cornbread muffin for the misses, and a golden drive back through the cypress trees in early summer. Here’s to inspiration, realized dreams, and a few of the finer things in life.

Louisiana Calls the Empanada Its Own

So in Natchitoches Louisiana they lay claim to the empanada. But they don’t call it an empanada. There, empanada means nothing. In Natchitoches, they are called meat pies.

A meat pie is a half moon filled pastry made with a tasty beef, pork, onion, celery and spice mix. If it has a crawfish étouffée-like filling, it’s technically called a crawfish pie. The meat pie differs from most empanadas in that it is deep fried rather than baked. Additionally, it also lacks the sugar or glazed coating of some South American empanadas.

Now, when it comes to Natchitoches meat pies, there is none other than Lasyone’s. They are made by hand, daily, and they are good. Though the crust is quite thin, a beautiful duality exists in that pastry shell. It somehow manages an outside crunch and a fragile, softer, calzone-like inner softness. Their crawfish filling is rich and tasty. There are a sufficient number of tails, they are good size, and their flavor comes though the sauce. And surprisingly, they’re not a bit spicy. Just delicious.

With my meat pie gone faster than I would have liked, I was tempted to double back for another but instead I enjoyed waking along Cane River Lake enjoying the old  French Quarter style buildings along Natchitoches’s historic Front St. It being Memorial Day Weekend, I was able to enjoy the avenue lined to one side with the swaying of bright American flags and to the other with beautiful, pure Magnolias in bloom. What luck.

Lasyone's Meat Pie Restaurant on Urbanspoon

A Drive Up Through Cane Country

So I got out of work this week absolutely exhausted. Ending things proved more difficult and stressful than I’d imagined it would be. Wednesday night we had a rainstorm and put down sheets of water and took the power out for the evening. I took nature’s heed and went to bed for the night. I needed it. Waking up the next morning, I felt my body had gained some ground toward being repaired.

Come yesterday morning, I was ready to hit the road. Last May, I drove the 15 hours to Dallas and back to pick up a fish tank off Craigslist and see some discus fish. This May, I felt I needed another drive for sanity. I thought I’d take a scenic route through the Louisiana cane fields of Pointe Coupee and go the back way up to my favorite little town of Natchitoches, pronounced NACK-a-dish.

Last weekend, my wife and I went up to visit my grandmother’s sisters who live in northern Louisiana, and while there, my great Aunt mentioned the pies and ham of Lecompte, Louisiana and asked if we’d ever had them. We hadn’t. She said what everyone seems to say: They’re good, but they’re expensive.

While I was on my drive though the cane, in a tiny bout of serendipity, I came upon the little town of Lecompte, pronounced luh-COUNT, and Lea’s Lunchroom. Skeptical it was the best place to get pie in the town, I drove around until I found an older couple sitting on their porch who I asked where the best place to get pie was in the town. The said that outside of their own kitchen, I’d have to try Lea’s. So I did.

A handmade neon orange sign on the door proudly announced in teen calligraphy the presence of dewberry pie. I didn’t know what it was but if they were that excited about it, so was I. I was impressed at the quantity of pies they seemed to produce and sell. My little piece was good. The crust was more gooey than flakey which was perfectly fine by me. The berries whole, rich and firm. Best of all there was almost no crust. To me crust is the purgatory of pie. Usually I’m too preoccupied with how to ethically dispose of the crust to even enjoy the pie. Here that was not a problem. Just one enjoyable 10 am snack.

Back on the road, I made it up to Natchitoches. Though I sometimes lament that anywhere America is beginning to look like everywhere America, void of local variation,  Louisiana’s still got it. On a main drag in Natchitoches, where strip malls and fast food chains otherwise dominate, a giant crawfish stands atop a seasonal crawfish eatery in proud testament to local flavor. To the outsider, the universal and unwavering local pride shared by Louisianians is as amazing as it is perplexing. Though the outsider can’t quite fully adjust to the ubiquitous use of the fleur-de-lis or seeing grown men dress in purple and gold without thinking a second thought about it, one comes to value how Louisiana is preserving a vibrant and unique identity in the face of ever greater pressure toward homogenization.

I didn’t get any crawfish at the Crawfish Hole, both because it was closed and because I’d just eaten a crawfish meat pie. I stopped to get a stainless steel roux spoon for later home cooking, and then started back home.

When I first drove through cane fields a few years ago, I couldn’t identify what I was seeing. I thought I’d recognize a cane field if I saw it, but I didn’t. In the field, the cane is covered in so many long grassy leaves, it looks like rows of grass and not the long thick bamboo-like stalks I envisioned.

I passed steel grey field buildings who’s sharp angels and perfect proportions contoured aesthetically with the horizon and melded into the pastel greens of the cane.

Another appeared other-worldly. The overhang wrapped around the entire barn, undoubtedly to keep the inside cooler by keeping the sun off the sides of the building.

I crossed a bridge over the Atchafalaya River, pronounced a-Cha-fa-Lie-ah, back into Pointe Coupee, stopped at a bait shop for a pack of frozen alligator to try my hand at blackening latter this week, and crossed more cane to get back to my baby.

So she got her day at home in peace, able to enjoy reading without hassle, and I got my drive. My chance to go and to see. Days alone like this are a blessing. We’re able to do what we enjoy and then we’re ready to appreciate being back together. And appreciate being back together, we do.

Back on the Plains, DIY Beef Jerky

So my wife and I are getting ready for our trip to Portland for christmas. We are forsaking our families in the name of peace and adventure and are heading northwest. On our last trip I remembered that back in 8th grade I used to make venison jerky before family road trips. I enjoyed eating it to pass the time and keep from thinking about food. I resolved to resurrect the tradition for my next trip.

Come a week ago, I remembered my resolution and got excited about the mini diy project ahead of me. Yesterday at wholefoods I picked up a small roast, sliced it up last night and sprinkled it with garlic powder, cayenne pepper, black pepper, salt and soy sauce. I let it marinade overnight and today slid the slices onto bamboo skewers. It’s now in the oven aromatizing the apartment. Here’s the simple process. Give this a try if you’ve never. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Its a lot easier than you might think. Post your experience and ideas here. Looking forward to hearing how it goes. Enjoy the semi self reliance and spirit of yore.

Homemade Jerky Recipe

  1. Slice beef or venison into thin 1″ wide x 7″ long strips
  2. Sprinkle with seasonings of your choice
    garlic powder
    cayenne pepper
    black pepper
    salt
    soy or teriyaki sauce
  3. Marinating is optional. Skewer slices onto steel or bamboo shish kabob skewers.
  4. Set oven to around 200°F and hang the meat through the oven grating on the top rack.
  5. Leave meat to dry for around 6 hours, more or less depending on thickness. Should be firm.

Caution: May give you gas of a similar smell to the jerky. Hence, I will definitely be playing this one by ear, or nose, on the plane.