When food people talk about great food cities, there are a few places that are always discussed: New York, Paris, Hong Kong, Sydney, and New Orleans. Sure, each of us has other favorite places to eat, but gather a big enough group, and these five cities will be mentioned over and over again. You’d think that, by now, I would have made the effort to get to all of them. How’s two out of five? And you’d think that of any of them, I’d have definitely headed to a place nicknamed “Queen of the South” or the “Big Easy”. Especially when one of the biggest parties in the world is held there – Mardi Gras!
Instead, many moons ago, I found myself working at a little Cajun jazz bar in the “Big Apple”. This experience became the basis of my appreciation for the food of New Orleans. Luckily, over the years, I’ve had the chance to both work with and become friends with a number of people from the far end of the Mississippi River. Owners, chefs, managers, sommeliers, and staff from Antoine’s, Brennan’s, K-Paul’s, Gabrielle’s, Arnaud’s, Commander’s Palace, and Emiril’s have wandered through my restaurants at various times.
New Orleans is also the home of more famous dishes than you can shake a stick at: who hasn’t heard of Oysters Rockefeller, Bananas Foster, Jambalaya, Blackened Redfish (or blackened anything for that matter), Beignets and King Cake; or drinks like the Sazerac or the Hurricane?
CAJUN AND CREOLE
Although this is not the be-all and end-all definition, the rough difference between Cajun and Creole is that between country and city, respectively. Cajuns were originally French Canadians who came to Louisiana, refused to swear loyalty to the crown of England, and were sort of the outsiders of the area. The term “Cajun” is in fact a corruption of the word “Canadian”. The Creole were originally those of European French blood who were born in “the new world”. The word has come to mean those of “mixed blood” over time.
In cooking, however, the general take is that Cajun is based on hearty country flavors. The “Cajun trinity,” as we used to refer to it in cooking school, is a sautéed mix of diced bell peppers, onions and celery. Hot peppers, especially cayennes, are commonly used. Rice is a staple ingredient. Creole cooking, in contrast, comes from a head-on collision and melding of classic French technique with American ingredients. Roux, a slowly cooked amalgam of hot oil or lard and flour, commonly forms the base to many sauces and dishes.
It would be possible to go on for pages about different dishes and ingredients like crayfish, okra, terrapin, filé and oysters, but let’s just get down to some cooking. I make no claims for authenticity, but this is one of my favorite New Orleans style recipes that I’ve come to love making and eating. No one has ever claimed that I didn’t know what I was doing after tasting it, so I’ll just plunge ahead.
6 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers, diced and seeds removed
2 large onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup dried thyme leaves
2 tablespoons dried oregano leaves
½ teaspoon cayenne powder
¼ cup olive oil
3 pounds canned whole plum tomatoes
2 dried bay leaves
1 cup diced tasso ham
2 thinly sliced andouille sausages
1 pound shrimp, shells removed
1½-2 pounds chicken wings, separated at joints
Jambalaya is party food, Sunday supper food, having friends over food. This should make enough for, well, it depends how hungry your friends are. Let’s say somewhere around 8 people.
In a large, deep pot, lightly brown the chicken wings, sausages and ham in the olive oil. Remove the meats and set aside. This should render out a bit more fat, you should have at least a half cup of fat in the pan. Add the celery, green peppers and onion and saute until lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, stirring regularly.
Add thyme, oregano, cayenne, bay leaves and tomatoes with their liquid. You can break the tomatoes up a bit by squishing them between your fingers – get involved with your food! Over low to medium heat bring to a simmer. Let simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Put the ham, sausages and chicken back in and continue to cook for another 30 minutes. Keep warm until ready to serve. Just before serving, saute the shrimp in a separate pan till cooked through and add to the jambalaya.
Jambalaya is traditionally served over rice, so cook up your favorite kind. I like to make my rice with chicken stock instead of water since this adds a zesty flavor to the rice. A nice loaf of garlic bread makes a great side to jambalaya as well.
THE WINE LIST
When it comes to matching food with wine, there aren’t any hard and fast rules; but I tend to like to match the spiciness of dishes like jambalaya to a wine with a touch of sweetness to help promote balance. If you want to drink white, I’d go with a very slightly off-dry riesling. My picks at the moment, 1996 Chateau d’Orschwihr Riesling “Rangen”, a grand cru Alsatian wine that should run you around $30; or the 1996 Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling for around $15. For a red, a medium bodied wine like the 1996 Marietta Sonoma County Zinfandel, around $15; or the Topolos “Rossi Ranch” Zinfandel, around $30, should be just about perfect.
Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.