New Orleans is just one of those places. I've been going since the 1990s and it keeps calling me back. In my 20s it's for spring break and Mardi Gras, in my 30s it was "Jazz fest" and a wedding anniversary, but this time? Food. I went to eat.
Don't get me wrong. I spent time with old friends and saw jazz shows and let my eyes feast on the colors and flickering gas lamps and iron lace. But make no mistake - I was going to eat, and eat well.
Author Tom Robbins on New Orleans food
In the book Jitterbug Perfume, outlandish author Tom Robbins spoke to the lure of the food - a mix of French, Creole, Cajun and American South flavors. He said:
“The minute you land in New Orleans, something wet and dark leaps on you and starts humping you like a swamp dog in heat, and the only way to get that aspect of New Orleans off you is to eat it off. That means beignets and crayfish bisque and jambalaya, it means shrimp remoulade, pecan pie, and red beans with rice, it means elegant pompano au papillote, funky file z'herbes, and raw oysters by the dozen, it means grillades for breakfast, a po' boy with chowchow at bedtime, and tubs of gumbo in between. It is not unusual for a visitor to the city to gain fifteen pounds in a week--yet the alternative is a whole lot worse. If you don't eat day and night, if you don't constantly funnel the indigenous flavors into your bloodstream, then the mystery beast will go right on humping you, and you will feel its sordid presence rubbing against you long after you have left town. In fact, like any sex offender, it can leave permanent psychological scars.”
Lesson #1 - Eat more seafood
I'm not even referencing what docs say about cholesterol or what environmentalists say about the carbon footprint of cattle - I am legitimately talking flavor here. Our menus are too much turf and not enough surf!
It's true, New Orleans is rife with sea life, being on the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi and Lake Pontchatrain. But it's 2022, and our markets are stocked with many, if not all, the delights of the big easy. Alternate those proteins and switch up the flavor.
Lesson #2 - There is no such thing as too much butter
No need to go into depth on this, because you already know it's true. It's salty, it's creamy, it's smooth, and it is the secret ingredient to why restaurant food always tastes a little more sinful. Indulge. You're worth it.
Lesson #3 - A good roux can be the baseline for many dishes
What is roux? (Pronounced "roo") Roux is flour and fat cooked together and used to thicken sauces, and made from equal parts flour and fat.
Whether the fat is lard, oil or butter, you just blend until smooth on the stovetop. Cook to the desired level of brownness, whether white, "blonde "or brown.
The reasons are myriad, but roux is a savory, creamy base that can take on the flavors added to any dish, whether a gravy, a pasta sauce, or, in the case of Cajun and Creole cooking - jambalaya, gumbo, or my favorite: etouffee. It makes a dish heartier, smoother and in my opinion, more satisfying.
Lesson #4 - A little spice never hurt anyone
When people say they don't like spicy food, we have to remember that everyone has their own threshold. Perhaps they were burned (literally and figuratively) by a bad experience, but not all hot sauces are blistering, and if mild enough, peppers can add and exciting flavor profile to a meal.
It's true, Tabasco comes from Louisiana, and the term "Louisiana hot sauce" has become ubiquitous in our vernacular, but Tabasco has a lot of bite compared to some smoother peppers. Shop around, and find some milder options that can really boost a dish that needs a little oomph. In Louisiana cooking, look for these sweet and mild varieties:
- Sweet: sweet bells, pimento, sweet banana and Gypsy
- Mild: Mexi-Bell, cherry, NuMex Big Jim, Anaheim, ancho, pasilla, espanola and cascabell
Lesson #5 - Southern Hospitality is real
Sometimes a display can be so voluptuous, you feel like you've been transferred back to a more decadent time. At one bar, the cocktail toppings weren't in plastic containers, but crystal bowls. Some were covered to protect the flourishes, which made them seem more precious - it felt very Belle Epoque.
A nice display shows that you care about your guests, and want them to have an enriched experience. It makes the things you eat and drink feel more special - hence making you feel more welcome. Go the extra step. Toss the plastic containers, break out the crystal, prep some special add-ons. People will notice, and they will fawn.