Louisiana Harvest

Cooking with homegrown foods

Smothered Okra

Photographed and styled by Eugenia Uhl

Louisiana cooking has its roots in the fertile soil and abundant waterways that yield the ingredients for our distinctive cuisine. With a strong agricultural tradition and a mild climate that allows us to harvest something 365 days a year, we are indeed fortunate that we can raise so much of our own food. Here are half a dozen locally grown foods, with recipes, that are important in our daily lives.

Okra
Fry it, steam or boil it, smother it, make it into a gumbo, dry it or pickle it –– okra is a versatile vegetable that’s integral to our cooking. Okra has an affinity for tomatoes, onions and garlic and enjoys the company of shrimp or ham or both, most notably in a bowl of shrimp-and-okra gumbo.
Okra loves heat, both from hot peppers and from the sun. In fact, it is one of the few vegetables that thrives in our scorching summers. Anyone who has planted okra seed too early in the spring and then endured a futile wait for it to germinate knows that the plant does not like cold weather, which may help to explain why okra’s widespread popularity in the South isn’t matched in colder climates.

Creole Tomatoes
Nothing signifies the arrival of summer like the first tomatoes. And no tomato elicits as much excitement among local aficionados as does the Creole, that large, juicy, tangy and sometimes misshapen red fruit that is an object of lust and devotion. Ah, but what is a true Creole tomato? That’s where the confusion begins –– and not surprisingly, for the term “Creole” itself is open to multiple interpretations wherever it appears and however it is used.
There is a variety of tomato called Creole that was developed at Louisiana State University, and it is sometimes planted and sold under that name. But more generally, “true” Creole tomatoes are said to be those that grow in the rich alluvial soil of the river parishes below New Orleans. They may, of course, be the Creole varietal, but more often they are other varieties, such as Fantastic or Celebrity. Vine-ripened and sold locally, they never travel far from the field and are thought to have what the French call goût de terroir, the taste of the earth in which they are grown. As a friend proclaims, “I know a Creole tomato when I taste it.”
And taste them we do. Does anyone ever eat enough Creole tomatoes to satisfy his or her cravings during the short season? If so, I’ve never met those people. Even if you eat tomatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner and snack on them between meals, the cravings still remain.

Crawfish
The crawfish is our state crustacean, the symbol of our freewheeling culinary culture and delicious in the many ways it is cooked. Once looked down upon as poor man’s food, the crawfish is now highly prized and can bring top dollar when supplies are low, as was the case earlier this year when fresh peeled crawfish tails were selling for $16 a pound in grocery stores and restaurants were charging $5 a pound for boiled crawfish. Crawfish farming is a big business in Louisiana.
No ritual is as eagerly anticipated as the spring crawfish boil. Live crawfish usually start appearing on the market around Thanksgiving, but it’s not until early spring that a reliable supply of crawfish from ponds and flooded rice fields becomes available. With any luck, we continue to have live crawfish into early summer, after which we rely on frozen crawfish tails for a variety of étouffées and stews to satisfy our cravings until the wily crawfish again emerges from his burrow.
Sweet Potatoes
Call them sweet potatoes, or call them yams: They’re delectable and an indispensable item on our tables –– baked, boiled, fried, candied, made into pies, added to biscuit dough, used as an ingredient in vegetable soup or in myriad other preparations.
The true yam is another vegetable altogether, but in the 1930s, Louisiana began calling its sweet potatoes “yams” as a marketing strategy to differentiate them from other sweet potatoes. The name stuck and has created semantic confusion ever since. So it is that “candied yams” will make an appearance in print and on the dinner table, but a “yam pie” will be shunned in favor of a “sweet potato pie,” surely one of the most wonderful desserts of all time.
Strawberries
Louisiana’s luscious berries are not well-known outside of the state because very few ever make it across the border. We eat most of them here, and with good reason because they’re so delicious. Nothing brightens up a gray January day as much as a bowl of fresh Louisiana strawberries. With any luck, they remain available into May.
Because locally grown strawberries don’t have to be shipped long distances, they can be left to ripen on the vine, with the result that the berries are much better-tasting than those that are picked when still unripe and then shipped across the country. With a fruit as delicate and fragile as the strawberry, that makes a huge difference.

Rice
Rice is our staple grain. Our signature dishes –– gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, crawfish étouffée, rice dressing, boudin –– would not be possible without it. And what would we do with all the gravy produced from smothering and stewing chickens, beef, pork, sausages, venison, shrimp, ducks and all the rest if we didn’t have rice to absorb it? No doubt you know one of the many definitions of a Cajun: “A person who can look over a rice field and tell you how much gravy you’ll need to cover it.”
Most of the rice grown in Louisiana is long-grain, but medium- and short-grain varieties are also produced. Each type has its adherents. Some like long-grain because it cooks drier and flakier, and medium- and short-grain varieties, which are stickier when cooked, are preferred by others. As one fan explains, the stickier rice will hold more gravy. Special aromatic varieties of rice (some marketed as “popcorn” rice) are grown in the state, and Louisiana brown rice is also available. I know it sounds heretical, but if you haven’t tried brown rice with gumbo, you should make its acquaintance.

Crawfish-and-Eggplant Stew
Crawfish combine well with a variety of ingredients, including pork and eggplant, as in this recipe.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound eggplant, cubed
3 cups chicken broth
1 pound crawfish tails with fat
1 tablespoon Creole seasoning
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped green
   onion tops

In a heavy pot, cook the onion and garlic in olive oil on high heat, stirring frequently, until the onion begins to brown. Add the pork, and cook, stirring, until it browns. Add the eggplant and the chicken broth, bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is tender, about 5 minutes. Add the crawfish and the Creole seasoning, and simmer for 15 minutes. Adjust the seasoning, and add the parsley and the green onion tops. Serve over steamed rice. Serves 4 to 6.

Pan-grilled Tomatoes
with Fresh Herbs
It’s hard to top sliced tomatoes with a little olive oil, salt and perhaps some fresh basil, but these grilled tomatoes are scrumptious.

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, crushed
   and peeled
2 large tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black
   pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh
   herbs, such as basil, parsley,
   chervil or chives

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil and the garlic in a skillet on medium-low heat for a few minutes. Cut a thin layer of skin off of each end of the tomatoes, and then cut them in half along the equator. Place the tomato halves in the skillet, and cook them until they begin to brown, about 15 minutes. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, and turn the tomatoes. Continue to cook until the tomatoes begin to brown and are softened through, about 15 minutes. Season tomatoes with salt and pepper, and sprinkle them with chopped herbs. Serves 4.

 

Sweet Potato Pancakes
With cane syrup and bacon, these make a delicious breakfast. They’re rich enough that they don’t really need any butter other than what is in the batter, but additional butter won’t do them any harm, either.

1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 cups boiled and mashed sweet potatoes
1 cup buttermilk
4 tablespoons melted butter
4 eggs, lightly beaten

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, mix together the sweet potatoes, buttermilk, butter and eggs. Add the sweet potato mixture to the dry ingredients, and whisk to combine. Cook on a hot, lightly greased griddle until small bubbles form on top, and then turn them, and cook them until browned. Serves 4.

Stewed or Smothered Okra
People in the northern part of the state would probably call this “stewed okra” and eat it with cornbread, while those in South Louisiana would likely say “smothered okra” and eat it over rice. Either way, it can be embellished with ham, bacon, smoked sausage or shrimp.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound okra, sliced
1 pound tomatoes, chopped
1 cup chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground black
   pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste

Cook the onions and garlic in olive oil until softened, about 5 minutes or so. Add the okra, tomatoes and chicken broth. Simmer, covered, until the okra is tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and hot sauce. Serves 4.

 

Rice Pudding with Whipped Cream
Sometimes scorned as a pedestrian dish, rice pudding lends itself to a variety of flavorings and can be sublime. However it’s prepared, rice pudding is at its best topped with plenty of whipped cream.

1 cup rice
2 cups water
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup dried cherries

For whipped cream:
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar

Combine rice and water in a medium pot, bring it to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the water is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Add the milk, sugar, brandy and nutmeg, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is creamy and thickened, about 10 to15 minutes. Remove the mixture from the heat, add the vanilla and the cherries, and stir to combine. Cool, stirring occasionally, and then refrigerate the pudding until it’s well-chilled.

Whip the cream with powdered sugar until it forms stiff peaks. Serve the pudding smothered with the whipped cream. Serves 4 to 6.

Strawberry Fool
You couldn’t ask for a simpler dessert –– sweetened whipped cream folded into puréed strawberries. The name is said to come from the French “fouler” (“to fold”), but the dessert has also been called strawberry cream. This is good by itself (think of it as a mock mousse), accompanied by plain cookies or served over sliced strawberries.

1 pint strawberries
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar

Hull the strawberries, place them in a blender, and purée. Chill the purée thoroughly. Beat the cream with the powdered sugar until it forms stiff peaks. Fold the whipped cream into the chilled strawberry purée. Serves 4.

 

 

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