New Orleans cuisine in a class of its own
New Orleans cuisine in a class of its own
To get a real sense of what Louisiana cuisine is all about, a class at the New Orleans School of Cooking is a must. You'll be exposed to various and sundry Cajun and Creole dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish etoufee, red beans and rice, pecan pie and bread pudding.
First, a few words of introduction as to some of the ingredients you're likely to encounter. File, used as a thickening agent in gumbo, is ground sassafras leaves. Andouille is a hearty smoked country sausage, which is nowadays fairly spicy. Roux, a mixture of very hot oil and flour is the base for gumbo, turning color from tan to red to dark brown as it is prepared, becoming nuttier in the process. It's also known as Cajun napalm, since the temperature in the cast iron skillet can approach 500 degrees. A celery/onion/green bell pepper blend called "mirepoix" or the "trinity" is used in many Cajun dishes. Pralines (pronounced praw-leens) is a dessert comprised of pecan halves, light brown and white sugars, milk and butter.
All of the instructors at the school are not only adept at what they do, but they also throw in historical perspectives on the food as well as spice things up with some of their favorite tall tales and culinary trivia. Large mirrors are set up for the audience above the cooking area so that you can see exactly what's happening in the pot. We opted for the two hour
Friday class whose menu included seafood gumbo with andouille sausage, jambalaya and pralines. Gumbo means okra and in Africa, the dish was called "kigamba." Normally, it takes 3-4 hours to cook away the sliminess of the okra, so this vegetable is generally prepared in advance when incorporated into the gumbo. The other vegetables (celery, green bell pepper and onions) are chopped up and reserved. The roux is prepared in a cast iron skillet, using oil with a high smoking point. When medium to dark brown, it's added to the vegetables to stop the cooking process and then sauteed andouille is also added. The roux draws the flavors together. Hot stock is always added to the roux, not vice versa or the roux may separate upon reheating. Oysters go into the simmering gumbo 6 minutes before serving, raw shrimp 2 minutes before serving, and crawfish or already cooked seafood just before serving either over rice or in a bowl with French bread.
Jambalaya essentially means "ham and rice," the African origin of jamba being a gift from the main house. The main ingredients can consist of any combination of tasso (Cajun spiced ham), shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage, and oysters and unlike gumbo, there is little remaining liquid. The chicken and sausage are usually browned in lard or bacon drippings. The vegetable trinity is also incorporated and scraped, in part from the bottom of the pan to add some textural contrast. Paprika seasoning is used to impart a reddish color as well as tomatoes. A combination of red, white and black pepper may be used to increase the spiciness of the dish. The long grained rice is cooked with the liquid and other ingredients for about 25 minutes.
The pralines, a Creole dish, are prepared by combining all ingredients (white and light brown sugars, milk, unsalted butter, pecans and vanilla) in a pot until the mix takes on the appearance of a soft ball, while stirring continuously. It's then removed from the heat and as it's stirred it thickens and becomes creamy and cloudy until the pecans remain suspended. Spoon out the pralines onto aluminum foil or buttered wax paper over newspaper allowing the hot wax to flow down into the newsprint . Serve when cool.
The open demo classes are available to individuals and include 4 food items and run from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for $27 per person. Friday and Saturday 2-4 p.m. classes include 3 food items for $22. You get to sample all prepared items as well as coffee, iced tea, Abita beer and Abita root beer. Recipes are included. Menus vary by day. There's red beans and rice every Monday; gumbo and jambalaya every Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; crawfish etouffee on Friday and the 2-4 p.m. class on Sat; and shrimp creole on Thursday. They also offer "hands on" classes for groups of 4 or more. Under the watchful eye of one of the school's instructors, you'll get to both prepare and eat some of the specialties I've just described. Reservations can be made at (504) 525-2665 or toll-free at (800) 237-4841. The Louisiana General Store on the premises sells cookbooks, condiments, sauces and seasonings. You can also order their products online at www.nosoc.com.
The motto of the New Orleans School of Cooking is "Make your mouth happy" and they succeed admirably. If this is your first visit to New Orleans, there's no better introduction to Cajun and Creole fare, not to mention that actually seeing how some of these classic dishes are prepared gives you a deeper appreciation for what goes into the many offerings of America's only true regional cuisine. The New Orleans School of Cooking is at 524 St. Louis Street (between Decatur and Chartres) in the French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Watch for a subsequent article on how Louisiana cuisine has changed over the past quarter century, with some insights from two of New Orleans best chefs, John Besh and Donald Link, as well as where you can find authentic cajun/creole cuisine in the Inland Empire.