10 classic New Orleans dishes
Unbeknownst to the average tourist dining at restaurants such as the Bon Ton Café or Galatoire’s, bread pudding was not the invention of a chef or any other person with a culinary background. Nor was shrimp Creole or redfish courtbouillon – or many other classic dishes on menus of fashionable restaurants – the creation of the imaginative brains of culinarians.
Rather, these taste-teasing legendary New Orleans dishes were born at the humble hands of home cooks, who had to feed large families and therefore wasted nary a crumb. Bread pudding, the Crescent City’s premier dessert, was creative. It used up any leftover French bread that, without preservatives, would turn rock-hard the next day. Imaginative cooks softened the bread by cracking a few fresh henhouse eggs, sprinkling on some cane sugar or molasses, and pouring in milk or cream fresh from the cow. At dinner that night, the family savored the delicious dessert.
Whether French, Spanish, African or Italian, early New Orleanians shared crises of war, slavery, mosquitoes and heat. But when it came to what they would eat, they looked around and saw a treasure chest of shellfish in the swamps and estuaries, and a sea of the finest fin fish. Further, the delta soil was rich, good for growing tomatoes, peppers, citrus fruits, sugar cane and berries – not to mention that the perfect conditions for cultivating rice were right under their feet. Today, this area has become a magnet for chefs from all over the world.
“I really like the home-style cooking that you find here,” says Cuvée’s rising-star chef, Bob Iacovone, who grew up in south Florida. “It’s so rich in heritage. You don’t really find that in Florida. You can’t find it anywhere else in the world.” After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Iacovone migrated to New Orleans because of its cooking.
“I could tell that people down here enjoy cooking,” he continues. “They don’t see it as a chore. That’s pretty rare, too. It brings family together.” And the ingredients we have to work with amaze him. “I like the oysters and crab and the crawfish. It’s amazing what the people do with the charcuterie; I really like the fresh sausage. A lot of foods here you can’t find anywhere else in the world – what I’m talking about are the étouffées, jambalayas and gumbos, even things I don’t put on the menu, like muffulettas and poor-boys. That’s pretty neat, too. That’s why I came here.”
“That was the big thing for me – the food,” says Chef Rene Bajeux of Rene Bistrot. Not the French Quarter or anything else, he says, but “the tuna, the flounder, the crab and, oh, the crawfish when it’s in season. I wanted to play with that kind of stuff.”
Bajeux, originally from Lorraine, France, cooked in many parts of the world, including France and Hawaii, and was in Chicago when the call came to be the top toque at the Windsor Court Hotel’s Grill Room. Now, in his own restaurant, he uses 90 percent local seafood and fish. “It is just incredible – speckled trout, flounder, amberjack. I love it all.”
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Chef Emeril Lagasse was accustomed to an abundance of seafood. But when he moved to Louisiana in the 1980s, “I was introduced to a whole new list of fresh and saltwater seafood. For instance, I fell in love with crawfish. The oysters that are available here are fantastic, and I’ve slurped down my fair share and more on the half-shell, as well as the traditional oysters Bienville and Rockefeller.
“And the Louisiana shrimp! Well, I love using them in stews, gumbos and paired with eggplant,” Lagasse enthuses. “I can’t ever get enough of fresh crab meat. And what about those great soft-shell crabs! The fish from the Gulf of Mexico never fail to inspire me. Trout, redfish, pompano, snapper, grouper are all great.”
“When you have fresh seafood, as well as other local ingredients,” he continues, “it isn’t hard to come up with spectacular combinations, like an oyster-and-pork-sausage casserole, shrimp and grits, all kinds of jambalayas, Creole tomatoes topped with cold lump crab meat tossed with homemade mayonnaise, boiled shrimp dipped in tartar sauce, flounder stuffed with shrimp and crab meat. I could go on and on … ”
The story of New Orleans food is world-renowned. Many call it the best in the country, but locals have known it all along. Blessed with succulent seafood and hearty vegetables, moms and pops drew on their European and African heritages to maximize their riches. While we must hand it to restaurants for their great inventions – oysters Rockefeller, bananas Foster and eggs Sardou, to name a few – we salute the ordinary cooks who put world-class dishes on the table for their families long before a restaurant meal became a reality. Here are 10 of the classics as cooked in black iron pots in home kitchens and outside on backyard burners. In other words, it’s what’s for dinner.
A hallmark of Creole cooking, jambalaya is one of the best combinations of native ingredients – rice and seafood. Put them in a heavy pot with just the right seasonings and an explosion of flavor is born.
The name is believed to have come from the French word jambon, meaning ham. From the beginning, Creole cooks relied heavily on pork, making charcuterie an annual event where no part of the pig went unused. Besides roasts, ribs, chops and hams, many new products were forthcoming – hogshead cheese, pickled pigs’ feet and later, tasso, one of the strongest seasoning meats used in cooking today.
Jambalaya gets its share of pork, usually sausage and sometimes tasso, pieces of slow-wood-smoked pork shoulder. The great thing about the dish is that many ingredients can be used – or not. New Orleans cooks generally use tomato, another Creole jewel, while Cajun cooks do not.
The rice is seasoned with the “holy trinity” (onions, celery and bell peppers) and simmers slowly in a spicy concoction of stock, to which shrimp, sausage and frequently chicken are added. It’s an all-in-one affair that needs nothing more than crusty French bread and salad to form the perfect meal. Serve hot sauce on the side.
Crawfish étouffée is a relatively new dish to city cooking, considering that crawfish were not marketed heavily in New Orleans until 1959, when the state Legislature allocated funds for crawfish farming. They were originally a wild catch, popular in rural areas and in southwest Louisiana. Early Creoles used crawfish sparingly in French-inspired dishes, but their recipes for ecrevisses were a far cry from the heavy, spicy dishes that followed. Once New Orleanians discovered crawfish’s great flavor and versatility and the fun of crawfish boils, rice farmers began alternating rice and crawfish crops to meet the demand (after rice is harvested, farmers flood their fields and farm crawfish, which eat the leftover grains).
Drawing once again on French influences, local cooks found that a stew, or étouffée, was the perfect setting for the tasty mudbug. Cajuns made it their own, seasoning it with cayenne pepper or hot sauce and serving it over fluffy white rice. With peeled crawfish tails plentiful in grocery stores, étouffée is simple to make, yet it holds its own at fancy dinner parties. A medium-dark roux, frequently made with butter and some of the crawfish fat, makes it rich and irresistible. Buy peeled Louisiana crawfish tails with fat. Or peel your own boiled crawfish tails and reserve the fat from the heads.
Strawberry shortcake is about as all-American as apple pie, but nowhere in the country do residents prize their very own strawberry crop as they do in Louisiana. The local berry is redder, sweeter and juicier, and nobody disputes that.
It all goes back to the Tangi variety, which most of us remember as a smaller berry, ruby-red to the core and so sweet it didn’t need sugar. Then along came the California berry, as big as a golf ball. The only down side was that sometimes the berry was white in the center and, truthfully, it was kind of dry. Nonetheless, it was piled high in every produce department in town.
Well, Louisiana farmers got the idea they’d grow some golf balls, too, so they planted the West Coast variety Camarosa. Because of Camarosa’s size, it doesn’t look like a Louisiana berry, but it tastes more like Louisiana’s than California’s. Why? Because these are picked ripe and sold locally. They don’t have to be shipped with high levels of carbon dioxide to keep them fresh. And we can eat them the same or the next day after they are picked, compared to four to seven days later.
The local berries are worth the trip, even if you have to go looking for them at a roadside stand or farmers market. Going into May, there is no sweeter end to a springtime meal than a strawberry shortcake made from the local crop. Some farmers who sell them at the Crescent City Farmers Market are now planting the Tangis too for old time’s sake. They’re even mulching with pine straw instead of plastic, recalling the days when Northshore farmers collected straw from the woods and hauled it into the fields to place around the strawberry plants. Maybe you didn’t know that’s where the berries got their funny name.
Incidentally, farmers say the Tangi berry used to be huge, too. Over time, berries tend to get smaller. There are several varieties being grown now in Louisiana, and the good news is that more acres are planted in 2005 than have been in years.
A dish designed to use leftover stale bread in modest Creole homes has been taken to the heights by creative New Orleans chefs and become the most celebrated dessert in the city. French bread, milk and eggs are the basics. The dish is flavored by vanilla and sprinkled with raisins. But local cooks have a way of elevating even the lowliest dish to greatness, and the buttery sauce spiked with brandy or whiskey is the crowning glory. New versions infuse bread pudding with many ingredients – white chocolate, milk chocolate, nuts, coconut and fruit. A bread pudding soufflé became the most popular dessert at Commander’s Palace.
Ironically, this dessert is built on the reputation of New Orleans’ famous French bread, said to be unlike any other in the United States. Is it the water that makes the difference? No one really knows, but bakers from France and Germany set the standard in the 19th century, and some of the same families still produce the artisan bread that makes yet another legendary dish, the poor-boy, a culinary wonder duplicated nowhere else.
Red beans and rice
Most cultures have a beans-and-rice dish – the combination of the two makes a complete protein equivalent to meat. South Americans favor black beans, chickpeas are the choice in the Middle East, and Asian cuisines draw on a variety of beans. Southerners love their black-eyed peas, but in New Orleans, the red bean is king. It’s cheap, nutritious and flavorful. Best of all, it’s easy to cook when you have something else to do, like laundry. Monday was the traditional wash day in New Orleans, and a pot of well-seasoned red beans could simmer gently on the stove with little attention while the clothes were washed, dried and put away – a major undertaking before electric washing machines and dryers.
Seasoning the beans is the key to the dish, and pork adds the most important flavor. Ham, ham bones and smoked sausage are typical ingredients, although smoked pork has become more common. If fat is a concern, lean ham and andouille sausage are the best bets, yielding great flavor without high fat. The trinity plus garlic do the rest. Make them as spicy as you want and serve over Louisiana rice. The same ingredients can be used for two other local favorite beans, the white bean and the dried lima.
Louisiana’s waters are blessed with so many succulent fish that huge amounts are exported to countries such as Japan. A few decades ago, New Orleans restaurant menus featured speckled trout more than any other fish, especially prepared amandine and meuniere, two French presentations. Almost as popular was flounder, sometimes called sole, frequently prepared en papillote (cooked in parchment) or stuffed with crab meat and topped with rich sauces. Then came the era of redfish, so popularized by Chef Paul Prudhomme’s blackening recipe that the crop was diminished and for years was prohibited to commercial fishermen. Trout fishing is still legal but not with nets, limiting the commercial catch. Thus, the whole spectrum of available fish has changed.
You might see redfish or trout on menus occasionally from farms or other regions, but local fish now consists mostly of farm-raised catfish, black drum or puppy drum (similar to redfish, which is also a drum) and a few other varieties. Actually, Louisiana waters are also loaded with sac-au-lait and amberjack, but you have to know a good fishermen to get a supply of those.
The classic French courtbouillon (pronounced coo-bee-on) is an aromatic stock only lightly seasoned and containing wine, lemon or vinegar, in which various fish and some meats are cooked. In Louisiana, courtbouillon means a spicy red sauce starting with a roux and featuring tomatoes. Redfish from Texas are commonly used, but black drum substitutes well, as does red snapper and even catfish.
Coastal Louisiana holds the key to much of the best food in the world, but none is more spectacular than cold, salty oysters. Raw, they are a mouthful of bliss. Fried, they are a crunchy delight. Blanketed in Rockefeller or Bienville sauces, they are fit for a king – a king with good taste. But these are just the standard oyster dishes. Oysters are complementary to other foods, so they work in many preparations.
It’s no surprise then that Creoles and Cajuns, who love to stuff things, would make oysters first and foremost in their holiday dressings. Come Thanksgiving, people discuss how good the oyster season is, how much they cost and when to buy them. Some say the best part of the Thanksgiving feast occurs after it’s over, when you make turkey gumbo. A main ingredient, of course, is oysters. Three weeks later, it’s time to buy oysters for Christmas. Many New Orleanians think winter is the best time of year: For the most part, the weather is pretty and the oysters are abundant.
Die-hards refute the old adage that oysters should only be eaten in the “R” months, September through April. Even if the waters are warmer, they say, and the oysters are smaller and slightly cloudy, the taste is still there. Certainly, summer oysters are better than no oysters at all. Even if you do reserve your oyster eating for fall and winter, there are plenty of months to savor their fresh taste. Add to them French bread and a few seasonings, and you’re ready to stuff the turkey or veal or pork roast, or to offer a tasty side dish for any occasion.
If there is any dish that stands for New Orleans and south Louisiana, it is gumbo. And in this city seafood takes the lead, whereas chicken and sausage reign in Cajun land. Purists prefer the sweet finesse of shrimp, crabs and oysters, and other cooks – the kitchen sink. Building on the seafood base, you might add chicken or smoked turkey necks. Specialty gumbos include turkey-oyster (using the carcass of the holiday bird), greens (in gumbo z’herbes) during Lent and wild goose, a favorite of hunters. For thickening, some cooks add okra during cooking, while others add filé powder (ground sassafras leaves) to individual bowls when serving. City folks add tomato; Cajuns keep it brown. One thing is for sure: All gumbo begins with a roux. And it is made of all local ingredients and served over indigenous rice. Duck is a choice ingredient, and for restaurant-goers, it is hard to beat a rich, deep brown, highly flavored duck-and-andouille gumbo.
People born and raised here tend to cook gumbo like their mother did (or their father or grandmother), and the recipe is passed down from one generation to the next, along with the antiques and embroidered napkins. Gumbo got its name from the African word for okra, but whether you use okra or not, the dish is now at home in New Orleans.
Louisiana’s average annual catch of shrimp is 100 million pounds, making it the largest seafood industry in the state, (except for menhaden, which is mostly used for cat food and fish oil). And Louisiana is the largest producer of shrimp in the country.
Two seasons produce shrimp: from May to July, brown shrimp, and from September to December, white shrimp, and the abundance keeps local prices down to a pittance, compared to the costs in northern markets.
There is virtually no limit to the use of shrimp in south Louisiana cooking. One dish that has been popular for the better part of a century is shrimp Creole, which contains a well-seasoned, roux-based tomato gravy that is served over white rice. Its ingredients are local and its technique is Creole to the core.
Fat blue crabs are a year-round harvest in Louisiana, and for many decades they have been boiled in spicy water and piled on newspapers or plastic tablecloths for eager diners to dig into. Before the crawfish boil became the standard backyard boil, locals were cracking crab legs and prying open the aprons to pick the delicate meat. A trip to Middendorf’s in Manchac or to get takeout from a New Orleans seafood outlet is a delicious Friday-night routine. Beer is the standard accompaniment.
Blue crabs peak between May and October. It’s the flavor of the blue crab that sets it apart from other crabs, and at the height of the season the yellow fat matches the sweet, succulent taste of blue-crab meat. The variety is plentiful from Louisiana, on around the tip of Florida and up to Maryland. Louisiana is the No. 2 producer of crabs in the country. The difference in our blue crabs is the cooking; more spice and more heat is the recipe. •