What makes New Orleans dining different from the rest of the nation? We like to do things our own way. You may call it a European flair, a love of tradition or just the celebration of life. Eventually, it manifests itself in its own style of music, architecture, entertainment and food.
Take barbecue, for example, a staple of the South that calls for pork in most places but beef in Texas. As far north as Kansas City, they compete with whole pigs, pork shoulders and slabs of ribs – each barbecue capital claiming its style is the best.
Here, we don’t compete much with the pork and the beef, nor do we have many restaurants that offer it barbecue-style. Why? The treasures of the sea and our estuaries lure us to find new ways to charbroil oysters, grill fish and barbecue shrimp. So while the occasional chicken or steak finds its way to the outdoor grills, there’s nothing quite like the taste of fish and shellfish cooked over the coals. May is the perfect month for cooking and dining outdoors, especially with the sensational recipes local minds have conceived.
It was just over a decade ago that the charbroiled oyster made its debut at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Metairie. The original owners Drago and Klara Cvitanovich have a long attachment to oysters because they immigrated from Croatia, where the oyster industry serves much of Europe. Croatian oystermen migrated to Louisiana two centuries ago and still dominate the local industry today. Having worked at his brother-in-law’s restaurant in Lakeview, also named Drago’s, Cvitanovich opened his own in 1970, buying oysters from Croatian friends in the business. But their son, Tommy Cvitanovich, now owner-manager, is the one responsible for the signature dish of the 300-seat restaurant.
“I had the idea about 14 or 15 years ago,” says the namesake for Drumfish Tommy. The sauce on that dish was so good that he wanted to try it on oysters. He added Parmesan and Romano cheeses and a star was born. On a good day, he says, the restaurant serves more than 900 dozen charbroiled oysters.
To assure the freshest oysters, Drago’s owns a seafood dealer’s license, enabling it to purchase directly from fishermen. Its own refrigerated truck takes them from the boat to Drago’s without wholesalers in between. This spring, a second Drago’s will open off the main lobby of the New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel, bringing the charbroiled oysters closer to tourists. A few other restaurants have copied the dish, elevating its popularity to legendary heights.
There’s good news for home cooks: Charbroiled oysters are easy to prepare in your own back yard!
“Buy the freshest you can buy,” says Tommy Cvitanovich. “And get big ones.” A real time saver is using the kind of aluminum shells that are used to stuff crabs. Just cut the tips off the shells and put two oysters in each shell, he says.
Then, cook them as fast as you can. “The hotter the fire, the better,” Cvitanovich says. At Drago’s, cooks spray water onto the roaring fire to create steam. Most importantly, serve them and eat them immediately. “We try to have them hit the table sizzling,” he says.
4 dozen oysters
2 sticks butter
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco®
Black pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese, grated
Shuck oysters, cutting each loose from its shell. Place oyster in one shell and discard the other. Choose the deepest shell if it sits straight, or the one that sits the straightest. Leave some of the oyster water in the shell that you’re using.
In a saucepan, melt butter and sauté garlic briefly. Add lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco® and pepper and stir together.
Light a charcoal fire to its hottest temperature – a gas grill can also be used. Place a dozen oysters in their shells on the grill and immediately spoon 1 tablespoon of sauce mixture over each oyster. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Close the grill and cook until oysters curl. Serve immediately with cocktail forks. Repeat. If grill is large, several dozen can be done at one time.
Note: Chargrilled oysters are great to pass as hors d’oeuvres as soon as they come off the grill.
When it comes to shrimp, there are few better than the city’s famous barbecued shrimp, another local invention, this one by Pascal’s Manale in Uptown New Orleans. If anyone ever told me I’d eat a shrimp shell and all, I’d have laughed but Manale’s menu says to try it that way. I did and lived to tell that it was delicious. When doing the dish at home, however, I peel the succulent shrimp, dipping them in plenty of the seasoned butter in which they were cooked. A misnomer by name, the shrimp are not barbecued on any outdoor grill but are actually baked in the oven. The sauce has a barbecue flavor and, in my recipe, it comes from a touch of liquid smoke. The key to the dish in my opinion is using heads-on shrimp – the fat in the heads add great taste to the sauce.
Long ago I discovered a real grilled shrimp recipe that never fails to wow a crowd. You simply wrap large shrimp in pieces of bacon and grill them over a charcoal fire. Using a hickory smoked bacon gives all the flavor you could want with no other seasoning necessary. They make great dippers in a cocktail sauce to serve as an appetizer on the patio. The recipe is simple except for peeling and deveining the shrimp. The larger the shrimp, the easier and quicker the preparation.
If you’re having a seafood bash, go for the charbroiled oysters or barbecued shrimp for appetizers and follow it up with fish on the grill. My favorite is red snapper, but redfish or black drum will do equally well. Be sure to get firm-fleshed fish and the freshest you can find. Fewer seafood dealers are offering fresh whole fish, but there are a few around that still do.
Shrimp Wrapped in Bacon
2 pounds large shrimp
1 pound bacon
Peel and de-vein shrimp. Cut bacon into thirds so that each piece is about 3 inches long. Wrap each shrimp in a piece of bacon. Fasten with two toothpicks.
Heat a charcoal or gas grill to hot. Place grill about 6 to 8 inches above coals. Place shrimp on grill and cook until bacon is browning on one side. Turn shrimp to brown bacon on all sides. When bacon is done, shrimp will be done. Serve with cocktail sauce for dipping.
Note: Stainless steel skewers can be used instead of toothpicks. Thread four to six bacon-wrapped shrimp onto skewer and grill, turning as bacon browns. To serve as a first course, remove shrimp from skewers and serve on small plates with individual dipping sauces.
Dipping sauce: Combine 3/4 cup ketchup with 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, 1 tablespoon horseradish, 1 teaspoon lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco®.
Serves 6 as hors d’oeuvre or first course.
One of the problems with grilling fish on an outdoor rig is that the flesh of the fish can stick to the grill. First, clean the grill well and spray it with cooking spray. I like to leave the skin and scales on a fillet in order to use its armor as a cooking utensil. You still get the charcoal flavor if you cover the grill and let the smoke flow over it. By first placing it flesh side down for a few minutes, you will get grill markings as well as direct flavor from the coals.
For all of those who must have chicken, Louisiana’s got the unique recipe for that one, too. It’s drunken chicken, also known as beer-can chicken. To be fair to those boot-scootin’ barbecuers over our western border, we must share the fame with Texas for inventing this moist, flavorful dish. No one can prove who was the first to do it but it has long been popular in the rural parts of both states. Nothing is easier than drunken chicken; it doesn’t even have to be tended on the grill. Just sit a chicken on top of a beer can containing the right ingredients and lose yourself in some other activity for a hour and 20 minutes. You’ll be pleased with the result.
1 3-pound red snapper (red fish or black drum also can be used)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Cut fish in half, removing head and center bone – you can have this done by your seafood vendor. Leave skin and scales intact to serve as a cooking utensil and hold fish together.
Light a charcoal or gas grill and heat to medium-hot. Make sure the grill is scraped clean and oiled with non-stick cooking spray.
Meanwhile, sprinkle the cut sides of fish with Creole seasoning, garlic power, salt and pepper. Mix the lemon juice, Worcestershire and butter for a basting sauce.
Brush fish lightly with basting sauce and place on grill about 6 to 8 inches above coals, cut sides down, and grill for about three minutes, just long enough to put grill marks on the fish. Carefully turn with a long spatula and place the fish skin side down. Baste liberally with butter mixture. Cover grill and cook until fish flakes, basting occasionally. To determine doneness, cut into thickest part with a knife. Fish is done when white and opaque. This should take about 10 minutes.
Fish can be served on skin, or skin and scales can be removed by running a sharp knife between the flesh and skin. Serves 2.
(aka beer-can chicken)
1 chicken, whole
3 ounces beer
1 teaspoon liquid crab boil
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
Clean chicken and pat dry. Sprinkle inside and out with Creole seasoning.
Light a charcoal grill and bring temperature to hot.
Meanwhile, pour a can of beer into a measuring cup. Measure 3 ounces and pour it back into the can. Add crab boil and liquid smoke.
When fire is ready, place chicken on top of beer can so that the chicken is sitting up with legs just touching the grill with the can inside the cavity of the chicken. Cover grill and cook for one hour and 20 minutes. Do not open grill during cooking. The result should be a very moist chicken. Several chickens can be cooked like this at one time – just line them in a row over the fire.
Note: A handful of wet hickory chips can be placed over the coals after they’re hot to import a more smoky taste.
Southern Louisiana, if not New Orleans, prides itself in a form of barbecued pork that is legendary and delicious – its famous cochon de lait. Throughout Cajun country, celebrations begin early in the morning with digging a hole in the ground for coals to burn and building a rack to hold a suckling pig, sometimes several. The cooking goes on for hours until the pigs are still in tact but tender enough to eat with a fork.
You can’t have barbecue without at least one of the standards – baked beans, potato salad or cole slaw. We offer you our favorite potato salad since great versions of baked beans now come in the can and cole slaw is a no-brainer with bags of it already shredded alongside the multiple salads in a bag in the grocery store.
6 large potatoes
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1 large dill pickle, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf Italian parsley
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons mustard
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt, pepper and Creole seasoning to taste
1 teaspoon celery seed, optional
1/2 teaspoon dill weed, optional
Peel and slice pineapple, or buy fresh pineapple already prepared at the grocery store. Make sure that the slices are at least one-fourth inch thick.
About 1 hour before you’re ready to grill pineapple, mix the rum, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg together. Place pineapple slices flat in a container, drizzle with rum sauce and turn, coating both sides. Marinate for about 1 hour.
Prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire and spray a clean grill with non-stick cooking spray. Place pineapple slices about 6 inches over the coals and cook until light brown on each side, about 5 minutes per side. Serve in bowls topped with vanilla ice cream, or cut into chunks and serve over vanilla ice cream. Serves 6.
Boil potatoes in skins until done and a knife slips through easily. Remove from pot and boil eggs for 10 minutes. When both are cool enough to handle, peel, chop and place into large bowl. Add remaining ingredients and toss until mixed well.
If you like potato salad creamier, mix while potatoes are still warm. You also can mash one or two with a fork. For non-creamy style, let potatoes cool before chopping. Serve in a pretty bowl and sprinkle with paprika and more chopped parsley if desired.
Serves 6 to 8.
Back to the grill for dessert. A fresh pineapple marinated in rum, brown sugar and seasonings is the perfect accompaniment to vanilla ice cream and ending to an outdoor meal. Other fruit can be grilled – pears, apples, bananas – but none is better suited for the grill that the firm and juicy fruit from Hawaii that cooks in just a few minutes.
May is an ideal month for cooking al fresco. And, when you move from the house to the yard, it’s almost like being on vacation.
1 fresh pineapple
1/2 cup rum
1/4 cup brown sugar
Vanilla ice cream
Chargrilled oysters are great to serve at an outdoor or patio party. Guests love to watch them cook. The only problem is that buying oysters requires purchasing them by the sack or half sack from a seafood dealer. This means that somebody in your group needs to know how to shuck them. Look at it this way: Shucking them is half the fun. Just get a couple of oyster knives, some heavy gloves and two people who know what they’re doing.