Tuesday, September 17, 2019

New Orleans School of Cooking

Sitting on the train for so long had made walking more difficult for me, so strolling around the French Quarter was not on my agenda. So we took our first Uber ride to the School of Cooking which I had signed us up for.

The School is in the French Quarter.

Here is the Trip Advisor link.

You wait in the shop until just before they call your name and you are let into the classroom. There are no seats.

Stuff for sale. 

Our instructor was Brandon and he was entertaining and knowledgeable.

A view of the food prep area in a mirror.

The first dish was a gumbo which uses a dark roux to make the base. Note the dark colour in the pan at the left which is achieved by cooking the roux for 10 minutes with constant stirring. Incidentally, gumbo is the Haitian word for okra which can be used as a thickener because it has a lot of starch.

Note his big pot of delicious-looking broth at the right. We were given the basic recipe but I bet there are a lot of trade secrets.

Notice how dark the roux can get. If you are gluten intolerant you can use rice flour instead of wheat flour. I seem to remember he recommended bread flour for the roux instead of regular flour.

We got to sample the final result and it was the best gumbo I have ever had. A couple of other tips. Don't use okra if you are adding sausage or chicken to the broth. And definitely no hot dogs or tomatoes under any circumstances. He also recommended adding the garlic and spices just 10 minutes before serving.

A free pitcher of amber beer was placed on the table so you could eat and drink well.

I am trying to persuade Marianne to be responsible for making gumbo in future since she likes to make soups. Somehow I think I will get lumbered with the job.

The next dish was chicken creole. Here he was making a peanut butter coloured roux. And in case you don't know, cajun cooking comes from the French who lived in Canada and moved south to Louisianna. Creoles were people who were born locally and could be of any race.

He added extra butter at the end.

Pretty good, but not the equal of the gumbo.

The final dish was Pralines. Here he is cooking brown sugar, butter and milk.

After the mix gets to the 'softball' stage, the mix is spooned onto wax paper.

The result is ready to eat almost immediately and is super sweet. Personally, I would prefer my mother's Anzac biscuit (see the Rockhampton recipe) if I wanted something that sweet.

It was a fun couple of hours and I heartily recommend it. By the way, to be a successful cook in New Orleans you need to have been taught by your grand-mother who wacked you with the wooden spoon used for stirring the roux. Or you can buy the roux premade in a bottle.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Sunset Limited - Los Angeles to New Orleans - day 3

I slept well again but Marianne did not sleep as well. I woke in San Antonio which is one of my favourite US cities. Up until the train arrives at San Antonio it consists of two parts, the Sunset Limited and also the Texas Eagle that continues on to Chicago. 

Taking photos was difficult today because of the sun on the window.

We were well into Texas and the land was mostly flat. 

There were lots more trees than the prior day.

Cotton fields.

Houston skyline.

I've been through Houston airport a few times and now the station but I don't have much ambition to see more of the place. I'm sure it must be better than I think.

Crossing Lake Houston to the east of the city. 

Wealthy houses by the lake.

I think this is Beaumont. 

The closer the train gets to New Orleans, the more vegetation and swamps. It becomes almost impossible to take photos. 

The train was already an hour late but while we were waiting at Lafayette for a freight train, a fierce storm knocked over some electricity wires causing further delay. For the final two hours, the engine driver is continually blowing the horn at the numerous level crossings and it becomes quite unpleasant.  We ended up arriving just before midnight in New Orleans. We took a taxi to our hotel and fell into bed.

To be honest, this day was nowhere near as good as the prior day. The scenery was not as interesting and if I had to do it again, I would take the train as far as San Antonio and then fly home from there.

If I were to rate the three trains across the western USA I would put the California Zepher first, the Empire Builder second and the Sunset Limited a distant third. The service on the Limited was not as friendly or efficient as on the other two trains. Our sleeping car attendent was mostly missing in action, the food was not as good even though the menus are much the same, and the conductor on the better trains describes what you are seeing over the PA system. Still, I am glad I have done it.

Sunset Limited - Los Angeles to New Orleans - day 1 & 2

A couple of years ago we took Amtrak trains from Washington DC to Seattle and then last year from San Francisco to Pittsburgh. We added these journies to visits to Oz. This year, we planned to add the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans to my annual Oz trip. As some of you may know, I have had myopathy problems this past year that have restricted my walking ability, so I had to cancel the Oz trip. However, Johns Hopkins has found that the problem was probably caused by the statin I was taking (Lipitor) and since I have stopped taking it, I am gradually improving. We decided to do the train trip to see how I went.

Marianne had flown to Seattle a few days before to visit a friend and then flown down to LAX to meet up with me on Saturday. We spent the night at the Fairfield Inn and can recommend it. It's newish, has a decent breakfast and there are numerous eating places across the street as well as a supermarket (Ralphs).

Checkout is at noon so we took the hotel shuttle to the airport and then the FlyAway shuttle to Union Station. The shuttle took a bit over 35 minutes and cost $9.75 each. You pay when you get to Union Station.

When you book an Amtrak sleeper, you get access to the Amtrak Lounge. It's not as nice a lounge as those in Washington and Chicago, but it's better than nothing. Snack selection is great if you like potato chips and nothing much else.

We had dinner at a crepe place. This is part of the waiting area for passengers.

The train leaves at 9:50 pm which is quite uncivilized. We were loaded onto carts and driven down to the platform.

By the way, the train is supposed to arrive in New Orleans two days later at 9:40 pm which is also an uncivilized time. No doubt there are scheduling reasons why they can't bring the journey forward a few hours.

The low set platforms at most US stations are a real pain in the neck. To get into the carriage you have to climb up which this time I found quite difficult because of my legs.

The climb is a good 12 inches.

The noise from the air-conditioning unit on this carriage was very loud. Combined with the heat, it was quite unpleasant.

Eventually, our train backed in very slowly. Amtrak provides a stepping stool to climb into the carriage. I managed to get up the steps to the top floor of the sleeping carriage. Since we had been in these Superliner carriages on our prior trips, we knew what to expect. The beds were already made up and ready for us.

Soon after the train departed, a conductor checked our ticket. Marianne crawled up into the top bunk and I just lay down on the bottom bunk.

I slept well and woke up shortly after dawn the following morning. Marianne took a melatonin pill but woke up a few times during the night.

Breakfast for me was the cheese quesadilla with eggs and tomatillo sauce, with a side of bacon. It was ok but not great. You can see the menu here


The train tracks are often close to the  I-10 freeway.

I was intrigued by the yellow bins.

We came to some mountains. Our window was on the southern side of the train so the sun sometimes makes taking photos difficult.

I use an app called OSMAND to keep track of where we are which in this case is just north-west of Tucson. I can download the maps in advance since there is sometimes no cell phone access in remote locations. It also shows the train line whereas Google Maps does not.

Coming into Tucson. As an unrepentant Aussie, I like to pronounce it as tuck-sun which makes American wince.

An old steam engine at the station.

I liked the look of this station. Because of my legs, I stayed in the compartment but Marianne got off to stretch her legs.

A set of steps to help passengers on and off the carriages.

A relatively cool day in Tucson.

The main train company in the south-west is Union Pacific. It's actually the largest in the USA.

I was intrigued by these structures off in the distance.

I think they are solar panels.

Solar should do well in this area.

There was a lot more vegetation than we were expecting.

And there were more green leaves than we anticipated.

It does look like an atomic bomb has gone off. No, this is not New Mexico.

Benson. It's one of those places that most people have never heard of, but now you have. And here is more about it

The scenery became more wild and woolly.

In a little while, we would cross over a lake.

Altitude of 4412 feet, higher than I expected.

Irrigated orchard. We had no idea what was growing but we somehow suspected nuts.

The lake in the distance.

It is not actually a lake but a sandy depression.

Its name is the Willcox Playa and it is a dry lake.

It looks like water, but it must be a mirage.

While we were waiting for lunch it rained briefly.

Approaching the New Mexico border.

The border.

I had a salad for lunch.

Marianne did not have a salad. How unhealthy! However, we both had mussels that were really good.

The train rolled on and on. Usually, it travels at about 80 mph.

Some rain in the distance.

The upper horizontal line is the fence between the USA and Mexico just outside El Paso.

I remember flying over El Paso on my way to LAX and noting how different the Mexico side looked from the US side.

More about the fence that was completed in this area in 2009.

The Rio Grande eventually forms the border between the two countries.

Mexican decoration on the freeway supports.

More about El Paso here.

Marianne got off the train and took some photos.

She did not linger on the platform because it was hot.

Part of a long line of Union Pacific engines.

More irrigated orchards.

The mountains are in Mexico. 

In the late afternoon sun, it was quite magnificent.

We enjoyed the scenery more than we expected. The mountains, hills and vegetation were interesting without being spectacular.

I had the steak and crab cake for dinner. The crab cake was ok but the steak was nothing to write home about.