There has never been another biscuit quite like my mother’s. And I’ve never liked another version of chicken and dumplings, the dish I always requested on my birthday, as well as hers. Is that because she set the standard in my brain long ago? Or were hers really the best?
I don’t know and probably never well. But one thing I do know is that I’m not alone.
I picked a few local celebrities to talk about their mothers’ cooking, and they all say the same thing. “My mom’s was the best.” Stuffed bell peppers, lemon pie, shepherd’s pie, red beans and rice, tortilla soup, corn and shrimp soup – it didn’t matter what it was; it was the best.
The magical part is that many of us still pull out those old recipes, if they exist on paper, on holidays for a taste of that feel-good eating that not only tickles our taste buds but also stirs up wonderful memories of childhood and the great Sunday or holiday meals that were part of mom’s spread.
I can’t say that my mom’s chicken and dumplings could one-up Emeril’s chicken Clemenceau – but they run a close second.
Executive Chef, Gautreau's Restaurant
While Gautreau’s menu is more likely to list poached lobster or duck confit, you might occasionally see a pierogi doctored up to meet the restaurant’s upscale standards. The simple Eastern European cheese-filled dumpling is comfort food to executive chef Sue Zemanick, and she can’t help but share it with her customers, if dressed up a bit with wild mushrooms.
“I still love Slovak food, especially at holidays,” says the 32-year-old Pennsylvania native and star among New Orleans chefs. She was the 2008 Food & Wine “Top 10 Best New Chef,” among numerous awards (including New Orleans Magazine’s Chef of the Year 2008).
She started cooking when she was 8 to 10 years old with her mother and grandmother, both from the Czech Republic and Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia). “I would make table arrangements like for a photo shoot,” she says of her childhood experiences. Her mother Marie Zemanick cooked cabbage rolls with pork and rice; braised pork with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes; and, her very favorite, a rich lemon pie. Her grandmother made a nut or poppy seed roll with sweet dough that was cut into pinwheels.
“All of my childhood revolved around food,” she says. But many of the dishes are peasant food and not appropriate for the upscale offerings at Gautreau’s. No problem. She serves them to her kitchen staff.
“We have the best staff meals in town,” she says of the halusky, cabbage and egg noodles, spatzle and drop noodles, served regularly in the kitchen.
Zemanick’s mother still lives in Pennsylvania but loves to visit New Orleans. Now retired, she was president of a hospital and a nursing school teacher. Her influences on Zemanick were “hard work and making time for family.”
“I know that she’s very proud of me,” Zemanick says, although at first she wanted her daughter to go in a different direction. “But (my mother) understood my passion and my art,” she says of her love for cooking. When Marie Zemanick dines at Gautreau’s, her favorites are the dressed-up pierogi, fish dishes and anything with jumbo crabmeat or scallops. Like her daughter, she loves seafood.
Says the chef, “I moved here for the crab, crawfish, shrimp and oysters.”
Marie Zemanick’s Lemon Pie
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces unsalted butter, chilled very cold and diced very small
1/2 cup cold water with 1 ice cube in it
2 cups sugar
8 ounces butter
4 Tablespoons lemon zest
1 1/2 cup lemon juice
2 pints blueberries
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
In a large mixing bowl, mix the flour, sugar and salt. With either your hands or a pastry cutter, cut in the butter until the mixture looks like peas. Slowly drizzle in the cold water to bring the dough together. Do not over mix. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thickness and place dough in a 9-inch pie pan. Prick the dough with a fork and line with parchment and pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Cool.
Over a double boiler melt the sugar and butter. While that’s melting, mix together the remaining ingredients. Add that mixture to the butter and sugar. Continue to cook over the double boiler until thick, whisking occasionally, for about 15 minutes. Strain through a mesh strainer.
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes until the sugar is dissolved.
When pie crust is cool, pour the lemon curd into pie crust. Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream and blueberry sauce.
Carlos Miguel Prieto
Music Director, Louisisana Philharmonic Orchestra
There were two important traditions in Carlos Miguel Prieto’s childhood: music and family dining. His family had a string quartet dating back four generations, and everyday lunch was a sit-down, three-course affair.
Today, life maintains the same influences for the conductor of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, partly due to the efforts of Maria Isabel Prieto, his mother, who lives in Mexico City where Prieto grew up and who now visits New Orleans regularly.
“My mother is from Spain, and she brought to Mexico a lot of traditional Spanish cooking,” he says. “Eating together has always been an important ritual in our family and also with our kids.”
The big family lunches, usually observed between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m., consisted of a soup, rice or fish dish for starters, followed by a meat course and then dessert.
“My mother cooked, and we had a fabulous cook in our house from Oaxaca,” he says. “My favorites were a Mexican and Spanish rice dish with cheese, peppers and cream and tortilla soup.”
His mother’s cooking bible was 1080 Recipes by Simone Ortega, called “Spain’s best-selling cookbook” for more than 30 years.
Prieto’s mother wasn’t a musician, but insisted that her children study music. His father played cello and his paternal grandmother, a violinist and pianist who hailed from France, “made us practice.” The family string quartet consisted of two violins, a cello and viola.
Besides leading the LPO, Prieto is the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico and has served as guest conductor of orchestras throughout the United States, Europe, Russia, Israel and Latin America.
Despite his love of family dining, one thing he never learned is how to cook. “I have no idea of how to even start cooking,” he says.
Maria Isabel Prieto’s Paella
11 ounces shrimp with heads and shells
2 1/4 pounds mussels or 1 pound 2 ounces littleneck, steamer or cherrystone clams
3/4 cup olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
3 Tablespoons tomato sauce or 1 large ripe tomato, chopped
2 small squid, cleaned and cut into 1/4-inch thick rings
2 1/2 cups long-grain rice
3 sprigs fresh parsley
Pinch saffron threads
2 chicken bouillon cubes
Scant 1 cup drained canned peas
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
Peel shrimp and reserve shells and heads. Simmer heads and shells in a pot of water for 10 minutes. Strain stock into a bowl and discard heads and shells.
If using mussels, scrub the shells under cold running water and remove the beards. If using clams, scrub under cold running water. Discard any shellfish with broken shells or any that don’t shut when tapped. Put the shellfish in a pan or skillet, add 1/4-cup of water, cover and cook over high heat for 3 to 6 minutes or until the shells have opened. Lift out the shellfish with a slotted spoon, discarding any that remain closed. Reserve cooking liquid. Remove nearly all shellfish from their shells but leave a few in the shell for garnish. Strain reserved cooking liquid into the shrimp stock. Add enough water to make 7 1/2 cups, if necessary. Pour into a pan and heat gently but don’t boil.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour just enough of the oil into a paella pan or large, heavy skillet with a metal handle to cover the base and heat. Add onion and garlic and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 7 minutes, until lightly browned. Add tomato sauce or fresh tomato and cook, stirring constantly, for a few minutes. Reserve a few shrimp for garnish and add the remainder to the pan with the squid rings and rice. Cook, stirring constantly, until the squid becomes opaque. Add shelled mussels or clams. Season with a pinch of salt and pour in the hot stock. Gently shake the pan to make sure the liquid is evenly distributed. Pound the parsley with the saffron in a mortar, or process in a mini food processor. Mix in 2 Tablespoons water, and add mixture to the paella pan. Crumble in the bouillon cubes. Gently shake the pan or stir with a wooden spoon. Add the peas to the paella and cook for a few minutes more.
Garnish the paella with the strips of red bell pepper, the reserved shrimp and the reserved shellfish in the shell. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for about 25 minutes. Spread out a dampened dishtowel on a work surface. Remove the paella pan from the oven, place it on the dishtowel and let stand for 5 minutes. Serve the paella with lemon wedges hung over the side of the pan.
Serves 6 to 8.
“I grew up on the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the oldest of eight children,” says James Carville. “What I remember is when we came home from school, we went to the stove. There was always something on the stove. It might be red beans.”
Or it might be something else. Whatever it was, it was likely to have been cooked in one pot by Lucille Normand Carville. “My favorite was the crawfish bisque,” says the political commentator. And, another was a corn and shrimp dish. Much of his childhood diet came from the waters around his Iberville Parish home.
“On weekends we’d do things like get a sack of oysters and have oysters six or seven different ways,” Carville recalls. “What I remember, hands down, was my favorite thing: river shrimp. They were small and delicious.”
A few decades ago, shrimp from the Mississippi River were considered by residents to be the best of all shrimp. Fresh water shrimp were high in flavor. “We caught them in a wooden box,” Carville says.
Carville’s mother, now deceased, was nicknamed Miz Nippy, and was such a good cook that she wrote a popular cookbook in the 1980s titled Delicious Heritage, which sold 35,000 copies, he says. And she had plenty of experience cooking for her large family.
“We had breakfast, dinner and supper, and the big meal in the summer was at noon,” Carville recalls. Often, supper was leftovers from dinner, a typical schedule in rural areas.
“My mother was a well-known person in Baton Rouge,” says Carville, who wrote a children’s book, Lu and the Swamp Ghost, based on an episode in his mother’s childhood.
In 2008 Carville moved back to Louisiana with his wife, Mary Matalin, also a political strategist, and they live with their daughters in Uptown New Orleans.
The crawfish bisque so loved by Carville takes up two pages in his mother’s cookbook. The only corn and shrimp dish printed in the book is for the following soup.
Lucille Normand Carville’s Corn and Shrimp Soup
4-5 pounds medium headless shrimp
Cajun seasoning of choice
1/2 bunch green onions, chopped
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup flour
2 medium onions, chopped
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 8-ounce can Rotel tomatoes, not drained
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 14 1/2-ounce can tomatoes, not drained
1 12-ounce can shoe peg corn, not drained
1 8 1/2-ounce can cream corn
1 12-ounce can niblets corn
10 cups seafood broth made from shrimp peelings and water
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed (optional)
Peel shrimp and toss with seasoning and green onions. Set aside.
In a heavy Dutch oven combine oil with flour. Cook slowly over low heat, stirring often until golden brown.
Sauté onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic in roux until vegetables are tender.
Add Rotel tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomatoes. Mix thoroughly and cook over medium heat for 20 to 30 minutes.
Stir in corn and broth. Continue to cook another 30 minutes. Irish potatoes may be added if desired.
Add the marinated shrimp mixture. Cook 20 minutes.
Punter, New Orleans Saints
Saints punter Thomas Morstead’s favorite dish of his mother’s is shepherd’s pie. And, that isn’t surprising because Isobel Morstead is a native of England. Although his family has lived in Texas for a number of years, they’re as likely to dine on bangers and mash, another British dish of sausage and potatoes, as they are on Texas barbecue.
“My mother always worked a lot and always came home and cooked these big meals every night,” says Morstead, who is 6-foot-4-inches tall and weighs 235 pounds. Understandably so, since there were three men at the table including his brother and father.
From Pearland, Texas, a small country town southeast of Houston, Morstead joined the Saints four years ago after playing football for Southern Methodist University, where he studied mechanical engineering and was an honors student. In July the 27-year-old will wed Lauren Moore, who’s from Houston. He says he loves New Orleans and just bought a house. “The food here is my biggest hobby. I love it.” Despite his frequent restaurant dining, he also loves to cook.
“I cook four nights a week at home, all sorts of stuff rich in protein – steaks, chicken, pork, fish.”
His parents have never missed a game in his last two years at SMU or since he has been with the Saints. They drive to New Orleans, fly to away games and last year watched him in the Pro Bowl.
Isobel Morstead’s Sheperd’s Pie
1 pound ground beef
1 small onion, chopped
Worcestershire sauce to taste
Ketchup to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Potatoes, about 2 or 3 large
Butter to taste
Milk to preferred consistency
In a large skillet, brown ground beef. Add onion and cook until transparent. Add Worcestershire, ketchup, salt and pepper, and cook for 15 minutes. Place in a medium casserole or baking dish.
Peel and cut potatoes into chunks. Boil until fork-tender. Mash with butter, milk, salt and pepper. Place on top of ground beef mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes.
Serves 4 (or 1 football player).
Owner/Operator, Houmas House Plantation and Gardens
There are two dishes Kevin Kelly’s mother, Alice, won’t eat unless she cooks them: red beans and rice, and spaghetti and meatballs. They happen to be Kelly’s favorite dishes from childhood.
“No matter what red beans we have, it could be from the best restaurant in the world, she won’t eat it.” And that includes Café Burnside, one of three – soon to be four – restaurants at the Houmas House Plantation and Gardens that Kelly owns.
At 88, Alice Kelly lives on the beautiful plantation grounds where her son built her a cottage, with a kitchen and garden in which to reside, and she frequently cooks for herself and son despite easy access to the gourmet and casual restaurants that surround her.
“She was always cooking,” says Kelly. “I remember her all the time cooking.”
Growing up in New Orleans East, Kelly went to a school that had no cafeteria, but that didn’t stop him from having hot lunches. While the other children munched sandwiches and other cold food, Kelly enjoyed red beans and rice and spaghetti and meatballs, hot from a thermos.
“We were never allowed to eat them on the first day,” he says of his mother’s red beans. “They had to chill out in the refrigerator and marinate overnight.”
Kelly purchased the antebellum estate and former sugar plantation in 2003. He has since renovated the 1828 Greek Revival house, fully developed acres of gardens complete with bridges and fountains and opened Latil’s Landing, a dinner-only gourmet restaurant; Café Burnside, a bustling lunch venue; and the Turtle Bar Coffee Shop, housed in a former pigeonnier. Opening in May will be a new carriage house tea room, serving appetizers and small plates from morning to night.
Despite his love for food, Kelly never cooked a day in his life. “I never will,” he says. “I’m lazy and I don’t want to chop. And, I don’t do dishes.” His team of chefs does this for him and has even tried to match Alice Kelly’s red beans recipe.
“Quite honestly, I can’t tell the difference between the two,” he says. “I think they taste the same.”
Alice Kelly’s Red Beans and Rice
1 pound dried kidney beans
1 1/2 quarts water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup diced onion
1/4 cup minced garlic
1 link smoked pork sausage, cut in 1/4-inch circles
1 large smoked ham hock
1 bay leaf
Louisiana hot sauce to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
4 cups cooked white rice
Rinse red beans. In a large container soak beans in the water for at least 1 hour. This can be done overnight in a refrigerator.
In a large saucepan heat oil over medium-high heat, sauté onion, garlic and sausage for 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are clear and wilted. Add beans (with the water), ham hock and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer and cook until beans are tender, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Take out ham hock, cut meat away from bone and add to the pot of beans. Season to taste with Louisiana hot sauce and salt and pepper.
Serve in soup bowls over hot rice.
Actor; Owner/Operator Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe
“You wouldn’t believe the people who come through here,” says Dwight Henry of his Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in the 7th Ward. “A couple from New York came yesterday, came to New Orleans just to see me.”
That is because Henry, a local baker, became the overnight star of the award-winning movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. Now he’s opening another bakery in New York, acting in a new film and writing a cookbook. All because, he says, “I was raised in a way to believe in yourself.”
Edna Henry had a lot to do with that. Her influence on her 47-year-old son helped him pursue his dream of opening his own bakery and forever marked his love of good food.
“I was raised around good home cooking,” he says. “My mom cooked six days a week, and my grandma cooked six hot meals a week.” His family lifestyle, he says, was “old school” with his father, now deceased, working as a physician and his mother giving full-time to the household. His sister, Veronica Henry, today is a First City Court judge.
In the summer after 10th grade, he worked cleaning up in Sunrise Bakery in the Lower 9th Ward. “I would see the older guys baking bread and I said, ‘I wanna get over there one day.’” By the summer of 11th grade, he had a job baking and “fell in love with it.” From there, he worked for Binder’s Bakery, Whole Foods, Dorignac’s and a catering company. “Everywhere I went, I picked up something different. When McKenzie’s closed, I said, ‘This is the perfect time to go into business.’”
Although his career sights have expanded, he still gets to his bakery at 6 a.m. every morning and plans an expansion. Breakfast includes everything from bacon and eggs to pork chops, liver and catfish, and lunch follows with poor boys and plate lunches. Snowballs are sold on the opposite side of the building. Customers often stand in line for buttermilk drops, and the bakery was sold out by 10 a.m. on a recent visit.
There is no doubt in Henry’s mind of which of his mother’s dishes are his favorite, and he shakes his head just thinking about it. “Stuffed bell peppers. Every time she cooked it, it was my favorite dish – stuffed bell peppers with macaroni and cheese.”
Three months ago, Henry joined Michelle Obama at the White House, speaking to 50 children about believing in themselves. He told them about his life and the difficulties he faced starting a business. He is soon to open, with partners, Mr. Henry’s Bakery and Café in Harlem, N.Y., and has just returned from Germany where he worked on a Marvin Gay film titled Sexual Healing.
Edna Henry’s Stuffed Bell Peppers
12 bell peppers
2 1/2 pounds chuck roast, ground twice by butcher
3 pounds small Louisiana shrimp
1 pound lump crabmeat
1 large onion, chopped
2 bell peppers, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
6 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
Low-sodium chicken broth
Reising’s stuffing mix
Progresso seasoned bread crumbs
Slice bell peppers in half and parboil in a pot of boiling water until they’re slightly cooked but not soft.
In a skillet, brown ground meat and discard fat.
Peel and devein shrimp, and check crabmeat for any shells.
In a heavy pot, sauté onion, chopped peppers, green onions and garlic in a little vegetable oil. Add shrimp and cook until they turn pink, and add ground beef and all other ingredients except bread crumbs with just enough chicken broth to moisten. Add stuffing mix to bind mixture, balancing broth and stuffing for a good consistency. Add crabmeat and toss gently so as not to break it up.
Stuff into bell pepper halves and sprinkle with Progresso bread crumbs. Line peppers closely together on a large baking pan, and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes or until brown and bubbly on top.
Serves a crowd.