Favorite Forces

Two of my favorite forces have come together in what is destined to be a win-win situation. They are Café Reconcile, the best place in town for down-home lunching, and the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (NOWFE), our premiere gourmet extravaganza.

When smothered pork chops intermingle with foie gras, what do you have to lose?

No, they won’t be served together, but NOWFE’s generous philanthropy will begin to channel 40 percent of its lucrative intake into teaching at-risk young adults to work in the restaurant industry.

It seems like yesterday that I wrote one of the first major stories about Café Reconcile when it first opened in 2000. Craig Cuccia, then director of the Central City restaurants, told some friends lunching there one day that I had “put it on the map” with a full-page story in The Times-Picayune. For years, that framed newspaper clipping hung on the wall before the café’s total renovation was completed just a year ago.

There could be no better idea in a restaurant city like New Orleans than to train chefs and servers while at the same time giving jobs to young people desperate to remove themselves from hopeless situations. Graduates are staffing top restaurants in town, and support has been overwhelming, particularly from Emeril Lagasse who has funded much of the recent renovations. So far, more than 1,000 graduates have turned their lives around and are working in career-track jobs in the hospitality industry or are enrolled in further education.

I also covered the birth of what has become NOWFE when it started decades ago as a summer attraction for tourists in an otherwise slow time. It grew to become one of the country’s major food and wine destinations, attracting 10,000 gourmands and connoisseurs. Now with hundreds of wineries and restaurants participating, it has moved to May, when visitors escape a little of the steam and heat, and is scheduled this year for May 21-24 at various locations (see sidebar). One of the best food events anywhere any time is the grand tasting that features top chefs from Greater New Orleans and wineries from all over the world. Once you enter the door, you want to stay for the full three hours to taste wines you may never have had the chance to taste and dishes old and new from famous and favorite restaurants. If you’re not sure which wines to serve at a dinner party or which wines you really like, this is the place to go to learn about wine, its subtleties, costs and pairings.

Over the past 21 years, NOWFE has raised more than $1 million dollars for local nonprofit organizations such as Reconcile. The remaining 60 percent of proceeds from the 2014 Experience will go to the Louisiana Restaurant Association, Education Foundation’s ProStart Program, Delgado Culinary Arts School, New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts’ Culinary Program, The John Folse Culinary Institute and Edible Schoolyard New Orleans.

If you like soul food, you can purchase Café Reconcile’s cookbook when dining there. Following are recipes for their popular white beans with shrimp and their spin on mac and cheese.
For more elegant entertaining or for an Easter brunch, try the following shrimp and ceviche recipe from SoBou. It took a gold medal last year in the seafood category at NOWFE’s grand tasting.

White Beans and Shrimp
2 pounds white Great Northern beans
4 cups chopped onion
2 cups chopped celery
2 cups chopped bell peppers
1/2 cup chopped parsley
3 to 4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tablespoon thyme
Salt and black pepper to taste
Dash cayenne pepper
Dash white pepper
Chicken stock or water
1 1/2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 cups heavy cream
Steamed white rice

Soak beans in enough water to cover in the refrigerator overnight. Drain beans. In a large pot, combine beans, veggies, seasonings and enough stock or water to cover beans. Simmer, covered, for 2 to 3 hours until beans are tender. Add shrimp and cream and simmer until shrimp are cooked, about 5 minutes. Serve over white rice.

Serves 10 to 12

Café Reconcile Mac & Cheese
1/2 pound spaghetti
3 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons flour
3 cups milk
1 bay leaf, whole
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded or grated
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded or grated
12 ounces processed American cheese or Velveeta, chopped into
  small cubes
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
White pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the pasta until al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, melt butter in a separate pot. Whisk in flour and stir for about 3 minutes until smooth. Stir in milk, bay leaf and nutmeg. Simmer for 10 minutes and remove bay leaf.

Meanwhile, prepare cheeses and mix together. Measure out about 1 cup to save for topping. Stir cheeses except for topping into the milk mixture. Add Creole seasoning and pepper.

Drain spaghetti and fold into cheese mixture. Pour into a 2-quart casserole dish. Top with remaining cheese. Bake for about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Serves 4 to 6

Shrimp & Tassso Pinchos With Pineapple Ceviche
For the shrimp:
2 pounds shrimp (16 to 18 count, peeled and deveined, tail on)
1 1/2 pounds tasso, cut into half-inch pieces
Pepper jelly (optional)
For the ceviche:
1 1/2 pounds pineapple, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1 cup diced piquillo peppers**
4 green onions, thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons minced cilantro
1 1/2 Tablespoons Crystal hot sauce
Juice of 3 lemons
Juice of 2 limes
Juice of 1 orange
Salt and pepper to taste

Using bamboo skewers, push a skewer through a shrimp, starting from the tail end. Place a piece of tasso onto skewer. Repeat until all shrimp and tasso are placed on several skewers.

Rub each pincho with chimichurri and marinate for 30 minutes. Season shrimp with Creole seasoning and cook on a hot grill until shrimp are fully cooked, about 1 1/2 minute on each side.

To make the ceviche, mix together all ingredients in a bowl. To serve, place ceviche on plates or a platter and arrange shrimp pinchos on top. If desired, top with pepper jelly.

*Chimichurri is a combination of parsley, garlic, olive oil, oregano and wine vinegar and is available jarred in Latin markets.

** Piquillo peppers are bright red peppers usually fire-roasted and packed in jars. A substitute is jarred roasted red bell peppers.

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