By the time I was eight, I had become a regular fixture in my grandmother’s New Orleans kitchen.
She was the cook of the family, and she and my mom raised me in a typical Creole environment where French was the dominant language, although they never taught me much of it. I think it was because they didn’t want me to know what they were talking about!
What they did teach me was how to cook traditional Creole dishes like crawfish étouffée, gumbo, jambalaya, fried chicken and red beans and rice.
One of my favorite ingredients was redfish, which is found off the coast of New Orleans. We would stuff the whole fish with onions, tomatoes and lemons and season it with parsley, butter, garlic, salt and pepper before pouriich I still have, and trim it with tomatoes and lemons.
On Sundays, I was allowed to have a glass of wine with my meal, which is common practice for children in Europe. That’s probably how I got a taste for wine.
Years later, after a career in the insurance and financial industries in Los Angeles, I retired. In 1997, I headed north, where I opened Rideau Vineyard in Solvang, located in California’s Santa Ynez Valley.
I did some research on the property and found that its microclimate is similar to the Rhône region in southern France, so I focused on planting varieties common to that region, like Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. I soon discovered that these wines held up incredibly well against spicy Creole cuisine.
As a way to attract visitors to the vineyard, I would cook small batches of food based on my grandmother’s recipes, like bowls of okra gumbo seasoned with filé, a popular Creole spice made from sassafras leaves, and pair them with my wines. Even now, Rideau Vineyard is the only winery in the area that specializes in pairing wines with Creole food.
The tastings became so popular that I eventually began hosting special dinners in an adobe building on the property that dates back to 1884. For the dinners, I pair each dish with one of my wines. And, of course, all of the dishes are Creole.
After a while, I could no longer do all the cooking on my own, so I hired a chef with whom I have been working for the past nine years. I had to teach him about Creole food and cooking with the trinity: onions, celery and bell peppers. These three items are the key ingredients found in most Creole dishes.
Often, you can find my 94-year-old mother helping out in the kitchen. She has been living in a house I had built for her on the property for years. Of course, her favorite thing to cook is also Creole food.
I am proud of everything she and my grandma taught me in the kitchen, and because of them, I am able to share a piece of my heritage with guests through food and wine.
Pairing Wine with Creole Food
I love pairing my 2010 Stainless Steel Estate Viognier, which is tinged with the aromas of wild geraniums and vanilla bean custard, with fried oysters. This dish reminds me of my childhood, when my family and I would pluck oysters from Lake Pontchartrain, in New Orleans, and eat them for dinner.
My Okra Seafood Gumbo (a recipe perfect for summer) is made from fresh okra from local growers. The meal pairs well with our newly released 2011 Dry Riesling, our latest effort in making premium wines.
At the winery’s masked Mardi Gras Creole dinner, I end the meal with triple chocolate cupcakes and our 2006 Tres Uvas, Port-style wine.
Iris’s New Orleans Fried Oysters
Vegetable oil, for frying
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups corn meal
4 tablespoons Creole seasoning, divided
12 oysters, shucked and drained (preferably New Orleans in origin)
8 tablespoons butter (1 stick)
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
½ cup chopped parsley
Louisiana hot sauce, to taste
In a large heavy-bottomed pot, pour in enough oil to fill the pot halfway. Heat the oil until a deep-frying thermometer inserted in the oil registers 360°F.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, corn meal and 3 tablespoons of the Creole seasoning.
Lightly season the oysters with the remaining tablespoon of the Creole seasoning. Place the oysters, 6 at a time, in the flour mixture and toss to coat completely.
Carefully drop the oysters into the hot oil, and fry until they are light brown and crisp, about 3–5 minutes. Remove from the hot oil and place on a paper towel-covered plate.
Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, melt the butter and sauté the parsley and garlic, about 1–2 minutes.
To serve, put the fried oysters on a platter and spoon a small amount of the butter sauce over each oyster. Top each with a dash of hot sauce. Serves 2.
Wine Recommendation: Winemaker Iris Rideau believes Viognier is made to pair with seafood—and especially oysters. Rideau Vineyard’s 2011 Estate Viognier is bold and fruity, which makes it stand up to the spicy Creole seasoning, but delicate enough to not overwhelm the sweetness found in oysters from New Orleans.
Gumbo is meat to be shared. Winemaker Iris Rideau’s Filé Gumbo recipe can serve a crowd of 10.
For the gumbo:
30 cups water, divided
1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined, shells reserved to make stock
½ cup plus 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning, divided
1 ham hock, approximately 1½ pounds
1 ham shank, approximately 1 pound
½ bone-in ham, approximately 6–8 pounds, cut into ¼-inch pieces, bone reserved to make stock
5 chicken thighs, meat cut into ½-inch pieces, bones and skin reserved to make stock
2 cups canola oil, divided
1 Polish sausage, cut into ½-inch pieces
¼ pound hot sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ pound mild sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 brown onion, finely chopped
1 bunch green onions, finely diced
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1¾ ounce peeled garlic cloves, finely chopped
10 bay leaves
Salt, to taste
5 tablespoons filé powder
2½ cups cooked white rice, divided
To prepare the cooking stocks: For the shrimp stock, bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a large heavy-bottomed stock pot. Season the shrimp shells with 1 tablespoon of the Creole seasoning. Add the shells to the water and boil for 45 minutes. Strain the finished stock into a clean bowl and discard the shells.
For the ham stock, in a second large heavy-bottomed stock pot, place the ham hock, ham shank and the bone from the ham in a large stock pot. Fill with 16 cups of water and season with 4 tablespoons of the Creole seasoning. Bring the water to a boil and cook for 2 hours. Strain the finished stock into a clean bowl and reserve the ham hock. Cut the meat off the ham hock into ¼-inch pieces and reserve for the gumbo.
For the chicken stock, place the chicken bones and skin into a third large heavy-bottomed stock pot. Fill with 8 cups of water and season with 3 tablespoons of the Creole seasoning. Bring the water to a boil and cook for 2 hours. Strain the stock into a clean bowl.
To prepare the gumbo: In a large sauté pan set over a medium-high flame, heat 1 tablespoon of oil and cook the sausages until golden brown, about 10–15 minutes. Make sure the pan is not too crowded; if it is, cook the sausages in two batches. Remove cooked sausages to a holding dish.
In the same pan, add another tablespoon of oil and cook the ham meat over medium-high heat until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove the ham to a holding dish. If the pan needs more cooking oil, add another tablespoon of oil before sautéing the chicken meat until golden brown, but not cooked through, about 15 minutes.
While the chicken is cooking, season the shrimp with 1 teaspoon of the Creole seasoning. Over a medium-high flame, heat a tablespoon of oil in a medium sauté pan. Cook the shrimp until cooked through, about 3–5 minutes, then store in a refrigerator until later use.
In a large heavy-bottomed stock pot, heat 1½ cups oil over a medium-low heat. Slowly add the flour and stir constantly until the mixture takes on a brown hue, about 3–5 minutes. Slowly add 2 cups of the ham stock and continue to stir for 1–2 minutes. Add in the rest of the ham stock, as well as the shrimp and chicken stocks.
In a separate sauce pan, heat ¼ cup of oil over a medium-high flame. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, about 3–5 minutes. Add the parsley and garlic and reduce the heat to low. Continue to cook the onion blend for 5 minutes, and then add it to the stock mixture.
Add the meats and bay leaves to the stock mixture and allow to simmer for 1 hour. Adjust the seasoning with salt and stir in the filé powder. Just before serving, add the shrimp, allowing them to reheat but not overcook.
To serve: Place ¼ cup of white rice per person in the center of a large bowl. Ladle the gumbo on top of the rice. Serves 10.
Wine Recommendation: Rideau Vineyard’s 2009 Château Duplantier Cuvée––a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mouvèdre––has a complex structure that stands up to the weight of the gumbo. Its black coffee and tobacco flavors rest softly on the midpalate, while its peppery finish lingers to complement the spicy flavors of the gumbo.
Iris Rideau is the owner and vintner of Rideau Vineyard in California.