Tuesday, February 27, 2018

New Orleans Cuisine for the #AbramsDinnerParty

New Orleans is a city I long to explore. I’ve only been there once—to board a cruise ship—and I didn’t get to see the places I dream of, most of which revolve around food: Café Du Monde for beignets, Commander’s Palace for the Bread Pudding Souffle, and Emeril’s for—well, just about anything! So, I was thrilled to receive a copy of Tom Fitzmorris's New Orleans Food, thanks to being a member of the #AbramsDinnerParty.

I interviewed Fitzmorris in 2006, one year after Hurricane Katrina and when the original version of this cookbook was released. (Notice all the pink sticky notes flagging pages in the old version.) Born on Mardi Gras, he 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. He is a well-known food writer and host of a local food-themed radio show, which broadcasts during the coveted drive-time. He also has a great website.

Luckier than some, Fitzmorris’s home north of the city was largely undamaged by the hurricane.  However, his office across from the Superdome was completely destroyed. His losses included an extensive collection of restaurant photographs dating back to the mid-1970s.

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. Fitzmorris said at the time, “The restaurants have pulled the city back together again.”

Fitzmorris had started his cookbook before the storm, but it was watching the devastation on television while “drinking martini after martini” that motivated him to finish the book. He donated a portion of the profits to Habitat for Humanity, and his website kept the city updated on when restaurants reopened after the storm.

New Orleans cuisine is synonymous with Creole and Cajun dishes. Fitzmorris told me, “Creole cooking has a French face, a Spanish soul, and African hands. 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 NOLA 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 recommended, “Boulders of (salted) butter and seas of cream.”

This re-do of the cookbook has a beautiful new cover and color photos of many of the dishes. It inspired a number of my favorite dishes, including my Skillet Jambalaya and New Orleans-Style Barbecue Shrimp (which is not BBQed or grilled!)

I also make his beignets recipe all the time. It is easy and the results are tasty. If you’ve had the yeast-dough type before, you’ll notice the difference. These beignets are made with a biscuit-type dough, but they are just as delicious in their own unique way.

Recipe from Tom Fitzmorris's New Orleans Food by Tom Fitzmorris (Abrams Book, 2018)
Makes 12-15 beignets
2 cups self-rising flour
3 tablespoons Crisco
1 tablespoon sugar
Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted

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

2. Warm 3/4 cup of water in the microwave oven until barely warm to touch. Dissolve the sugar in it.

3. Whisk the flour into the water to combine completely, using a kitchen fork to blend. Work the dough as little as possible.

4. Turn the dough out on a clean counter and dust with a little flour. Roll it out to a uniform thickness of about a quarter-inch. Cut into rectangles about two inches by four inches. Cover them with a moist, clean towel and let them rise for a few minutes.

5. Pour an inch of oil into a skillet and heat to 325 degrees. When the beignet dough squares have softened and puffed up a little, drop four to six 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.

6. Dust with powdered sugar and serve hot.