Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Layered Flavors in Creole Cuisine

It is said by many of the Creole professionals that the layering of flavors is an African technique. While it's true that foods from France, Spain, Germany, Italy and elsewhere formed the basis of Creole Cuisine, it was the African cooks who took their own know-how and made it happen.  It's the extraction of all possible flavor and then the expert layering of them that is all important in all Creole dishes.  Here in this video is a recipe for stewed okra from which our gumbo evolved.  (The word "gumbo" is from the West African word GOMBO - okra.)  In it we see how one layer is created, then another is created and added and another is added and another.  The video is in French as it is from the French speaking West African coast, so if you don't speak African-French you'll just have to watch and learn.  (Watch how the okra is prepared - fascinating!)  A few things that'll help:

Totogboè - sardines

Maquereau Fumé - smoked mackerel

Huile de palma Zomi  (Red palm oil)  an oil produced exclusively from palm nuts and spices. All Africa is present in this product, with its intense red color and its unique and spicy taste. 

Gingembre Mixé - Ginger root, grated, mixed with a little water and allowed to steep.  It is used ginger, water and all.

Morceau de potasse - an edible potash used in West African cooking.

Ewo - Corn meal.

As you can see from the ingredients, this is a very different dish from the gumbo we know in New Orleans today, but here we clearly see the genesis of it.  Notice how nothing is wasted - the byproducts of the fish are boiled to make a stock - the first layer - the okra comes next - the crab layer is created and added - and so on.  Imagine how skilled enslaved African cooks took this expertise and incorporated the resources available in the Colony - adding roux - adding the Creole trinity (a mire poix of bell pepper, celery and onion) - adding shrimp and oysters - and created that most Creole of Creole dishes - GUMBO - from this, its mother dish!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Original Creole Beignet

Cafe du Monde, late 1960's
The beignet (pronounced BEN-yay) is one of those Creole delicacies that has been so radically altered thanks to commercialism that the original is long lost except by the most devoted of Creole gourmands.  The beignet we know today is a 20th century pastry and actually is not even a true beignet at all.  New Orleanians went to the Cafe du Monde and other such places for what they simply called "doughnuts."  In fact, the Cafe du Monde, themselves, referred to them as "doughnuts" until the 1980's.

A 1975 tourist pamphlet (showing a photo from the 1950's)
identifies beignets as "hot crullers and doughnuts."

So, what happened that "doughnuts" became "beignets?"  The 1984 World's Fair radically altered New Orleans culture.  In an effort to make New Orleans even more unique than it already is, "Creole" became Cajun", the Pete Fountains and Al Hirts of New Orleans Jazz were pushed aside by the Dr. Johns and Beausoleils, civilized cocktails and tasteful sipping turned into high potency guzzling.  Although there were some who called doughnuts "beignets" the name was solidified and the "Doughnut" sign came off the roof.  A true beignet is actually a fried batter, not a dough.

Tour guides all over the city find many ways to define the word "beignet" - often claiming it's from the French for "pillow." (French for pillow is oreiller.)  Beignet actually means "fritter" and that's exactly what it was; a fried batter, kind of like a funnel cake is a fried batter.  It was spooned onto the hot grease and served hot.  But what made the beignet special was the addition of whipped egg whites folded into the batter.  They came out very light and airy.  It's a shame that no one makes them today, but the process of making them is too involved.  (See recipe, below.)  Fried breads (doughnuts) have been served in coffee stands since the mid-1800's and they were identified as breads or doughnuts.  But with the 1984 World's Fair and the push to make New Orleans more unique, Cafe du Monde menus which used to read "doughnuts" now read "beignets - French doughnuts."  As for the original and true beignet, a vintage recipe gives us a light and airy treat.  This recipe is from the 1901 Picayune Creole Cookbook.

Beignets de Pâte
(Plain Fritters)

1 pint of flour (2 cups)
1 pint of milk
1 teaspoon of baking powder
4 eggs
The zest of 1/2 a lemon
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
Flavoring to taste

Beat the yolks of the eggs and the whites seperate.  Sift the baking powder into the flour, and add the yolks of the eggs, well beaten.  Beat well, and add the milk, and flavoring of orange, vanilla or brandy to taste.  (May be omitted altogether.)  Add the lemon zest, grated very fine, and salt in quantity given above.  Lastly, add the whites, beaten to a stiff froth, and have the batter so it will drop from the spoon.  Drop in it boiling lard (oil) by large kitchen spoonfuls and let it fry to a golden yellow.  Lift out with a skimmer, and drain and place on a heated dish, and sprinkle with powdered white sugar, and serve hot.

In arranging them in the dish, make the fritters rise into a pretty pyramid and sprinkle with the sugar.  Never pierce fritters with a fork, as that will cause steam to evaporate and make the fritters heavy.  A fritter that is well made should be light and puffy.

Here is another recipe from the Le Courrier Français, August 22, 1862.  Note that this is four months after the Union has captured New Orleans and food is kind of scarce - interesting that it should mention the need for frugality:

Beignets à la Créole

1 tasse de farine
2 oeufs, séparés
1 soupçon de sel
1 soupçon de cognac
1 noix de beurre,  fondu
eau froide

Battre les jaunes d'oeufs et ajouter la farine un peu à la fois, en battant bien jusqu'à ce que tout bien mélangé. Ajouter le brandy et le beurre fondu et suffisant d'eau froide pour faire une pâte ferme. Battre les blancs d'œufs en une mousse rigide et fold, doucement, dans la pâte.  Déposer la pâte par cuillerées à soupe de saindoux en ébullition et faire frire jusqu'à coloration dorée.

Égoutter sur du papier et servir chaud, saupoudré de sucre en poudre. Ces pâtisseries sont la solution idéale quand il faut être économe.


Creole Beignets

1 cup flour
2 eggs, separated
1 dash of salt
1 dash of cognac
butter size of a walnut, melted
cold water

Beat egg yolks and add the flour a little at a time, beating well until all blended. Add brandy and melted butter and enough cold water to make a stiff dough. Beat the egg whites in a rigid foam and fold gently in the dough. Drop dough by spoonfuls into boiling lard and fry until golden brown.
Drain on paper and serve hot, sprinkled with powdered sugar. These pastries are the perfect solution when you need to be frugal.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Creole Cafe Au Lait

Nothing says "Morning" in New Orleans like cafe au lait.  A cup of strong coffee mixed with hot, steaming milk has been treasured in New Orleans since the beginning.  Making it correctly is not difficult but it is also not as simple as brewing coffee in your coffee maker, nuking some milk and calling it a day.  Here, then, is everything you need to know for making authentic Creole Cafe au Lait:

First, you will need a French drip coffee pot.  (See right.)
You can purchase them new (they're not cheap!) or very often
you can find used ones online that won't put a dent in your pocket book.

Let's have a look at the parts.  (See below.)
From left to right you have:

1.) The lid
2.) The dripper
3.) The basket
4.) The pot.

You'll want to start by putting water on the stove to boil.  The amount depends upon the size of your pot.  The easiest way to measure is to fill your pot with water and pour it into your pot, pan or kettle.  In seperate pot or pan place a quantity of milk - the amount depends on how much coffee you're making - and put it on a medium flame to start heating. While the milk is heating and the water is coming to the boil prepare your coffee pot

Start by placing ground coffee in the basket.  You can use plain coffee, New Orleans style coffee and chicory or you can purchase the chicory seperately and put it in yourself.  This is the preference of many natives since it's easier to add more or less chicory to taste.  The best is to use coffee with a coarse ground for dripping, but not essential.  You may end up with a tiny bit of sludge at the bottom of the cup, but so what?  It, too, is an old Creole tradition!  Use a rounded tablespoon of ground coffee per cup - more or less, according to taste.  After placing the grounds in the basket place the dripper on top.
The basket with the dripper goes into the pot.  Once the water on the stove has come to a full, rolling boil you are ready to start dripping.  And here is the secret to making the real deal:

Pour the water in a little at a time - start with a very small splash and give it a second to allow it to saturate the grounds; then pour in a small splash; let it drip completely down; wait a second for it to drip through the grounds; then another small splash; let it drip down; wait; another splash... etc., etc until the water is gone and the smell of coffee is steaming from the spout.

Cafe au lait is properly served in demitasse cups but this is not crucial.  Fill the cup half full of coffee and half full of the hot milk that's been simmering on the stove.  When you serve a second cup the coffee in the pot will have cooled slightly.  NEVER REHEAT IT!   You can reheat the milk so it's nice and hot and it will bring the coffee back up to delicious steaminess but, if you want to take it an extra step, you can place the pot in a pan of hot water or turn your oven onto the lowest setting and keep it hot in there. (Be sure to use a hot pad when serving again - it's a metal pot with a metal handle!)

Serve with hot biscuits, cinnamon rolls or...better yet...fresh beignets!  (YUM!)

Friday, July 5, 2013

West African Influence On Creole Cuisine

I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts about this!
Comments are invited and encouraged.

Jambalaya is often associated with the Spanish paella - many authorities on Creole cuisine frequently say so.  But looking at jambalaya and paella one finds them to be very different dishes.  We must remember that cooking was done by enslaved Africans from the western Senegambia region.  While in Louisiana they certainly were taught French techniques, much of their West African heritage lived on to help create the magic of Creole cuisine.

Here is a video shot in Gambia of a woman named Awa making a classic West African dish called Benachin.  In it we find a startling number of similarities between their techniques and ours.  The Africans introduced many things into Louisiana cuisine, but two of the most important were a.) slow cooking and b.) extracting and preserving as much flavor as possible.  Much flavor in European cooking is lost as juices are permitted to turn into steam, rising and dissipating away into the air.  Awa takes great care to create what looks like an amazing broth full of the flavors of the chicken and vegetables, preserved into the broth, in which she boils the rice.  (Among the vegetables she uses are onion and garlic - sound familiar?  All we need is the bell pepper!)

Notice, too, she is cooking over an open fire.  Imagine an enslaved cook preparing dishes over just such fires. (Frequently over an open hearth but just as frequently, on hot days, out in the patio over a fire, precisely as Awa is doing in 21st century Gambia.)  Let me also point out that, even though she is pre-steaming the rice before cooking and we steam after, seeing her place the rice in a colander over the pot is startlingly similar to the way we do it today.

Interesting that she browns the chicken, removes it, sautes the vegetables and then adds water, making a broth and then replaces the chicken to finish the cooking process in the broth.  (Does that ring a bell, Gumbo Makers?)
She also uses (instant) boullion.  Some Creole cooks call that a cardinal sin.  Awa has no problem with it.  I don't either, me. 

One important difference is that after the meat and veggies are cooked, she removes them and puts the pre-steamed rice in the broth to boil seperately, where we would just put the rice in with the meat and veggies and let it all cook together.

She also makes a side dish that has mustard but she calls it "moutarde" - French for mustard.  The ingredient she calls "dahar" is tamarind.

She also says she's going to put in some beans.  I looked at other recipes for benachin that do not use beans, so this is apparently a variation that she enjoys.  Obviously, we don't put in beans, but in true jambalaya form, a little of this and a little of that....

...for that's what this is - JAMBALAYA!  It is a precious gift from West Africa.