Table Talk

Food & Drink - November 25th, 1988

with Donna Sweeny 

More on those great New Orleans eateries!

Incomparable jazz, good times, great food: New Orle­ans has it all, and plenty of it. Sprawling houses on the bay­ous, secluded farms, elegant Garden District mansions, his­toric homes in the French Quarter — from these comes some of the best cooking in America, reflecting a unique history and melding of cultures.

The Creoles, descendants of French aristocrats who im­migrated in the 1700s, not only adapted their recipes to the foods and spices they found in their new country, but also ob­served and learned cooking methods from earlier settlers. As a result, Creole cooking became an amalgam of four distinct contributions: to the French tradition of culinary creativity and sauce-making genius was added the Spanish taste for hot spices, the Afri­can custom of slow, one-pot cooking, and the Choctaw Indians’ knowledge of indigen­ous herbs and vegetables.

Louisiana has long been noted for its Creole special­ties; more recently, Cajun cooking has gained world renown. The Cajuns, French settlers who lived in Acadia, Nova Scotia, migrated to Louisiana in the mid-18th century. They pursued their traditional occupations of farming, trapping and fishing in the country south and west of New Orleans.

Although the distinction be­tween Creole and Cajun cook­ing has become blurred, in general Cajun fare is heartier and less sophisticated than Creole, and is both adventur­ous and very spicy. Most Cajun dishes require a bit of time, but it is well worth it; the preparation, not the pres­entation, is most important.

Visitors who want to bring some of the flavor of New Orleans home with them can learn the basics of Southern Louisiana cooking at the New Orleans School of Cooking, and have a very good time doing it, too! On a recent trip, I delayed my departure for a day to attend the school’s crash course in the fundamen­tals of gumbo and jambalaya, and how glad I am that I did.

Chef Chris Jessen, who con­ducted the class in a typical homestyle Louisiana kitchen, is as knowledgeable about local history and lore as he is about cooking, and his joie de vivre is contagious.

All of his recipes are per­fect for parties; these dishes are filling and substantial, can be made ahead of time, and require no last-minute prepara­tion. The jambalaya recipe calls for chicken, but any meat can be substituted; the day I attended the class we used alli­gator meat, surprisingly tender and delicious. Both the jam­balaya and gumbo recipes use celery, green pepper, and onion; referred to as la trinite, this vegetable combination is the basis for many Cajun dishes.

The next time you have a few hours to spend in the kitchen, try these Cajun recipes. Get out your biggest pots, put some country music on your stereo, and laissez les bon temps rouler — let the good times roll!

Gumbo (15-20 servings)

  • 1 cup oil
  • 1 chicken, cut up or boned
  • 1 1/2 pounds spicy coarse-ground sausage
  • 1 cup flour
  • 4 cups chopped onions
  • 2 cups chopped celery
  • 2 cups chopped green pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 8 cups stock
  • Salt
  • Cayenne pepper
  • 2 cups chopped green oni­ons or shallots
  • File to taste*
  • Cooked rice
  • Season and brown chicken in oil over medium heat.
  • Add sausage to the pot and saute with the chick­en. Remove both from the pot.
  • Make a roux with equal parts of oil and flour to desired color. (The lighter the roux, the thicker the gravy.)
  • Add onions, celery, green pepper and garlic to the roux and stir continuously until the vegetables are tender.
  • Return chicken and sau­sage to the pot and cook with the vegetables, continuing to stir frequently.
  • Gradually stir in the stock and bring to a boil.
  • Reduce to a simmer and cook for an hour or more. Season to taste. Ten minutes before serving, add green onions.

Gumbo may be served over rice. Adding cream sherry at the table is a popular option.

* File is a fine green powder of young, dried, and ground sassafras leaves, used in gumbo for flavor and thickening. The word file means to twist and make threads, and that is ex­actly what it does when it is cooked too long. Add it to the gumbo just before serving and/ or use it as a table condiment.

Jambalaya (12 servings)

  •  1/4 cup oil
  •  1 chicken, cut up or boned
  • 1 1/2 pounds hot sausage
  • 1 heaping tablespoon brown sugar
  • 4 cups chopped onions
  • 2 cups chopped celery
  • 2 cups chopped green pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 4 cups long grain rice
  • 5 cups stock
  • 2 heaping teaspoons salt
  • Cayenne pepper to taste
  • 2 cups chopped green onions
  • Season and brown chicken in oil, in a cast iron pot, over medium high heat.
  • Add sausage to the pot and saute with the chick­en. Remove both from the pot.
  • Add brown sugar to the hot oil and carmelize. Saute the onions, celery, green pepper and garlic until tender. Return chick­en and sausage to the pot.
  • Add stock, salt and cayen­ne pepper and bring to a boil. Add rice and return to a boil.
  • Cover and reduce heat to a simmer. After 10 min­utes of cooking, remove the cover and quickly turn rice from top to bottom completely. Remove the pot from heat and let it sit for 20 minutes. (Watch the timing carefully; cast iron pots will continue to cook for 35 minutes after removal from heat.) Top with green onions and serve.

Bread Pudding(20 servings)

  • 1 10-ounce leaf stale French bread, broken (about 6-8 cups)
  • 4 cups milk
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 8 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla
  • 1 cup diced fruit (apples, strawberries, pears, peaches)
  • 1 cup shredded coconut*
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2  teaspoon nutmeg
  • Preheat oven to 350°
  • Combine all ingredients; mixture should be very moist.
  • Pour into a buttered 9″ x 9″ baking dish and place on middle rack of the oven.
  • Bake for approximately 1 1/4 hours until top is golden brown. Serve warm with whiskey sauce.

* To prevent blackening dur­ing baking, dry the coconut in the oven before combining it with the other ingredients.

Whiskey Sauce

  • 1/2 cup butter (1/4 pound)
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 egg, yolk or whole
  • 1/2 cup bourbon
  • Cream butter and sugar over medium heat until all the butter is absorbed.
  • Remove from heat and blend in egg. Pour in bourbon    gradually, stirring constantly. Sauce will thicken as it cools. Serve warm. For a variety of sauces, substitute y favorite fruit juice liqueur  for  the  bourbon.

Pralines (Yield: about 100 pralines; this recipe cannot be halved or doubled.)

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 cups pecans
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Preheat the oven to 275°.
  • Place the pecans on a sheet pan and bake for 20-25 minutes until slight­ly browned.
  • Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to the soft ball stage* (238°-240°), stirring constantly.
  • Remove from  heat. Wair until mixture thickens, becomes creamy and clou­dy, and pecans stay sus­pended in mixture.
  • Spoon out on buttered wax paper, aluminum fooil or parchment paper. (When using wax paper, be sure to buffer with newspaper underneath, as the hot wax will transfer onto whatever is beneath.)

* Drop a spoonful of the mixture into a glass of water. If the mixture holds its shape in the water and loses its shape out of the water, it is at the soft ball stage.