The Big Easy to Eat


As a self pronounced foodie, I just can’t help being drawn to the diversity of the cuisine of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes. My Sicilian ancestry taught me how the blending of cultures in a particular region can produce some interesting tastes. Louisiana is a stunning example of this phenomenon.

With a smattering of influences from the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Africans, Native Americans, Italians and more, the tastes and textures of Louisiana fare are varied and always tantalizing. In fact, one can actually distinguish between two schools of cooking here, namely Creole and Cajun. Although they share much in common, the easiest way to describe the differences is that Creole tends to be a bit more complex, gastronomically speaking, borrowing cooking techniques from Europe and adapting them to local ingredients. Cajun cuisine leans more on a simple, down-home culinary philosophy born of the provincial French cooking that the Acadians brought to the bayous from Canada. Both do, however, share what is commonly called the Holy Trinity. Simply a mixture chopped celery, bell pepper, and onions, it serves as the cooking base to most dishes. Add it to local ingredients like crawfish, rice, beans and smoked ham, and you’ll discover some of the finest dishes you’ll ever experience, all with that intriguing flavor that makes them unmistakably Louisiana. (Oh, you can expect lots of cayenne pepper here as well. After all, some like it hot. Actually, in Louisiana, everyone likes it hot!)

OK, now to some of my favorite dishes. Well, to be honest, they’re all my favorites. I particularly like the stews, though. They almost always begin with a roux, or a mixture of fat and flour that, depending on how long it cooks, adds a light brown to deep red color and thickens the final creation. Take gumbo, for instance. This savory stew of meat or seafood, and sometimes okra, is lovingly simmered in a thickened, aromatic stock and served steaming over rice. I mean, come on, has to be good, right? Or etouffee, which is similar to gumbo, but a bit earthier due to the dark-red roux used as a thickener. I prefer mine with crawfish, but you can also try shrimp, crab or chicken varieties.

Did I mention how important rice is to the Cajun and Creole cook? Not surprising, since we are speaking of the South. Along with red beans and rice, flavored with Tasso ham and usually served on Mondays, or dirty rice (chicken liver or giblets give it a grayish color), I simply adore a dish called jambalaya. Reminiscent of paella, this favorite takes chicken and sausage, such as andouille, and slowly adds rice and stock until it all combines into a heavenly concoction of hearty goodness. Creole style adds tomatoes, Cajun does not. Both are fantastic.

The lover of Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, would be angry with me if I forgot to mention the sandwich. Here, it takes on a whole new meaning. Like the po’ boy. Imagine fried shrimp, oysters or other seafood, piled high on steaming hot Louisiana French bread, and dressed in spicy Creole mustard. Outstanding. Or the muffuletta. Dressed with a generous portion of marinated olive salad, it combines every type of Italian cold cut imaginable, all stuffed into a hefty, seeded Italian-style bread. Give it a while before consuming – you’ll want the juices from the olive salad to soak into the bread. Makes this Italian boy’s heart sing.

What good meal doesn’t end with a sweet? So you’ll have to complete your Cajun or Creole feast with the beignet, a square shaped fried dough pastry that’s sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. Talk about indulgence. Couple that with a nice cup of New Orleans style café au lait (the addition of chicory makes it authentic) and you’re ready to head home for a long nap.

No wonder they call New Orleans “The Big Easy.” With a culinary tradition that’s world renown, it so easy to be happy there. No time to visit? Not a problem. Try creating a Louisiana taste experience of your own. And invite me over. I’m easy to please.

Seafood Gumbo
A glorious gumbo is southern comfort food at its best. This one features shrimp, scallops, crab, andouille sausage and okra in a nourishing and soul-warming shrimp stock.The shrimp and scallops are seared before added to the stock and the okra sautéed in a hot skillet to lose most of its “ropey” texture. I hope you’ll love it.
Shrimp stock:
• Peanut or vegetable oil
• Reserved raw shells, tails and heads from shrimp (see seafood preparation)
• 1 carrot, chopped
• 1 stalk celery, chopped
• 1 large onion, chopped
• 1 Turkish bay leaf
• 6 cups water
• ¾ cup dry white wine
In a large saucepan, heat 2 T oil to hot and sauté shrimp shells, carrot, celery and onion for 5 minutes stirring frequently. Add bay leaf, water, and white wine. Bring to a simmer and cook at medium heat for 40 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve and discard solids.
While the stock is simmering, prepare the following:
• ½ lb andouille sausage* cut into thin slices
• 1 large onion, finely dice
• 2 celery ribs, finely chopped
• 1 red bell pepper, finely diced
• 3 cloves garlic, finely diced
• ½ cup tomatoes, seeded and chopped
• 1 t fresh thyme, chopped
• ¼ t cayenne pepper
Brown andouille in a lightly oiled large skillet. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate. Heat 2 T oil in the skillet and add onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic, tomatoes, thyme and cayenne pepper and cook until soft. Set aside to be added to a roux.
• 1 stick unsalted butter
• ½ cup flour
In a large stockpot or Dutch oven make a roux. Melt butter and gradually add flour stirring until a rich caramel color is reached. Gently add the vegetable mixture. Cook for another 3 minutes.
Bring shrimp stock to a boil. Gradually whisk cups into the roux mixture. Bring back to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer.
• 1 lb. large shrimp, cleaned. Reserve shells, tails and heads. (If possible, buy shrimp with the heads on.)
• 6 large sea scallops, muscles removed, cut in half horizontally
• 6 oz. lump crabmeat
Wipe out the large skillet and add 2 T oil. Heat to almost smoking. Add scallops seasoned with salt and pepper. Sear about 1 minute on each side. Remove and set aside. Add more oil if necessary to sauté shrimp seasoned with salt and pepper. Sauté until just pink, about 3 minutes. Set aside with scallops.
• ½ lb. okra cut into 1/4 –inch slices
In a dry skillet, sauté okra over medium-high heat, turning frequently until they lose most of the liquid and begin to caramelize about 10 minutes. Be careful not to scorch it. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from skillet.
• Optional: up to 1 ½ t file powder**
• 2 T chopped green onion
Add andouille, okra, scallops, shrimp and crabmeat to shrimp stock. Stir to combine. If additional thickening is desired, take off heat and add file powder accordingly, stirring constantly. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes before serving. Garnish with chopped green onions and serve in large bowls or soup plates over hot white rice.
*andouille—a spicy smoked sausage found in some supermarkets, specialty markets and online.
**file powder—ground dried leaves of the sassafras tree used to thicken and flavor Creole dishes; available in the spice or gourmet section of most large supermarkets.

Photographer Bill Brady
Written by Victor Ribaudo
Food Stylist Brian Preston Campbell
Recipe Provided by Phyllis Kirigin, aka sweetpaprika
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