New Orleans – Day One

As a first time visitor to New Orleans French Quarter, I didn’t know exactly what to expect I would see and discover.  Sure, I knew about Bourbon street, famous for Mardi Gras celebrations and I knew there would be plenty of restaurants and pubs to visit but, I was amazed at how accessible all of these places were. 

Walking is the best mode of transportation in the French Quarter. The French Quarter is a compact ward of the city and every street is full of a variety of restaurants, bars and boutiques.  A twenty-minute stroll can lead to world of discoveries.

We checked into our hotel in the late afternoon and, after a few minutes of rest, we were hungry and ready to find our first meal.  We walked out of the hotel lobby and one minute later, we found ourselves at Curio, a bistro and bar on the corner or Royal Street and Bienville Street.

Curio has the French, Spanish and Caribbean architectural style that nearly all of the buildings in the French Quarter share, which means lots of ornate iron work and multiple floors of covered galleries facing the streets.

Curio serves up typical American fare, embellished with Creole flair.

Our waiter, Dylan, was cordial and enthusiastic.  He guided us through some of the items on the menu and steered us toward some excellent options. 

French Onion Soup Au Gratin

$9.00

Caramelized Onion, Rich Beef Broth, Swiss & Provolone

The standout was the French Onion Soup Au Gratin.  My wife and I share this and we might have been happy to split another one amongst us because it was really that good.  There was nothing fancy or trendy about the French Onion Soup.  What made it so outstanding was its richness.  The beef stock was rich and smooth and full of flavors that can only be achieved by a slow process of reduction.  The caramelized onions added the perfect amount of sweetness to the soup.  The broiled cheese that topped the soup was perfectly melted and had just the right stringiness to make it fun to eat, but not messy.

Blue Crab Cakes

$14.00

Louisiana Blue Crab Meat, Onions & Peppers, Creole Coleslaw, Cilantro-Lime Mayo

This was my first experience with blue crabs from the Gulf of Mexico.  It is likely that the crabs actually came from Lake Pontchartrain, which is actually a large brackish estuary in southeastern Louisiana. 

I don’t have crab cakes very often but I know good crab cakes when I eat them.  Good crab cakes need to be full of sweet crab meat and they need to be seared perfectly, to achieve a crisp but yielding outer crust.  The crab cakes at Curio are very good and the cilantro-lime mayo dressing was a refreshing change of pace from the more typical remoulade sauce, or tartar sauce that is prevalent on the East coast. 

As good as these were, they rank number two on my crab cake experiences.  Number one came from a restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, some years ago.  It was a combination of the superior Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and the skilled chef that made them earned them top prize.

Coriander Blackened Redfish

Honey Creamed Mustard Greens

$26.00

Locally sourced redfish is plentiful in Louisiana.  Most are caught in the Gulf but redfish also find their way into Lake Ponchartrain.  Blackened redfish was developed by famed chef, Paul Prudhomme, right here, in the New Orleans French Quarter, nearly forty years ago. 

Blackening fish is a brave yet counterintuitive method of pan frying fish.  Paul Prudhomme’s genius shines brightly through this inventive preparation.  The fish filet is heavily dusted with seasonings and then quickly pan fried in butter at high heat. The result is a very aromatic fish, smoky to the nose, but not overly spicy.  The highlight of the fish I had at Curio was the emphasis on cumin, in the spice mix.  Cumin, when charred, adds a whole new depth of flavor.  The fish sat atop rich, creamy mustard greens.  Time could have stopped while I was eating this and that would have been just fine, with me.  I like big, bold flavors in nearly everything I eat and this redfish satisfied me in every way. 

Grilled Chicken Caprese Sandwich

$17.00

Fresh Mozzarella, Marinated Chicken, Basil Pesto, Tomato, Balsamic, Toasted Brioche Bun

My wife order the Chicken Caprese Sandwich.  She noted that the chicken was moist and tender and the Mozzarella, tomato and basil caprese was very fresh but the star of the sandwich was the delicious brioche bun. 

One of the nicest things about our experience at Curio was our timing.  We arrived in the late afternoon, when the dinner crowd was just beginning to arrive and, after a leisurely meal, we returned to our hotel before the raucous crowds packed the streets and bars.  We dined al fresco, on the second floor gallery.  The temperature was nearly perfect.  We were still a few hours away from sunset and a gentle breeze made the moment even better.  We sat and talked and looked down at the streets below, observing the crowds below. This was a very nice way to start our New Orleans experience.

Étouffée with Roasted Chicken

It’s springtime in the mid-south and, if there’s one thing that can compete with the joy of seeing new buds on the trees and seeing the weeds in full bloom , it’s the return of our fresh Gulf seafood vendors!  I get  giddy just seeing the colorful trailers, parked at local gas stations.  For me, it’s a sacred rite of spring to haphazardly park, get out of the car and stand in line, amidst the  throng of excited seafood devotees. 

I try to find ways to make each visit to the seafood vendor special.  This time, the customers weren’t standing in an orderly line.  A crowd of people clustered around the trailer, jockeying for position.  I stayed back for a moment and enjoyed the tempting aroma of steaming crawfish and shrimp, billowing from large pots at the end of the trailer.  I struck up a conversation with a man who was waiting for his order and learned that he was a Marine veteran who served during the late 1950’s and 1960’s.  After a brief conversation, his order was bagged and ready and he was on his way home.

I ordered two pounds of fresh whole shrimp and one pound of boiled crawfish.  I’m still debating on what to do with the shrimp but I know exactly what to do with the crawfish. 

Crawfish isn’t for everyone.  It’s an acquired taste.  I have discovered that there are ways to prepare crawfish that even non-crawfish people can enjoy.  For this meal, I am roasting a whole hen.  Anyone that balks at the crawfish will still have something to eat!  And, for those who want to try the étouffée, I am asking the crawfish to play second fiddle to another Cajun classic – andouille sausage.  I am using Cajun seasonings sparingly, despite my usual craving for extreme spiciness, and I am adding  a gentle tomato sauce, to make the dish smooth and creamy.

Ingredients for the roast chicken:

1 whole roasting hen

1 Tbs dried thyme leaves

2 Tbs Cajun seasoning

3 Tbs salted butter

2 celery stalks

¼ cup chicken broth

Directions:

Wash chicken, inside and out, under cool running water.  Trim excess fat and allow the chicken to dry, on a clean surface, at room temperature.

Mix thyme and 1 tablespoon of Cajun seasoning with softened butter

Cut two large celery stalks in half and arrange them at the bottom of a large cast iron skillet.  This will support the chicken while it roasts and will keep it from sticking to the pan. 

Examine the neck cavity of the bird and slide fingers under the skin.  Carefully slide your fingers beneath the surface of the skin and slide the palm of your hand along the breast meat.  Angle your fingers down to the leg joint and begin separating the skin from the leg and thigh.  Do this for each breast and leg.

Cup some of the butter mixture in your fingertips and slide them along the breasts, legs and thighs.  Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of Cajun seasoning on the outside of the bird, across the breast, legs and thighs.

Pour ¼ cup chicken broth in the cast iron skillet.

Lay the chicken in the pan, top side up.  Roast uncovered for 45 minutes at 400°.  Turn the oven down to 350° and continue roasting for another 30 minutes. 

Remove the chicken and allow it to rest for 15 to 20 minutes.

While the chicken roasts, prepare garlic bread and the étouffée.

For the garlic bread:

12” loaf of fresh French bread

4 Tbs melted butter

2 tsp garlic salt

A few dashes of finely ground black pepper

2 tsp dried Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Slice the fresh French bread, lengthwise.

Lay the opened loaf on a cutting board and brush each side with melted butter.

Shake garlic salt across each half, dust lightly with black pepper and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Close the two halves of bread together and wrap tightly in aluminum foil.  Bake in a 350° for 15 to 20 minutes. 

Étouffée ingredients:

1 lb boiled crawfish (boiled with Cajun seasonings)

½ lb andouille sausage, sliced into bite sized pieces

3 Tbs cooking oil

1 yellow onion

1 green bell pepper

3 celery stalks

1 small bulb, fresh garlic (with stems)

1 tomato

3 green onions

8 oz tomato sauce

3 Tbs softened butter

3 Tbs flour

2 cups chicken stock

1 Tbs lemon juice

Cooked white rice

Directions:

Remove the tail meat from the crawfish and place the pieces in a bowl.  Squeeze the heads of crawfish over the tail meat, to extract the crawfish juices.  Set the crawfish meat aside and discard the crawfish shells, or use later for stock.

Peel and chop the yellow onion, bell pepper and celery.  Dice the garlic and add to the vegetables.  Set the vegetables aside. 

Chop the tomato and green onions and set them aside.

Add 3 tablespoons of oil to a large skillet and set heat to medium.  Add the yellow onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic to the skillet. 

Sautee for 10 minutes while stirring frequently. 

When the onion turns translucent, add tomato sauce

Simmer at low heat for about 5 minutes.

Mix the melted butter and flour in a small dish.  Add some of the warm, cooked sauce to the flour and butter mixture and mix well.  Add the mixture to the sauce and mix well.  Simmer at low heat for 5 minutes, to thicken the sauce. 

Add two cups of chicken broth while stirring the sauce.  Add lemon juice and chopped tomatoes.  Simmer for a few minutes.

Add the and andouille sausage and mix well. 

Add the crawfish meat and simmer at low heat for a few minutes.

Arrange the cooked rice in the center of a large serving platter.  Pile the étouffée on top of the rice.  Carve the chicken and arrange the pieces around the outer edges of the platter.  Top with chopped green onion.

Serve with the warm garlic bread.

Now…what to do with the shrimp?!  Maybe a fresh shrimp cocktail, or a shrimp po’ boy, or shrimp remoulade, or coconut shrimp, or… 

Po’ Boy Burrito

This whole stay-at-home stuff is really weird.  I’m adjusting to it but I have to admit that it’s really hard to break the habit of trotting down the grocery store every time I want something that I don’t have in the kitchen. 

This time it was fresh baked French bread. 

I wanted a Po’ Boy sandwich and perhaps the single most important ingredient of a Po’ Boy is an excellent loaf of French bread.  I could have jumped in the car and raced down to the store to get a loaf of bread but I decided to resist the urge and improvise.  Thus, the Po’ Boy burrito was born!

What I find interesting is that I had every other ingredient for a Po’ Boy, except the French bread.  Go figure.

This recipe makes 3 Po’ Boy burritos.

Ingredients for the remoulade sauce:

½ cup mayonnaise

2 Tbs dill pickles, chopped

1 Tbs lemon juice (I used lime, since I didn’t have lemon on hand)

1 tsp Louisiana hot sauce

1 tsp capers, mashed and minced

1 tsp paprika

1 tsp Dijon mustard (or creole mustard)

½ tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 garlic clove, minced

1 green onion, chopped

Ingredients for the pickled cabbage:

½ cup cabbage, sliced thin

½ tsp cayenne pepper

¼ cup vinegar

2 tsp sugar

Ingredients for the fried shrimp:

15 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and butterfly cut

1 cup flour

½ cup corn meal

Oil for frying

Additional ingredients:

½ cup lettuce, sliced thin

1 sliced tomato

3 large burrito sized tortillas (9”)

Directions:

Prepare the  remoulade sauce.

In a mixing bowl, add mayonnaise, chopped pickles, lemon or lime juice, hot sauce, capers, paprika, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and green onion.  Set aside.

In a separate mixing bowl, add the cabbage, lettuce, cayenne pepper, vinegar and sugar.  Swirl to mix.  Set aside.

Prepare the shrimp.

Mix the flour and corn meal in a bowl and set aside.

Lightly beat two eggs in a bowl and set aside.

Dredge the shrimp in the flour/corn meal mixture and tap off excess flour.  Dip the shrimp in the egg wash and then dredge in the flour/corn meal again. 

In a medium sized sauce pan, fry the shrimp in hot oil.  I fried the shrimp in batches of five.

Remove the fried shrimp to a bowl and keep warm.

Once the shrimp are cooked, assemble the burritos.  Add remoulade sauce, lettuce, tomato, shrimp and pickled cabbage.

Serve with hot, crispy French fries.  See, I found a way to have a little French after all!

Stay healthy and eat well!

Crawfish and Shrimp Etouffee

Here’s one of my many mottos:  If it’s spicy, there’s a good chance I will like it. 

Having lived most of my life in the South, I have had the joy of eating some excellent Tex-Mex and Cajun food.  Both cuisines tend to lean toward the spicy side and I like to make it lean just a little bit more!

Etouffee and gumbo are similar in that they are both served over rice but gumbo is more like a stew, comprised of various types of seafood, meats and vegetables.  Etouffee usually only has one type of meat and the sauce is thicker than gumbo.  Crawfish Etouffee is the quintessential Etouffee but don’t rule out the shrimp or chicken versions.  Use what you have in your kitchen. 

Etouffee, which means “smothered” in French, is a classic Louisiana dish.  There are two basic types of Etoufee:  Creole and Cajun.  The Creole variety uses a dark roux and the flavors are deep and complex.  The Cajun variety uses a light roux and is spicier than the Creole version. 

30 minute Crawfish and Shrimp Etouffee

Yes, this only took 30 minutes to cook from start to finish.  But, here’s the catch.  I did a lot of prep work a few days before I made this dish.  Previously, I cleaned and de-veined the shrimp, parboiled them and stored the shrimp in the refrigerator.  I peeled the steamed crawfish and stored them in the refrigerator. 

I made stock reductions from the crawfish and the shrimp and then I made compound butter using the crawfish and shrimp reductions.  All of that work took a considerable amount of time, but it was worth it.

The rest was easy.

Ingredients:

1 ounce compound shrimp butter

2 ounces compound crawfish butter

2 garlic cloves, mashed

1 Tbs unsalted butter

½ onion, chopped

3 ribs of celery, chopped

2 ounces flour

3 green onions, chopped

2 Tbs tomato sauce

1 ½ Tbs Cajun seasoning

1 cup water

½ lb raw shrimp (peeled and deveined)

½ lb crawfish meat

Directions:

In a large skillet, add the shrimp butter and crawfish butter.  Turn heat to medium/low.  

As the butter melts, add garlic and sauté for about one minute.

Add 1 tablespoon of butter and the onion and continue stirring for another minute.

Add the celery and stir.  Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 5 minutes. 

Add the flour and whisk or stir, to form a roux. 

Add 1 cup of water and stir until a thick sauce forms.

Add tomato sauce, green onions and Cajun seasoning.  Stir to combine.

Add parboiled shrimp and crawfish.  Stir briefly.

Serve warm with white rice.

Crawfish Season!

Hooray! The crawfish are here, the crawfish are here!

Every year, around this time, crawfish and shrimp vendors start popping up at local gas station parking lots. They set up shop on the weekends, with pick up trucks and trailers for about 6 weeks and then they vanish, as quickly and as quietly as they arrived, returning to the bayous. But, while they are here, I have access to the biggest, freshest and most succulent gulf shrimp and wonderful, spicy, hot Cajun crawfish .

Most of these vendors only take cash. I rarely carry cash but, when these guys roll into town I don’t mind making a trip to the nearest ATM and withdrawing money from my bank account. I drive back to the seafood guys waving cash in my hand. Yes, it’s really that good.

I remember a time, just a few years ago, when I saw the crawfish guys boiling their shrimp and cawfish and I panicked, realizing that I was nearing the end of their short season. It was Saturday, around 5:00 pm. I drove the 3 miles to the bank teller machine and withdrew some cash. By the time I returned, they had already packed up and were gone. Gone! Gone for good, at least until the next year.

Never again. Lesson learned. I will not let the moment escape me. Even if all I get is a tiny sample of some briny shrimp or a few scrawny crawfish, I won’t pass up the opportunity to savor some of the finest food this world has to offer.

I am not a creole chef and I wasn’t raised on the bayou. I’m not Cajun…I’m Texan true and true, but I am forever mesmerized and enamored by the lure of fresh gulf seafood and funky, backwater fare.

Something good happens when the shrimp are set to boil. The world is a happier place when hot, red crawfish are pulled from the pot. Mystery and wonder fills the air. Friends are made instantly. Smiles become contagious. Romance is at hand. No struggles, no strife.

Grab a drink. Find a seat. Tell us a story.

Gumbo (Part II: The Intimidator)

At the heart of every good gumbo lies a good roux. 

I probably make 3 or 4 roux every week but they are of the small variety.  You know, two tablespoons of butter, two tablespoons of flour added to two cups of stock or broth.  A small roux takes just a few minutes to prepare and it usually come out just fine.

I have been telling myself that I make gumbo every year or two.  I think that’s because I really enjoy gumbo.  The truth of the matter is that I have probably only made it four times, (now five times).  As much as I love a good hot bowl of gumbo, I dread making the roux.  There are very few things in life that can vex me like a making a big batch of roux. 

Making roux for a gumbo is not easy; at least it’s not easy for me.  The volume of the roux needed is much larger than my normal roux.  Additionally, the roux needs to cook longer to achieve a deep, rich lustrous color and flavor.  Lastly, pushing the cooking process too far results in a burnt roux, which I am unfortunately prone to doing.  If a roux burns it must be tossed and another one must be made.  Nothing good ever happens by attempting to save a burnt roux. 

The good German lager is for me, not the roux!

Once you start a roux you can’t leave it alone until it has finished.  A roux must be stirred constantly to prevent the flour from burning.  Even the tiniest amount of burnt flour will affect the entire roux.

My step-by-step method for making a roux:

1) Add equal amounts of oil and flour to a Dutch oven (over low/medium heat).

2) Stir continuously, making sure to scrape the bottom and edges of the pot as you stir.

3) Keep stirring while the roux goes from blonde, to tan, to mahogany, to chocolate brown.

4) Taste a sample of the roux, after allowing it to sufficiently cool.

5) Detect a hint of burnt flavor, throw away the roux and wipe the Dutch oven clean.

6) Repeat.

Three more important pieces of advice that are often overlooked:

1) Use the bathroom before starting the roux.  You won’t be able to break away from the action until the roux is finished (maybe 45 minutes to an hour).

2) Pour yourself a drink and make sure that it’s within arm’s reach as you stir.

3) Keep a small aloe vera plant in the kitchen, close to the stove, in case of burns.

As for the aloe vera, it’s really good for minor burns.  Roux is jokingly referred to as Cajun Napalm.  Even a tiny drop of the hot roux can cause your skin to blister.  I got two blisters from this batch.  I would have had three blisters but, when I got hit for the third time, I quickly pinched off the tip of an aloe leaf and rubbed it on the burn. 

Look closely and you’ll see I removed a tip from a leaf, at the right.
My drink of choice for the 1st roux was Spaten Lager. A nice Cabernet Sauvignon got me through the 2nd roux. Note the flat ended spatula…this is essential!

As I mentioned, I burned the first roux and had to start another one.  I cooked the roux over low heat both times. 

For the first attempt I used 3 cups canola oil and 3 cups flour.  I cooked the roux for 67 minutes and it reached a near-perfect chocolate brown color, but the roux had a slight burnt flavor. 

For the second attempt I decided to use 2 cups canola oil, 1 cup lard and 3 cups flour.  I cooked the second roux for 50 minutes. I brought the roux to a dark tan and shut the heat down before it turned to mahogany.  I didn’t want to run the risk of the burning the roux a second time!

This recipe makes about 2 gallons of gumbo (25 to 30 servings).

Ingredients:

1 lb medium sized shrimp, shell on and deveined

1 1/2 lbs cooked chicken breast, cut into 1/2″ cubes

3 cups canola oil

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 lb Andouille, cut into 1/2″ thick slices

1 large onion, chopped

1 bell pepper, chopped

1 large jalapeño, seeded and sliced

2 cups celery, chopped

1 whole head of garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups parsley, chopped

1 Tbs dried thyme

1 Tbs bay leaves

32 oz chicken stock

32 oz vegetable stock

1/2 cup shrimp stock reduction

12 oz okra, chopped

1 lb. crawfish tail meat

1 lb. crabmeat

1/2 cup clam stock reduction

12 oz white clams (about 12 clams)

Lots and lots of hot, steamed white rice

Directions:

Remove the shells from the shrimp and place in a skillet or pot.  Add a teaspoon of seasoning salt. Cover with water and simmer at medium heat for about 15 minutes.  Strain the liquid and reserve.  Discard the shrimp shells.  Heat the liquid in the pan until it reduces by at least half.  Reserve the reduction.

Put the chicken in a pot and cover with water.  Boil at low heat until cooked (about 40 minutes).  Remove the chicken to a platter and cool to room temperature.

In a small bowl, add the thyme and bay leaves. Cover with water and steam in a microwave for about a minute. Leave the herbs in the water and set aside.

Prep the vegetables and set aside.

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium heat.  (I used a 12” deep Dutch oven).  Add 1 cup oil and 1 cup flour and stir to incorporate.  Reduce heat to low/medium.  Add remaining oil and stir.  Add the remaining flour and stir constantly. 

After about 15 minutes the roux will begin to change from pale yellow to blonde.  Turn the heat to low and keep stirring. 

The roux will continue to darken and will become light tan and then dark tan.  Once the roux has turned to tan pay extra attention to the aroma and color of the roux as you stir. 

The color of the roux will begin to take on reddish/brown hue soon.  This is where I usually turn off the heat but, if you are brave and careful, keep stirring until the roux becomes chocolate brown. 

Once you are finished with the roux, turn off the heat and continue stirring for several more minutes.  The roux will remain very hot for at least 30 minutes.  Set the roux aside for now.

I stopped just short of mahogany on my second roux…yes, I chickened out!

And now, the easy part!

In a very, very large Dutch oven, (I used a 14” deep Dutch oven), add the chopped onion.  Sauté until the onion begins to turn brown. 

Add the bell pepper, celery and jalapeño.  Stir for a minute and add the garlic.  Stir for a few minutes and then remove everything to a bowl.

Add the sliced Andouille to the pot.  Stir over medium/high heat to brown the Andouille.  Remove the Andouille and set aside.

Add the chicken stock and vegetable stock to the pot and cook over high heat for 2 minutes.  Return the onions and Andouille to the pot.  Add the water from the steamed thyme and bay leaves. Discard the bay leaves and add the thyme to the pot. Turn the heat down to medium. 

Add about half of the roux to the pot and stir, to mix.  

Add the okra and stir.

Add the rest of the roux and stir.  The roux will thicken quickly.  If it is too thick, as mine was, add some water.  I added 3 cups of water.  Continue stirring.

Add the crawfish meat.  Stir briefly and turn the heat to low/medium.

Add the parsley and stir.

In a large skillet,  add two cups of water.  Set the heat to high and cover.  When the water reaches a hard boil, add the white clams, turn off the heat and cover.  The clams will snap open quickly.  Steam the clams for about a minute and remove to a bowl.  If some of the clams have not opened, bring the water back to boil and add the unopened clams.  If they pop open, hooray!  If they don’t open, they are doomed and will need to join the burned roux, in the trash can.  (All of my clams opened – Yippee!)

Reduce the steaming liquid from the clams to about one third.  You should wind up with a milky white reduction.  Strain the liquid through a paper towel and sieve to remove any sandy grit. Add the reduction to the gumbo pot.

Pull the clams from the shells and add the clams to the gumbo.  Discard the shells.

Add the chicken to the gumbo and stir.

Add the crab and stir.

Add the shrimp and green onions to the gumbo and stir.  The shrimp will cook within a couple of minutes.

Give the gumbo a good final stir.

Serve in bowls, over warm white rice.

So, other than a few 2nd degree burns and a failed roux, everything went according to plan!

Gumbo (Part I)

The best bowl of gumbo I ever had was my first one.  That’s the way it goes with me, more often than not.  My first experience with anything that’s new and wonderful finds a special and permanent home in my heart.  My first gumbo experience was at a seafood restaurant in north Texas…far, far away from the gulf coast, where seafood reigns supreme.  I sat alone, outside, at a picnic table on a wooden deck, on a chilly, rainy autumn evening  and I watched the cars as they sped down the wet street.  That bowl of gumbo warmed my bones and lifted my soul.  The aroma, steaming upward from the bowl, was a magical mixture of earthiness and briny sea. The flavor was complex and deep,  yet comfortable like my favorite winter coat.

Gumbo is truly American, like Jazz, which is to say that it is the marriage of many cultures from around the world.  Gumbo is influenced by African, French, Spanish, German and native American cuisines. Gumbo represents what America aspires to be.  Find a seat and share your story with us.  Everyone is welcome here.