The state’s tomato
Last summer, in the produce department of Dorignac’s Food Center, I was assailed by a wonderful fresh scent that was flower-like. Following my nose, I came to the source of the fragrance: a bin heaped with gleaming knobby scarlet-and- green Creole tomatoes from Johnny Becnel’s Farm Fresh Produce in Belle Chasse. Their skin was beautifully gashed, and some bore the signature outcroppings of protruding growth. I bought an indiscriminate amount; after putting many aside to be eaten sliced with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, I coarsely chopped the remainder of the Creoles and tossed them into a pot to simmer along with onions, okra and andouille for one of the best gumbos yet. I don’t pretend to solve the mystery of the Louisiana Creole tomato. There are breeds of tomatoes named Creole that come from Georgia, but everyone from the Bayou State knows it is not the tomato sown in the soil that gives it that perfection of unique flavor but rather the Louisiana soil into which it is sown. A good Creole is like a good pot of chicory coffee — strong, slightly acidic, satisfying. Everyone with a plot of garden in New Orleans, even if it’s just that narrow strip of grass that divides the driveway, knows that Creole tomato plants require sunlight, wooden stakes for bracing, old towels torn in strips to tie them, marigolds planted at their bases to ward off worms, fertilizer and adequate water. In early summer months, unless there’s a drought, afternoon downpours usually provide water enough. I remember learning from my mother to strip off any older leaves that gave no indication a tomato was going to soon bulge forth. “Sapsuckers,” she called them as she mercilessly tore them from the stem. “They’ll suck everything out of the plant, and it won’t bear.” And just the sight of those lovely yellow flowers that presaged a forthcoming Creole were enough to make your mouth water in anticipation. My earliest recollection of eating this Louisiana version of Solanum lycopersicum was in the cozy kitchen of a gingerbread cottage in Uptown New Orleans while the day outside was blackened by a driving summer rain and a white curved porcelain coffee pot rested on the stove. Summer in New Orleans goes with Creole tomatoes, just like summer and snowballs.
And tomatoes are full of antioxidants, so this summer be sure to get high doses of Louisiana lycopene: Buy or plant Creole tomatoes!
FORK IN THE ROAD
At your command
Like a shimmering wave, iconic Commander’s Palace Restaurant rises unexpectedly on Washington Avenue in all its Caribbean-blue clapboard splendor. Across the street from the iron lettering that announces ancient Lafayette Cemetery, this Garden District landmark has consistently shone in the New Orleans dining milieu with little wonder. Its quality and innovation show that it is on intimate terms with all things that are epicurean Louisiana. At brunch, Bloody Marys and Irish coffees flow freely.
While a jazz band plays, waiters pass amid the color-washed walls and white Italianate arches carrying trays laden with appetizer offerings of Louisiana Blackberry Pain Perdue, a plate covered with wild Louisiana blackberries, Creole cream cheese, whipped cream and vanilla that’s been instilled with a sugar cane syrup. Candied orange zest marries the balance between tang and sweetness found in the other ingredients. Wash that down with the strong and ever-present French Market Coffee poured into your cup. Order the unique mélange of flavors and textures found in the Fire Roasted Crawfish Grit Cake entrée, and you’re certain to keep smiling all the way to happy hour. Crawfish from Breaux Bridge grilled to perfection combine with yellow grits, charred asparagus, poached eggs and leek-confit cream infused with a zesty cayenne kick, all topped with a roasted-garlic Hollandaise sauce in a kind of Louisiana rendition of Eggs Benedict minus the English muffin and Canadian bacon.
Recommended for a luncheon appetizer is the Wild White Shrimp Remoulade, in which Louisiana shrimp combine with spring greens, fresh herbs and preserved lemon and are topped with a rich rémoulade sauce filled with smoky tomato flavor. Follow that with an entree of Creole Spiced Gulf Fish cooked to flavorful tenderness and presented in a sauté of marinated cherry tomatoes, haricots verts, tendrils of peas, roasted shallots and a coulis that’s been delicately strained from yellow peppers flavored with an undertone of basil.
The dinner menu becomes downright hearty and Le Petit Couchon Baton, pork shoulder that’s slowly braised, comes to your table as an appetizer nestled in caramelized onions and deliciously wilted peppers and flavored with the spice of a Jack Daniel’s mustard offset by sweet Louisiana sugar cane syrup. For the main course, the Sliced Rack of Colorado Lamb is grilled with hickory, accompanied by a brandade, or purée, made of lamb and caramelized leeks crusted with Creole mustard. Added to this dish is a good measure of smoky lamb jus roti, roasted garlic, spring vegetables and mayhaw jelly. The Pecan Crusted Gulf Fish is adorned with jumbo lump crabmeat poached in champagne and topped with crushed-corn sauce and spicy pecans.
Reservations are a must; T-shirts are taboo.
Commander’s Palace Restaurant, 1403 Washington Ave., New Orleans, (504) 899-8221.