Feast Day Festing

When the last bead goes into the attic or in the mail to needy friends who live in places without Mardi Gras, I get ready for the best throws of the year: cabbage, bell peppers, carrots and potatoes. Oh yeah, this is the only place I know where you go to parades to catch dinner.

The first time a 1-pound cabbage almost knocked me flat on Magazine Street, I swore I’d practice my catch and never miss another one. Since then, I’ve left St. Patrick’s Day parades with five or six cabbages and sculpted them into cabbage rolls and other family favorites.

The late 19th century Creoles made a spicy cabbage gumbo that included round steak, ham and sausage, indicating their legacy of dressing up vegetables with plenty of seasoning. They also were fond of stuffing cabbage with sausage and ham, and they learned from the Germans, who settled upriver from New Orleans, to make sauerkraut. The French used not only vinegar but – wouldn’t you know – wine and brandy as well.

In my travels, I’ve observed that cabbage and pork seem to be the universal choices for sustenance and taste appeal in the daily diet, and much of the time the two find themselves together in the same pot.

I recently experimented with a two-ingredient dish – cabbage and pork – and came up with a winner. I cut a cabbage into four pieces and draped a piece of thick-cut bacon over each one. Baked, uncovered, for about an hour, it became a crispy, crunchy side dish that I’ll be repeating frequently.

Another favorite of mine is stuffing bell peppers not only with ground beef but also with a well-seasoned sausage, such as spicy Italian. Bell peppers are an easy catch at St. Pat’s parades, because you can reach out and grab them with one hand. Same goes for potatoes, and this year I think I’ll add a little French technique to the pot and produce a lovely vichyssoise. With leeks added and a little chicken broth, it comes close to an Irish cock-a-leekie soup.

I love the way we mix up styles into our New Orleans cooking. I think the secret is that whatever works, works. The combination that gets the most taste out of something is the name of the game.

We also have St. Joseph’s Day coming up, and that calls for a good Italian pasta Milanese, a simple dish to make but oh, so good. Because the saint’s day is observed in the middle of Lent, March 19, the dish is meatless and often infused with anchovies. The following is my favorite version as it appeared in my cookbook, New Orleans Home Cooking (Pelican, 2008).

Easy Cabbage and Bacon
1 medium cabbage
6 pieces bacon
Freshly ground black pepper
Creole seasoning

Cut cabbage in half starting at stem. Remove most of stem. Cut halves into 2 or 3 wedges each, depending on size of cabbage. Rinse carefully, keeping wedges in tact, and leaving cabbage wet. Place cabbage in a baking pan or dish, and add about 1/4-inch water to bottom of dish. Sprinkle cabbage with seasonings. Place pieces of bacon over each wedge, covering as much of the cut part as possible.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake, uncovered, for about an hour, until bacon is crispy and cabbage is tender.

Serves 4 to 6

Potato Leek Soup
3 or 4 leeks
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
5 large potatoes or 6 medium
6 cups chicken stock, homemade or low-sodium canned
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Salt, if needed
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup chopped chives, flat-leaf parsley or green onion tops to garnish

Trim leeks down to the tender white and light green parts, carefully rinsing to remove all sand and soil. Discard tough dark green parts. Chop parts you’re using.

Heat oil in a medium pot and sauté leeks and onion until transparent.

Peel potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Add potatoes and chicken stock to pot and season with pepper. Cover and simmer until potatoes are fork tender. Taste and add salt if necessary. Cool for about 30 minutes.

If you have a hand blender, use it to purée the soup in the pot, or, transfer to a blender or food processor and purée. Do not over-process or soup might become sticky. Return to pot if necessary and add cream. If serving hot, heat but don’t boil, when ready to serve. Otherwise, refrigerate and serve cold as vichyssoise. Serve in bowls topped with garnish.

Serves 6
Stuffed Peppers
6 bell peppers
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 pound lean ground beef
1/2 pound Italian sausage, hot or mild
1 14.5-ounce can whole tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1/2 cup Italian breadcrumbs
2 Tablespoons minced Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 egg, beaten
Parmesan cheese, grated

Slice peppers in two lengthwise and remove stems, seeds and membranes. Parboil in a pot of boiling water for about 3 minutes, drain and place in a greased baking pan.
Heat oil in a large skillet and sauté onion until transparent. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute more. Add ground beef and Italian sausage and sauté until browned. Add tomatoes and seasonings, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and add breadcrumbs, parsley and egg, and mix well. Stuff mixture into pepper shells and sprinkle liberally with Parmesan cheese over tops.

Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes.

Serves 6 to 8

Pasta Milanese
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, whole
2 14.5-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes
1/2 cup fresh fennel bulb, chopped
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
Pinch crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
6 anchovy fillets, chopped
1/4 cup small black olives, pitted
2 Tablespoons drained capers
2 Tablespoons chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley
1 pound spaghetti
Breadcrumbs, seasoned, and/or Parmesan cheese

Heat olive oil in medium, heavy pot. Saute onion, celery and whole garlic cloves over medium heat for several minutes until garlic is slightly coloring. Add tomatoes, fennel, Italian seasoning, crushed red pepper, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the anchovies, olives and capers and simmer a few minutes more. Stir in parsley, taste and adjust seasonings.

Cook spaghetti in large pot of salted, boiling water until al dente. Drain and place in a large pasta bowl, toss with sauce and top with breadcrumbs and/or grated cheese.

Serves 4

On the Q.T.?
The end of Carnival signals a quiet time in New Orleans, or does it? Well, maybe for a few days, but that’s all before a full lineup of parades and parties begin celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, and St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. Somehow locals have found a way to span two days of observance into nearly a month of celebration. At least the food is in line with Lent, mostly vegetables and meatless pasta.


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