It's not just for the birds
I once came home from a St. Patrick’s Day parade weighted down with vegetables, an occurrence that as far as I know is exclusive to New Orleans. Hurled from the floats into my waving arms were cabbages, bell peppers, carrots, potatoes and an onion or two. Instead of tossing the stuff out, some of it grabbed off the gritty blacktop, I decided to clean it all up and cook it.
That week for dinner we had cabbage rolls, corned beef and cabbage, stuffed peppers, beef stew, and stuffed potatoes. So did my neighbors and a lot of other residents of Parade City. That wasn’t the last time I was known to cook from the streets. During many a March, I have boiled a cabbage flung from a St. Patrick’s float, seasoned it with ham and served it with spicy cornbread. There are probably more cabbages sold in New Orleans in March than in the rest of the country altogether.
As soon as the cabbages are cooked, it’s time to pull out the cookie sheets and sprinkles. For St. Joseph’s Day, two days after St. Pat’s, there are not only parades but altars, too. Untold amounts of fish, pasta, cakes and cookies are offered up at churches and homes, thanking St. Joseph for personal favors. Many of these altars are open to the dining public, while others are for viewing only. Regardless, each display of Italian cookies, traditional meatless dishes and desserts represents countless hours of work spent by loving hands. Stuffed artichokes and seafood-stuffed peppers are among the specialties spread out by Italian cooks as “devotions” to the patron saint.
Because people here love to cook, they don’t mind taking the extra step of putting a little lagniappe, or stuffing, into a vegetable. In poorer times, stuffing was a way to stretch inexpensive foods into whole meals. And some people who eat for a living are astonished at the degree to which we take this technique. In the late ’80s, I chaired a national conference attended by more than 100 food writers. For nearly a week, we feasted on the best of Creole-Cajun cuisine at the height of its popularity. By the time we had eaten our way through New Orleans, sampled the specialties of Lafayette and were en route to Avery Island, a few journalists began to complain of indigestion and constipation. They needed vegetables, they said, having polished off a meal of chauvin (stuffed pig’s stomach), boudin, pork cooked in a “Cajun microwave” and duck gumbo. One Texas journalist said of Cajun cooking, “If they serve a vegetable, they find a way to stuff it.”
Yes, stuffings are big in these live-to-eat environs. Innumerable dressings stuff our turkeys, veal rolls and ducks. We don’t think of a mirliton without a little seafood and bread crumbs. And where else do stuffed peppers sit right alongside the ham or turkey at holiday dinners?
The stuffings here are different, too. Often there is as much meat in a stuffing as bread or rice. A single stuffing can include gizzards, sausage and ground meat. Why, a Yankee stuffing of bread and apples might get laughed right off the table in south Louisiana.
Spring is the season for California-grown artichokes, although we get them year-round from countries south of the border. They make perfect Lenten dishes, stuffed with seafood in a cream sauce or stuffed with the traditional bread crumbs and cheese and showered with olive oil. Long associated with Italy, stuffed artichokes are also a classic dish in New Orleans.
Cabbage is a staple of many countries, none more so than Ireland, where it has been cultivated since the 17th century. There will be plenty of parades surrounding St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, and St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, so there’s no reason to go without your vegetables. Creolize them with a little stuffing and you’ve got dinner on the table.
If you have lots of patience, you might stuff and roll individual cabbage leaves. Or you might try the old technique of stuffing the whole cabbage.
STUFFED WHOLE CABBAGES
2 teaspoons vegetable or olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound lean ground beef
1/2 pound lean ground pork
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, seasoned
with basil, garlic and oregano and divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
1/2 cup cooked rice
1/2 cup bread crumbs
4 strips bacon
1/4 cup water
Remove any damaged outside leaves from cabbages and slice 1 inch off the top where leaves fold over, leaving the core ends intact. Rinse cabbages and trim the stem end so that the cabbages sit upright. Using a sharp knife or notched utensil such as a grapefruit spoon, dig out the inside of the cabbages, enough to make room for at least 1 1/2 cups of stuffing. Save the scooped-out cabbage for another use, such as cole slaw. The outer edge of the cabbages should be about 1 inch thick.
In a large skillet, heat the oil and sauté the onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic. Add the meat and cook, stirring occasionally, until brown. Add 1/3 of the can of tomatoes, salt, pepper and Creole seasoning and cook for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add rice, egg and bread crumbs. Mix and stuff into cabbages.
Place cabbages into a large, preferably oval pot with a rack for steaming. Place 2 strips of bacon over each cabbage. Put remainder of tomatoes and water into bottom of pot. Cover pot and steam cabbages over medium-low heat for 1 hour. Let cabbages set for 10 minutes before serving.
To serve, remove and discard bacon, and cut cabbages lengthwise into quarters. Place a quarter on each plate, and spoon tomato sauce from bottom of pot over it. Serves 6 to 8.
2 cups bread crumbs
1 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
or a mixture of both
6 large garlic cloves
4 green onions
10 stems parsley, leaves only
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and Creole seasoning to taste
4 tablespoons good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
Cut off bottom stems of artichokes so that they sit flat. Slice off 1/2 inch from the top of artichokes. With scissors, cut off the sharp tip of each leaf and discard any small leaves on the bottom. Pull leaves apart to rinse artichokes thoroughly. Turn upside-down to drain.
In a large bowl, combine bread crumbs and cheese. Put garlic, green onions and parsley in a food processor and chop fine. Add to bread crumb mixture along with lemon juice and seasonings and mix well. Use your hands if necessary.
Place an artichoke on a sheet of wax paper or a plate. Using a teaspoon, stuff each leaf, beginning at the bottom. After you stuff a leaf, press stuffing into the leaf with the back of the spoon. Continue around the artichoke until all large leaves are stuffed and artichoke looks doubled in size. Use all the stuffing that falls on the wax paper or plate. Repeat with other artichoke.
Place a rack in the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven and add 1 inch of water. Place artichokes in pot and drizzle about 2 tablespoons olive oil on each artichoke, trying to get some on each stuffed leaf. Cover pot, bring water to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Steam for 1 hour or until a leaf feels loose or can be easily pulled out, or until artichokes feel tender when stuck with a fork. Serves 4 to 6.