Ask Leah Chase what soul food is and she’ll say, “It’s food that soothes you when you eat it. It fills you up. It tastes good. Anybody in the South has been eating it all his life.”
She should know. She’s been called the Queen of Soul Food and the Queen of Creole Cuisine. “It’s the same thing,” she says of the two styles of cooking although Louisiana’s soul food differs somewhat from the rest of Deep South cooking because “it’s the seasonings and herbs we put in it here that make it totally different.”
Chase, 96, is in the kitchen at 7:30 a.m. at Dooky Chase Restaurant cooking a pot of gumbo or red beans. Her daily buffet defines soul food with award-winning fried chicken, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, greens, cornbread and more.
This cooking style was born in the rural American South where enslaved Africans created dishes from limited resources.
Cornbread and biscuits were used to sop up juices from stews made with bony parts of meat. Fish and game were caught in the wild, and wood fires delivered some of the South’s first barbecue. Cooks influenced kitchens of plantation houses where soul food merged with European techniques.
Katrina reduced numbers of small family-run soul food restaurants in New Orleans. They lost many cooks and waiters who never returned to the city. Some were wiped out entirely by flood waters.
Diet changes, too, have prompted menu changes.
“There are more vegans than ever,” Chase said. “We’ll cook red beans sometimes with no meat. We use a lot of onions, garlic, bell pepper, parsley, thyme, bay leaves and a little oil and make them good and creamy.”
Changes come and go, but one thing stays the same when cooking soul food. “We take our time,” Chase said. “It makes the food taste a whole lot better.”
Various versions of soul food fluctuate throughout the South, especially in New Orleans where Creole flavors spice up the pot. Myesha Brown’s newly opened soul food restaurant Bonnets NOLA adds another flavor – Caribbean.
Brown grew up eating deep-South soul food cooked by her Mississippi-born grandparents in a Caribbean neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Now a restaurateur in the Lower Garden District, she has created a menu with both fried chicken and jerk chicken, collard greens and yucca. Her diners’ favorite is jerk rolls, a combination of collard greens, jerk chicken and gouda cheese wrapped in an eggroll and deep-fried.
“A lot of my best friends are vegan so I wanted that, too,” she says. Some choices are candied yams, Brussels sprouts, chickpeas, cauliflower and nuts in a variety of soul and Caribbean creations.
She and Tommy Smith, her New Orleans-born business manager, planned a place where people can have fun. “There’s not a lot of upscale soul food restaurants,” she said. “We wanted music and a good time, too.” A fully stocked bar, not common in soul food eateries, greets guests when they walk in the front door of the brick-walled, chandeliered restaurant where late-night weekend hours extend the party mood.
But it’s what’s on the table that attracts all walks of life. Some dishes are marinated overnight for maximum flavor, and there are specialties with oxtails, fresh goat, plantains and spices such as turmeric and cumin. Brown at one time dreamed of a seafood restaurant and delights in the use of local coastal shellfish and fish.
You are not likely to find a soul food restaurant in New Orleans without mac’ and cheese on the menu. Bonnets NOLA is no exception but its version has a surprise ingredient, crawfish, which marries perfectly with creamy pasta and three cheeses.
“We wanted to bring a vibrant cuisine to Magazine Street,” Smith said. “All our food is fresh. We have great red beans and rice.” Various beans and peas are sometimes alternated in the style of Caribbean peas and rice.
If Caribbean seems a stretch on a soul food menu, consider that the Creole cuisine of New Orleans comes from five major influences – French, Spanish, African, native American and Caribbean.
CRAWFISH MAC AND CHEESE
1 pound cavatappi noodles, preferred, or large macaroni
3 tablespoons butter
½ green bell pepper, chopped
½ red bell pepper, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
½ cup grated gouda cheese
1/3 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 pound Louisiana crawfish tails
Salt, pepper and Creole or Old Bay seasoning to taste
4 green onions, green parts only, chopped
Mozzarella and breadcrumbs for topping
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add macaroni, bring back to a boil and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain and toss with a little butter, about 2 teaspoons, and set aside.
2. Melt butter in a large heavy pot. Sauté green and red peppers, onion and celery until wilted. Gradually stir in milk and cream. Whisk in flour and heat over medium-low heat, stirring, until thickened. Add cheeses and let them melt. Add crawfish tails and simmer for about 10 minutes, covered. Taste to adjust seasonings. Add green onion tops and remove from heat.
3. To serve, place crawfish pasta in a large baking dish, glass or metal, and sprinkle lightly with more grated or shredded mozzarella and breadcrumbs. Place in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes to brown slightly. Serves 8.
1910 Magazine St., Hours, Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to midnight; 827-1959.
Dishes Not to Miss: Crawfish Mac’ and Cheese, Jerk rolls, Fried chicken
Dunbar’s Creole Cuisine
Celestine “Tina” Dunbar was 6-years-old the first time she made gumbo. Her father, a farmer in Lutcher, taught her how and, decades later, she’s still cooking it the same way.
For 30 years, she served her Creole-soul style of cooking at her Uptown restaurants where people from all walks of life loved to eat and hang out. Then Katrina washed out her long-running Freret Street location with five feet of water and put her out of business.
Finally, she’s back with a much larger restaurant than ever on Earhart Street in Broadmoor where she starts her gumbo at 5 a.m. every morning by her father’s recipe, rolls the crab balls that go on seafood platters and oversees a large operation that opens for breakfast and closes after dinner. Her long-time head chef Frank Jones, who began working for her at 19-years-old, and was redirected to Houston for 10 years by Katrina, has come back to her kitchen at the age of 51.
Dunbar’s opens the day with a log roller’s breakfast of fried pork chops, catfish, grilled liver and onions plus eggs, biscuits, pancakes and grits. Lunch moves in with daily specials like mustard greens and turkey necks, fried chicken and okra, red beans and rice, smothered okra and tomatoes, candied yams and stuffed peppers. Dinner expands with steaks, seafood platters, ribs and several pasta dishes. Specials and sides change, but there is always gumbo, fried chicken and corn bread.
“I bake all the cakes and desserts,” she said, and all the food is fresh. “We peel our own yams and cook our own greens.”
In June, she’s hosting a 30-year gala at the restaurant to commemorate her years running restaurants. But it’s harder than it used to be to make it financially. There are so many restaurants now, she said. And, “you c
an buy (ready to eat) food in all of the grocery stores. You are competing with so many.”
She has closed her Sunday brunch except on Mother’s Day and Easter, but hopefully all is well. After two years open, “we’re up to 75 percent now,” she said.
Dunbar has traveled a long road and sometimes misses the intimacy of her smaller restaurant on Freret Street. But with grandkids in the kitchen and faithful customers coming back, she’s back at it full-speed ahead with that tantalizing mixture of Creole and country cooking.
CREOLE SOUL GUMBO
1 pound smoked sausage, cut into ¼-inch rounds
6 chicken wings, cut in half with tips discarded
1 pound gumbo crabs
2 0.63-ounce packages dried shrimp
4 bay leaves
2 tablespoons filet powder
Black pepper and seasoning salt to taste
¾ cup vegetable oil
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 large onion, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
3 pounds fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined, or 2 pounds frozen medium-size shrimp
Cooked white rice
1. Place sausage, chicken wings, gumbo crabs and dried shrimp in a large pot. Add about 14 cups water and seasonings and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook for about 30 minutes.
2. While gumbo cooks, make a roux by adding flour and oil to a large, heavy skillet. Mix well until smooth. Over high heat, stir constantly until mixture begins to change color. Reduce heat to medium and continue stirring until roux is almost the color of dark chocolate. Reduce heat and add onions, green onions and celery and cook until vegetables are wilted. Remove from heat.
3. When meat and seafood have cooked, gradually stir in the roux until mixed well, and simmer for 15 more minutes. Add fresh shrimp, bring to a boil, cover and cook 1 minute. Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve over rice. Serves 8.
7834 Earhart Blvd.; hours, Monday – Saturday, 7 a.m. – 9 p.m.; 509-6287.
Dishes Not to Miss: Gumbo, Red beans and rice, Fried catfish
Li’l Dizzy’s Café
You can’t get hot sausage in Baton Rouge” was a common complaint heard by Wayne Baquet following Katrina.
“Everyone missed being able to get pickled pork, raw seasoning ham, local brands of smoked sausage and Italian sausage, French bread, coffee and chicory and so on,” he said, proving that local food is different, even 90 miles away.
Baquet’s Li’l Dizzy’s Café in Faubourg Treme is an oasis for New Orleans-style soul food, which he calls Creole-soul. Restaurant mainstays are fried chicken, potato salad and gumbo, but he also serves crawfish bisque, jambalaya and stuffed crabs, local dishes he puts in the soul food category.
With a freshly renovated kitchen on Esplanade Avenue, Baquet continues a family tradition begun in the 1940s by his father Eddie Baquet. After working in his father’s best-known and final restaurant Eddie’s, he has owned several of his own with similar menus to Eddie’s. You can judge its popularity by looking at the lines outside. “You can hardly get into the place,” he said of the Sunday brunch.
What brings them in are hearty breakfasts, including fried chicken and catfish, lunch buffets of sweet potatoes, butterbeans, red beans, mac’ and cheese, and of menus of fancier fare and steaks. There are also wings, burgers, poor boys and crawfish pies. Most of the recipes come from Baquet’s wife Janet, long known for her cooking, and over the years many of the cooks and waiters have been family members.
Baquet has taken his staff to Jazz Fest for 35 years, serving up crawfish bisque, gumbo, and redfish Baquet, a signature dish that once used trout.
When it comes to hot sausage, Li’l Dizzy’s makes its own, using ground pork, ground beef, onions, garlic and lots of seasonings. And, here’s a great tip for the home cooks who fry their own chicken. The secret is icing down well-seasoned chicken, something he learned when carrying chicken to Jazz Fest. The ice-cold chicken is then rolled in flour and deep-fried until pieces float to the top. That’s when it’s done.
When it comes to cooking, the bottom line for Baquet is that there is no food like New Orleans food. He said it this way when interviewed for the Southern Gumbo Trail oral histories: “We do things here that you can’t find any place else. We make our own sausages, we make our own stews, gumbos and jambalaya and stuffed peppers, and if you travel anywhere else outside of New Orleans you can’t find it.”
Stuffed Bell Peppers
6 bell peppers
1 pound shrimp
½ pound seasoning ham, diced
¼ pound smoked sausage, peeling removed and diced
1 ½ pounds ground beef
½ small onion, chopped
1 green onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
½ small bell pepper, chopped
1 tablespoon parsley flakes
½ teaspoon thyme leaves
¾ cup breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup water
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Cut peppers in half lengthwise and remove stems and white ridges. Place in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 5 minutes. Drain and place peppers on a baking pan and set aside.
2. Peel and devein shrimp and chop roughly and place in large bowl.
3. In a food processor, grind ham and sausage and place in bowl.
4. Add all other ingredients to bowl and mix well. Move to a large skillet or pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned. Distribute equally to stuff peppers and add about a half-inch of water to the bottom of the pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes. Serves 10 to 12.
1500 Esplanade Ave..; hours Monday – Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 569-8997.
Dishes Not to Miss: Fried chicken, Gumbo, Stuffed peppers