Panda’s Tasty Jambalaya

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It’s that magical time of year, that month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when work seems to slow down and family life heats up, what with big gatherings involving food, fellowship and fun, culminating on December 25th with some jolly old elf in a red suit traveling the world delivering gifts, and the denouement on New Years Day with the traditional meal of pork and sauerkraut for good luck in the coming year. Naturally, at this time of year, I’m thinking about Jambalaya.

Wait, what? How did that happen? I’m sitting around the week of Thanksgiving, planning my trip to Wegmans to buy the food we need for our feast, when it hits me: I need to whip up a big pot of Jambalaya for Wednesday night. But why?

Maybe it was the thought of all of that turkey in my near future? Don’t get me wrong, I love me some turkey, but after a few days of eating nothing but turkey, a guy gets a little tired of it, you know? We even cook a back-up turkey on Wednesday, so we’ll have plenty of leftovers after we send people home with their fair share on Thanksgiving night. Since we were feeding 16 people at our house this year, the possibility of having no leftovers from our 22-lb. bird was real. Hence the 19-lb. back-up.

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Maybe it was the Cajun Sausage Cornbread stuffing I had to make the night before? I’ve made this stuffing for years, from a terrific recipe in one of chef Paul Prudhomme’s cookbooks, and I stuff the bird with it on Thanksgiving morning before it goes in the oven. The combination of Andouille sausage, cornbread, veggies, complex seasonings and Crystal hot sauce makes for a mean stuffing! Sadly, we never have enough of it, as everybody seems to like it.

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That’s where the Jambalaya comes in. It was a tasty diversion prior to the turkey onslaught, an inspiration for (and from) the Cajun stuffing, and a much-needed respite from the steady diet of leftover turkey. You see, a big pot of Jambalaya leaves a lot of leftovers too!

So, what does all this talk of Jambalaya have to do with Tiki? Well, on the surface…nothing. However, I did discuss the connection between my passions for Cajun and Tiki in my blog post, Aloha Spirit: New Orleans, which I published almost a year ago. As I re-read that post, it dawned on me that a couple of things I wrote about last year have (and soon might) come to pass.

First, my friend Jeff “Beachbum” Berry did finally open his first Tiki bar in New Orleans, Latitude 29. More than just a Tiki bar, Latitude 29 is a full-service restaurant and bar in the Bienville House hotel, right in the French Quarter. By all accounts, it’s doing really well, and I can’t wait to visit it and see for myself. In the meantime, I’m planning an interview with Bum for my next podcast, which will be very soon. Stay tuned!

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Second, I’m hoping to make it to Mardi Gras in NOLA this coming February, which is only a couple of months away. This is another item on my bucket list well within my reach. Visiting Latitude 29 is just the excuse I needed to make this happen sooner rather than later! I’ve already booked a room at the Bienville House; now I just need to convince my wife Jess to come with me. It’s been over ten years since we last visited N’awlins, so we’re due.

So there you have it. It seems I’m predisposed to thinking (and writing) about my love of all things Cajun at this time of year. I’ve always loved the idea of worlds colliding, and my converging passions for New Orleans and Tiki are neatly embodied by Beachbum Berry and his Latitude 29. Sprinkle in another bucket list conquest during Mardi Gras, and I’m set for the next few months. Mahalo ét tois!

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Aloha Spirit: Chicago

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As I mentioned before, I believe karma introduced me to Tiki, and it continues to swim in my bloodstream. I’ve seen many signs in my travels that have confirmed this for me. Here is the last example of what I’m talking about.

Chicago IL, August 2013. Last summer, the company I work for was acquired by another company, which is headquartered in Green Bay, WI. In order to get to know some of my new co-workers better, I wanted to visit our offices in Chicago and Green Bay, so we could all put faces to names and do a little bonding. It turns out I had already planned to visit my old friend Bruce to catch a Phillies vs. Cubs game at Wrigley Field at the end of August, so I decided to mix business and pleasure with a Wednesday to Sunday trip, starting in Green Bay and ending with a weekend in Chicago.

The Green Bay part of the trip went well, with time spent in the office meeting many of my new coworkers. I was shown around by the managing director of sales, Craig Avery, my boss’s boss and a fellow Tiki fan. I gave him a copy of my Oceanic Arts catalog so he could check out some new decor for his backyard Tiki bar. Craig was good enough to introduce me around the office, and we spent time after hours knocking back some beers and talking Tiki. I finished my stay in Green Bay with a visit to the hallowed ground of Lambeau Field.

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On Friday I flew down to our Chicago office, where I met the directors of our credit and marketing teams, who introduced me to their people. Another great group of coworkers! I joined some of the marketing folks for lunch at Heaven on Seven, one of my favorite Cajun restaurants right downtown in The Loop. What a tasty way to wrap up the business portion of my trip.

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Friday night I headed for my buddy Bruce’s place, where we started the weekend with a beer on his rooftop deck, admiring the Chicago skyline. What an amazing view of a great city! We had reservations for dinner at David Burke’s, which was voted the city’s best steakhouse by Chicago magazine for 2013, but before that, Bruce had a surprise for me. He wouldn’t tell me where we were headed as we boarded the red line el heading downtown.

We arrived at our destination at 435 West Clark, and it wasn’t until we walked down a flight of steps and turned a corner that I discovered my surprise: a Tiki bar, right in downtown Chicago! Bruce had brought me to Three Dots and a Dash, a new Tiki bar only open for 1 month prior to our visit. What a nice surprise! This was a serious Tiki bar, with authentic drinks, tasty appetizers, wonderful Polynesian decor, and beautiful wahines serving us.

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I enjoyed many great meals with wonderful people during my 5 days in Green Bay and Chicago, but none as memorable as my time spent at Three Dots and a Dash. Isn’t it ironic that the original reason for this trip, the baseball game at Wrigley, ended up being the lowlight (the Phils lost to the Cubs in one of the worst games ever played), while the highlight was a happy hour Tiki stop I never saw coming? Or, maybe it’s karma. Either way, mahalo to Craig Avery for championing the business part of this trip and sharing your love of Tiki with me. And a big mahalo to Bruce Philipson, who surprised an old friend with a new Chicago hotspot and added a new, special memory to a friendship already full of them.

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Aloha Spirit: New Orleans

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As I mentioned before, I believe karma introduced me to Tiki, and it continues to swim in my bloodstream. I’ve seen many signs in my travels that have confirmed this for me. Here is an example of what I’m talking about.

New Orleans LA, September 2003. My second trip to The Big Easy, but the first time I spent any real time there, I was there for a couple of days on business, then my wife Jess flew out and met me for the weekend. She had a bad head cold when she arrived, but we still saw and did a lot that weekend in NOLA. It’s an amazing town!

But what made me think to write about New Orleans with respect to the Aloha Spirit? I guess the trigger was the new book I’m reading, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s Potions of the Caribbean, which claims that all Tiki drinks have their origin in the rum-based drinks of the West Indies. The Bum lives in New Orleans and plans to open his own Tiki bar there some day. His book is a wonderful read, but I think my personal connection of NOLA and Tiki is much deeper than this.

I fell in love with the culture of New Orleans many years ago. I loved all of it: the music, the food, the history, the atmosphere, the pageantry – I still have attending Mardi Gras in NOLA on my bucket list! I enjoy many albums in a wide range of music, from the Cajun French singing of Beausoleil to the jazz piano greats Dr. John and Professor Longhair and the big brass wailing of the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth Brass Bands. In fact, my second-ever CD compilation was a tribute to this wonderful music: Panda’s Tasty Jambalaya.

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Inside this CD case I have squirreled away my very own recipe for Jambalaya. It’s a recipe I’ve perfected over 20 years of making it, and I continue to tweak it as time goes on. Cajun and Creole food are some of my favorites! Jess and I had one of our best meals ever at K-Paul’s, chef Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant in the French Quarter. We were lucky enough to see the man himself the night we dined there, directing traffic in the kitchen behind glass in the center of the restaurant, working his culinary magic for all to see. The next morning we ventured out to the famous Café du Monde for beignets and café au lait, a NOLA tradition. After a Saturday night partying on Bourbon Street, we spent our final morning in town at one of the countless sidewalk cafés having brunch, soaking in every last ounce of New Orleans atmosphere we could taste.

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So finally, how do I bring this all back to my love of Tiki? I guess the easy answer might lie with the spirit of the Acadians who settled New Orleans. It reminds me a little of Jamaican Irie – NOLA people are pretty happy, love to party, and have a strong, spiritual connection with their roots, which are a jumbled mix of many cultures. It’s evident in the passion they put into all aspects of their life, from music to food and drink. And that’s when it hits me: my total immersion into the culture of New Orleans was the precursor for my current obsession with all things Tiki! I’m now so into Polynesian culture, but I forget that I’ve been down this road before. Karma? I think so! Mahalo, New Orleans. Laissez les bon temps roullez!

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