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Special Feature

 

New Orleans: Our Cuisine

 

New Orleans was multicultural way before multiculturalism was cool. The Crescent City's diversity is everywhere apparent: in the architecture, in the music, in the faces—and nowhere more so than in the food. Dining is so diverse in these parts that some of our culinary items must be dignified by the word "cuisine," while others can be comfortably categorized as "food." In New Orleans, the cuisine is the tangible edible evidence of our rich and varied history. Justifiably, our two most famous culinary traditions are those developed by the Cajuns and the Creoles. A frequently asked question is "What is the difference between Cajun and Creole food?"

Generally speaking, Cajun cooking is country cooking, and tends to be more robust and hot-peppery. The essence of many Cajun recipes is a roux, a mixture of fat and flour that adds body and flavor. The Cajun uses a variety of sausages, and duck, chicken, pork as well as many varieties of seafood. Crawfish bisque and crawfish etouffee, sauce piquante and andouille gumbo are good examples of Cajun cooking.

crawfish

Creole cooking, developed by the French and Spanish settlers and their servants, is perhaps best exemplified by it sauces. According to Joe Cahn, Director of the New Orleans School of Cooking, Creole was cooked in the city, while Cajun was cooked in the rural areas. Creole food is much spicier than Cajun food, because herbs and spices were hard to come by in the country. Cajun food is, however, much hotter. Creole food is further categorized into haute Creole—for instance, Oysters Bienville and Oysters Rockefeller—and lower Creole, such as red beans and rice.

According to Paul Prudhomme, owner and renowned chef of K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, over the past ten years Cajun and Creole have merged into a new kind of cooking called simply "Louisiana Food."

This region of bayous, marshlands and waterways produces an abundance of sea creatures that turn up on tables throughout the city, dressed in a variety of costumes and creations. Firm-textured redfish, available all year round. is the basis for numerous Creole dishes. Crawfish (often called "mudbugs" because they make their homes in the banks of the bayous) resemble tiny lobsters, and turn up in an astonishing variety of local dishes. Flounder, a black-and-white fish (black on one side and white on the other), swim around in the spring and fall, and are most often baked and broiled. Ah, oysters. The Louisiana oyster is one of the best in the country. These ubiquitous creatures star in the likes of Oysters Rockefeller and Oysters Bienville, but Orleanians also eat tons of raw oysters on the half-shell. Tender, juicy shrimp, possibly America's favorite seafood, is a versatile crustacean, served fried, broiled, baked, stews and cooked in almost any way imaginable. Catfish is the number one catch from the local channel of the Mississippi River system and frequently comes to the table wearing a crunchy wrap of crushed pecans. Snapper, with its juicy, white flavorful meat, and speckled trout, a silvery critter entirely covered with black spots, both are available throughout the year; the former can be baked, broiled, steamed, or boiled, and the latter appears on many a local table stuffed, almondined, or in a meuniere sauce. The local Blue Crab is considered one of Louisiana's finest products, and is in demand throughout the country. Lump crabmeat is a favorite crowning touch for a number of local seafood dishes.

For New Orleanians, sitting down to a meal is a joyous social occasion. Food is not something to be gobbled down in a frantic race to get on to the next attraction. For us, food is the main attraction. In this international city, dining is done very much Continental style—which is to say, in an unhurried, leisurely manner. A meal is to be lingered over, commented on, savored and remembered.

 

A Lexicon of Louisiana Culinary Terms

Andouille (ahn-do-ee)
Plump and spicy country sausages used in Red Beans & Rice and other Creole delicacies.

Beignet (bin-yay)
A delicious sweet doughnut, but square-shaped and minus the hole, lavishly sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Boudin (boo-dan)
Hot, spicy, ground pork mixed with onions, cooked rice, herbs, and stuffed in sausage casing.

Cafe au lait (caf-ay oh-lay)
Coffee with milk, usually a half-and-half mixture of hot cofee and hot milk.

Cafe brulot (caf-ay broo-loh)
This dramatic after-dinner brew is a blend of hot coffee, spices, orange peel, and liqueuers. It is blended in a chafing dish, ignited and served in special cups.

Cajun (cay-jun)
Slang for Acadian, the term for the French speaking people who migrated to South Louisiana from Nova Scotia in the 18th Century. The term now applies to the people, culture and the cooking.

Chickory (chick-ory)
An herb, the roots of which are dried, ground, roasted and used to flavor coffee.

Courtbouillon (coo-boo-yon)
A rich, spicy soup, or stew, made with fish fillets, tomatoes, onions, and sometimes mixed vegetables.

Crawfish
Resembling toy lobsters, these little critters are known as "mudbugs" because they live in the mud of freshwater streams. They are served in a variety of different ways, including simply boiled. (Amd how do you address a boiled crawfish which is placed before you, whole, head and legs still attached? Grasp the head between the thumb and forefinger of one hand, and the tail between thumb and forefinger of the other hand. Slightly twist and pull firmly until head and tail are separated. Discard the head. Squeeze tail between thumb and forefinger unteil the shell cracks. Lift and loosen the three shell segments and pull around the meat. Now take the tail fin and last shell segment between thumb and forefinger of one hand, and the meat with the other. Gently separate the meat from the shell and pull the vein free. Discard shell and vein and pop the meat into your mouth!)

Creole (cree-ole)
The word originally described those people of mixed French and Spanish blood who were born in South Louisiana, and now embraces a cuisine and style of architecture.

Dirty Rice
Pan fried leftover cooked rice sautéed with green peppers, celery, stock and giblets.

Etouffee (ay-too-fay)
A succulent tangy tomato-based sauce. Crawfish etouffee and shrimp etouffee are delicious New Orleans specialties.

File (fee-lay)
Ground sassafras leaves used to season, among other things, gumbo.

Grillades (gree-yads)
Squares of broiled beef or veal. Grillades and grits is a popular local breakfast.

Grits
Coursely ground hominy grain. Somewhat similar in appearance to mashed potatoes, but the taste is closer to corn.

Gumbo
A thick, robust soup with thousands of variations, only a few of which are Shrimp Gumbo, Okra Gumbo and File Gumbo.

Jambalaya (jum-bo-lie-yah)
Another many splendored thing. Louisiana chefs "sweep up the kitchen" and toss just about everything into the pot. Tomatoes and cooked rice, plus ham, shrimp, chicken, celery, onions, and a whole shelf full of seasonings.

Mirliton
A hard-shelled, pear-shaped vegetable with edible innards, it is cooked like squash and stuffed with either ham or shrimp and spicy dressing.

Muffuletta
To say that this is a "sandwich" is like saying Buckingham Palace is a house. Yes, it is a sandwich, a fat and sassy concoction of Italian meats, cheeses, and olive salad, all stuffed inside plate-sized loaves of tasty Italian bread.

Plantain
Think of it as sort of a vegetable/banana side dish. It may be prepared like candied yams, or simmered in sherry, and it is a delicious meat accompaniment.

Po-boy
Another sandwich extravaganza; this one some folks say began as a five cent lunch for, what else, poor boys. There are fried oyster po-boys, roast beef and gravy po-boys, fried shrimp po-boys, softshell crab po-boys (even fried potato po-boys!) all served up on crispy-crusted French bread.

Praline (praw-leen)
The sweetest of sweets, this New Orleans tradition is a candy patty, the essential ingredients of which are sugar, butter, water and pecans. There are many variations on that theme in French Quarter candy and gift shops.

Red beans & rice
Kidney beans mixed with rice, seasonings, spices and big, fat chunks of sausage. This is one of the staples of New Orleans cooking, and is traditionally eaten on Monday (and any other day you get a hankering for it).

 

Again, quoting Joe Cahn, "In South Louisiana, food is not looked upon as nourishment, but as a wonderful way of life. We want to say "wow" with every bite; to clap and cheer and make noises. with food, nobody is ever wrong, for it is the only thing in the world which everybody is allowed to have a personal taste. To us, food is not only on the plate; it is also in the heart."

This article was written by Honey Naylor, regular contributor to Fodor's Travel Guides and many other popular travel publications. It may not be reproduced. Reprinted by permission.

 

Guide to Louisiana and Creole Cuisine

 

Index of January 1997 electronic Gourmet Guide

 
Paris
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Modified March 2007


 


 
 

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