Last year, our May cover story was about “Recipe Recovery,” recalling the classic dishes of our past, many of which were lost on paper in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when cookbooks and recipe files washed away in the floods.
We featured stuffed mirlitons, redfish courtbouillon, Creole daube, stuffed bell peppers, shrimp remoulade and grillades.
So popular was the feature that we decided to do the same thing this year, only with different recipes. The list goes on and on.
Not a week goes by that I don’t think about how some relative cooked one of my childhood favorites. The meatballs and spaghetti from Aunt Rose, the Swiss steak from Aunt Edna and the legendary custard pies from my mother. Somehow, we just don’t cook it the same any more.
I would bet that any one of us longs for certain tastes remembered from childhood. I worked with a receptionist who could never find a teacake recipe like her grandmother’s and no matter how many I put before her, the mystery still prevailed. That is why I always urge young people to keep their parents’ and grandparents’ recipes alive, and the elders to record their children’s favorites.
As far as New Orleans’ reputation in the U.S. goes, it’s one of a kind – a foreign country, some say – and nowhere does its difference stand out more significantly than in its food. Here it’s oyster poor boys, soft-shell crabs and gumbo. There it’s hamburgers, barley soup and rhubarb pie. Here it’s stuffed mirlitons, grillades and daube. There it’s baked roast, boiled carrots and beets.
And it all goes back to the Creole kitchens and Cajun cottages where a French influence focused on dining long and well, no matter how small the budget. Pirogues sliced the bayous at dawn, pulling up fresh trout for the big noon meal. While they were at it, they netted a few soft-shell crawfish to fry for breakfast. In the city, cooks scoured the French Market early each day for the freshest okra, oysters and bread. Along came other influences – Spanish, Caribbean, African, American Indian – that spiced up the pot and added more interest to the local cuisine.
As new generations enter the kitchen, the challenge grows to hang on to our culinary heritage, which began in the home kitchen. Takeout is booming in the supermarkets, but shortcuts to cooking are there, too. For instance, supermarkets now sell boxes of frozen raw, peeled and sometimes deveined shrimp in a choice of sizes. Thus you have the choice to peel your own or to buy quality frozen seafood to stir up a quick gumbo. Personally, I don’t mind peeling a few shrimp – and I want the freshest for a boil – but if I’m serving a crowd, I don’t hesitate to go with the frozen product. They are local and quick-frozen and you can hardly tell the difference in an etouffée or gumbo.
Certain ingredients make south Louisiana home cooking memorable. First there’s the roux. By simply browning flour in oil or butter, you have a base that adds flavor and texture to a robust dish. Then comes “The Trinity” – chopped onion, celery and bell pepper. A good local sausage, such as andouille, adds gusto. And the grand finale is a sprinkling of fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley.
We like to make the simplest dishes special. How? Adding horseradish to mashed potatoes. Cheese to grits. Hot peppers to cornbread. Spices to shellfish. Stuffing to vegetables. Liqueurs to fruit. Garlic to everything.
I like to tell people how much fun cooking can be. Takeout is easy, but manning the stove once or twice a week can be a special treat. With two or three friends gathered around, we can duplicate the recipes we grew up on. One warning: There may be arguments because there are as many gumbos as there are grandmothers.
1 dozen crabs or 1 pound crabmeat
1 stick butter, divided
1 bunch green onions, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon each salt, pepper and Creole seasoning
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 1/4 cups Italian breadcrumbs, divided
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 Tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
You have two choices for obtaining the crab shells. Use shells left over from a crab boil and buy lump crabmeat. Or, buy boiled crabs and pick them. (A third possibility is to buy live crabs and boil them with appropriate seasonings.) If using shells from a boil, clean, refrigerate and stuff them on the same or next day. Carefully check crabmeat for shells.
Melt 6 Tablespoons butter in a large skillet. Sauté green onions, celery and garlic until soft. Remove from heat and stir in egg, seasonings, lemon juice, 1 cup of the breadcrumbs and parsley. Add the crabmeat and toss gently. The mixture should be moist. If dry, add 1/4-cup water. Stuff mixture into shells. Mix remaining fourth cup of breadcrumbs with Parmesan and sprinkle over the stuffing. Then top with remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter, cut into bits.
Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven until slightly brown on top, about 30 minutes.
Makes 12 stuffed crabs.
3 dozen oysters with liquid
5 cups oyster liquid or bottled clam juice
1 stick butter
1/3 cup flour
2 bunches green onions, chopped
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, chopped, and liquid
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt, Creole seasoning and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup half-and-half
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Drain oysters and reserve liquid. Ask your seafood vendor for extra oyster liquid. If you don’t have enough for the recipe, use bottled clam juice or chicken stock to make up the difference. Check oysters to remove any shell and set aside.
Make a blonde roux by melting butter in a large, heavy pot, adding flour and stirring over low heat until well blended. Cook, stirring, for about 4 minutes, but do not brown. Add green onions and garlic and simmer until soft. Slowly add oyster liquid and clam juice, stirring. Add artichoke hearts with liquid, bay leaves, thyme and cayenne pepper and simmer over low heat, covered and stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes. Add oysters and simmer until they curl. Taste and add salt, pepper and Creole seasoning as needed. Remove bay leaves. Add half-and-half and parsley and simmer until heated through.
SOFT-SHELL CRABS MEUNIÈRE
1 stick butter
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
2 Tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
6 medium to large soft-shell crabs
Salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper
Vegetable oil for deep frying, at least 3 cups
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
To make the sauce, melt butter in a small skillet until slightly browned. Add lemon juice and seasonings to taste and cook until sizzling. Remove from heat and stir in parsley. Set aside and keep warm until crabs are fried.
Buy soft-shell crabs as fresh as possible at a store specializing in seafood. They might be cleaned and ready to cook. If not, lift each side of the back shell and remove the gills (dead-man fingers). Turn crab over and remove apron or flap. Cut off about 1/4-inch of the face, including the eyes. This is easily done with scissors. Rinse crab under cold water, being careful not to tear its delicate shell. Yellow fat and orange eggs, if any, may be left intact.
Pat crabs dry with paper towels and season both sides with salt and peppers.
Heat oil to 375-degrees in a large pot or deep fryer.
While oil is heating, mix flour with a liberal amount of salt and peppers in a large bowl.
In a medium bowl, beat eggs and add milk.
When oil is ready, dip one crab at a time gently into flour mixture, then egg wash, then flour mixture again.
Shake off excess. Using tongs, hold the crab legs down and set the legs into the oil first. Hold them there for about 20 seconds and then submerge the whole crab upside down. This makes the legs curl away from the body. Turn the crab at least once while cooking. Keep a thermometer in the oil and add a second crab when temperature is back to 375 degrees. Add crabs gradually, keeping the temperature up. Do not overcrowd pot.
Turn crabs once or twice and fry for several minutes on each side until golden brown.
Take up one at a time when ready and place on a large platter. Hold in a 200-degree oven until all crabs are fried.
Just before serving, drizzle crabs with meunière sauce.
1 loaf day-old French bread (poor boy style)
1 1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 Tablespoons butter
Powdered sugar or cane syrup
Cut French bread into 1-inch rounds.
In a medium bowl, beat eggs and whisk in milk, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Place several pieces of bread in to soak for 1-2 minutes.
Heat 2 Tablespoons butter in a large skillet. Place soaked bread in medium-hot skillet and cook until brown on both sides. While these are cooking, soak the next batch. Take up on warm platter and hold in warm oven until all pieces are cooked. Add remaining butter to skillet as needed. When all is cooked, serve immediately. Sprinkle with powdered sugar using a strainer or serve with cane syrup.
Serves 4 to 6.
2 pounds baby white veal cutlets, or calf cutlets
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup milk
Salt, pepper and Creole seasoning
1 1/2 cup Italian breadcrumbs
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
This is a dish that should be prepared at the last minute. As you fry veal, place cooked pieces on a platter in a warm oven until the rest is finished. You can pound meat and mix egg wash and breading ahead of time.
If the cutlets are serving size, you don’t need to cut them. If not, cut meat into scallops, about 4 inches wide.
Pound with a meat mallet until thin (about 1/4 inch). Sprinkle with salt, pepper and Creole seasoning, pressing seasoning into meat.
Mix eggs and milk in one bowl. Mix breadcrumbs and flour in another.
Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet. When hot, dip veal in egg wash and dredge in flour mixture. Fry until brown, about 1 minute on each side. Take up onto warm platter and continue frying until all is done. Deglaze skillet with a little water and pour over cutlets. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve with lemon slices.
SHRIMP AND OKRA GUMBO
2 pounds shelled frozen Louisiana shrimp, thawed, or 4 pounds fresh,
unshelled with heads
2 pounds fresh or frozen okra
1 large onion, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped, white and green parts divided
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup flour
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, or 3 fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
Salt, freshly ground black pepper and Creole seasoning to taste,
about 1 teaspoon each
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
If using fresh shrimp, shell, devein and boil shrimp shells and heads in water for 30 minutes to make a stock.
If using fresh okra, rinse, stem and cut into 1/2-inch rounds. Whether fresh or frozen, place in a skillet sprayed with vegetable oil and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the okra loses its stickiness. This evaporates the slime in the okra. Set aside. Chop vegetables and set aside.
In a large, heavy pot, heat vegetable oil and add flour to make a roux. Stir over medium heat until roux is dark brown, the color of milk chocolate. Add chopped vegetables and the white part of green onions and cook, stirring until soft. Add tomatoes and okra, 6 cups of water or shrimp stock and seasonings. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Add shrimp and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add parsley and green onion tops. Serve in bowls over white rice.
BEEF TIPS WITH NOODLES
1 pound tenderloin beef (filet)
Salt, pepper and Creole seasoning to taste
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons flour
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium carrot, scraped and sliced into 1/8-inch rounds
1 cup beef broth
1/4 cup red wine
1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves
8 ounces noodles
2 Tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
Cut beef into 1-inch cubes. Sprinkle with seasonings. In a medium heavy pot, heat oil to very hot and brown beef quickly on all sides. Do not cook through. Remove meat from pot and set aside. Reduce heat to medium. Add flour to oil and stir constantly until roux is very brown. Add onion, garlic and carrot and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add broth, wine, salt, pepper and thyme, and reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until carrots are done.
While this simmers, cook noodles according to package directions.
When carrots are done, return meat to pot and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Meat should be pink in the center.
Serve beef tips over drained noodles and sprinkle with parsley.