Home is where the heart is…

and NOLA has stolen mine.

My mother’s side of the family is from Louisiana. Both my late grandmother, aunt, uncle and NaNa are natives; my mother lived there for a brief period during her youth. You could say without New Orleans, there’d be no Ashley Raelene.

So when my friend decided to visit the Creole State I knew I had to go too. Despite some set-backs immediately preceding this trip (story of my life) I was determined not to miss this opportunity. So as my friend celebrated her actual date of birth, I got on a plane to start my NOLA weekend early, visiting my aunt until everyone arrived the following day.

To be in a place that seemed so familiar, although I couldn’t actually remember ever being there, is an experience only those having been “raised” Southern in another region will likely experience. As soon as I stepped off the plane a feeling of comfort washed over me, as if I’d been missing this place all along. Listening to my aunt, driving to her house and mentally noting the changes she made after Katrina left me swimming in a sea of feelings. Not all bad feelings, but some of displacement– of knowing I’d never see New Orleans completely as she’d been before.

The remainder of my trip could be summed up in three categories: the people, the food and the buildings.

The People

Having lived in Nebraska for a number of years I’m familiar with “Nebraska nice”. The notion that Midwesterners are inherently nice and easy-going, quick to offer a hand or just a friendly hello. Recently I’ve heard NE Nice more accurately described as “Nebraska Nice … to your face”. An endless circle jerk of people wanting to appear warm and welcoming despite their conservative leanings towards judging your whole life.. and telling their friends about it later.

New Orleans’ brand of nice, however, is authentically more genuine. Even honking at a pedestrian wrongly crossing Canal Street takes on an air of politeness here not seen above the Mason-Dixie. It’s hard to think of an interaction during my trip that didn’t leave me a little bit happier (save my phone getting stolen, which gave way for a chivalrous search by someone else). Unlike many who fall in love with a place they visit, only to worry about not knowing anyone if they move there, New Orleans is a place that would welcome you with open arms, even before you’ve signed a lease.

The Food

Honestly, I shouldn’t even have to write this part. People travel from far and wide to enjoy the creative creole and Cajun cuisine Louisiana has to offer. From the stuffed shrimp I had at Dooky Chase‘s to the shrimp and crawfish mac and cheese I stood 30 minutes for at the Treme Gumbo Fest, I left New Orleans ruing not being able to eat like I did over the weekend, every day. Even the selection at the Riverwalk Outlet mall was amazing, with Mike Anderson’s Seafood offering the best fried okra I’ve had since my grandmother’s.

As I get older, the more I recognize foods multifaceted-ness. It connects us not only to our family and pasts, like the okra did for me, but also to new cultures and friends. The food is so much a part of many people’s experiences that NOLA could never be separated from its culinary offerings. And as this space becomes more and more attractive for millennials marked with scarlet letters of F (for foodie) NOLA has done an outstanding job preserving its food traditions while incorporating cuisines from its many “immigrant” populations.

The Buildings

Take one step into The French Quarter, Bourbon Street or The Garden District and you immediately know where you are. Every architectural style can be found within a few minutes of each other from creole cottages to the signature french balconies to the skyscrapers in the CBD. Doing a more “adventurous” part of our trip we trekked on foot through the Garden District from Magazine Street to St Charles. As time passed I found it increasingly difficult to find a condo, house or apartment I wouldn’t be able to see myself living in (though my penchant for going pant-less immediately upon arrival home may conflict with many of the floor to ceiling front windows).

Though I’m not planning to cut my time in Omaha short, no matter how much I reminisce on this trip, I do think NOLA has a much larger part of my heart than Colorado does. When the timing is right, we’ll see if my heart wins out (and a head hunter comes and offers me $$$$$ to work somewhere it doesn’t snow in November).¬†Until then– there’s plenty of festivals and food to come back for.

 

*sorry this post lacks the many amazing pictures I took during the trip. Again my phone got stolen and only a couple were backed up on my iCloud. Dooky Chase’s stuffed shrimp were one of them ūüôā

 

My Hatchery Box: Caramelized Onion & Havarti Patty Melts

Recently, I decided to sign up for a Hatchery Box subscription. Each month, different artisanal small-batch ingredients and condiment samples are mailed to your door along with a mini version of their Guide, introducing you to the Makers of each sample and different recipes you can make with each. When my first one arrived I was excited to use some of the items for blog posts (like this one). I knew my first project would involve the Ommegang Abbey Ale Beer Jelly , because c’mon, beer jelly sounds so interesting and fun.

  
  

As I had no real idea what to make with the beer jelly I decided to default to the one selected by Hatchery — Caramelized Onion & Dill Havarti Patty Melts. I had most of the ingredients already and a quick trip to Trader Joe’s got me the rest.

To start, I chopped/sliced (I’m not great at pure slicing) some onions and threw them in a pan with butter over medium heat. Let them soften up and toss till there a nice golden color. Salt and pepper it and set aside.

  
I seasoned my ground beef with salt, pepper and garlic powder then formed them into three nice sized patties. These go into a separate pan over medium high heat until brown on both sides and cooked thorough. Add the havarti (they were out of the dill variety) at the last-minute so it has a chance to melt.

   
 
I decided to make a few minor tweaks; the first being the cheese and the second to the bread as I’m not a huge fan of rye. The sliced white we had at home went into the toaster until brown and I begin assembling my patty melt. A smear of the beer jelly, a havarti covered patty and the caramelized onions yielded the best patty melt I’ve had in a while.

   
 
The jelly added a nice sweetness to the whole thing while not being overpowering. The melty havarti offset the onion and each bite had a bit of cheese. I was expecting the jelly to not be sweet at all but I’m glad the beer-ness didn’t steal the show. I can’t wait to make more things to share with you guys with my Hatchery boxes to come.

  


Ingredients (modified from Hatchery):
2 tbsp. butter
1 large onion, thinly sliced
salt, pepper and garlic powder, to taste
6 slices rye bread (or white or any bread you prefer)
1/2 lb dill havarti cheese (or pre-sliced havarti)
1 lb ground beef
1 oz. Beekman 1802 Ommegang Abbey Ale Beer Jelly

  • Step 1
    Over medium heat, add 2 tbsp. butter to a medium skillet. Add onions and cook until they begin to soften (about 5-7 minutes). Toss and let cook another 5 minutes. Do this repeatedly until onions are soft, about 30 minutes, season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
  • Step 2
    Season the beef with salt, pepper and garlic powder then divide into three patties that are about the same size as the bread. Cook over medium-high heat until brown and cooked through. Remove and set aside.
  • Step 3
    Toast bread in toaster until golden.
  • Step 4
    Assemble the sandwiches: on one side, add Beekman Beer Jelly, cheese covered patty and onions. Top with second piece of toasted bread. Enjoy immediately.

The secret’s out: Omaha Supper Club

Things are changing for the Omaha culinary scene, and they have been for a few years. “Foodies” or people who just like to eat no longer have to long for many of the things only accessible by television or a trip in 2015. Food trucks, farm to table, you name it and Omaha has it.

While aspects of a secret dining scene, supper clubs or “pop-ups” have emerged in certain pockets, never has one aimed to be accessible to young minorities in Omaha like Omaha Supper Club (OSC). Part pop-up (venues change for each supper) and not entirely secret (details can be found on Facebook and easily by word-of-mouth) Omaha Supper Club brings a take on dining that’s commonplace in many bigger cities. While still a newcomer to Omaha’s culinary climate, the two dinners have made an impact on all that have attended.

Shalauna Wilkins, a repeat Supper Cluber, believes in the sustainability of OSC due to its uniqueness.

“It’s a classy event. Each time you come it’s a different chef that’s featured … The chefs can show their talents, eventually even getting examples from the guests about things they want to see in the future like an Iron Chef theme. It’s different for up and coming chefs to be able to present their craft.”

I was excited to experience OSC for the first time having followed the movement in other cities for quite some time. The energy was palpable as this supper would be showcasing the creator of the organization, ¬†Chef Alexander. He’s built up a following in Omaha offering southern favorites such as shrimp and grits and banana pudding. Surely he would pull out all the stops for this occasion.

The Venue

Love’s Jazz & Arts Center is a nice venue for music and relaxing. The expansion of the bar in the front has only enhanced the attractiveness of LJAC for events. It was nicely divided between a cocktail hour and the dining space. The one caveat is there isn’t much room for prep in the back. This made the time between dishes being prepared, plated and served a little longer than most guests would have liked. The social media user in me also hates the lighting in Love’s, no great selfies or Snapchats if that’s your thing.

The Atmosphere

OSC is meant to be an experience. While me and my friend were easily the youngest two in attendance, I ¬†didn’t feel out-of-place. The music was in turn current (The Internet) and classic (DeAngelo) while plenty of room was left for mingling. You could tell many in the room were on dates and for the most part, people dressed accordingly. The excitement was palpable as everyone waited for the main event. For everyone in Omaha that complains they’re tired of the bars or have nothing to do, OSC may be the answer– especially for the young professional crowd. The night ended with a comedy performance which was nice. Had the entertainment been during the cocktail hour I probably would have focused more instead of facing a potential food coma.

The Food

Starters
Meatball etouffee & mini stuffed peppers

I enjoyed both of Chef Alexander’s starters although calling it “etouffee” may have been a bit of a stretch. The gravy was nice and flavorful with bell pepper present but didn’t have the kick I’m accustomed to from an etouffee. Would have liked to see the meatballs incorporating rice as well, a riff on etouffee and the traditional boudin ball starter. The spinach dip inside the pepper was delicious and I’m so happy it wasn’t the cold version many use in peppers.

Salad
Spring greens with roasted apples, chevre, walnuts & balsamic vinaigrette

Objectively, this salad was great. I love chevre (goat cheese if you are like many who were in attendance who’d never had it) and balsamic vinaigrette together and the roasted apples were a good seasonal touch. Keeping that in mind I was a bit disappointed in this offering as it was very “safe” and I don’t think “cajun” or “creole” when given a spring green salad with goat cheese and balsamic.

Entree
Seafood grits — shrimp, scallop, crawfish and andouille over southern grits with cajun cream sauce, collard greens & stewed tomatoes | Josh Chardonnay wine pair

On its face the seafood grits were a dream. Each¬†shrimp was¬†plump and the sausage and crawfish lent the dish a nice depth. The cream sauce melded everything together and the collards had the spice the dish needed. I don’t really eat collards unless they’re from my grandmother or NaNa’s kitchen, but their addition took these grits to the level they needed. Unfortunately my grits were cold when they arrived, I attribute this to the time it takes to plate in a tiny space in a short span of time. The scallop was nice and buttery (coming from someone who doesn’t even care for scallops this was hard to come to terms with). The chardonnay was a good pair but also reminded me how I wish the seafood grits were spicier. But we live in Nebraska where some can’t handle too much.

I’m probably in the minority, however, I was looking forward to having something other than shrimp and grits (albeit one on steroids) from this dinner. We’ve seen what he can do with this dish, it would have been nice to see him flex his muscles a bit with a totally different entree.

Dessert
Hennessy Bananas Foster over cream cake & vanilla bean ice cream

Desert was a real treat with a flambe demonstration for the crowd.


The butter cake oddly enough reminded me of cornbread. A little on the dry side but a good portion so you don’t feel guilty about having too much. Each component was plated semi-separately, wonder if the melted ice cream from the sauce over the cake would have changed my perception of the cake. I’ll get crucified for this but I didn’t love the substitution of Henn for rum. Never considered myself a BF purist but something was missing for me here. Maybe I’ll ask for two fingers of Hennessy on the side next time.

Omaha Supper Club deserves the support it needs to grow and improve. With any new venture there are problems that, with time, will resolve themselves. The amount of aspiring chefs in Omaha alone who could benefit from the exposure here makes it worth the price of the ticket. As more and more young professionals, older professionals, folks who love food and people just willing to try something once look for more than most sit down or fast food restaurants can offer, the space OSC is currently pioneering will widen. Experience it before the space gets too crowded.

Omaha Supper Club occurs monthly.
Friend Omaha Supper Club on Facebook to stay in the loop.

Chef Alexander couldn’t be reached for comment.

Omaha Food This Week: 10.18.15

Welcome to the inaugural Omaha Food This Week recap where I go eat great food/attend culinary events and write about it. This week- National Gumbo Day with Shuck’s Fish House & Oyster Bar and The Market House’s Fall Menu Party.

Monday, October 12 was National Gumbo Day. To commemorate, Shuck’s offered Gumbo Flights Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. A friend and I decided to stop by during Happy Hour Monday and try the full flight (five types of gumbo).


Shuck’s original- a go-to for many at Shuck’s. Nice flavors from the seafood and sausage, not too spicy.

Turducken- not a huge fan of dark roux and the combo of duck and turkey with the chicken made the gumbo very heavy. Overpowered any spice that was present.

Alligator- a runner-up,the alligator was done well and reminded my friend of chicken. Great choice if you’re burned out on the original.

Root Vegetable- my least favorite of the night and the only one I didn’t finish. Very bland and a too thick consistency even for gumbo.

Crawfish- by far my favorite of the night. Nice pieces of crawfish and spice. The lighter roux lets the crawfish really shine.


Thursday October 15 The Market House had a Seasons Soiree to celebrate their Fall Menu. They had selections from the menu as well as tastings from Zipline Brewing and Dark Horse Distillery.


I tried both the Copper Alt amd Nut Brown from Zipline. The Copper Alt being their most popular, it’s a smooth ale/lager hybrid. I was pleasantly surprised by the Nut Brown. Not too dark and a very smooth finish.



The Dark Horse Distillery samples included their Reserve Bourbon Whiskey, Reunion Rye Whiskey and Reunion Barrel Strength. While I loved the Barrel Strength my favorite was the Rye, perfect for a strong Manhattan or Old Fashioned.


  
And now for the menu bites-

Deviled Farm Eggs (salmon roe, house bacon, fleur de sel)
Possibly the best deviled eggs I’ve had in a while. The filling was straight forward, no mayo or sauce to make it runny or too sweet. The combo of salmon roe and fleur de sel gave it a distinct saltiness but the bacon did get a little lost.


Baby Romaine (smoked oyster dressing, brioche, grana padano)
A deconstructed play on the Caesar salad the individual romaine leaves looked a little “meh” at first. After one bite, however, it was hard to not eat the whole platter. The smoked oyster dressing was divine and a perfect substitute for sardines, giving the “salad” more depth.


Mussels (red curry, sweet potato, leek, grilled peasant bread)
Full disclosure– I’m not the hugest fan of mussels. One too many rubbery-renditions have put me off them. In spite of this, The Market House put a dent in my disdain. Super soft with the right amount of chew the mussels benefited greatly from the curry. The true draw for this dish was the curry sauce. Super creamy and subtly spicy, you get grilled peasant bread for dipping. I ended up eating just bread and sauce at one point, not being able to resist sopping it all up (despite my dislike of soggy bread. again touche MH). If Market House sold this sauce in a saucer with bread I’d visit every weekend.

My evening with Woodford

Six drinks .. Two winners .. One night celebrating bourbon the only way bartenders and mixologists know how– a competition.

September 30 Woodford Reserve held a Mixology competition in conjunction with the Omaha/Lincoln chapter of the US Bartending Guild at 1316 Jones. The rules were simple:

  • $10 to enter
  • Woodford must be the base
  • Bring your own bar tools and judging glassware
  • No more than SIX ingredients although syrups, infusions and the like count as one
  • Recipes must be expressed in fluid ounces, and divided in respectively¬†whole numbers, with dashes and drops being the smallest quantities
  • Cocktail content must be between three ounces and eleven
  • No fire or flames in prep
  • Cocktail must be named (no copyrighted or trademarked material outside of Woodford’s name)

As the event was open to the public, each cocktail was “judged” twice. Once by the small crowd that turned out and officially by the USBG judges. The space was open and yet inviting. Heavy hors d’oeuvre were provided including fruits and cheeses.

A  cash bar was available but the turnout was on the smaller side, so enough samples were available to get your fill without spending extra $$. There was only one real rule for the general publicРno samples until the judges visited a table.

The Players

Dillon of Venue Restaurant & Lounge Lincoln
Averna Amaro, Aperol, dark Morello cherry & a vanilla cardamom foam

Dillon described his offering as a mix of tradition and non, Aperol traditionally being a pre dinner drink while Amaro is enjoyed after. The real winner in this drink was the foam, the vanilla played off the cardamom just right. Unfortunately it also stole the show, leaving some to be desired outside the soaked cherries.

Barrie of Venue Restaurant & Lounge Lincoln
Amaro Nonino, chokecherry jam, Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Teapot Bitters

The Venue’s second offering of the night, this was undisputably the most traditional of the night. A great Manhattan by any means, but not quite what you expect from a mixology competition.

Luke of Berry & Rye Omaha
fig, sour caramel fig, peach juice, sherry

A crowd favorite Luke’s offering reminded me of something I’d just started to miss– the summer. The peach and fig played nicely off each other with the sherry giving this dink a mellow finish.

Graham of Sandy’s Lincoln
orange liqueur, dry vermouth, orange bitters, homemade cinnamon syrup

A surprising offering from a college town bar staple Graham’s drink was thoughtful and deliberate. I wanted to enjoy it after the amazing back story he gave while preparing samples, but the orange did me in. The combo of both bitters and liqueur was just too much for me to handle.

Justin of House of Loom Omaha
sweet potato brown sugar puree, baked marshmallow whipped cream, hot water, benedictine, ginger mist, grated cinnamon

The most PSL seasoney drink of the night Justin’s offering was reminiscent of a grown-up Hot Toddy you want to drink on purpose. The whipped cream was stellar and though I stay away from sweet potatoes generally the puree added the right touch to the only warm/hot drink of the night.

Devon of Wicked Rabbit Omaha
Cointreau, rhubarb bitters, brut champagne, fig preserves, caramel apple

My favorite of the night, a spin on a French 75. Though the caramel apple was an afterthought the drink was surprisingly well composed to be an hour before the competition decision. My love of champagne may be speaking for me but I’d drink this at Wicked Rabbit any day (once it opens).

There can only be (one) Two?

After a brief period where the crowd descended on each table like a pack of wolves, drinking both samples and full-sized preparations the judges made their decision. While acknowledging every entry was high quality and a lot of the decision came down to judges taste they had to pick someone. The real judging criteria:

  • Appearance
  • Aroma
  • Imagination
  • Taste
  • Overall Impression (in case of a tie)
  • Technical Criteria (based on USBG technical standards)

In first place was Luke’s Figuratively Peaching with Justin’s Bourbon My Sweetie Pie bringing in second. Both drinks I enjoyed in different ways (Justin’s was my second choice) and deserving of recognition.

My first USBG Omaha/Lincoln event didn’t disappoint and quality connections were made. Truly looking forward to more from the group.