Great Breakfast, New Orleans Style
It all started with Elizabeth Kettenring Begue, who migrated from Bavaria to New Orleans in the late 1800s, feeding French Market workers from her kitchen on Decatur Street where Tujaque’s now stands. Her 50-item Bohemian Breakfast, which cost $1 including wine, attracted not only the farmers and fishermen but also, eventually, gourmets from across the country.
The idea stuck. Several hours of what is now called brunch afforded good coffee, great food, wine, conversation and relaxation. Restaurants and hotels continue the meal, particularly on weekends and holidays, often spiced up by jazz musicians – but one restaurant in particular extends the privilege on a daily basis.
“If you want to have escargots for breakfast, you can have it,” says Lazone Randolph, Brennan’s executive chef. “If you want oysters Rockefeller, you can have it. We have salmon on the breakfast menu, blackened red fish, all the egg dishes. We’ve got everything covered that you can imagine having for breakfast.”
After 42 years at Brennan’s, Randolph knows that more people will order Eggs Hussarde and Bananas Foster than any items on the menu, day in and day out. Both dishes were invented at the French Quarter restaurant and are matched in popularity only by turtle soup.
Drawn by such dishes, locals and tourists alike relax European-style over a milk punch, glass of wine and good conversation.
At breakfast and brunch, owner Ted Brennan says, “80 percent of our tables have wine on them,” one characteristic that certainly sets breakfast in New Orleans apart.
A relative newcomer to the restaurant scene carries the name of a famous breakfast item that was nearly extinct before its opening. Calas, rice cakes made with eggs, rice and flour, were powdered with sugar and sold on the streets of the French Quarter in the 19th century to be eaten with a cup of café au lait. Black cooks wearing bandanas carried bowls of calas on their heads. Their cries penetrated the morning air: “Belles calas tout chauds!” The name calas came from an African word for rice.
Now, Calas restaurant in Kenner brings back the traditional dish, serving the sweet calas as dessert as well as savory variations made with seafood, andouille and even New Orleans-style red beans.
“People call me over and say, ‘It’s just like my grandmother’s,’” says Vickie Krantz, proprietor of Calas. “Eighty percent of tables order it.”
And the new executive chef at Calas, Christie Plaisance, loves dreaming up new twists for calas. Strawberry with a glitzed up Romanoff sauce and pumpkin are two of the favorites. She uses blankets of orange caramel, green onion and pepper jelly sauces to flavor sweet and savory calas.
Another famous brunch dish was created by Antoine Alciatore in the 19th century at Antoine’s for the dining pleasure of French playwright Victorien Sardou. The original recipe placed anchovy fillets and hot poached eggs over warm cooked artichoke hearts, drenched them with Hollandaise sauce and garnished all with chopped ham and truffle slices. Some chefs add spinach to the dish but few menus sprinkle the eggs with expensive truffles.
Egg dishes were popular in 19th century restaurants when the petit dejeuner, or breakfast, drew customers and later when theater-goers and performers dined late after the theaters closed.
While restaurants have made these dishes known to the world, home cooks have been just as busy with their versions of traditional breakfast dishes, some lost or nearly gone while others are still in vogue. Calas, lost bread, grits and grillades, crêpes and omelets are as much a part of the local heritage as gumbo and French bread.
Omelets wore a Creole spin in the 19th century, from one recipe using ham and tomatoes to a version with rum, both recorded in the 1901 The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book. For years, hostesses have dazzled guests with their fancy crêpes filled with shellfish from local waters. Crabmeat, shrimp and crawfish make succulent stuffings for the delicate pancakes. And lost bread, also known as pain perdu and French toast, has meant breakfast in south Louisiana for many generations. It is an age-old technique of reviving stale bread. Different European countries have their own versions but basically it’s bread soaked in an egg-milk mixture and browned in butter. A sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar or a drizzle of cane syrup, such as the Louisiana-made Steen’s, tops it off for a glorious way to begin the day.
While eggs dominate the breakfast table, either under blankets of Hollandaise or folded into light preparations, grillades is one hearty meat dish that has stood the test of time from Madame Begue’s black iron pots to this year’s Mardi Gras brunches. Served with grits, grillades is as much gravy as it is veal or beef. Depending on the choice of meat, grillades can be cooked for hours or minutes. Calf or beef requires long simmering while baby veal cooks quickly. Home cooks commonly choose round steak, cut it into strips or medallions, pound it to tenderize and simmer it for an hour or two. Grillade is French for grill but to the early Creole, it meant meat fried in lard, either with or without gravy. The recipe with gravy has endured, attaching itself to grits 90 percent of the time, although rice stands in as a good substitution.
To complete the traditional Creole breakfast, serve your choice of wine and a good café au lait.
1/2 poor boy loaf French bread, one to two days old
1 1/2 cups milk
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 tablespoons butter
Louisiana cane syrup
Slice bread into rounds about 1-inch thick. In a large bowl, beat eggs, add milk and sugar, and mix thoroughly. Stir in vanilla and nutmeg. Place bread in mixture and soak for about 2 minutes. In a large skillet, heat half the butter to medium-hot. Drain half the bread and sauté about 2 minutes on each side until golden brown. Repeat with remaining butter and bread slices. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar. A small strainer works best for sifting and sprinkling the sugar. Some may prefer cane syrup such as Steen’s in which case confectioners’ sugar may be left off. Serve syrup on the table. Serves 4.
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 small onion, chopped
2 9-ounce bags fresh, washed spinach
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
8 artichoke bottoms, freshly cooked or canned
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 cups Hollandaise sauce
In a large pot, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and sauté onion. Add spinach, half at a time, and cover to wilt over a low fire, stirring frequently. Sauté spinach until wilted and just done. (This takes just a few minutes.) Set aside.
In a small pot, melt remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and turn off heat. Stir or whisk in the flour until mixed thoroughly and add gradually the heavy cream, mixing until smooth. Return to heat and, stirring constantly over low heat, cook until thickened. Do not boil. Add salt and pepper to taste and nutmeg. Stir into the spinach and set aside.
Prepare artichoke bottoms and keep warm.
Heat 1 quart of water with salt and vinegar in a large frying pan. When it reaches a gentle simmer, place eggs, one at a time, in a cup and slide carefully into water. Cook for about 3 minutes until the white is done and yolk is still runny. It is easier to cook 4 at the time and hold them in a warm place while cooking the other 4.
To assemble, place 1/4 of the creamed spinach on each plate and top with 2 artichoke bottoms. Place a poached egg in each artichoke bottom, and top all with Hollandaise sauce. Serves 4.
4 egg yolks
1 pound butter (4 sticks)
5 teaspoons lemon juice
Beat yolks for 1 minute in the top of a double boiler over low heat. Add 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter and melt slowly, beating. In a glass measuring cup, gently melt the remaining 3 1/2 sticks of butter in the microwave, being careful not to boil or separate, stirring frequently. Add slowly to the egg mixture, stirring constantly, in the double boiler over low heat. Add lemon juice, 1 teaspoon at the time, while adding melted butter. Continue to warm and stir the sauce until all is combined and thickened. To keep the temperature low, move the pot on and off the fire. This is best served immediately. If you must hold the sauce before serving, remove from the heat and reheat over very low heat, stirring. Makes about 2 cups.
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cups long-grained white rice
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Bring water to a boil. Add rice, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until rice is done, about 20 minutes.
In a large bowl, sift all dry ingredients together. Add rice, eggs and vanilla and stir together well.
In a deep frying pot, heat 3 inches of oil to 365 degrees.
Drop heaping tablespoons of calas mixture into oil, being careful not to crowd the pot.
Let calas cook about 5 minutes until golden brown on all sides. Take up on paper towels, drain and sift confectioners’ sugar on top. Serve immediately. Makes about 18 to 20 calas.
1/2 tablespoon plus 2 tablespoons butter, divided
4 green onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup tomatoes, red ripe if in season, peeled and chopped, or diced
Pinch salt, freshly ground pepper, cayenne pepper and sugar, or to taste
2 tablespoons milk or cream
1/2 cup finely chopped ham
Melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in a small sauce pan and sauté green onions until soft. Add garlic and sauté another minute. Add tomatoes and seasonings, cover and cook for 30 minutes over low heat. Stir occasionally.
Beat 3 eggs in a bowl, add 1 tablespoon milk or cream and whisk until frothy.
Heat 1 tablespoon butter in the skillet, swirling it around to cover the surface. When at medium heat, pour eggs into skillet and swirl to cover bottom. Turn heat to low. Sprinkle eggs with salt and pepper. When eggs begin to set, spoon half of tomato mixture onto one side of eggs. Top tomato with half the ham. When eggs are no longer translucent, flip empty side over filled side. After a minute or so, use a long spatula to turn omelet over. Cook another minute, slide omelet onto plate and keep warm in low oven. Repeat with remaining ingredients to make another omelet. Sprinkle omelets with parsley and serve. Makes 2 omelets.
Perfect poached eggs
Put 4 cups of water into a medium saucepan. Add 2 tablespoons white vinegar. Bring to a simmer.
Place an egg in a shallow cup and gently drop into simmering water. Add several more eggs but do not overcrowd the pot. As the eggs sink to the bottom, the whites should wrap around the yolks.
The eggs will rise to the top and continue simmering for a total cooking time of 3 minutes or until the whites are firm.
Lift out carefully with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Crêpes with Crabmeat
3 green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
6 ounces Creole cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt, freshly grated black pepper and cayenne
pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups lump crabmeat
1 cup flour
1 1/4 cups milk
1 tablespoon melted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
Butter for brushing
1 1/2 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 tablespoon flour
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon sherry
1 tablespoon minced parsley
Salt and pepper
To make the stuffing, sauté the green onions in the butter until soft. Remove from heat and stir in the cream cheese. Add the Tabasco and Worcestershire and season to taste. Finally, fold in the crabmeat, being careful not to break apart any more than necessary. Set aside.
To make the crêpes, place the eggs, flour, milk, melted butter and salt in a blender and whip until smooth. Cover and set in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
Pour a tablespoon of vegetable oil into a 10-inch non-stick skillet and swirl around. Then wipe it out with a paper towel. Heat to medium-high heat and pour 1/4 cup of batter into skillet. Swirl to coat bottom. In 1 minute or 2, when the edges are browning and batter is setting, use a rubber spatula to loosen the crêpe from the skillet. Turn the crêpe over and cook about 1 more minute. or less, until dry. Remove from pan and and continue making the crêpes, letting the finished ones cool. Stack with sheets of wax paper between crêpes. Add additional oil to the pan, wiping with a paper towel, as needed.
When ready to serve, fill the center of each crêpe with 2 tablespoons of the filling. Roll sides to overlap and place crêpes in a baking pan. Continue until all crêpes are filled and lined in the pan. Melt about 1 tablespoon of butter and brush the tops of the crêpes. Place in a 350-degree oven and heat for about 10 minutes. Makes 8 to 10 crêpes.
If making sauce, melt butter in small sauce pan. Remove from heat and stir in flour until smooth. Gradually stir in milk, mixing well. Add sherry. Over medium heat and stirring constantly, simmer the sauce until thickened and barely bubbling around the edges. Do not boil. Remove from heat and add parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Serve sauce on the side to drizzle over crêpes. Makes about 1 cup.
Café au lait
Café au lait is an integral part of the New Orleans breakfast. It is a strong Louisiana-blended coffee and chicory mixed with equal parts of heated milk. But it doesn’t stop in the mornings. Locals have long drunk café au lait throughout the day – when friends and relatives drop by to visit, at lunch and after dinner. Certainly, beignets demand it. Traditionally the white enamel drip pot was standard and the drip brew is still preferred.
Brew a pot of strong coffee and chicory, approximately 2 heaping tablespoons coffee to 1 cup water. Use a local coffee such as French Market, Union, Community or CDM.
Heat an equal amount of whole milk until skin forms on top. Do not boil. When ready to pour, remove skin.
Using both hands, pour equal amounts of coffee and milk into a cup at the same time. Sweeten as desired. Serve immediately.
Note: To make 3 cups of café au lait, use 4 heaping tablespoons coffee and 2 cups water. When brewed, pour coffee with 2 cups milk.
Grits and Grillades
2 pounds veal or beef round steak, about 1/2 inch thick
2 cups flour
Salt, freshly ground pepper and Creole seasoning
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped with white and green parts divided
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, or 3 large Creole tomatoes, peeled and
diced, when in season
2 1/2 cups beef stock, homemade or canned
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley
Trim round steak of fat and bone. Cut into pieces about 2-by-3 inches and pound to 1/4-inch thickness. Mix flour with about 1/2 teaspoon each of salt, pepper and Creole seasoning. Dredge each piece of meat in seasoned flour, pressing it into meat.
Heat oil in a large, heavy pot. Over medium-high heat, brown meat pieces on both sides a few at a time being careful not to overcrowd pot. When well-browned, take up on a platter. Reduce heat and sauté onion, bell pepper, celery and white part of green onions. When soft, add garlic and sauté a minute more. Stir in tomatoes, and add beef stock. Add bay leaves, thyme and Worcestershire sauce, return meat to pot and simmer, covered, until meat is fork tender, about an hour, stirring occasionally. (If using baby white veal, cook only for 15 minutes.) When finished, add 1/4cup green onion tops and parsley. Serve over grits or grits souffle. Serves 6.
3 cups cooked grits, salted to taste*
3 eggs, separated
3/4 cup milk
1/2 stick butter, melted
In a large bowl or pot in which grits were cooked, combine grits with beaten egg yolks, milk and butter. In an electric mixer, beat egg whites until stiff and fold gently into grits. Place in greased medium casserole or souffle dish. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Serve immediately. Serves 6.
*Cook 1 cup quick grits in 3 cups salted water to get 3 cups grits.