Mardi Gras is coming up ... what better time to celebrate the great Creole cuisine of New Orleans?
And there's no better way to celebrate it than with a romp through an excellent new cookbook that examines - and defines - the new wave of Creole cookery, a foodstyle that's rooted in historic tradition yet accented with innovative flair.
While offering due respect to such old-line favorites as Antoine's, Arnaud's and Galatoire's, Chef Joseph Carey's hefty Creole Nouvelle, Contemporary Creole Cookery pays its homage to five newer stars in the city's culinary galaxy: Susan Spicer of Bayona, Anne Kearney of Peristyle, John Harris of Lilette, Donald Link of Herbsaint and Peter Vazquez of Marisol. All five chefs have shared recipes and techniques that are featured in the book along with many of Carey's own creations.
Like the eclectic city where it was born, traditional Creole cookery blends tastes of France, Spain and Africa and New Orleans' country Cajun cousins in a zesty mix of flavors. Creole cuisine is constantly evolving, Carey says, adding, "the current evolution is more of a revolution ... driven by mostly young chefs who are bringing classical technique and new notions of freshness of ingredients along with clever combinations of those fresh ingredients."
Carey, a native of New Orleans and a graduate of Indiana University, was an executive chef in San Francisco for 16 years and now lives and works in Memphis, where he has opened several restaurants and owns and operates the Memphis Culinary Academy. That's where I met him a decade ago, when I was covering innovative grassroots programs as a journalist, and he had just set up an exceptional model, teaching prison inmates professional cooking skills in a bid to help them turn their lives around. Carey gets back to the City That Care Forgot as often as he can these days, dining, talking with chefs and, happily, working on this cookbook and, he says, another one coming soon.
Creole Nouvelle begins with vivid, mouth-watering descriptions of the cuisine and its history (it's worth noting that Carey's IU degree was in English Literature, and it shows), then moves on to an intriguing, brief overview of what Carey calls "the 'five techniques' known and understood by all professional chefs."
"Once you know how to 1. grill and roast (bake), 2. saute (fry), 3. boil (poach, simmer, blanch and steam), 4. braise (stew and pot roast) and 5. extract (soups and sauces)," he says, "You will know all the fundamentals you need to cook like a professional. Each of these techniques has a specific set of procedures and a very well-defined time frame for its execution. Once you grasp these few facts, you should be able to prepare just about anything."
Fair enough. Still, the hard core of this book is its nearly 200 new Creole recipes, including Carey originals plus many contributions from the featured chefs. Each recipe begins with a concise introduction that describes the dish and tells a little about its background. The recipes are intelligently organized, with ingredients, quantities and method neatly set up in step-by-step form. Dishes include such old traditions as grillades, beignets, eggs Sardou and Antoine's chicken Rochambeau, not to mention la mediatrice, the Creole sandwich nowadays often called "Po'boy." And bananas Foster, of course. But you'll also find modern and multi-ethnic recipes: Eggplant crisps with skordalia and oven-dried tomatoes, for instance. And perhaps the ultimate in "fusion" fare, a gumbo filé with poached oysters and Chinese-style tea-smoked duck. I must try this.
I've cooked my way through several of Carey's dishes and enjoyed them all ... braised lamb shanks Creole, puree of garlic potatoes, and a seductively creamy poulet sauté with wild mushrooms. Perhaps the best illustration of the blend of old and new that is Creole Nouvelle, though, comes in today's featured recipe, shrimp and ham jambalaya (Page 88). The ingredients may appear similar to traditional jambalaya, a long-cooked rice-based casserole. But Carey gives it an entirely new spin, treating the ingredients almost like an Asian stir-fry, quickly wok-frying them in a surprisingly light mélange that is served over steaming white rice.
If you haven't been keeping up with recent developments in New Orleans Creole cuisine - or even if you have - this book is highly recommended, with the minor caveat that it may be challenging for novice home cooks. It assumes basic knowledge of techniques and won't hand-hold you through the fundamental procedures. And unfortunately the publisher's editing falls well short of supporting Carey's culinary and language skills. Ingredients and procedures sometimes don't match, leaving the cook pondering what to do, for instance, when the procedure for lamb shanks instructs "add the celery" without having listed this ingredient or describing its quantity or how to prepare it. Sliced, diced, chopped? Who knows? The same recipe calls for browning the shanks, removing them from the skillet and setting them aside, but neglects to mention putting them back in. The jambalaya recipe, in similar fashion, lists minced garlic, bay leaves and thyme among the ingredients but fails to advise when or how to include them in the procedure.
There's nothing here that a reasonably experienced cook can't figure out, but I strongly recommend reading the recipe you've chosen all the way through and figuring out any such issues before you start to cook.
Here's my version of the jambalaya recipe, which sticks fairly close to Carey's original except that I've reduced the quantities somewhat.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two with ample leftovers)
FOR THE SHRIMP STOCK
FOR THE JAMBALAYA
1. First, make the shrimp stock. Shell the shrimp that you'll be using in the recipe, and store them in the refrigerator. Put the shells in a saucepan with all the remaining stock ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a very low simmer and let cook for about an hour. Strain through a strainer lined with paper towels, discarding the solids. You'll need 1 cup.
2. The actual cooking process goes quickly, so you'll want to do all your chopping, measuring and prep work before you fire up your skillet or wok. Once you're ready to begin, the process only takes a few moments, so you'll also want to remember to get a ration of rice started before you cook.
3. Peel the onion and cut it vertically into quarters; then slice each quarter crosswise so the slices fall into long julienne-like strips. Remove and discard the green pepper's seeds and ribs, and cut the pepper into thin julienne strips. Cut the celery into thin slices and mince the garlic fine. Cut the ham into julienne strips or dice, and coarsely chop the tomatoes, reserving them with all their liquid. Dissolve the corn starch in a small amount of the shrimp stock, reserving the rest. Measure out all the other ingredients.
4. In a large, heavy skillet or, if you prefer, a wok, heat the peanut oil until it's sizzling. Sautee the onions, green pepper, celery over high heat until they start to brown; add the minced garlic and the peeled shrimp and continue cooking just until the shrimp start to turn pink; don't overcook.
5. Add the tomatoes and their juice, the cilantro, and dried red-pepper flakes to taste. Don't overdo, you can always add more hot sauce later. (VARIATION: I added a bit more flavor with a "secret ingredient," 2 tablespoons of Heinz Chili Sauce.) Add the shrimp stock, stir to combine all ingredients, and bring back to the boil. Turn down heat to low, stir in the dissolved cornstarch, and cook just until the sauce thickens and turns clear. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste. (VARIATION: I substituted garlicky Vietnamese sriracha sauce for the more traditional Tabasco.) Serve over steaming white rice.
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