At last I've visited New Orleans. "You'll love it," said friends, but all the hype had not prepared me for the feast I found. Oysters by the dozen, crawfish by the score, energetically trying to climb out of their reed baskets. And a wealth of full-bodied recipes specifically designed to tempt a traditionalist like myself.
I could hardly wait to come home and try out oyster brochette -- a luscious item of half a dozen oysters speared with bacon, coated in cornmeal and deep-fried. Was the batter held together with egg? How did the oysters stay so juicy? It took two or three tries to get the recipe just right, but now it's a winner. For me, a squeeze of lemon or a dash of hot pepper sauce is sufficient accompaniment, but you could try a tartare sauce as well.
The next recipe, a crawfish pie, turned out right the first time. The restaurant trick of baking pastry separately so the crust stays crisp works particularly well with a moist filling like this. For authenticity, the pastry must be puff and made with butter, so here I'm suggesting an extra-fast version using the mixer. Don't be worried if the dough sticks during rolling -- simply chill it thoroughly and then continue.
Filling for the pie is a classic crawfish etouffe' with plenty of vegetables and a touch of hot pepper. "Etouffe'" means "smothered" in French and that's exactly what happens to the crawfish, which are smothered in sauce and simmered just a few minutes until tender. Shrimps can take the place of crawfish and the filling is equally good served, New Orleans style, on a bed of rice.
Artichokes are a local favorite and this includes jerusalem artichokes, sometimes called sunchokes. The nobbly little roots are tiresome to peel, but you'll be rewarded with crisp, nutty flesh, which resembles a water chestnut and is delicious in salads. The dressing I had was quite sweet, suiting the lemony bite of the artichokes, which were set on a background of baby spinach leaves.
Louisiana bread pudding is legendary. I came across it in several guises, sometimes with whole slices of bread but more often in this light bread-crumb version spiked with raisins. For moistness, the pudding is baked with a pan of water at the bottom of the oven. Best of all is the accompaniment -- a potent whiskey hard sauce which is a cinch to make and adds generous bounce to the delicate custard on which the pudding is based.
Like so many traditional dishes, all these are prepared ahead, leaving little cooking at the last minute.
Up to one week ahead: Bake puff pastry rounds for pie. Make whiskey sauce.
Up to two days ahead: Cook crawfish pie filling. Make salad dressing. Bake bread pudding. Chill the wine.
Up to four hours ahead: Prepare jerusalem artichokes and spinach.
Up to two hours ahead: Prepare brochettes. Scoop hard sauce into a bowl.
Fifteen minutes before serving: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Heat oil for deep-frying.
Ten minutes before serving: Coat and fry brochettes.
After serving brochettes: Reheat pastry and filling; assemble pies. Whisk dressing and toss salad. Reheat pudding in oven.
Be sure to dry oysters thoroughly before coating them with cornmeal.
8 thick slices bacon, each cut into 7 pieces
4 dozen shucked oysters
Pepper to taste
Medium bunch parsley
Oil for deep-frying
1 cup cornmeal
4 lemons, cut in wedges
In a frying pan, cook bacon until fat is translucent and edges are lightly browned. Drain bacon on paper towels. Dry oysters and season them generously with pepper. Thread them on 8 skewers, alternating with pieces of bacon. Note: Begin and end with a piece of bacon.
Wash parsley and dry thoroughly. Tie stems with string. Parsley and brochettes can be refrigerated up to 2 hours.
To finish: Heat oil in a deep-fryer to 350 degrees. Coat brochettes in cornmeal, shaking to remove excess. Fry half the brochettes in hot oil until light brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain brochettes on paper towels and fry the rest.
Let oil cool slightly, then fry parsley until leaves are dark green, about 30 seconds. Note: Stand back as it will sputter. Lift out parsley, cut off sprigs with scissors and discard stems.
Set brochettes on 8 individual plates and remove skewers. Sprinkle them with fried parsley sprigs, add a lemon wedge and serve.
Shrimp can take the place of crawfish and many markets now carry frozen puff pastry dough if you don't have time to make your own. For a hotter effect, double the number of chilies.
1 1/2 pounds rapid puff pastry (below) or puff pastry
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter
2 onions, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 dried red chilies
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup flour
3 cups fish or chicken stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 pounds crawfish tails or peeled and deveined medium raw shrimp
Divide pastry dough in half and roll out 1/2- to 1/4-inch thick. Using remaining dough, make 4 more circles and chill until firm, at least 30 minutes.
Bake circles until puffed and brown, 12 to 15 minutes, in a 450-degree oven. Baked circles can be kept in an airtight container up to a week.
For the filling: melt butter in a large saucepan. Add onions, celery, green pepper, garlic, chilies, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft but not browned. Add flour and continue cooking, stirring continuously, until flour turns light brown.
Whisk in stock and bring liquid to a boil, stirring to prevent lumps. When mixture has thickened slightly, stir in tomato paste and taste for seasoning. Stir in crawfish or shrimp and cook until they are opaque, 2 to 3 minutes. Discard chilies and taste sauce again. Filling can be refrigerated up to 2 days.
To finish: Reheat pastry circles in a 350-degree oven, 5 to 8 minutes. Bring filling just to a boil and ladle it into eight 2-cup soup bowls. Top each bowl with a pastry cover and serve at once.
RAPID PUFF PASTRY (Makes 1 1/2 pounds dough)
The dough can be frozen up to 3 months.
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) chilled butter, cut in small cubes
1/2 cup cold water
Sift flour and salt into the bowl of a mixer equipped with a pastry paddle. Add butter and all but 2 tablespoons of the water. Start mixer on low and mix just until dough holds together. If necessary add more water. Note: dough should be very rough at this point.
Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and pat it into a long rectangle. Using a wide spatula, fold rectangle in thirds like a letter. Lift dough and turn it so folded ends are at the sides.
With a floured rolling pin, roll out dough to form a rectangle. Repeat folding and turning 3 more times. If butter begins to soften, chill dough until firm before continuing. Wrap dough and chill at least 30 minutes. It can be refrigerated up to 2 days.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE AND SPINACH SALAD
Artichokes discolor rapidly, so dip them in lemon juice as soon as they are sliced.
FOR THE DRESSING:
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup wine vinegar
3/4 cup oil
FOR THE SALAD:
1 pound jerusalem artichokes
Juice of 1 lemon
1 pound spinach, stemmed and washed
For the dressing: Whisk shallot, mustard, sugar, salt, pepper and vinegar in a small bowl until mixed. Gradually whisk in oil, pouring in a slow stream so dressing thickens slightly. It can be refrigerated up to 2 days.
Peel artichokes and thinly slice them, dipping slices at once into lemon juice. Combine them in a salad bowl with spinach. Cover and refrigerate up to 4 hours.
Just before serving, whisk dressing lightly until recombined. Pour dressing over artichokes and spinach, toss to mix and serve at once.
BREAD PUDDING WITH WHISKEY SAUCE (8 servings)
Cinnamon or coffee ice cream is an alternative to whiskey sauce as an accompaniment.
FOR THE WHISKEY HARD SAUCE:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2/3 cup confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup bourbon, more to taste
FOR THE BREAD PUDDING:
5 1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs
3 cups milk
1 cup whipping cream
3 eggs, beaten to mix
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup raisins
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the whiskey sauce: in a bowl cream the butter, then beat in sugar a little at a time. Beat in bourbon, adding more to taste. Chill sauce at least 2 hours or until hard. It can be refrigerated up to 1 week.
Set a roasting pan filled with water on the floor of a 325-degree oven. Butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish. Soak bread crumbs in milk until all the milk is absorbed, 5 to 10 minutes. Beat cream, eggs and sugar until thoroughly mixed. Stir them into the bread crumbs with raisins and vanilla.
Spoon bread crumb mixture into baking dish and smooth the top. Bake pudding until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Bread pudding can be refrigerated up to 2 days.
Reheat pudding in a 350-degree oven 20 to 25 minutes. With a tablespoon, shave curls of hard sauce and pile them in a bowl. Serve pudding very hot with whiskey sauce separately.