Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Cusine Survives the Storm

I love New Orleans food. Gumbo, jambalaya, beignets...all of it! To honor the city's survival five years after Hurricane Katrina, here is an article I wrote for the Concord Monitor newspaper that ran on the first anniversary--complete with recipes! Enjoy!

New Orleans Cuisine After the Storm

One year ago, eighty percent of New Orleans was under the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. Possibly the first sign of life amid the devastation was the re-opening, one by one, of the city’s restaurants. In a place where food establishments dominate just about every square block, it was a clear statement from the community, “We are still here and not giving up.”

At first, many of the restaurants gave out free food to rescue and relief workers as well as the local folks, some who could no longer cook in their own kitchens. Soon these eateries became recovery places. People came together to hug and share their storm stories with other survivors.

“The restaurants have pulled the city back together again,”said Tom Fitzmorris, a well-known food critic and author of New Orleans Food (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006).

Born on Mardi Gras, Fitzmorris is a life-long Orleanian. In fact, the longest he has ever been away from the city was when his family evacuated the Sunday before Katrina made landfall, first to Atlanta and then to Washington, DC. Luckier than some, his home north of the city was largely undamaged. However, his office across from the Superdome was completely destroyed. His loses included an extensive collection of restaurant photographs dating back to the mid 1970s.

Fitzmorris had started his cookbook before the storm, but it was watching the devastation on television, “Drinking martini after martini,” that motivated him to finish the book. He is donating a portion of the profits to Habitat for Humanity, since housing is still the number one problem in the city. He noted, “Sixty-five percent of the housing stock in the city is still uninhabitable.”

Katrina was also what inspired Linda and Steve Bauer to finish their book, Recipes from Historic Louisiana (Bright Sky Press, 2006), a collection of recipes from the area’s most famous restaurants. They convinced their publisher to donate the proceeds to the National Trust for Historic Preservation Hurricane Relief Fund.

“New Orleans’s restaurants are places with a fabulous history and great food,”said Linda Bauer. “Many of the restaurants have been handed down for four generations. Just about every kind of food that you can imagine is found there. What other city had so many restaurants in such a small space?”

It is New Orleans’s unique food and music culture that draws Chef Sean Burt back time and again. The owner of Tooky Mills restaurant in Hillsboro has gone down for the city’s annual jazz festival a number of times. “The food is so authentic,” said Burt.“It’s food like you don’t get anywhere else in the world. They take basic ingredients and come up with great dishes.”

New Orleans’s cuisine is local food. To many people outside the region, it is synonymous with Creole and Cajun dishes. What is the difference? “Creole cooking has a French face, a Spanish soul and African hands,” said Fitzmorris. “It then got an Italian heart and a Cajun smile. If you have to define the difference, it would be that Cajun is considered country cooking while Creole is city cooking. If you are from here, you never ask what the difference is because you don’t care.”

To cook New Orleans’s style, the kitchen pantry should include a container of Creole seasoning, Louisiana hot sauce, filé powder (powdered sassafras leaves), molasses and brown sugar. Fitzmorris also recommends, “Boulders of (salted) butter and seas of cream.”

Below are some recipes for well-known New Orleans dishes. However, the city’s food made outside the area never quite tastes the same. Fitzmorris calls it the Gumbo Paradox. He explained, “Two hundred New Orleans cooks make gumbo with two hundred different recipes, but they will all taste like gumbo. Outside of New Orleans, it doesn’t taste like gumbo, even if you use the exact same ingredients. I don’t know why.”

Burt has several New Orleans-inspired dishes on his menu, both as specials and regular offerings. “I try to create my flavors based on what I’ve had down there,”  he said. “We aren’t in New Orleans, so I don’t even try to make them exact. People need to go there and experience it for themselves.”

Barbecue Shrimp

The name is misleading since this recipe does not use a grill, smoker or barbecue sauce. Chef Sean Burt of Tooky Mills Pub developed this recipe for his menu based on the popular dish he had many times on his trips to New Orleans.

Serves 4

1/2 cup olive oil

32 extra-large (16-20) shrimp, peeled and de-veined

1 1/3 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Blackened Redfish Magic Seasoning Blends, or your favorite Creole/Cajun spice mix

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled

Heat a large saute pan over medium heat until hot. Add olive oil. When oil is hot, add the shrimp and cook until almost done, about 30 seconds to 1 minute per side.

Add the chicken stock and lemon juice to the pan. Turn off the heat. Add the spice mix (more or less depending on your taste.) Let pan sit while stirring for about 30 seconds.

Once pan cools slightly, add the cold butter. (If the pan is too hot, the butter will break and not make a smooth sauce.) Swirl the pan until the butter melts and combines to create a creamy Cajun lemon sauce.

Place the shrimp in individual bowls and pour the sauce on top. Serve with crusty bread sticks or French bread to sop-up any leftover sauce.


This is a New Orleans breakfast favorite best associated with the Café Du Monde. It is traditionally made with yeast dough, but Fitzmorris’s recipe, which is similar to biscuit dough, is a bit easier for the home cook.

Makes 12 to 15 beignets

2 cups self-rising flour

1 tablespoon Crisco

1/4 cup water

1 tablespoon sugar

Vegetable oil, for frying

1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted

Combine the flour and Crisco in a bowl with a wire whisk until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, with perhaps a few lumps here and there.

Warm the water in the microwave oven until barely warm to the touch. Pour the water into a large bowl, add the sugar, and stir until dissolved. Add the flour mixture and blend it with kitchen fork. Work the dough as little as possible.

Turn the dough out on a clean counter and dust with a little flour. Roll it out to a uniform thickness of about 1/4 inch. Cut into rectangles about 2 x 4 inches. Let sit for a couple of minutes while you heat the oil.

Pour oil to a depth of 1 inch in a large, deep skillet and heat to about 325 degrees. When the beignet dough squares have softened and puffed up a little, drop 4 to 6 at a time into the hot oil and fry until light brown. Turn once and fry the other side. Drain on paper towels. It’s all right to fry the misshapen dough pieces from the edge of the dough sheet.

Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve hot.

-- From New Orleans Food by Tom Fitzmorris (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006)

Pumpkin and Pecan Bread Pudding

Tom Fitzmorris said that almost every restaurant in New Orleans has bread pudding on the menu. This version utilizes New Hampshire’s new state fruit.

1/4 cup sugar

3 whole eggs

3 egg yolks

4 cups half-and-half

2 cups heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

1 can solid-pack pumpkin

2 tablespoons cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

2 tablespoons salted butter

1 loaf stale French bread, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices

1 cup pecan pieces

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Whisk the sugar, whole eggs and yolks, half-and-half, cream, and vanilla in a large bowl to make a smooth custard. Combine the pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and 1/2 cup of the custard mixture in another bowl.

Generously grease the insides of two 10-inch cake pans with the butter. Line the perimeters of each pan with the smallest slices of bread, then cover the bottom of each with an overlapping bread layer. Pour one-sixth of the custard mixture over the bread to soak it. Spread one-fourth of the pumpkin over the bread in each pan, then sprinkle about one-fourth of the pecans over the pumpkin. Repeat the process in the same order, ending with a layer of bread, pecans, and a final soaking with the spiced custard.

Bake for about 1 1/2 hours. The pudding will rise a great deal, but it will fall again when you take it out of the oven. Remove and cool. Cut into pie-style slices and serve either warm or cold.

--From New Orleans Food by Tom Fitzmorris (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006)

Bourbon Whiskey Sauce for Bread Pudding

Makes approximately 1 1/2 cups

1 stick unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon orange juice, strained

1 egg

1/4 cup (or more to taste) bourbon, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Melt the butter in a sauce pan over medium-low heat. Add the sugar, orange juice, and 1/4 cup of water, and cook until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat.

Beat the egg well in a bowl. Add the butter-sugar mixture, about a tablespoon at a time, whisking constantly. (You can pick up the pace after half of the butter-sugar is added.) Add the bourbon or vanilla and whisk until smooth.

--From New Orleans Food by Tom Fitzmorris (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006)

Creole Gumbo

This recipe is from Antoine’s Restaurant, started in 1840 and the oldest family-run restaurant in the country.

Serves 6

6 tablespoons salted butter, divided

2 cups green onion, chopped

2 cups okra, sliced

3 crabs (top shell discarded, cut into 4 pieces)

1 cup white onion, chopped

2 cups raw shrimp, peeled

2 cups raw oysters

1 cup tomato pulp, chopped

2 cups tomato juice

1 1/2 quarts fish stock (or vegetable stock)

3 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoon filé (ground sassafras, available by mail order)

Salt, pepper and cayenne, to taste

3 cups cooked rice

Melt 3 tablespoons butter and sauté the green onion, okra, white onion and crab. In a separate pot, put the shrimp, oysters, tomatoes and tomato juice with 1/1/2 quarts of fish stock and bring to a boil. Let boil for a minute, then add to the first pot.

In a small skillet, cook the rest of the butter and flour together until brown. Blend this brown roux with the filé and some of the gumbo liquid and add to the gumbo. Add salt, pepper and cayenne to taste. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours.

To serve, pour 1 1/2 cups of gumbo into each bowl over 1/2 cup rice.

--From Recipes fro Historic Louisiana: Cooking with Louisiana’s Finest Restaurants by Linda and Steve Bauer (Bright Sky Press, 2006)

Bananas Foster

Invented at the renowned Brennan’s restaurant, this dish is often served for breakfast as well as dessert.

Serves 4

1/4 cup salted butter

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup banana liqueur

4 bananas, cut in half lengthwise, then halved

1/4 cup dark rum

4 scoops vanilla ice cream

Combine the butter, sugar and cinnamon in a flambé pan or skillet. Place the pan over low heat either on an alcohol burner or on top of the stove and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves.

Stir in the banana liqueur, then place the bananas in the pan. When the banana sections soften and begin to brown, carefully add the rum. Continue to cook the sauce until the rum is hot, then tip the pan slightly to ignite the rum.

When the flames subside, lift the bananas out of the pan and place four pieces over each portion of ice cream. Generously spoon warm sauce over the top of the ice cream and serve immediately.

--From Recipes fro Historic Louisiana: Cooking with Louisiana’s Finest Restaurants by Linda and Steve Bauer (Bright Sky Press, 2006)

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