Monday, April 28, 2008

Barbecue shrimp by Ralph Brennan

What would you say if I told you that you could barbecue shrimp on your stove in about five minutes. That’s right, you’d probably laugh and tell me I was nuts. And you’d be correct. So while the New Orleans mainstay known as barbecue shrimp doesn’t have anything to do with wood-smoked meat—like proper barbecue, it’s a spicy, succulent mess of a dish that is best eaten with your hands along with good company and cold beverages.

When Sara Roahen described barbecue shrimp in her book Gumbo Tales, I was intrigued and definitely wanted to make it. Enter Ralph Brennan’s New Orleans Seafood Cookbook. In this exhaustive new tome, the legendary New Orleans restaurateur has collaborated with his executive chef Haley Bittermann, his executive vice president Charlee Williamson, former Times-Picayune food writer Gene Bourg, photographer Kerri McCafferty and recipe tester Paulette Rittenberg to create a definitive cookbook about New Orleans’ seafood cuisine. Ten years in the making, this book is gorgeous enough to sit on your coffee table, but it’s also useful enough to occupy prime real estate in your kitchen as well.

Ralph is a member of the legendary Brennan family, proprietor of New Orleans’ landmarks such as Commander’s Palace, Mr. B’s Bistro, Bacco and Ralph’s on the Park. Yet even though this book’s recipes stem from strong cooking stock, it’s not restaurant specific. Instead it’s a celebration of classic New Orleans dishes such as crawfish etoufee, barbecue shrimp, crawfish pie, gumbos, poor boys, stuffed crabs, trout amandine, beignets, and well, you get the idea. There are 170 recipes in total.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My new favorite book: Gumbo Tales

I used to date a guy who grew up in New Orleans; consequently, he was obsessed with gumbo. Making roux was his biggest passion and he would stand hours at the stove stirring his mixture of flour and butter until it turned the perfect chocolate brown, just a shade away from being burnt. He was of the anything-goes school of gumbo and into his pot would go oysters, chickens, shrimp, sausage, turkey necks and (to my dismay) sliced hard-boiled eggs. But despite the eggs staring out of my bowl, I loved his gumbo and ate it any chance I could get.

It’s been a while since I dated this guy, and even longer since I’ve been to New Orleans. So thank goodness for Sara Roahen’s wonderful new book, Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, a love letter to the author’s adopted hometown.

Roahen moved to New Orleans to join her boyfriend (now husband) who was doing a medical internship in the Crescent City, and she soon found work as the restaurant critic for the Gambit Weekly newspaper. But as her fascination with New Orleans grew, she realized she wanted to dig deeper into her subject:

“By eating in New Orleans, continually asking questions about eating in New Orleans, obsessively reading about eating in New Orleans, and writing a weekly column about eating in New Orleans, I had created a comfortable world in which it looked and felt as though I were really doing it—becoming one of them, a New Orleanian. But my rusty cast-iron skillet told a different truth. I was like those expats who eat France out of Camembert and croissants but continue to read Satre in English. In Louisiana, cooking is a foreign language. It was time to step up.”

As she works her way through the foods (and drinks) of New Orleans, you’re charmed by her voice. She soon becomes your adventurous friend, one who’s a fast learner and seems to know everything, but is still very gracious and warm. And she’s not above poking fun at herself, such as her struggles with the live crawfish when she has her first-ever boil (by herself!), or when she deftly slices off a bit of her finger when making red beans and rice.

As she introduces you to the city’s various populations—the Cajuns, the Creoles, the Africa-Americans, the Vietnamese and the Italians—she’s an expert interviewer, eliciting fascinating stories from each about their various cuisines. And the people of New Orleans clearly love to talk and share their history, so there’s no shortage of anecdotes. Sadly, however, some of the places and people she writes about don’t return after Katrina, yet the book’s tone is not mournful but instead honest and hopeful.

She structures her stories around iconic New Orleans’ dishes—such as gumbo, the Sazerac cocktail, sno-balls and po’ boys. But while this is ostensibly a book about food—it’s more a book about roots, community and the nature of home. I can’t think of a better homage to this great city and an explanation on why its existence is vital to American culture than this wonderful memoir. Like the gumbos Roahen describes, New Orleans is a mixed-up stew comprised of many disparate ingredients, and yet, when it all comes together it works. So if you haven’t been to New Orleans in a while (or ever), plan a trip because they need you! And in the meantime, read this wonderful book and then cook yourself a pot of gumbo.

P.S. This may be a book about food, but there are no recipes included. That’s just fine, however, as there’s a new cookbook that includes almost all the dishes mentioned in this memoir. And I’ll talk about that excellent book next time.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

A more natural chile con queso

chile con quesoIf I share a secret with you, do you promise not to laugh? I like Velveeta. I know, I know—that stuff isn’t even a proper dairy product. Instead it’s a cheese food that can sit on the shelf (no refrigeration necessary) for years on end. But in Texas we have a special place in our hearts for Velveeta, especially when it’s melted with a can of Rotel. We call that concoction chile con queso, or just queso for short.

Chile con queso, which translates to peppers with cheese, is pronounced “kay-so.” And I admit, as trashy and processed as cheese food is, in its melted state it is good stuff—a party standard that can’t be beat. But when you go to a restaurant and order queso, you would hope for something a tad more sophisticated. And sure, many places serve something they call queso compuesto, which is a fancy way of saying “queso and other good things"—good things being a scoop of guacamole thrown into the bowl, or some beans or fajita meat also added to the dip. Restaurant queso, however, is often still made from processed cheese. It may be a higher quality, restaurant-grade of processed cheese, but nonetheless it’s still a rectangular brick of cheese food. Don’t get me wrong, I love the stuff, and can eat buckets of it. But I was curious if it was possible to make queso with real cheese and still have it taste like its processed-cheese brethren.

chile con quesoI decided to start my queso quest by doing a bit of research on the history of chile con queso. In its yellow, molten state it’s a truly Tex-Mex creation, but there is a proper Mexican counterpart also known as chile con queso that is made with white Mexican cheese. Most often found in the northern states of Chihuahua and Sonora, this version is made with fresh poblanos or Anaheim chiles that are roasted and cut into strips. These roasted chiles, also known as rajas, join tomatoes and onions in a warm sauce made from milk and Mexican cheese, such as asadero. Instead of chips, it’s served with warm tortillas.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Lessons learned from my first crawfish boil

It’s crawfish season (or crawdad, as we used to say in Texas when I was growing up), and nothing beats having a group of people over for a big boil. Usually, these gatherings are held outside since the cleaning, boiling and eating of the crustaceans can get messy. But what if you don’t have an outdoor space? Here are 10 things I learned this weekend when I held my first-ever crawfish boil inside my tiny New York City apartment.

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