New Orleans is a city bounded by bayous, countless canals and the mighty Mississippi so it's no wonder that Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook highlights the bounty of these waters. Truly a melting pot, the people of New Orleans are descended from French, Canadian, Spanish, Haitian, Native American, Italian and African peoples and this fusion is best exemplified by the city's marvelous music and food. The two main styles of New Orleans cuisine are the Cajun and the Creole. Essentially it's the difference between rustic farmhouse cooking and more urbane cooking techniques. Since there is just no way I'm making it to Jazz Fest this year, I decided to explore the dichotomy of these cooking styles in my own humble abode.
After Mardi Gras, Gumbo is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of New Orleans. More than 200 years old, its name is derived from the West African word for okra: quingombo. Although it is similar to traditional Latin seafood stews, many elements of gumbo are unique to the region. There are two traditional ways to thicken a gumbo—a roux (flour browned in lard or oil) and file (ground sassafras powder). I didn't have to choose one over the other because the Seafood and Okra Gumbo utilizes both. You would think it would be simple to find sassafras powder in New York City but gourmet grocery store after grocery store failed me. I even got into a heated discussion with a gentleman who tried to convince me that I was looking for Saffron. I just love it when guys try to tell me what I want. Locating this stuff was a real Navy Seal-type operation and I would advise you to get yours in advance of the meal using the online purveyors Brennan's recommends at the back of the book. The resulting gumbo was fantastic and I had enough left over to freeze in individual ziploc bag-sized servings for future use.
When thousands of Sicilian immigrants began to arrive in New Orleans during the late 19th century they brought their beloved Seafood-Stuffed Artichoke. This recipe is a New Orleans style variation on that great theme using shrimp, crab and crawfish. One critique: Ralph Brennan takes it for granted that you know how to properly prepare an artichoke for blanching. He doesn't mention that they must be prepared for cooking by removing most of the stem, and cutting away about a quarter of each leaf with scissors. This removes the thorns on the leaves that can make eating a prickly proposition. It's worth the extra time it takes to do it right.
I served Trout Amandine as the main course because it's a menu staple in New Orleans. The venerable dish has been served there for well over 100 years and it is a fine example of French-Creole cuisine. Butter-toasted almonds are added to fillets that have been coated in seasoned flour, sauteed in clarified butter and finished off with lemon and parsley. You'll find the toasted almonds are the perfect compliment to the earthy, almost nutty taste of trout flesh. Best of all, this fish is relatively cheap! One tip: I was able to save even more because I purchased a whole rainbow trout and had my fishmonger fillet it for me. (You can and should reserve the head and bones to make your own fish stock with later.)
Dessert was a sinfully indulgent combination of Lemon Icebox Pie and Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie. The lemon icebox pie was surprisingly simple to make! Now we've come to the pop quiz portion of this review: What is hotter than the girl who drinks bourbon? The girl who can roll out a pie crust from scratch for a chocolate bourbon pecan pie! The Jim Beam and chocolate chips did a fancy zydeco dance on my tongue with the crust and pecans adding the perfect crunchy counterparts to balance the sweetness. It was definitely my favorite part of the meal because I got to have my bourbon and eat it too!