Monday, January 31, 2011

Willie Mae's Scotch House

Our official honeymoon won't take place until the summer, so we drove to New Orleans for a decadent 'mini-moon' courtesy of my American Express hotel points and NOLA's relatively close driving distance from Austin. My head is still spinning (along with my stomach) from the massive quantities of delicious food we consumed in just three days and three nights.

We dined at John Besh's Restaurant August on the first night of our mini-moon (no photos as it was simply too dark and too hoity-toity for snapping pics), we chowed down on one shared order of beignets (and sadly didn't have the time to go back again ... and again), we tried upscale beignets served with pot de creme and salted caramel at a Magazine Street bistro of adorable proportions called Coquette ... and the list goes on.

Every meal was memorable. They each deserve their own post (and a few might get one), but Willie Mae's Scotch House is competing for the top slot in my book because of both its food and its story.

The restaurant that serves up the best fried chicken in America - and the best I've ever had - is now run by Willie Mae Seaton's great-granddaughter, who took over the kitchen when the Scotch House reopened in 2007 following an extensive post-Katrina repair job. Besh and countless others from the community pitched in to bring Willie Mae's back to life, even while the neighborhood around it remains in need of much repair.

Take this picture of the front entrance sign. Look closely at the structure across the street.

That's the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School. Or at least it once was.

Mike pointed out that the school across the street from Willie Mae's was considered a bit of an architectural landmark, a structure built on posts that protected it from flood damage but one that remains sorely neglected nonetheless -- a casualty among many in a city may be associated for years to come with the word 'rebuild.'

The school reminded me of an episode of The Walking Dead, abandoned and threatened by demolition, yet somehow remarkable. The more I looked at it, the more nostalgic I became for something I hadn't even heard about until that moment.

Articles in my quick bit of research on the school describe the neglect -- rat and bat infestations -- while others quote former teachers who favor the demolition. Yet others are fighting to keep it standing, to preserve another piece of NOLA history:

Efforts to preserve and reuse Phillis Wheatley Elementary constitute what is arguably one of the most pressing preservation issues facing New Orleans today. Designed in 1954 by Charles Colbert, FAIA, it is a groundbreaking work of modern engineering and design. Though its cantilevered classroom wing avoided the ravages of flooding after Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD) is pushing for FEMA funds to demolish the National Register-eligible building.

I'd like to believe that if the community could save the best fried chicken joint in America, a school like Phillis Wheatley Elementary isn't far behind. But maybe I'm just projecting. After all, I would have loved going to school next to Willie Mae's.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Marriage is ... French Onion Soup

First things first. We're officially hitched! We got married on a rainy, cold mid-January night under a big, white tent in Austin, Texas, with 56 family members, one photographer friend and one musician we trusted to play our songs on cue.

It was an amazing night -- a romantic, intimate, happy, joy-filled, love fest. With one pretty amazing Argentina-inspired meal you may recall. I am now 9 days into wedded bliss with the love of my life, and I know we've got many, many adventures ahead. I suspect a good number of them will take place in our beautiful new kitchen.

But back to the soup.

It started with an article about caramelizing onions that Mike read on Serious Eats. Before we knew it, we had friends over for a simple Caesar salad (they brought the romaine from their garden beds), some wine and cheese and bowls of steamy French onion soup.

It came out great. A warm, cozy bowl full of happy. A lot like the first 9 days.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy New Year!

Our family friend taught us a few tricks about challah-making while we were with my family over Christmas weekend.

Of course, we're on the 21-Day Challenge so we couldn't have any. (What that meant was I had about three bites, and Mike showed some will power. I wonder if *that's* the reason he's lost twice as much weight!)

We've frozen some loaves that we will defrost and serve at our wedding, but take a look at these beauties. They make me proud to be a Jew.

My Bland Foods

The hardest part of this 21-Day Challenge hasn't been eating less food, going to bed hungry or craving things like House Pizzeria.

The hardest part has been eating shitty foods and being unable to cook.

Every other meal provided to us by the good folks at My Fit Foods contains chicken -- and every chicken meal contains the exact same kind of chicken: sliced pieces of breast meat that appear to have been cooked sous-vide style. (We're pretty sure everything on this diet is cooked sous-vide; there isn't a trace of char as a result of anything roasted, grilled or even pan-sauteed.)

So we're eating this bland, tasteless food and we are going to start clucking any day now.

The fact is, I am just bursting - I mean absolutely ready to actually explode to pieces - at the thought of cooking anything (and I mean anything) in my kitchen again. (Though I do take the liberty to throw quite a few of my meals into the cast iron with some olive oil-flavored spray and salsas, which you're allowed in unlimited supply).

The food on this challenge is inexplicably, inexcusably bad. I suppose that's part of the challenge. It's flavorless and made with zero love. I'd like to challenge them to come up with tastier foods. Put some grill marks on this stuff!

But ... this is a business. And what should we have expected from a business? We're paying $7-$9 for three-ounce portions of chicken or fish or occasionally beef with some bland, half-steamed, half-boiled, totally-bland veggies and if we're lucky, they've thrown in a half-cup of quinoa with nothing on it.

And the chicken. Oy! The amounts of chicken on this diet are unforgivable. Last week we finally said no more. We asked to have most of the chicken removed from the meal plan, and I insisted that I will not pay for any breakfast items containing the stuff. (YES, THEY HAVE BREAKFAST ITEMS THAT INCLUDE CHICKEN CHUNKS! FOR REAL, PEOPLE.)

Jessica said she and her coworkers had a chicken revolt, and now I understand why. One more chicken salad, and I will hurt a fool.

Unlike Jessica, I haven't been perfect. I decided after about three days of tear-inducing migraines that I wasn't giving up coffee, and I've learned how to drink it with a half-packet of Splenda instead of a whole one. This is a big no-no for the people at My Fit Foods, but the crying migraines just weren't worth it, and I'm convinced that I'm not 50 pounds overweight because I drink coffee.

A few other things I haven't enjoyed about this challenge? The lack of fresh fruits and vegetables I've been consuming for the past couple of weeks. They should really encourage more fruits as snacks (though you do get berries), and more vegetables (like steaming your own broccoli or sauteeing your own spinach in olive oil spray).

I also don't have the same energy some people have experienced. I'm still sloth-like in my habits, and while I've been working out 3-4 times a week, I'm not *excited* about my workouts. I've never been an active person. Every workout is a struggle; every walk must be planned with a friend so that I have a reason to show up. I'm not an athlete, and I never will be. But I can't help but wonder if I'll be a bit more naturally energetic with another 10, 20 or 30 pounds off my body. (I intend to find out in 2011.)

I've got one other complaint. I'm appalled by the cost of the snacks. The meals are justifiably overpriced, but the snacks are upsettingly overpriced. For example, they charge $4.25 for a small portion of edamame. A whole bag of edamame costs $1.99, and includes roughly 4 portions. So they're charging us $17 for a $2 bag. As Elise would say: OUTRAGE.

I told them from Day 1 that we'd buy our own snacks. That means we'll end up with a balance when we're done in a few days (yippee!! a few days!! did you hear that, my sweet untouched Kitchen Aid?). Maybe we'll get our money back or get store credit we can use for desperation meals when we hit busy season at work. But we're going to have to figure out how to use it; we're probably looking at $100-150 in unused snack money.


And now that I'm done with my ranting, here's the good news.

In just 17 days (I can round up to 17, because I'm done with my meals for today and when I wake up tomorrow we've got just four days to go!), we've learned quite a few things:

Portion control.
Eating for fuel, not pleasure.
Portion control.
How much we miss cooking.
Portion control.
How capable we are of cooking.
Portion control.
How capable we are of cooking meals that are just as healthy as this but that don't taste like shit.
Portion control.

And we've also lost a bit of weight. Mike has lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-14 lbs. in 17 days. I've lost nearly 7 lbs. in 17 days. We both weigh less than we have since we've known each other. We are a combined 21 lbs. lighter as a couple.

We are more determined than ever to continue a healthy lifestyle but can't wait to re-incorporate good-tasting, healthy meals - and, yes, fine, all right, even the occasional monkey bread splurge - while losing weight at a slower but much more enjoyable pace.

I don't know if I'd do it again, knowing what I now know. But was it worth it? Probably. Even if I start clucking.

Steel cut oats with walnuts and blueberries.

Chicken and vegetables with corn tortillas, given the cast-iron and salsa treatment.