Years ago, shortly after I moved to New Orleans, I was a guest at a Thoth parade party in the heart of Uptown. Bloody Marys, cheese straws and a meaty brunch dish served with grits sustained us while we laughed and jumped for beads. It was a whimsical morning, one I’ll always remember as part of my first Carnival, and when we were saying our goodbyes, my friend told our hostess something like, “The gree-odds were delicious.”
Not in my Southern vocabulary but, yes, they were delicious, those little strips of tender beef swimming in a spicy roux-based gravy. It wasn’t long before I learned that “grillades” are the quintessential Creole brunch dish dating as far back as the mid-19th century, when Mmes Begue and Esparbe prepared them for riverfront market workers. An early lunch or brunch fueled the butchers, fishermen and farmers who had worked since daybreak and were in need of something filling. Grillades and grits filled the need in those little cafés that became some of the city’s first restaurants.
It was no time before I was making the dish myself for Saints parties and serving it over grits soufflé. I noticed that sometimes it was served with rice at parade parties, so I did that, too. And it never tasted so good as at late-night buffets after the Carnival balls, surrounded by lots of king cake, bread pudding and bananas Foster. Soooo New Orleans.
It’s understandable why out-of-towners want to know what we serve at Mardi Gras so they can throw their own February parties in Buffalo or Boise, complete with beads, costumes and the authentic Carnival foods. Well, first on the list is king cake, to be sure. After that it’s business as usual – jambalaya, gumbo and etouffée, not to mention Popeye’s fried chicken – all year-round fare in the nation’s food capital. But if there is another dish unique to New Orleans and married to Mardi Gras, it has to be grillades.
For one thing, grillades is a New Orleans creation. The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, published in 1901, reads, “Our grillades or fried meat a la Creole are famous, relishable and most digestible … no matter what scientists may say about the non-advisability of eating fried meat. The many octogenarians who walk our streets, and who have been practically raised on grillades, for it is a daily dish among the Creoles, are the best refutation of the outcry that is made in the North and West against fried meat. The great truth is that the Creoles know how to fry meat.”
Further, the book reads, grillades “are a favorite dish among the poorer classes of Creoles, especially, being served not only for breakfast but also at dinner, in the latter instance with gravy and a dish of red beans and boiled rice.”
The technique, then and now, is to pound a round steak, beef or veal, until thin, cut it into squares or strips and lightly brown it in hot oil. Ingredients remain essentially the same – round steak, onion, garlic, tomatoes and a roux. Versions range from briefly cooking tender baby veal, a restaurant preference, to the long, slow simmering of the tougher beef round.
Grillade is the French name for food that has been grilled or broiled, particularly meat. But in the true French preparation, a la Larousse Gastronomique, the meat specified is pork. A New Orleanian refers to a grillade as the individual piece of meat or to a whole pot as grillades. In other recipes, both Creole and French, grillades are taken a step further to the breaded version, first dredging the veal or pork pieces in egg wash, breading, then frying.
Grillades are a wholesome, warming dish timely for Carnival and winter. For a fancier presentation and lighter taste, serve them with souffléd grits. For less work or to feed the throngs, cook quick grits according to package instructions.
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
(when in season) 3 large Creole tomatoes,
peeled and diced
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-leaf parsley
Trim round steak of fat and bone and rub with seasonings. Pound to 1/4-inch thickness and cut into pieces, about 2 inches 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 1/2 cup 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. 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 or grits soufflé.
Shortcuts: Instead of chopping onions, bell pepper, celery, garlic and parsley, substitute 2 14-ounce containers of fresh-cut Creole seasoning mix. Buy deboned and trimmed round steaks.
3 cups cooked grits, salted to taste
3 eggs, separated
3/4 cup milk
1/2 stick butter, melted
Cook 1 cup quick grits in 3 cups salted water to make 3 cups grits.
In a large bowl or pot in which grits were cooked, combine grits with beaten egg yolks, milk and butter. In an electric mixer, beat egg whites until stiff and fold gently into grits. Place in greased medium casserole or soufflé dish. Bake at 350° for 1 hour. Serve immediately. Serves 6. •