Can a city be French and not be in France? New Orleans and Montreal come as close as any, and the similarities are numerous.
First, the differences: Most New Orleanians speak English as their primary language while nearly all of Quebec speaks French. Weather in New Orleans is blistering, but a few months ago I left Montreal in a blizzard.
Now the similarities: Montreal is an island, surrounded by rivers, and New Orleans is situated around and between lakes and the great Mississippi River. Both are melting pots with heavy French ancestry, and tradition holds great importance.
There is also the history. The area’s founders, the LeMoyne brothers, now better known as Bienville and Iberville, were from what is now part of Montreal.
Then comes the food. Both cities enjoy an abundance of seafood. Fresh baked bread is a staple, be it baguettes or croissants. And trends are headed in the French direction of bistro dining as opposed to fine dining. Restaurant menus feature versions of French cooking, and during the last decade, many chefs in both cities have opened their own restaurants.
In Montreal for a food event recently, I munched on the best croissant I’d eaten since my last trip to France and marveled at the boulangeries and pâtisseries seemingly on every corner. It was kind of like old home week, however, because a several New Orleans chefs had found a way to the Festival Montreal en Lumière (High Lights Festival) and were cooking things like crawfish and alligator in tony Montreal bistros.
Thomas Wolfe of Wolfe’s in the Warehouse surprised his guests with frog legs and alligator at Chez L’Epicier while Michael Farrell of Le Meritage served up fried oysters on the half-shell and rabbit tenderloin at Les Cons Servent.
Elsewhere, Donald Link of Herbsaint and Cochon served gumbo made in New Orleans and transported by plane in sealed plastic buckets. Diners at Le Jolifou polished that off along with crawfish étouffée and boudin balls. Then, chef Brian Landry of Galatoire’s fed Gulf snapper topped with Louisiana lump crabmeat to diners at Restaurant Julien as well as a cassoulet of shrimp, andouille sausage and white kidney beans. Most of our chefs were cooking alongside local Montreal chefs in their own restaurants.
It was a case of super chefs from both cities carrying on the traditions of gourmet cooking that began in France and live on in great “French” cities this side of the Atlantic.
Then there’s the syrup connection. We have our cane; they have their maple. And don’t think these weren’t all over the menus – poitrine de canard doucement rotie au sirop Steen and toasted clove maple butter with venison loin, Southern greens and potato cake.
I brought home some recipes that I wanted to try, closing the gap between Montreal and New Orleans. I must say that I was glad to fly out of the blizzard and get back to the swamps, but there’s much to be said for a slathering of maple syrup on duck breast.
MAPLE-GLAZED DUCK BREAST
4 duck breasts, or duck
quarters, or whole duckling
cut into fourths, skin on
Salt, pepper and Creole
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
Pat the duck dry with paper towels. Score the skin in a criss-cross pattern with a sharp knife. Sprinkle both sides liberally with seasonings. If cooking a whole duckling, the breasts will be easier to cook if you remove the wings and cook them separately on the grill. They also will take less time to cook.
Heat a charcoal or gas grill to low heat. When grill is ready, place duck pieces, skin side down, on the grill and sear until skin begins to brown – 2 or 3 minutes. Watch flame very closely. If fire flames up, move duck pieces to the side and spray flame with water. Turn pieces back and forth as needed, brushing each time with maple syrup until duck is done to your liking. For medium rare, duck should take about 30 minutes. If you cook duck rare or medium, the meat will be juicier.
Remove duck to plates or platter, brushing both sides with maple syrup. Let rest for 5 minutes, slice breasts on the diagonal and serve immediately.
CELERY ROOT AND
4 medium turnips
3 medium potatoes
Salt and freshly ground
pepper to taste
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Peel turnips and potatoes and cut into chunks. Cover with water in a medium saucepan and cook until vegetables are fork tender. Drain well.
In a food processor, place vegetables, seasonings and butter and blend until smooth. Add cream and blend just to mix. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve immediately or reheat to serve.
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup plus 1/4 cup sugar
2 cups half and half
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
In a medium bowl, whisk egg yolks until foamy. Whisk in 1/3 cup of the sugar until well mixed. Gradually add Half and Half and then vanilla. Mix well. Pour into 4 individual ramekins and place in a baking pan. Put pan in the oven and pour hot water into pan until water is halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until mixture sets, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven, cool and refrigerate.
An hour before serving time, take custards out of the refrigerator and set out. When ready to serve, heat oven to broil.
Sprinkle tops of custards evenly with the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar. Place the pan under the flames. Broil until tops are brown. Watch closely – this will only take a few minutes. When browned, let set a few minutes before serving.