Back to the classics

Preserving our food heritage

Photographed by Eugenia Uhl

If you rounded up all the June newlyweds and asked them how they plan to eat, you’d probably hear a lot about take-out, frozen pizzas, fast food and going to Mama’s house. That works for a while, but soon the budget gets tight and the French fries boring. Then it’s time to pull out some of Mama’s recipes and cook New Orleans-style. That is, if she wrote her recipes down or, worse, if Katrina didn’t wash them away.

Now, as you probably know, we’re unique here in South Louisiana. We don’t cook like anybody else in the country. (Thank goodness.) And, for that very reason, preserving our culinary heritage cannot be more important. As I like to point out, the restaurants made it famous, but it all began at home.

Imagine a French bride arriving on the banks of the Mississippi to begin organizing her household in a strange, new place. A Spanish couple landing where the French Market now stands wondering what food would be available. Germans moving upriver to plant crops and butcher meats.

Africans, islanders from the Caribbean and American Indians adding their knowledge to the pot. Later the Italians giving a lion’s share. If you’ve ever heard cooks at a crawfish boil arguing over how to do things, you can only imagine the tensions in the kitchens of our French Quarter and faubourgs as the cooking melted into a new style. Now, two centuries later, we reap the benefits of those compromises, our unique Creole cuisine.
And just a couple of hundred miles to the west, French-Canadians were creating their countrified version called Cajun, which commingled French tastes with indigenous ingredients. Together, Creole and Cajun stand out as two of the few regional American cuisines, as different as day and night from the surrounding British-style cooking of the Deep South.

Preservation being a high priority here, the endurance of the culinary arts became as important as preserving fine furniture and rich architecture. So who would have thought “The Big One” could come along and almost take down all three?

But not for good.

First the restaurants began opening at a surprising pace, and as the residents trickled back, they wanted their gumbos, shellfish and poor boys. As soon as the cries of lost recipe files and cookbook collections were heard, food writers stepped up to the plate. Newspapers, magazines, the Internet and restaurant chefs got into the act, and now come new cookbooks specifically for the home cook who wants the traditional and favorite recipes they grew up on.

“We come together around food and that’s just how it is here,” says Elsa Hahne, author of You Are Where You Eat: Stories and Recipes from the Neighborhoods of New Orleans. “If that wasn’t the case, we might stand to lose our entire culture.”

And Judy Walker, food editor of The Times-Picayune, who headed up the 250-recipe collection in Cooking Up A Storm, believes that such a book would not have been needed in any other American city.

“If this horrible tragedy had befallen some other city, there wouldn’t have been a need for a cookbook,” she said. “The recipes (our) people lost were not in other cookbooks. They were specific to this region in south Louisiana. We really have this indigenous cuisine and people were determined to keep it. The storm prompted everybody to look at every facet of their lives. They didn’t want to lose this part of who they were.”

It’s true. There’s not a recipe for mirliton casserole in Joy of Cooking.

Food historian and New Orleans native Ann Bruce discovered the difference as a volunteer cook at the open hearth of the Hermann-Grima French Quarter house. “They sent two of us to Williamsburg. We realized that everyone we met was doing English cooking. Ours was French and ours was better, I thought.”

Bruce is a member of the Maylie restaurant family, and she especially remembers the boiled beef brisket with hot, red sauce, perfectly plain with boiled potatoes. The red sauce was made of ketchup and horseradish, and the dish was served with french bread and butter. Also the greens gumbo (gumbo z’herbes) and the shrimp remoulade served on top of stuffed eggs are fond memories of the restaurant which closed in l986. Unfortunately, she still fears the loss of these old recipes.

“I don’t think people cook that much any more. People have to want to cook, and it’s so easy not to cook. You can go to the grocery store and specialty shops and get anything you want prepared. It’s going to be hard because the kids don’t see cooking. Mothers are working, fathers are working,” she said.

But Elsa Hahne thinks that people cook here more than in other places where she has lived and those include New York City and France. “I think we’re not losing it. There are new influences coming in.” Her book is the story not only of Creole cooking but of other cultural groups that are influencing New Orleans cuisine, including Asian and Hispanic.

“Immigrant groups are making their mark on New Orleans cooking,” she says. “Sometimes it blends in with Creole. Creole is a dynamic, something that continues on, not something set in stone. It is continuously changing.”

Walker noticed that holidays stir the most interest in traditional recipes. Her first requests after Katrina were for Thanksgiving and Christmas recipes, often written in a mother’s or grandmother’s hand, sometimes clipped from a newspaper and all gone in the aftermath of a flood.

What surprised her was how people wanted to help. “This was really like community restoration work. Everybody can’t gut houses, but people were just thrilled to be able to help with this.” Walker was joined by Marcelle Bienvenu, who has written a food column for The Times-Picayune for 25 years, as co-editor of Cooking Up A Storm, published by Chronicle Books. Many of the recipes are Bienvenu’s, including favorites such as shrimp and crawfish fettuccini, sweet potato pudding, and gateau de sirop.

Such a love affair with food comes as no surprise to veterans such as Leah Chase, whose Dooky Chase Restaurant is only now returning to full service since Katrina. Determined and still with lunch service only, she recently fed presidents Obama and Bush, adding them to the long list of celebrities wanting authentic home-style cooking in New Orleans.

“That’s what were all about. Our food and our music is what we’re all about,” she says. “Life is about living. You have to think about enjoying a little bit of life. I had 50 kids here last night, law students from Howard University. All I had was red beans, shrimp Creole and fried chicken, but they thought that was heaven. They don’t get that at home.”

As Chase purposely feeds her customers home cooking, she believes other New Orleans chefs do, too.

“Most all of our restaurants are just like home. Our chefs are so warm. They may fancy it up on the plate, but the taste is the most important. It’s just down-home, just tasty and good.” she says.

Another perspective on the local cooking scene comes from the Crescent City Farmers Market, which recently published its own cookbook, written by local cooking teacher and celebrity Poppy Tooker. She tells the story of the market and features recipes from its customers, vendors and chefs who regularly demonstrate recipes. Fresh indigenous ingredients is the focus, and the recipes range from old to new. From eggplant caviar to charbroiled oysters, they represent the produce and seafood sold at the various locations of the market on Saturdays and Tuesdays. White beans and greens combine with roasted shiitake mushrooms in a succulent soup. Duck and root vegetables form a filling stew.

And Tooker, the local leader of the international Slow Food movement to preserve food cultures, has not failed to include the historic local staples: calas, Creole cream cheese, oyster dressing, cucuzza squash, gumbo z’herbes and corn maquechoux.

Finally, my own cookbook, New Orleans Home Cooking, from Pelican Publishing Co., found its origins in this column, hoping to encourage young generations to preserve our culinary roots. Fueled by Katrina, the publication of 125 recipes from redfish courtbouillon to stuffed mirlitons are offered as a ready replacement to the old wooden box of splattered recipes, lost in a storm. The most frequent and pleasurable compliment I have received is, “That’s how my (grandmother, aunt, mother, daddy) cooked it.”

I believe we will preserve the cooking. For one reason, food is all we ever talk about. Hahne caught the mood in her book’s introduction. “If you go to a party in New Orleans and ask someone enjoying a bowl of okra gumbo, ‘So what do you do?,’ you’re likely to get an answer like ‘I roast my okra in the oven first, to get rid of the slime’ instead of a business card.”

REDFISH COURTBOUILLON
1 1/2 pounds fillets of firm-fleshed fish such as redfish or black drum
       or red snapper
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 large onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
3 green onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 1-pound, 12-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 10-ounce can Rotel tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
1/2 cup red wine
1 tablespoon Worcestershire
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Cut fish into 2-inch chunks and set aside in the refrigerator.
In a large, heavy pot, make a roux with butter and flour. When roux is light to medium brown, add onion, bell pepper, celery and green onions and sauté until soft. Add garlic and sauté another minute. Add remaining ingredients except parsley and cook for 15 minutes. Add fish and cook 10 minutes more. When done, stir in parsley. Serve over white, fluffy rice. Serves 4 to 6.
Note: When in season, six large, red-ripe Creole tomatoes can be used instead of canned.

CREOLE DAUBE
1 3-pound rump roast
5 cloves garlic, 2 slivered and 3 minced
Salt, pepper and Creole seasoning
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 cup red wine
1 14-ounce can beef broth
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne to taste, additional salt if needed
      and a pinch of sugar
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

With a sharp knife or ice pick, punch holes in the roast, about 2 inches apart, and stuff with slivers of garlic. Rub roast generously with salt, pepper and Creole seasoning. Heat oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven and brown roast well on all sides over medium-high heat. When browned, take roast out of pot and set aside.
In the same oil, sauté onion, bell pepper and celery over medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add minced garlic and cook for 5 more minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, almost until it begins to brown, about 10 minutes. Add tomato sauce and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 more minutes. Add wine, beef broth, Italian seasoning, cayenne, salt if needed and sugar, and stir well. Return roast to pot fat side up, turn fire to low, cover and simmer for four hours or until roast is very tender. Stir well every hour and turn roast over half way through cooking. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with spaghetti.
Serves six.
Shortcut: Instead of making the red gravy, you can substitute your favorite spaghetti sauce. In this case, leave out the tomato paste, tomato sauce, onion, bell pepper, celery and minced garlic, and add a 26-ounce jar of prepared sauce when you add the wine and broth. Sauce may be slightly thinner using prepared sauce and can be reduced by uncovering the pot for the last half hour of cooking.

STUFFED MIRLITONS
4 mirlitons
5 tablespoons butter, divided
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 pods garlic, minced
1 pound small to medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 pound smoked ham, chopped fine
Pinch cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 cup Italian bread crumbs, divided
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

In a large pot of water, boil whole mirlitons until just tender. (A knife should slide through but pulp should not be overcooked.) When cool, cut in half, remove and discard seeds and scoop out meat, leaving shell thick enough to stuff, about 1/4-inch thick. A grapefruit spoon works well for this. Mash mirliton pulp with a fork, or chop briefly in a food processor. Set aside both pulp and shells.
Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet and sauté onions, bell pepper and celery until transparent. Add garlic and sauté 5 minutes more. Add shrimp, ham, reserved mirliton pulp, cayenne, salt, pepper and Italian seasoning and cook, stirring, for 5 or so minutes, or until shrimp are pink. Remove from heat and add 3/4-cup of the breadcrumbs and parsley. Mix well.
Divide stuffing equally in prepared mirliton shells and top with remaining breadcrumbs. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and dot with remaining 2 tablespoons of butter cut into 1/4-inch cubes. (At this point, stuffed mirlitons may be wrapped in freezer wrap or placed in plastic freezer bags and frozen.)
To bake, place freshly prepared or thawed mirlitons on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees until tops are browned and mirlitons are heated through, about 30 minutes.
Serves 8 as side dish or 4 as entrée.

SHRIMP REMOULADE
3 green onions, chopped fine
1 rib celery, chopped fine
1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
3 tablespoons ketchup
1 tablespoon horseradish
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco®
1 teaspoon wine vinegar
3 tablespoons Creole mustard
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt, pepper and Creole seasoning to taste
2 pounds boiled shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 cups shredded Iceberg lettuce

Mix all ingredients except shrimp and lettuce and marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for about two hours to let the flavors blend. When ready to serve, place lettuce on serving plates, top with shrimp and cover with sauce. Serve very cold.
Serves 6 as appetizer.

STUFFED BELL PEPPERS
6 bell peppers
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound lean ground beef
1 or 2 links (about 1/3 pound) sweet Italian sausage, removed
      from casing
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5-ounce can Roma diced tomatoes
Salt, pepper and cayenne pepper or Creole seasoning to taste
1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

Slice peppers in half lengthwise and remove stems and white ribs. Bring enough water to cover peppers to a boil and parboil peppers, covered, for 4 minutes. Drain and cool peppers.
In a large skillet, heat oil and brown ground beef and sausage. Add onions and garlic and cook until onion is transparent. Add tomatoes, salt and peppers and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Add breadcrumbs and parsley and stuff mixture into pepper halves. Place in an 11-by-17-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 30 minutes.

GRILLADES
2 pounds veal or beef round steak, about 1/2 inch thick
Salt, pepper and Creole seasoning
2 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup flour
1 large onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped with white and green parts divided
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, or 3 large Creole tomatoes, peeled
      and diced, when in season
2 cups water
1/2 cup red wine
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon thyme
Few dashes Tabasco
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley

Trim round steak of fat and bone and rub with seasonings. Pound to 1/4 (one-fourth)-inch thickness and cut into pieces about 2-by-3 inches.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy pot. Brown meat pieces on both sides a few at a time being careful not to overcrowd pot. Set meat aside. (Brown bits in bottom of pot will be absorbed as other ingredients are added.)
 Add one-half cup of oil to pot and stir in flour to make a roux. Stir constantly over medium heat until roux is dark brown but not burned. Immediately add onion, bell pepper, celery and white part of green onions. Reduce heat and cook for a few minutes, stirring. Add garlic, cook for another minute and stir in tomatoes, water and wine. Add remainder of ingredients except green onion tops and parsley. Stir well and return meat to pot. Taste and add salt, pepper and Creole seasoning as needed. Simmer, covered, until meat is fork tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally. When finished, add 1/4 cup green onion tops and parsley. Serve over grits.
Serves 6.

 

Recipes by the book
Among a number of recently published cookbooks in New Orleans are these, which make a special effort toward preserving the old recipes and food heritage of the city.

Cooking Up A Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, Chronicle Books, $24.95, edited by Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker. The emphasis is on home cooking with traditional New Orleans recipes and modern recipes popular with home cooks. Many of the recipes are from the files of The Times-Picayune.

You Are Where You Eat: Stories and Recipes from the Neighborhoods of New Orleans
, $35, University Press of Mississippi, by Elsa Hahne. Recipes reflect not only Creole cooking but also Hispanic, Asian and other recipes from local cultural groups.

Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook, marketumbrella.org, $24.95, by Poppy Tooker. Indigenous ingredients are the focus with recipes and stories from the market’s vendors, farmers and chefs. Some recipes are modern, but many are antiques: calas and Creole cream cheese, for example.

New Orleans Home Cooking, Pelican Publishing Co., $19.95, by Dale Curry. Recipes focus on authenticity and simplicity with 125 traditional recipes and anecdotes on New Orleans cooking.

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