"Is anybody worried about anything?" asked chef Paul Prudhomme, of K-Paul's "I Louisiana Kitchen, Louisiana's hottest Cajun restaurant. Assembled before him in the Corcoran's main hallway were 22 of his full-time staff -- including cooks, waitresses and dishwashers. Most had flown to town the day before, and they were about to prepare and serve a Louisiana "Kitchen Supper" made up of 48 of Prudhomme's spiciest, crunchiest dishes to 500 or more inaugural celebrants.
Another 29 men and women, hired by Epicurean Events, a local catering firm, were on hand to clean up behind Prudhomme's crew, make drinks and keep the ashtrays emptied.
The black-tie festivities were scheduled to begin in 15 minutes, the staff had been warned that the icy weather wasn't keeping anyone away. Those coming were the guests of Shell Oil Company, Louisiana elected officials and Prudhomme. Though the president and first lady had been invited, everyone knew it was highly unlikely that they would show. Still, they hadn't said no . . .
"Anyone who doesn't know what they are doing tonight?" called out Prudhomme, his voice echoing around the grand hall to all the hired help. He quickly ran through a list of the 12 dishes each cook would prepare during the evening at one of four cooking modules set up on the floor. It was a menu of dishes unfamiliar to much of the Washington crowd, and included Crawfish Big Mamou on Pasta, Saute'ed Mirliton, Shrimp and Andouille Smoked Sausage with Tasso and Oyster Hollandaise, Crawfish Pies, Chicken Smothered in Black-Eyed Peas Over Rice, Rabbit Sausage with Creole Mustard Sauce, blackened redfish, blackened steak, blackened pork chops and much, much more.
Silence indicated to Prudhomme that the assembled workers were ready to get under way, and the task of peeling 130 pounds of shrimp, chopping gallons of onions, sorting all the food for the right modules and setting up tables was behind. They were getting a second wind.
"Wonderful," he laughed. "This is going to be a breeze. Let's do it."
The meeting was ending just as the first guests arrived at the gallery doors. Bartenders hurried to their bars; cooks fired up their gas burners; bus people collected wicker baskets and waited for dirty dishes; dishwashers prepared their water in the basement.
The guests started out with white wine, but when that ran out, the majority had no problem switching to long-neck Dixie beer and Cajun martinis (vodka marinated with hot peppers). "The people loved them," said Kathie Ksem, one of the bartenders. "At first they found them rather strange, especially when I was adding extra jalapeno peppers to their glasses, but once they started to drink, they just loved them."
Actually, the wine running out was a minor problem considering the logistical catastrophes that had dominated the scene earlier that afternoon. At one point it looked to some as if it would take a week to sort things out. But Paulette Rittenberg, executive assistant for special projects at the restaurant and veteran of Prudhomme's catering events, wasn't worried. "Enough will get done that nobody will know it didn't all get done," she said confidently.
The morning had started out with a bang when two trucks, filled with all the equipment and food, wouldn't start. The batteries were dead due to the cold. They had been driven 1,100 miles from Louisiana, and the contents were supposed to have been sitting on the Corcoran floor by 8 a.m. One was finally jump-started later in the morning, but everyone's schedule was thrown off by several hours, Rittenberg said.
Once the food arrived at the gallery it was quickly loaded into makeshift "cooling rooms" (large offices on two floors of the gallery with the windows wide open). Unfortunately, the cold temperatures turned the basement cooling room into a freezer and whipping cream and boiled shrimp were frozen within the hour.
"We're not used to working with a freezer," said Bill Goodson, one of the restaurant's managers. "We don't have a freezer at the restaurant. We're checking out what to do about that," he said, making a notation on a pad. (Of course, they eventually decided to defrost, but not without some thought.)
It's inevitable that when you pack up an entire kitchen on a truck that something will be left behind. And this trip was no exception. When parts of the tent in which food is blackened were left behind, the solution was a chilly one.
Blackening is a smoky cooking technique that requires a white-hot skillet to char food on the outside, while leaving it juicy and rare on the inside, a project that would never be allowed inside the gallery. The inevitable solution was to work outside in the cold night air with only the grills, a jacket, a hat and a pack of cigarettes to maintain warmth.
By the time 1,000 guests showed up instead of the expected 500, no one was ruffled. Prudhomme had packed plenty of food.
No one seemed to notice that the president and first lady didn't show. The guests ate and drank their way through the evening. When they weren't eating they were waiting in lines to get more tastes of Prudhomme's food.
"Blackened what?" questioned one guest when offered a taste of the charred fish from a basket. Though leery at first, the guests sent hardly a plate back to the kitchen with more than a thin layer of sauce and a few missed noodles.
Meanwhile, the lines at the modules were peaking by 8 p.m. Prudhomme had one end of the hall to himself, because, as expected, the lines were longest where he was doing the cooking. Prudhomme was clearly in his element, cooking food and feeding it to new palates. It had been a day of thrills, he explained, the first of which was a White House reception with the president. Meeting the president for the second time (he had also met him at the Williamsburg summit) was even more fun than the prospect of being Louisiana's grand marshal for the inaugural parade (which he was supposed to be until the event was canceled because of the weather). "I'm from New Orleans, and we love a parade," he added for emphasis.
"But I'll tell you what's really a thrill. Watching people eat my food for the first time. You look 'em in the eye and they go woooowwww!" he said.
Once the final guests had left and the bars closed down, Prudhomme and his wife Kay (the K in K-Paul's) reveled in the knowledge that their party was a huge success. "When the evening is over we always wonder who had the most fun and we know we did," she said.
But the guests would disagree. "It was the best party of the weekend," one guest smiled to a weary bus person at the end of the evening. "Everything was perfect."
Down in the basement gravy-stained cooks, waitresses and bus persons shared the enthusiasm. They sang and slapped each other on the back. They were a hit in Washington and they knew it. All of the guests would go home with the memories of 48 spectacular dishes, and no inkling of the hectic day.
Here are recipes for a few of the dishes they ate: RED BEANS AND RICE WITH HAM HOCKS AND ANDOUILLE SMOKED SAUSAGE (6 servings) 1 pound dry red kidney beans Water to cover the beans 6 large ham hocks (3 1/2 to 4 pounds) 16 cups water, in all 2 1/2 cups finely chopped celery 2 cups finely chopped onions 2 cups finely chopped green bell peppers 5 bay leaves 2 teaspoons white pepper 2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano leaves 1 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne) 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce 1 pound andouille smoked sausage (preferred) or any other good pure smoked pork sausage such as Polish sausage (kielbasa), cut diagonally into 3/4-inch pieces 4 1/2 cups hot cooked rice
Cover the beans with water 2 inches above beans. Let stand overnight. Drain just before using.
Place the ham hocks, 10 cups of the water, the celery, onions, bell peppers, bay leaves and seasonings in a 5 1/2-quart saucepan or large Dutch oven; stir well. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until meat is fork tender, about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Remove ham hocks from pan and set aside.
Add the drained beans and 4 cups of the water to the pan; bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining 2 cups water and simmer 30 minutes, stirring often. Stir in the andouille and continue simmering until the beans start breaking up, about 35 minutes, scraping pan bottom fairly often. (If the beans start to scorch, do not stir. Immediately remove from heat and change to another pot without scraping any scorched beans into the mixture.) Add the ham hocks and cook and stir 10 minutes more. Serve immediately.
To serve, for each serving mound 3/4 cup rice in the middle of a large heated serving plate. Place ham hock on one end of the plate and about 2 pieces of andouille on the other end. Spoon a generous 1 1/4 cups of the red beans around the rice. NEW ORLEANS ITALIAN RED GRAVY (Makes about 6 cups)
Prudhomme served this with tiny saute'ed juliennes of veal over pasta. But it is also great over pasta plain or with chicken or fish. 1/2 cup olive oil 10 cloves garlic, sliced in half lengthwise 3 bay leaves 1 cup finely chopped onions 3 cups chicken stock 3 cups canned tomato sauce 1 tablespoon minced garlic 2 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne) 1 teaspoon dried sweet basil leaves 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 1/2 teaspoon white pepper 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Place the olive oil, garlic cloves and 2 of the bay leaves in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat; brown garlic on both sides, about 2 to 3 minutes, stirring often. Remove garlic from pan. Add the onions to the pan and saute' until onion edges start to brown, about 6 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the remaining bay leaf and all other ingredients. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat if necessary to maintain a simmer and cook about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove bay leaves before serving. GARLIC SHRIMP AND OYSTERS ON PASTA (2 generous servings)
The sauce for this dish is best if made only two servings at a time. If you want to make more than two servings, do so in separate batches but serve while piping hot. 2 quarts hot water 1 tablespoon salt 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 1/2 pound fresh spaghetti, or 1/3 pound dry FOR THE SEASONING MIX: 3/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon white pepper 1/2 teaspoon onion powder 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne) 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 1/4 teaspoon black pepper FOR FINISHING: 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, in all 1/2 cup chopped scallions 8 peeled medium shrimp (about 3 ounces) 1 tablespoon minced garlic 8 shucked oysters, drained, about 5 ounces 3/4 cup warm clam juice
Combine the hot water, salt and oil in a large pot over high heat; cover and bring to a boil. When water reaches a rolling boil, add small amounts of spaghetti at a time to the pot, breaking up oil patches as you drop spaghetti in. Return to boiling and cook uncovered to al dente stage (about 4 minutes if fresh, 7 minutes if dry); do not overcook. During this cooking time, use a wooden or spaghetti spoon to lift spaghetti out of the water by spoonfuls and shake strands back into the boiling water. (It may be an old wives' tale, but this procedure seems to enhance the spaghetti's texture.) Then immediately drain spaghetti into a colander; stop its cooking by running cold water over strands. (If you used dry spaghetti, first rinse with hot water to wash off starch.) After the spaghetti has cooled throughly, about 2 to 3 minutes, pour a liberal amount of vegetable oil in your hands and toss spaghetti. Set aside still in the colander.
Heat the serving plates in a 250-degree oven.
Combine the seasoning mix ingredients throughly in a small bowl and set aside.
Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over high heat.
Add the scallions, shrimp, garlic and seasoning mix; cook until shrimp turn pink while vigorously shaking the pan in a back-and-forth motion (versus stirring), about 1 minute. Add the oysters, clam juice and the remaining 6 tablespoons butter. Cook until heated through, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and serve immediately.
For each serving, roll spaghetti on a large fork and place on a heated serving plate. Top with sauce and garnish with the shrimp and oysters. LAGNIAPPE
To test doneness of spaghetti, cut a strand in half near the end of cooking time. When done, there should be only a speck of white in center, less than 1/4 the diameter of the strand.
Shaking the pan in a back-and-forth motion and the addition of stock to the melting butter keep the sauce from separating and having an oily texture -- stirring doesn't produce the same effect. SHRIMP REMOULADE (6 appetizer servings)
Make the remoulade sauce several hours ahead or, preferably, 2 to 3 days before serving. It keeps several days refrigerated and improves with time. 3 cups clam juice or water 2 bay leaves 1/2 teaspoon white pepper 1/2 teaspoon onion powder 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne) 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 1/4 teaspoon dried sweet basil leaves 1 1/2 pounds unpeeled medium shrimp, without heads 1 1/2 cups remoulade sauce (recipe follows) 6 large bowl-shaped lettuce leaves 2 cups very thinly shredded lettuce 1 1/2 small tomatoes, cut in 12 wedges 12 black olives 6 large sprigs parsley
Combine the stock or water and the seasonings in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 3 minutes. Turn heat to high and add the unpeeled shrimp. Cook uncovered over high heat for 3 minutes. Immediately drain the shrimp and refrigerate. When cool, peel shrimp and then chill well.
In a medium-size bowl, combine the chilled shrimp and remoulade sauce. For each serving, place a lettuce leaf in a salad plate and mound about 1/3 cup shredded lettuce in the center; top with 6 to 10 shrimp. Garnish each salad with 2 tomato wedges, 2 black olives and a sprig of parsley. REMOULADE SAUCE (Makes 1 1/2 cups) 2 egg yolks 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1/2 cup finely chopped celery 1/2 cup finely chopped scallions 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley 1/4 cup finely grated fresh horseradish or prepared horseradish 1/4 lemon, seeded 1 bay leaf, crumbled 2 tablespoons creole mustard (preferred) or brown mustard 2 tablespoons ketchup 2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce 1 tablespoon prepared mustard 1 tablespoon white vinegar 1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce 1 tablespoon minced garlic 2 teaspoons sweet paprika 1 teaspoon salt
In a blender or food processor, beat the egg yolks 2 minutes. With the machine running, add the oil in a thin stream. One at a time, blend in the remaining ingredients until well mixed and lemon rind is finely chopped. Chill well. SWEET POTATO PECAN PIE (Makes one 8-inch pie) FOR THE DOUGH: 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing 2 tablespoons sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 of a whole egg, vigorously beaten until frothy (reserve the other half for the sweet potato filling) 2 tablespoons cold milk 1 cup all-purpose flour plus extra for dusting FOR THE FILLING: 2 to 3 sweet potatoes (or enough to yield 1 cup cooked pulp), baked 1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed 2 tablespoons sugar 1/2 egg, vigorously beaten until frothy (reserved above) 1 tablespoon whipping cream 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened 1 tablespoon vanilla extract 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg FOR THE PECAN PIE SYRUP: 3/4 cup sugar 3/4 cup dark corn syrup 2 small eggs 1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted 2 teaspoons vanilla extract Pinch of salt Pinch of ground cinnamon 3/4 cup pecan pieces or halves Chantilly Cream (recipe follows)
For the dough: Place the softened butter, sugar and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer; beat on high speed until the mixture is creamy. Add the 1/2 egg and beat 30 seconds. Add the milk and beat on high speed 2 minutes. Add the flour and beat on medium speed 5 seconds, then on high speed just until blended, about 5 seconds more (overmixing will produce a tough dough). Remove the dough from the bowl and shape into a 5-inch patty about 1/2 inch thick. Lightly dust the patty with flour and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 1 hour, preferably overnight. (The dough will last up to one week refrigerated.)
On a lightly floured surface roll dough to a thickness of 1/8 to 1/4 inch. Very lightly flour the top of the dough and fold it into quarters. Carefully placed dough in a greased and floured 8-inch round cake pan (1 1/2 inches deep) so that the corner of the folded dough is centered in the pan. Unfold the dough and arrange it to fit the sides and bottom of pan; press firmly in place. Trim edges. Refrigerate 15 minutes.
For the sweet-potato filling: Combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl. Beat on medium speed of an electric mixer until the batter is smooth, about 2 to 3 minutes. Do not overbeat. Set aside.
For the pecan pie syrup: Combine all the ingredients except the pecans in a mixing bowl. Mix thoroughly on slow speed of electric mixer until the syrup is opaque, about 1 minute; stir in pecans and set aside.
To assemble: Spoon the sweet potato filling evenly into the dough-lined cake pan. Pour the pecan syrup on top. Bake in a 325-degree oven until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 3/4 hours. (Note: The pecans will rise to the top of the pie during baking.)
Cool and serve with Chantilly Cream. Store pie at room temperature for the first 24 hours, then (in the unlikely event there is any left) refrigerate. CHANTILLY CREAM (Makes about 2 cups) 2/3 cup whipping cream 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 teaspoon brandy 1 teaspoon Grand Marnier 1/4 cup sugar 2 tablespoons dairy sour cream
Refrigerate a medium-size bowl and beaters until very cold. Combine cream, vanilla, brandy and Grand Marnier in the bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed 1 minute. Add the sugar and sour cream and beat on medium just until soft peaks form, about 3 minutes. Do not overbeat. (Overbeating will make the cream grainy, which is the first step leading to butter. Once grainy you can't return it to its former consistency, but if this every happens, enjoy it on toast!)