I never met Leon Soniat, but I feel like I know him through his cookbooks, La Bouche Creole and La Bouche Creole II.
Soniat and I missed each other by several years on the old States-Item, which was eventually absorbed by The Times-Picayune. We States-Item people liked to say it was the other way around, but no one’s arguing about that these days.
To us cooks who go back a generation or two, there are few names that demand our reverence like Soniat’s. He lived and breathed the events that took place in the kitchens of Mamete and Memere and continued to document them through his newspaper columns, television shows and cooking lessons for the rest of his life. He died in 1981, just as his second cookbook got underway. His wife June Soniat, also an accomplished cook, completed the cookbook.
Soniat liked to write about Milneburg, a former town and port on Lake Pontchartrain that became a recreation area of camps and restaurants on boardwalks over the water. It eventually became part of New Orleans. Every summer Soniat’s family spent time there and the children crabbed off the boardwalks and picked the meat for Mamete’s and Memere’s stuffed crabs. They bought shrimp, croakers, redfish and speckled trout off the boats from the many fishermen in the area.
“For a little or nothing, we had a half-dozen or so fresh ‘specs’ to clean, fillet and cook into that greatest of all trout dishes – amandine,” he wrote.
His passion for cooking was contagious, and he was a key player in preserving the love of traditional dishes such as gumbo z’herbes, stuffed eggplant and crawfish bisque. Many French recipes no longer popular in today’s home kitchens were part of his childhood in New Orleans and are recorded in his books – stewed kidneys, poulet a la bonne femme and bouillabaisse. A few old timers rarely served any more include recipes for possum and chitlins.
Another revered cook is the late Myriam Guidroz, a cooking teacher and long-time columnist for The States-Item and The Times-Picayune. A native of Belgium, she was trained in classic French cooking and loved writing about her childhood years and Maria, the family cook. She married an American military man from Louisiana and spent most of her life in Raceland, La., and New Orleans. She, too, wrote a cookbook: Adventures in French Cooking.
Much of her cooking was quite simple, like the lunch she prepared for me one day. I went over to her house to talk shop, and, although she was almost an invalid from osteoporosis, she brought out some stunning plates of boiled eggs, fresh asparagus and homemade mayonnaise for a lunch that I continue to copy today. It was the simplicity of it and the perfection to which it was prepared that marked it on my memory forever.
Guidroz knew what she was doing because Maria had her making mayonnaise at age 7 and poaching eggs at 8.
Oyster, Eggplant and Mushroom Casserole
This is an adaptation of one of Soniat’s recipes that contains three of my favorite foods: oysters, eggplant and mushrooms.
1 large eggplant
2 dozen oysters with their water
6 Tablespoons butter, divided
6 green onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco
1/2 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup grated sharp
1/3 cup evaporated milk
1 cup mushrooms
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Stick eggplant a few times with a fork to allow the vegetable to release steam that builds up during the baking. Bake eggplant for about 1/2-hour, until it’s tender when tested with a fork. Let the eggplant cool while you assemble the rest of the recipe.
Place oysters and their water in a saucepan and cook until oysters begin to curl. Remove oysters with a slotted spoon. Add 2 Tablespoons of the butter and mushrooms and simmer about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, chop the oysters into 1-inch pieces, add 1/4-cup breadcrumbs and Tabasco, return to the pot, mix and set aside.
Melt 2 Tablespoons butter in a skillet and sauté green onions for 5 minutes. Add parsley, garlic and 1/4-cup breadcrumbs. Mix and remove from heat, and add Italian seasoning, salt and pepper.
When eggplant is cool, peel and slice into 1/4-inch rounds. In a baking dish (8 or 9 inches) layer half the eggplant, half the breadcrumbs and onion mixture, then half the oyster and mushroom mixture.
Repeat with another layer.
Sprinkle cheese on top of the casserole, top with 3 Tablespoons of the butter, cut into little pieces and pour over the evaporated milk. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes.
Mamere’s Trout Amandine
This recipe for trout amandine is as Soniat wrote it in La Bouche Creole.
6 trout fillets
Milk for soaking
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 sticks plus 2 Tablespoons
4 Tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup slivered almonds
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
2 drops Tabasco
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 Tablespoons minced parsley
Start with the freshest trout available. Soak trout fillets in enough milk to cover them for about 30 minutes. Remove from the milk, dry well and rub with a little salt and pepper. Dust lightly (“and I mean lightly”) in flour.
Melt 2 Tablespoons of butter in a heavy skillet. Add oil. When it’s hot, sauté the trout, browning lightly on each side. Do not overcook! (Most cooks have a tendency to overcook fish, and this destroys both the texture and the flavor. A good rule of thumb would be no more than 2 minutes for each side, slightly more if the fillets are unusually thick, says Soniat.)
When the fish are lightly browned, remove to a warm platter and keep warm.
Pour out the oil and butter in the pan and add 1 1/2 sticks butter. Melt this over low heat and then add slivered almonds. Cook slowly until the almonds are slightly brown. Add Worcestershire, Tabasco and lemon juice. Mix well and pour over the fillets. Garnish with parsley. Serve immediately. This is best served with brabant potatoes.
Myriam’s Memorable Lunch
The following recipe contains Guidroz’s recipe for mayonnaise and my own way of copying her asparagus and eggs.
1/2 pound fresh asparagus
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon French or Dijon
1 cup vegetable oil
Vinegar or lemon juice to taste
Salt and pepper
Place eggs in a small pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, cover and turn off heat. Leave cover on for 10 minutes. Remove and peel eggs. Keep in warm water until ready to use.
Meanwhile, snap off the tough ends of asparagus. Place in boiling water for several minutes, depending on size of the asparagus, or until fork-tender but still crisp and bright green. Do not overcook.
To make mayonnaise: place yolks in a bowl with a pinch of salt and mustard and whisk until well-mixed and slightly thickened. Add 2 drops oil, beat until mixed, adding more drop by drop and increasing gradually until you’re pouring a thin stream. Beat hard and fast until you’ve added half the oil and mixture is quite thick. Add a little vinegar or lemon juice a few drops at a time, add more oil, then more vinegar or lemon juice and finish with oil, always beating hard. When it’s getting fluffy, you can switch to an electric mixer to be less tiring. Season with salt and pepper and more vinegar or lemon juice, if needed.
On 2 pretty plates, place a serving of asparagus, 1 1/2 eggs, sliced in halves, and several Tablespoons of mayonnaise in a ramekin or on the plate for distributing on asparagus and eggs.