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Last year, our May cover story was about “Recipe Recovery,” recalling the classic dishes of our past, many of which were lost on paper in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when cookbooks and recipe files washed away in the floods.
We featured stuffed mirlitons, redfish courtbouillon, Creole daube, stuffed bell peppers, shrimp remoulade and grillades.
So popular was the feature that we decided to do the same thing this year, only with different recipes. The list goes on and on.
Not a week goes by that I don’t think about how some relative cooked one of my childhood favorites. The meatballs and spaghetti from Aunt Rose, the Swiss steak from Aunt Edna and the legendary custard pies from my mother. Somehow, we just don’t cook it the same any more.
I would bet that any one of us longs for certain tastes remembered from childhood. I worked with a receptionist who could never find a teacake recipe like her grandmother’s and no matter how many I put before her, the mystery still prevailed. That is why I always urge young people to keep their parents’ and grandparents’ recipes alive, and the elders to record their children’s favorites.
As far as New Orleans’ reputation in the U.S. goes, it’s one of a kind – a foreign country, some say – and nowhere does its difference stand out more significantly than in its food. Here it’s oyster poor boys, soft-shell crabs and gumbo. There it’s hamburgers, barley soup and rhubarb pie. Here it’s stuffed mirlitons, grillades and daube. There it’s baked roast, boiled carrots and beets.
And it all goes back to the Creole kitchens and Cajun cottages where a French influence focused on dining long and well, no matter how small the budget. Pirogues sliced the bayous at dawn, pulling up fresh trout for the big noon meal. While they were at it, they netted a few soft-shell crawfish to fry for breakfast. In the city, cooks scoured the French Market early each day for the freshest okra, oysters and bread. Along came other influences – Spanish, Caribbean, African, American Indian – that spiced up the pot and added more interest to the local cuisine.
As new generations enter the kitchen, the challenge grows to hang on to our culinary heritage, which began in the home kitchen. Takeout is booming in the supermarkets, but shortcuts to cooking are there, too. For instance, supermarkets now sell boxes of frozen raw, peeled and sometimes deveined shrimp in a choice of sizes. Thus you have the choice to peel your own or to buy quality frozen seafood to stir up a quick gumbo. Personally, I don’t mind peeling a few shrimp – and I want the freshest for a boil – but if I’m serving a crowd, I don’t hesitate to go with the frozen product. They are local and quick-frozen and you can hardly tell the difference in an etouffée or gumbo.
Certain ingredients make south Louisiana home cooking memorable. First there’s the roux. By simply browning flour in oil or butter, you have a base that adds flavor and texture to a robust dish. Then comes “The Trinity” – chopped onion, celery and bell pepper. A good local sausage, such as andouille, adds gusto. And the grand finale is a sprinkling of fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley.
We like to make the simplest dishes special. How? Adding horseradish to mashed potatoes. Cheese to grits. Hot peppers to cornbread. Spices to shellfish. Stuffing to vegetables. Liqueurs to fruit. Garlic to everything.
I like to tell people how much fun cooking can be. Takeout is easy, but manning the stove once or twice a week can be a special treat. With two or three friends gathered around, we can duplicate the recipes we grew up on. One warning: There may be arguments because there are as many gumbos as there are grandmothers.