New Orleans is for lovers - of Cajun/Creole food

New Orleans is for lovers - of Cajun/Creole food
David Cohen

Cajun cuisine originated as strongly flavored country fare, usually single-dish meals cooked in big cast iron pots over a roaring fire. Spicy game dishes like alligator, squirrel, or whatever was available on a given day - with corn and rice thrown in for good measure - could feed a family.

Creole food originally was considered to be more refined than Cajun. It was city food. It originated in Europe with influences from Africa and the Caribbean.

Cajun recipes used more pork and sausage ingredients and lots of crawfish, while the main ingredients in Creole dishes tended to be shrimp, oysters and crab accompanied by numerous types of sauces.

As time went by, the cuisines tended to come closer together, so that both Creole and Cajun varieties of jambalaya, gumbo and etoufee can be found today.

A recent visit to New Orleans introduced me to two chefs who epitomize what's going on with Louisiana fare right now. John Besh and Donald Link represent the best of what New Orleans has to offer. Both Louisiana born and bred, John grew up on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, while Donald was born at Lake Charles in southwestern Louisiana. Both have won James Beard awards as the best chefs in the Southeast. Donald and John butcher their own meat and make every effort to use local ingredients grown or produced in Louisiana. The concept of "farm to table" plays a big role in how they cook and why their restaurants have become so popular with locals and
visitors alike.

John currently owns four restaurants. His flagship Restaurant August features contemporary Louisiana fare, including sugar and spice duckling with stone ground grits and crispy seared sablefish with truffled potato, herbs and roasted root vegetables. Then there's Besh Steak restaurant; Luke, which showcases his Alsatian roots with choucroute, Alsatian onion tarte and vanilla duck; and La Provence.

When he makes a roux, John says to brown the flour in the oil only as long as it takes to play both sides of a long playing record (remember those?) or to drink two long-neck beers. Nowadays, don't worry about slow stirring. Add an equal amount of flour to very hot oil, then lower the flame to moderate to prevent burning for 15 minutes. The roux is now a milk chocolate color. Add onions and carmelize them as the roux turns a dark chocolate hue. Now stir in the rest of the vegetables and voila, a quick base that doesn't take forever.

Donald grew up learning about food at his grandfather's side. Smothered squirrel was quite a staple and when I asked him a couple of questions about what it tastes like and how to prepare it, he asked me, "Why, do you know a purveyor?"

Cajun fare runs through Donald's blood. He opened Herb Saint originally with Susan Spicer of Bayona, which showcases Creole food that is influenced by contemporary Louisiana flavors. At his Cochon ("pig" in French) restaurant, his country Cajun roots are on full display where dishes like fried pigs' ears with cane syrup mustard, rabbit livers with pepper jelly and toast, hen and andouille gumbo with pickled peppers, fried boudin sausage balls, and Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage and pork cracklings are offered.

Next door to Cochon is his Cochon Butcher Shop where he prepares such delicacies as duck pastrami and confit, head cheese, foie gras butter, andouille and boudin sausages and Kurobota bacon.

In closing, I'd like to mention a few restaurants that offer both classic and modern Creole dishes. Places like Arnaud's, Galatoire's and Antoine's offer old-line Creole fare such as trout Marguery, barbecue shrimp, crab with remoulade sauce, oysters bienville and chicken rochambeaux. Classic dishes for the ages!

Two of the Brennan family's offerings - Palace Cafe and Cafe Adelaide at the Loew's Hotel - showcase modern versions of many of the old standbys. Palace Cafe standouts include the signature crabmeat cheesecake with wild mushroom sauce and Creole meuniere sauce; cochon du lait pot pie (slow roasted pork, garlicky spinach and smashed potatoes in a sweet onion gravy); and andouille-crusted drum fish served with a chive aioli. At Cafe Adelaide, you can choose from such items as shrimp and andouille gumbo salad minus the roux and rice; a blue crab and fennel turnover with a brie salad and pernod charred tomato veloute sauce; and a "smashed" po-boy sandwich with rye whiskey braised pork cheek served with cabbage slaw, cayenne pickle ribbons and green tomato mayo. There's no end to the variety of dishes you can sample in the Big Easy!

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