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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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11.09.08

Jazzed to be Back in New Orleans

Recipes, Travel


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antoines

Katrina was only a category 1 hurricane as it swept over us in Key West, Florida, and yet it was already mighty impressive. We watched for hours as trees flailed in the wind, rain poured down in torrents, and water rose in the streets, all the while listening to the relentless wind howl and pound at the doors and windows.

We lost power early in the storm, but fortunately we had a battery-operated radio, so we could track the storm’s progress. Even after the storm passed, we continued to listen to the news—both to find out what our status was in the keys, but also to find out where the monster was headed. There wasn’t any good place for a storm like this to hit, but we hoped for the best. However, as we listened in horror, we learned that it was heading for populated areas and it was also gaining strength.

That was three years ago. In April of this year, I saw New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. I was there for a conference, and I was delighted to find out how things were going. I’m pleased to say, the old girl is looking good. Fortunately, the French and Spanish built above sea level, so the French Quarter and Garden District weren’t hit all that hard, compared to some of the more recent, below-sea-level suburban sprawl. So most of what one goes to New Orleans to see looks unchanged—and in some cases, looks even better than before, with fresh paint and newly completed repairs.

I’m pleased to say, dining was as good as ever. Restaurants were among the first businesses to be up and running after Katrina. (In talking to a few restaurateurs, I learned that many were back in business three weeks after the hurricane.) New Orleans has some of the country’s oldest restaurants. Antoine’s was opened in 1840, Tujagues started up in 1856, and Galatoire’s dates to 1905. You can dine in the places that originated some of the country’s greatest dishes: Brennan’s, which created bananas Foster; K-Paul, where blackened redfish was invented; the Central Grocery, home of the original muffuletta sandwich; and Antoine’s, which introduced oysters Rockefeller and pompano en papillote. But in New Orleans, even the places that aren’t famous are generally great, as well. One can (and I did) dine on Cajun and Creole classics, stop to buy pralines, or just sit and watch the crowds pass by as you sip chicory-laced coffee and eat beignets buried under clouds of powdered sugar at Café du Monde.

On my previous visit, I’d hit Commander’s Palace (one of the best restaurants in the country), Brennan’s, Palace Café, Antoine’s, K-Paul, and Central Grocery. I highly recommend any and all (though if you could only pick one, I’d definitely say to try Commander’s Palace.) However, in April, I wanted to try new places. I was guided by a local to a wonderfully funky, little brick and wood “joint” called Coop’s Place, on Decatur Street, that was packed with locals and served outrageously good seafood gumbo.

Having done nothing but historic restaurants my first trip, I decided this time to try something more recent: my first-ever meal at a restaurant owned by someone on the Food Network—Emeril’s. Because I was alone, they asked me if I’d like to sit at the chef’s bar, a long counter that divides the kitchen from dining room, with a view into the kitchen (in fact, with a work station on the back side of the counter). Oh, yeah.

This was brilliant entertainment: watching the blazing fires and flying plates, the rhythm of regular service suddenly ramped up when a large party in a private room had to be served all at once, and tough-looking, tattooed, young, Bourdainesque cooks working with painstaking delicacy on beautiful dishes—and stopping whenever things slowed to talk with cheerful enthusiasm about the restaurant, cooking in general, and their careers. I was in heaven.

emeril’s

The amuse bouche was a dollop of salmon tartar on a homemade potato chip. Very nice. The highlight of the meal had to be my appetizer: root beer- braised pork-belly salad with citrus slaw. Yeah, baby. I’d struck up a conversation with another woman dining at the kitchen bar, and we traded parts of our main courses, to expand the experience, so I got to taste both the elegant pan-seared filet of beef and the outrageously good blackened redfish.

My second “big” dinner of this trip was a night at the venerable Galatoire’s. I was joined here by a couple of friends who were also at the conference. We arrived early—because reservations are not taken for tables on the first floor, and we wanted to be on the first floor (but we didn’t want to stand in line for an hour). The floor is tiled. Mirrors wrap all the way around the room. Forest-green wallpaper is printed with green fleurs de lis. Brass lamps light the room and brass fans turn lazily over head. The place was soon crowded, though mostly with locals, including families with children and groups of college students in blazers. Our waiter told us he was one of the “new guys,” with only twelve years of service at the restaurant.

We started with a Sazerac, a near-legendary New Orleans cocktail that combines rye, sugar, and absinthe. Mighty tasty. (Though I do hold that absinthe responsible for very strange dreams that night). The appetizer included shrimp remoulade, crabmeat maison, and crawfish maison. Rich but glorious. For my main course, I had the crab sardou: crabmeat smothered in hollandaise sauce on a base of artichoke heart and spinach (not perfectly realized, but still loved for its historicity). For dessert, we opted for another classic: café brulot. A silver bowl full of spices, sugar, orange and lemon peel, and flaming brandy was carried out. The waiter ladled cascades of flaming alcohol into the air, then added a pot of coffee to the brandy, as the flames begin to die. Just perfect.

Of course, there is more to do than eat in New Orleans. The area’s rich history offers delightful ways to spend any time not occupied with dining. There are wonderful museums (one that I particularly enjoyed was the Pharmacy Museum, housed in the country’s first compounding pharmacy). You can stop by the Napoleon House for a drink (Pimm’s Cup is traditional) in the building that was to be Napoleon’s home, had the Louisiana French succeeded in rescuing him from St. Helena. There are delightful historic homes to tour. And it’s a great town for just hiking around and looking at things. Plus day trips can take you to bayou country, to feed the ‘gators, or to splendid plantations.

decatur street

I did all of that my first time in New Orleans. This time, I was in town on business. But, in addition to the wonderful restaurants, I managed to fit in a fair bit of wandering one day, a tour of a historic home (the elegant 1800s Herman-Grima house), and a return to the Café du Monde.

One of the nights of the convention, we had a “Gumbo Giveback”—a fundraiser that gave us the opportunity to sample some of the many varieties of New Orleans gumbo and support the rebuilding of New Orleans. Chefs and owners were on hand from some of the city’s best restaurants. Paul Prudhomme showed us that potato salad is a delightful alternative to rice, when serving a spicy gumbo, and just as traditional. (Ladle the soup over a scoop of potato salad, just as you would ladle it over a scoop of rice.) Among the delights we enjoyed at the Giveback were seafood gumbo, duck and andouille gumbo, chicken gumbo, and a new gumbo I’d never seen before—gumbo z’herbes. Gumbo z’herbes is pretty dramatically different from other gumbos, but this thick green gumbo, which combines a wide array of greens, is a delicious alternative. The z’herbes in the name is a corruption of the French aux herbes, which just means “of greens.” It was the one gumbo I decided I had to reproduce when I got home from New Orleans.

If you had any doubt that New Orleans would stage a comeback, let me tell you, those doubts are unfounded. The city is back in all her glory, with history and culinary wonders to spare. So when you find the winter is getting you down and you think you might like to slip away for a little something to warm you up, may I recommend a visit to New Orleans. They’ll be jazzed to see you.

Recipe: Gumbo Z’Herbes

During a recent trip to New Orleans—my first visit since Hurricane Katrina—among the many culinary delights I experienced was discovering this remarkable gumbo, which is as venerable as most other New Orleans gumbos, but not as familiar to those of us from the frozen north. It was love at first bite, and I decided it was something I’d have to try to reproduce when I got home. If you like big, thick, flavorful soups, this might be something you’d like to try yourself.

3 Tbs. vegetable oil, butter, lard, or bacon fat
1 ham hock, about 2 pounds
2 medium onions, chopped
6–8 fat cloves of garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
5 bunches assorted greens, chopped (see Notes)
1/2 small head of green cabbage, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped (including most of the green)
2 quarts chicken broth
2 Tbs. vinegar
Salt and pepper
2–3 Tbs. filé powder, or to taste
Cooked white rice for serving with the gumbo

Cut several 1/2-inch-deep slits across the ham hock.

In a large stockpot (10 or 12 quarts is good), heat the fat or oil. Add the ham hock and onions, and cook for 10 minutes, until the onions are softened and the slits in the ham hock have begun to open up. Stir in the garlic, bay leaves, thyme, and cayenne pepper. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chopped greens, cabbage, parsley, and green onions. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until some of the greens begin to wilt. Pour in the chicken broth and vinegar. Increase the heat to high. Stir frequently, to make sure all the greens spend some time in the broth, until the greens have gotten soft enough to all be in the liquid. When all the greens are in the liquid and the broth boils, reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 2-1/2 hours, or until the greens are really tender. Stir occasionally, and check to make sure it isn’t bubbling too hard. (If you boil it the whole time, too much liquid will cook off.)

Remove the ham hock and cut the meat off the bone. Cut up the meat and add it to the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper (though, with the ham hock, and if you used broth with salt, you may not need salt). Stir in the filé powder just before serving. (You don’t want to let the gumbo boil after you add the filé.) Ladle the gumbo over a scoop of hot rice in a large bowl. Serves 8–10.

Notes: Traditional greens from which to select include collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, spinach, watercress, chicory, beet tops, carrot tops, or radish tops. As I worked on developing this recipe, I found that, for greens that weren’t available fresh, frozen was acceptable. I used fresh as much as possible, but turnip greens and mustard greens were much easier to find in 1-lb. bags in the freezer case.

A 1-lb. bag is a little more than you’d get if you chopped up a bunch, but not enough more to affect the recipe. If you use two or more bags of frozen greens, add another cup of broth or water, to compensate for the fact that frozen greens aren’t going to be quite as juicy as fresh.

If you’re going to use collard greens, fold the leaf in half down the middle and cut off the heavy spine before using. Collards are pretty tough, so cut them up a bit smaller than, say, watercress or spinach.

My favorite combo ended up being spinach, turnip greens, mustard greens, collard greens, watercress and spinach. This, along with the cabbage and parsley, gives you seven greens, which is considered lucky in New Orleans.

The greens take up a lot of space when fresh, which is why you need a large pot to start.

Filé powder is available at most grocery stores. It is an ingredient introduced by the Choctaw Indians to early New Orleans settlers. It’s made from pounded sassafras leaves. It has a slight thickening effect, but it also has a strongly herbal flavor—something a bit like oregano. If you don’t want to buy filé, the flavor of the gumbo won’t be quite the same, but it will still be great. However, if you want to try it, filé will make your gumbo more authentic.

6 Comments on "Jazzed to be Back in New Orleans"

Jen

This article makes me sad.

“I’m pleased to say, the old girl is looking good. Fortunately, the French and Spanish built above sea level, so the French Quarter and Garden District weren’t hit all that hard, compared to some of the more recent, below-sea-level suburban sprawl. So most of what one goes to New Orleans to see looks unchanged—and in some cases, looks even better than before, with fresh paint and newly completed repairs.”

“If you had any doubt that New Orleans would stage a comeback, let me tell you, those doubts are unfounded. The city is back in all her glory, with history and culinary wonders to spare.”

Did the author even venture beyond the French Quarter and other tourist sites? Did she get anywhere near that Lower 9th and see the abundance of vacant lots (lots that had houses on them before Katrina)? Did she notice the abandoned homes that are in such poor shape they are unlivable? Did she see how many houses still have spray-painted search-and-rescue notes on the front (i.e., “1 dead in attic”)?

New Orleans was–and is–so much more than just the French Quarter. It’s a city with a rich heritage and a unique culture created by its residents. And in no way is the city “back in all her glory.” You do a disservice to the residents of NOLA by promoting the false idea that everything is better.

There’s an old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.” We can’t afford to let the horrible situation in New Orleans fall out of sight.



Cynthia

New Orleans is frantic to get tourists coming back. The whole focus of the convention I was at was to try to promote New Orleans as being a viable destination once again — because they can’t keep things moving forward without the money tourism brings. If people continue to focus on what a mess some parts are, tourists don’t return. Many of us in fact pledged at the conference to write articles promoting the restoration of the parts of town that tourists would enjoy, because without tourists, the city dies.

So while we all remember the disaster, we all need to continue to work toward restoration, and encouraging visitors to come down and spend money is a key way of doing that.

The parts of New Orleans that can generate money for the city have staged a glorious comeback. When those parts are making money, the parts that are still hard-hit will do better. But they can’t do it without the tourists.



Jen

Cynthia,

Thank you for responding. I appreciate that New Orleans is trying to get tourism back, and I wholeheartedly support those efforts. I just wish you’d balanced your message with the news that this is a city whose residents are still suffering, and they need our tourism dollars. It doesn’t benefit New Orleans and its residents to sugarcoat the picture and say that’s everything is glorious when it clearly isn’t.

I’m not saying you should scare tourists away. But I think it’s important to present the message in an accurate and honest context: This is a city that needs our help! It will wine you and dine you and show you a great time, because your tourist dollars are necessary to revitalize the non-tourist neighborhoods that are still suffering more than 3 years later.



Cynthia

I did include the hurricane and mentioned a fundraiser that was helping rebuild New Orleans. I thought a subtle reminder would be enough to let folks know they are still rebuilding without detracting from the message of rebirth that New Orleans (or at least their tourism ad dept.) is working to get across. Because people haven’t forgotten, and that’s the problem — that’s what’s keeping them away — they still have the image of horrific destruction. The folks in charge of the current New Orleans tourism ad campaign know that, while most people want to help, most don’t want to spend their hard-earned vacation dollars visiting a place that is in ruins. And it’s not in ruins. The part that tourists go to see is fabulous again, and they want folks to know that it’s fabulous.

For anyone who wants to take a vacation to New Orleans, all the history, and food, and museums, and architecture that have made it a top destination for so long are all there and all beautiful. So whether you’re going to help or going to let the good times roll, just go. Either way, it’s a great destination—and either way, you’ll be helping.



Kathlee Toellner

The next time you arein the NOLA area please eat at Restaurant August, chef Beck is one of my favorites and he is native to the area. Really great food and wonderful restaurant.



Cynthia

Thanks for the recommendation, Kathlee. I passed August a couple of times, and it looked elegant. I checked the website for the restaurant, and it certainly looks as though Chef John Besh offers some splendid food. August is now on the list for the next trip. (It’s always nice to have another excuse to get back to NOLA!)



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