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, and 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 me.
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 tartar sauce as well.
The next recipe is a Crawfish Pie, and it 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.
An Extra-Fast Version
For authenticity, the pastry must be puff and made with butter. 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.
The 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. Shrimp 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; this includes Jerusalem artichokes, sometimes called sunchokes. The nobby little roots are tiresome to peel, but you'll be rewarded with crisp, nutty flesh, resembling a water chestnut, which 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 soaked 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.
SUPPER IN NEW ORLEANS FOR 8
Jerusalem Artichoke and Spinach Salad
Bread Pudding With Whiskey Sauce
Suggested wine: Vintage domestic white Chardonnay .
Like so many traditional dishes, 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 wine.
Up to four hours ahead prepare artichokes and spinach.
Up to two hours ahead prepare brochettes.
About 15 minutes before serving coat and fry brochettes.
After serving brochettes reheat pastry and filling then assemble pies. Whisk dressing and toss salad. Reheat pudding in oven. Scoop hard sauce into bowl.
8 slices thick bacon, each cut into 7 pieces
4 dozen shucked oysters
Ground black pepper
1 medium bunch parsley
Oil for deep-fat frying
1 cup cornmeal
4 lemons, cut in wedges
Cook bacon in skillet until fat is translucent and edges are lightly browned. Drain bacon on paper towels. Dry oysters and season generously with pepper. On each of 8 skewers, thread 8 oysters alternating with bacon pieces, beginning and ending with 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 deep-fat fryer to 350 degrees. Pat oysters dry with paper towels. Coat brochettes in cornmeal, shaking to remove excess. Fry half brochettes at time in hot oil until light brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain brochettes on paper towels and fry remaining.
Let oil cool slightly, then fry parsley until leaves are dark green, about 30 seconds. Stand back to avoid spattering oil. Lift out parsley, cut off sprigs with scissors and discard stems.
Set brochettes on 8 individual plates and remove skewers. Sprinkle with fried parsley sprigs, add lemon wedge and serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.
1 1/2 pounds Rapid Puff Pastry
1/4 cup butter
2 onions, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 green pepper, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 dried red chiles
1/4 cup flour
3 cups fish or chicken stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 pounds peeled crawfish tails or peeled and deveined medium raw shrimp
Divide pastry dough in half. Roll out 1/2- to 1/4-inch thick. Using edge of soup bowl as guide, cut 4 pastry circles. Set circles on baking sheet, then chill. Using remaining dough, make 4 more circles. Chill until firm, at least 30 minutes.
Bake circles at 450 degrees until puffed and brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Baked circles can be kept in airtight container up to 1 week.
To make filling, melt butter in large saucepan. Add onions, celery, green pepper, garlic, chilies and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender but not browned. Add flour and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until flour turns light brown.
Whisk in stock. Bring liquid to boil, stirring to prevent lumps. When mixture has thickened slightly, stir in tomato paste and taste to adjust for seasoning. Stir in crawfish or shrimp. Cook until opaque, 2 to 3 minutes. Discard chilies. Taste sauce again. Filling can be refrigerated up to 2 days.
To finish, reheat pastry circles in 350-degree oven 5 to 8 minutes. Bring filling just to boil. Ladle into bowls. Top each bowl with pastry cover. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.
Note : Frozen puff pastry dough may be substituted. For hotter effect, double amount of chilies.
Rapid Puff Pastry
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chilled butter, cut in small cubes
1/2 cup cold water
Sift flour and salt into bowl of mixer equipped with pastry paddle. Add butter and all but 2 tablespoons water. Start mixer on low speed and mix just until dough holds together. If necessary, add more water. Dough should be very rough at this point.
Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and pat into long rectangle. Using wide spatula, fold rectangle into thirds like letter. Lift dough and turn so folded ends are at sides.
With floured rolling pin, roll out dough to form rectangle. Repeat folding and turning 3 more times. If butter begins to soften too much, chill dough until firm before continuing. Wrap dough and chill at least 30 minutes. Dough can be refrigerated up to 2 days. Makes 1 1/2 pounds Rapid Puff Pastry.
Note : Dough can be frozen up to 3 months.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE AND SPINACH SALAD
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup wine vinegar
3/4 cup oil
1 pound Jerusalem artichokes
Juice of 1 lemon
1 pound spinach, stems removed and washed
To make dressing, whisk shallot, mustard, sugar, salt and pepper to taste and vinegar in small bowl until mixed. Gradually whisk in oil, pouring in slow stream so dressing thickens slightly. Dressing can be refrigerated up to 2 days.
Peel artichokes and thinly slice. Dip slices at once into lemon juice to prevent discoloring. Combine in salad bowl with spinach. Cover and chill up to 4 hours.
Just before serving, whisk dressing lightly until recombined. Pour dressing over artichokes and spinach. Toss to mix. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.
BREAD PUDDING WITH WHISKEY SAUCE
1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup bourbon, about
5 1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs
3 cups milk
1 cup whipping cream
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup raisins
1 teaspoon vanilla
To make whiskey sauce, cream butter in bowl. Beat in powdered sugar small amount at time. Beat in 1/4 cup bourbon, or more to taste. Chill sauce at least 2 hours or until hard. Sauce can be refrigerated up to 1 week.
Set roasting pan filled with water on bottom shelf of oven. Butter 2-quart shallow baking dish. Soak bread crumbs in milk until all milk is absorbed, 5 to 10 minutes. Beat cream, eggs and granulated sugar until thoroughly mixed. Stir into bread crumbs with raisins and vanilla.
Spoon bread crumb mixture into baking dish. Smooth top. Bake at 325 degrees until skewer inserted in center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Bread pudding can be refrigerated up to 2 days.
Reheat pudding at 350 degrees 20 to 25 minutes. With tablespoon, shave curls of hard sauce and pile in bowl. Serve pudding very hot with whiskey sauce separately. Makes 8 servings.
Note : Cinnamon ice cream or coffee ice cream is an alternative to whiskey sauce as accompaniment.