6 Classic Louisiana Breakfasts
Starting the day off right
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Louisiana is renowned for its breakfasts, which run the gamut from sumptuous Creole dishes served in New Orleans restaurants to a simple but satisfying morning snack of beignets and café au lait or a link of hot boudin. For reasons of time and our waistlines, most of us don’t indulge in elaborate breakfasts on a regular basis, but for special occasions or a leisurely weekend morning, it’s nice to sample some of the specialties from our Louisiana repertoire.
When we think of breakfast today, eggs; meats such as ham, bacon and sausage; grits; breads in the form of biscuits, pancakes, waffles, muffins and toast; and fruit or juices come immediately to mind. But judging from Louisiana cookbooks and menus of more than 100 years ago, breakfast menus then were much more freewheeling and expansive. The most famous breakfast establishment at the turn of the 20th century was Madame Begue’s, an upstairs New Orleans dining room situated across the street from the French Market.
Her menus, which changed daily, included omelets, to be sure, but roast duck, oysters, fish, stuffed tomatoes, beefsteak, turtle soup, jambalaya and a variety of other dishes appeared throughout the week. A person could breakfast there daily without eating the same dish twice in a week’s time.
Or take the weekly breakfast menus suggested in The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, published at the turn of the 20th century. The menus, which varied from day to day, included some egg dishes, pancakes, waffles and the like, but there was almost always some type of fish or seafood preparation. Steak, chicken and various game birds also made regular appearances.
That kind of eating, obviously, was restricted to the moneyed class; the poor made do with much less. For small-scale agrarian farmers throughout the state, breakfast was a much simpler affair, perhaps with some pork from their own hogs, biscuits or corn bread and occasionally as an extravagance –– because eggs could be sold or traded for staples at the store –– a few eggs from their own hens. In the country, cold corn bread and buttermilk was common in North Louisiana, and a fried cornmeal mush known as coush-coush, eaten with milk and cane syrup, often constituted a Cajun breakfast in the southern part of the state.
The closest most of us come these days to the elaborate items on early-20th-century menus is the popular dish of grillades and grits — thin slices of veal, beef or pork cooked in a sauce redolent of tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic, served over grits. The renowned and richly sauced New Orleans egg dishes — such as eggs Sardou and eggs Hussarde — are complicated but not impossible to pull off in the home kitchen –– if you have the time and patience to make all the sauces and constituent elements that go into the final dish. For the most part, those dishes are probably best left to restaurant chefs who have a large staff
at their command.
Pain perdu (literally “lost bread”), so named because it is made of day-old French bread that would otherwise be “lost,” is what people in other parts of the country call French toast. It is a simple dish to prepare and one that is always popular. It’s particularly good, I think, dusted with powdered sugar and served with bacon, smoked sausage or broiled boudin patties. Early recipes often called for the addition of brandy and orange flower water to the egg and milk mixture. In addition to its more familiar name, pain perdu sometimes appeared in old Louisiana cookbooks as “egg toast,” “Spanish toast” or “poor knight.” Recipes usually called for frying it in lard.
Waffles, pancakes, biscuits, beignets and calas (rice fritters) have a long history in our cuisine. In addition to wheat flour, cornmeal (often called “Indian meal” in early recipes), rice, grits, hominy and sweet potatoes show up as ingredients in old recipes, and buttermilk is often the liquid of choice. Any breakfast bread needs something sweet to complement it. Our local cane syrup, mayhaw jelly and fig preserves fit the bill nicely, as do Louisiana strawberries, blueberries and blackberries, either made into jams and jellies or served fresh with powdered sugar.
Many do not consider breakfast complete without a dish of grits, whether cooked plain or with cheese, baked into a kind of soufflé or fried. For the most part, white grits are the standard, but yellow grits do have their devotees. In South Louisiana, leftover rice sometimes takes the place of grits, either eaten as a cold cereal with sugar and milk or scrambled with eggs.
Creole cream cheese topped with berries and sprinkled with sugar is, surely, one of the glories of the breakfast table, as is freshly squeezed satsuma juice in the late fall and early winter. More than a few of us breakfast on
King Cake during Carnival season.
And in South Louisiana, breakfast on the go is often a link of hot boudin from a grocery or convenience store. Regardless of what we start our day with, it’s a sure bet that there will be plenty of steaming café au lait or strong dark roast coffee — café noir, as it was called in early Louisiana cookbooks.
Grillades and Grits
Veal or pork can be substituted for beef. Parmesan is not traditional in the grits,
but it does wonders for the dish.
1 pound top round, about 1/2-inch thick
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 medium onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large bell pepper, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 14.5-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1/2 cup beef stock or broth
1 tablespoon prepared roux
1/2 teaspoon whole leaf thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Hot sauce to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
4 tablespoons chopped green onion tops
Old-fashioned or stone-ground grits
Parmesan cheese (optional)
Flatten round steak slightly with a mallet, and cut it into small pieces about 2 inches wide. Season with Creole seasoning. Heat oil and butter in a large skillet. Working in batches, dredge the beef in flour, and cook it until it’s brown on both sides. Remove the browned meat to a dish, and keep it warm. Cook onions, garlic, bell pepper and celery in the same skillet until softened. Add the tomatoes with their juice, and break them up with a spoon. Add the beef broth and roux, and stir. Add the thyme and bay leaf. Return the meat to the pan, and cook on low heat until the meat is tender, about 45 minutes, adding additional broth or water if needed.
Meanwhile, cook grits according to package instructions. When they’re done, add as much butter as your conscience will allow, as well as optional Parmesan. If the grillades sauce is too thin, raise the heat, and reduce it to desired consistency. Remove the bay leaf, and season to taste with salt, black pepper and hot sauce. Add chopped parsley and green onion tops, and serve over cooked grits. Serves 4.