Real Food Origins: New Orleans: Meal Challenge

As you may recall, The Husband, to help spur my creativity, issued this challenge: “Choose any city in North America. Prepare a meal of at least 3 courses, with at least one course from each of the following centuries: 1600’s, 1800’s, 1900’s. Use mid-century as your time reference. As before, you can only use ingredients that were available in the city you choose, at the time you choose for the dish. If you choose a city that didn’t exist in all 3 centuries, use ingredients available to the closest human population at the time. Bonus points for finding dishes that were popular with the population at the time.”

Well, it has taken me a while to get here, but what a journey. My meal features not 3 courses, but 4, spanning the history of New Orleans from before its founding into the mid-20th century, and hopefully doing justice to a proud, remarkable city and its Creole heritage.

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For our appetizer, I made Shrimp Remoulade, a pretty straightforward nod to the height of restaurant elegance in New Orleans during the 1800’s. My rendition of it features the tangy creaminess and pinkish hue of the traditional Creole remoulade, but with a bit of a twist; instead of using ketchup, I used a spicy tomato jam I canned last summer, so there are visible flecks of tomato skin in the dish. I served it on its customary bed of shredded lettuce; it really is a great fresh counterpoint, and a perfect way to sop up any extra remoulade on the plate. (Get remoulade recipe HERE.)

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Does soup and a sandwich count as one course or two? At any rate, this combo spans the history of the New Orleans area. The soup is inspired by a similar one I found on a Choctaw Native American history website, with a couple twists of my own. It features native ingredients corn, red beans, and file’ powder, just a touch of salt, and a bonus flavor-booster I couldn’t use in my last “North American native ingredient” soup.

The Choctaw were the native inhabitants of the Gulf Coast area during the 1600’s. Although New Orleans would not be incorporated as a town until 1718, European traders already had a relationship with the Choctaw, and that introduced them to cured pork products. Hello, bacon. Welcome to my soup. (Get the soup recipe HERE.)

The sandwich is obviously a po’boy, but oh, what a po’boy.

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If you haven’t guessed, those are oysters poaching in a butter-oyster liquor broth. I wanted them to be as rich as possible for the Po’Boy Rockefeller. Yep. I went there.

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Oysters Rockefeller was created at the turn of the 19th century by chef Jules Alciatore, of Antoine’s, one of the oldest, and most-loved restaurants in New Orleans. It was named “Rockefeller” because it was a very rich dish, with lots of butter, and Rockefeller was a very rich man. The po’boy came along a couple decades later, with the oyster po’boy one of the most popular versions. The oysters are usually fried in a po’boy, but in keeping with the “rich” theme, I felt I had to get them into some butter. The bright green spread on the sandwich is my other homage to Oysters Rockefeller.

The actual recipe for Oysters Rockefeller is a tightly-guarded secret kept by the Alciatore family and Antoine’s. Many published recipes have tried to copy it, but I discovered a problem in my research. Spinach is featured in almost every recipe I read, but the Antoine’s family swears there was never spinach in the dish. If we are to take them at their word, something else had to contribute to the leafy flavor and bright green color.

Many recipes include a healthy splash of anise-flavored liqueur, such as Pernod or Herbsaint. At the time the recipe was developed, however, the liqueur used was probably absinthe, a very potent anise-flavored elixir made with herbs and wormwood. My research on absinthe led me down several dense rabbit holes of the Internet, but what I came away with was an understanding that not only was its flavor key to the dish, but, possibly, also its color-it’s a remarkable shade of green. For a while, absinthe made with the traditional wormwood was unavailable due to (unfounded) health concerns, but no longer! I picked up a bottle at my local liquor outlet. I sampled it from a small aperitif glass; it is definitely to be sipped, not gulped, and absolutely to be respected. It is a powerful liqueur. I also think it’s fabulous, and I may be going back down some of those rabbit holes soon.

My Rockefeller herb spread diverges from most of the recipes in another way; I switched out the celery, and substituted fennel instead. It was clear that the anise flavor was key, and I wanted to boost it as much as possible. The switch resulted in a bright, green, herbaceous spread that will be great on a lot of things besides this po’boy.

The downer to all this was that the oysters were so delightfully delicate and mild that they got lost in the sandwich. So the Po’Boy Rockefeller is going back to the drawing board (cutting board?) for improvements.

Which brings us to dessert.

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Bananas Foster was created in 1951 at the restaurant Brennan’s by chef Paul Blange’, for the chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission, Richard Foster, a good friend of owner Owen Brennan.  Let the mind wander over that for a while.

My version brings back some regional flair, by using both ribbon cane syrup and sorghum molasses instead of brown sugar to make the dessert’s dark, caramel syrup, with plenty of rum and butter. The bananas add a touch of flavor to the syrup as they cook in it, and I added some texture by including toasted, chopped pecans (also native), and cacao nibs in the vanilla ice cream. It was a fine finish to the meal, being sweet, but not too sweet, and rich-flavored but not heavy and filling. It’s another ridiculously easy dish that is definitely more than the sum of its parts.

I apologize for the lack of recipes; I am still working on them, and they will appear here eventually. I didn’t want to delay posting any longer; I’ve left this blog unattended for far too long putting this meal together. I will update the “Origin” posts with recipes ASAP.

So, the latest challenge has been completed. The Husband has assured me there are more challenges to come, and that means more adventures to share with you. Until next time, laissez les bons temps rouler!

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