Television first brought Julia Child into our homes. Now Federal Express is bringing Paul Prudhomme right into our kitchens.
We have already seen him, heard him, read him and cooked by his instruction. But tasting his food first-hand is another matter. Prudhomme, realizing this, has from time to time taken his entire restaurant, K-Paul's, on the road: from New Orleans to California, then New York. It still wasn't enough.
So he has gone one step further. He now sends Mail-a-Meals -- chicken-and-sausage or seafood jambalaya; and shrimp, chicken or crawfish etouffe'e -- directly from his restaurant. Not frozen -- that wouldn't taste like K-Paul's original. And not even cooked ahead. K-Paul's Mail-a-Meals are prepared just as they would be in the restaurant: Sauce base, freshly made each day, is combined with raw ingredients and seasonings for a quick last-minute cooking. The etouffe'e comes to your house with fresh shrimp -- wonderful New Orleans shrimp -- that you have to peel yourself; "If we peel the shrimp we have to freeze them because the iodine gets heavy," said Prudhomme. Seasoned rice reheats in a boil-in bag. Vegetables are chopped by hand, single-chopped with a very sharp knife, specified Glenn Adams, general manager of K-Paul's, to avoid the bruising which develops bitterness, particularly in bell peppers and scallions.
Once received, the dishes should be cooked within 24 hours. The etouffe'e takes only a few minutes of peeling shrimp, then simmering sauce, shrimp, chopped scallions and butter in a large skillet (though one man ordering for a party found himself with 15 pounds of shrimp to peel). The result is identical to what you would eat at K-Paul's after waiting in line for two hours. Jambalaya is a little more complicated. It requires a large pot for cooking the seasoned raw rice with Louisiana's cured meats -- tasso and andouille. After an hour the chopped tomatoes, onions and bell peppers are added for another 45 minutes.
Did Prudhomme consider sending completed dishes? "No. Never. I don't know of anything that reheats that well," declared Prudhomme. And he only sends dishes that can be done by a first-time cook. The goal was "to make the dishes as easy as possible without taking away from the taste at all. And we want it to be foolproof: That is the most important word." While the idea started with Prudhomme trying to develop a mail-order blackening package -- skillet, redfish, seasoning and all -- he found that unless cooks were familiar with the cooking process, "The chances of ruining dinner were too high."
What Prudhomme has in mind ultimately is a menu similar to the restaurant's menu, revised each month. "It will literally be a restaurant through the mail," he said.
Mail-a-Meals were introduced last Christmas in the Neiman-Marcus catalog, complete with pots for cooking them. They were less than a hit, said John McBride, director of K-Paul's mail-order catalogue business. "But it was quite a bit more expensive. We're talking double." Now K-Paul's is marketing them directly, at $85 to $90 including shipping, for a dish to serve six to eight people (or $60 for four, $140 for 12 to 16). And they have been catching on, said McBride, but "it is not like a $9.95 item. It's something people plan carefully for, do as a party or share with other couples." Mail-a-Meals are most popular around holiday times, and particularly suit gourmet clubs.
Unfortunately, a Mail-a-Meal can't simply be ordered for tomorrow's dinner. "It's a very custom-made type thing," explained McBride. You have to order at least three business days before it is to be shipped, and it can only be shipped Monday through Friday for next-day delivery.
It might have been sending coals to Newcastle, ordering a fresh shrimp etouffe'e from New Orleans delivered to a Virginia fishing town, but I tried Mail-a-Meals on vacation at the beach. K-Paul's shrimp were even better than the fresh ones sold locally, and the completed dishes tasted pure Prudhomme.
K-Paul's mail order number is 1-800-4KPAULS. Next I'd like a mail order number for Chez Panisse, Le Bernardin, Routh Street Cafe ... and maybe next year I'll vacation at home.
Tabletalk Chicken and black beans are the healthful foods of choice this year. The evidence? At the 5th Annual Golden Carrot Awards by Public Voice for Food and Health Policy in Washington, those were the most prevalent ingredients on the buffet, which is the city's most interesting annual array of healthful party fare from local restaurants.
Fashionable chicken dishes were rotisserie chicken with assorted relishes -- including sensational spiced sour cherries -- from Nora and City Cafe; asparagus-chicken salad with ginger sauce from Germaine's; and stir-fried chicken with multicolored peppers and caramelized macadamia nuts from Chanterelle caterers.
As for black beans, they showed up as a soup with shrimp and lime from Cities restaurant and a pa~te' with feta cheese and spring onion vinaigrette from New Heights.
Watch for a revival of soft-shell crayfish, which got off to a slow start a few years ago but now are being marketed in vacuum-packed bags. At the Golden Carrot buffet, Samplings restaurant served them grilled with soy-ginger sauce, though it was hard to convince the first-timers to eat the whole thing from head to tail.
PRUDHOMME CANDIED YAMS (6 to 8 servings)
2 1/2 pounds (about 4 small to medium) even-sized sweet potatoes
3 quarts plus 1/2 cup water
1 1/3 cups, packed, dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Place the potatoes and 10 cups of water in a 5 1/2-quart saucepan. With lid askew, cook over high heat until fork tender, about 1 hour. Drain well, and set aside while making syrup.
Combine brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, vanilla and remaining 2 1/2 cups water in a 2-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and simmer about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, peel potatoes and halve lengthwise. Place in an ungreased 13-by-9-inch baking pan in one layer, cut side up.
Pour finished syrup over potato halves, coating completely. Bake at 475-degrees until syrup is brown and heavy, about 35 minutes, basting twice. Remove from oven, baste once more, and transfer to a serving dish. Let cool at least 15 minutes (so syrup won't burn your mouth) or serve at room temperature.
From "The Prudhomme Family Cookbook," by Paul Prudhomme (William Morrow & Co., 1987)
1987, Washington Post Writers Group