Turkey Day in the Big Easy calls for a lavish spread.
BY KAREN BERMAN
When New Orleans Gives Thanks
Turkey Day in the Big Easy calls for a lavish spread.
On Thanksgiving, (arguably the biggest eating holiday of the year), New Orleans (arguably the most food-loving city in the nation) goes whole hog. And turkey. And oysters and shrimp and gumbo and andouille sausage, and all the good things Louisiana cookery is known for, as well as some dishes that are relatively unknown to Thanksgiving tables outside the area.
"Mirliton, also called chayote or vegetable pear, is a Thanksgiving thing for New Orleans for sure," says Jamie Shannon, executive chef of Commander's Palace, the city's 120-year-old dining landmark.
"We know we're entering the holiday season when the mirliton hits the table," agrees John Folse, chef-owner of Lafitte's Landing in Donaldsonville, an hour outside of New Orleans, in the heart of Cajun country.
Mirliton and shrimp casseroles, and split mirlitons stuffed with crab, shrimp or pork, are hallmarks of a New Orleans Thanksgiving. So are figs, persimmons, muscadine grapes, cushaw pumpkins (a green and white striped gourd used mostly for decoration in other areas), cane syrup and suckling pig—all products of the local harvest.
"Louisiana, with its semitropical climate, starts to see its first little cool spells around the Thanksgiving season. We don't really have winter," says Folse. "We know there's not going to be snow on the ground. We know the leaves aren't going to turn." Instead, the arrival of seasonal foods signals the coming of fall, and, he explains, "Thanksgiving is the first holiday that moves us into the new season."
Even though the change of seasons in New Orleans is subtler than it is elsewhere, Thanksgiving there is still the time to pull out all the culinary stops. That's no small matter in a city known for its extraordinary food. New Orleans' legendary Creole cuisine is the result of a blending of many cultures. When French colonists arrived at the end of the 17th century, Native Americans introduced them to the region's indigenous foods (mirliton among them), and soon the newcomers were addressing these ingredients with their haute culinary technique. Germans, Spanish and Italian colonists followed, as did African slaves, all of whom added their own food traditions to the mix. With time, a cuisine sophisticated enough to rival that of any European court evolved.
Around the same time, another group of French settlers arrived in Louisiana: the Acadians, who came to be known as Cajuns. They first settled in Acadie (now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Maine), but were forced to flee by the British. Making their way down the Mississippi River, they settled the lands outside New Orleans. For centuries, Creole and Cajun cuisines, though similar, developed separately, one known for its lively but refined flavors, and the other for its rusticity and zest. In the 1970s, the two came together in the kitchen of Chef Paul Prudhomme, and have been mingling ever since.
"Cajun and Creole are so similar. Creoles love to cook. Cajuns love to cook. The Cajuns have a little more country style; the Creoles think they have more finesse," explains Leah Chase, chef-owner of Dooky Chase's Restaurant and one of the most famous practitioners of the Creole de colouer cuisine of New Orleans' African-American community.
Chase, who has been cooking at her husband's family's restaurant for 55 years, calls Thanksgiving in New Orleans "a big thing. The spread is just humongous." In her family, the feast begins at noon with a gumbo and drinks. Then, at two o'clock, the main meal begins: turkey, oyster dressing, oyster patties, ham and a boiled whole fish. Then there are the side dishes: stuffed mirliton, cornbread, beans, potato salad, baked macaroni, peas, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower. "You sit down," says Chase, "and, my dear, you never leave."
Folse recalls similar feasts in his Cajun family. Hors d'oeuvres ranged from oyster stew in pastry shells to meat pies to tiny stuffed mirlitons. Then came two soups: gumbo and turtle soup. The main course in Cajun country was not turkey, says Folse, but suckling pig, often stuffed with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink dressing called farre (pronounced "fahd" in Cajun patois). Wild game—venison, rabbit or fowl—might also have served as a centerpiece of the meal. Among the side dishes were stuffed mirliton; yam or sweet potato casserole; juirdmon, a sweet, spicy dish made of mashed cushaw pumpkin and local cane syrup; and maque choux, a corn, tomato and shrimp dish served as a soup on Creole tables and as a vegetable dish by the Cajuns.
Oysters were, and are, ever-present on the New Orleans Thanksgiving table. Shannon, a New Jersey native, says he was surprised by "oysters in the stuffing—that was really different, but delicious. It freaked me out, at first." Now, he says, his favorite Thanksgiving treats are his mother-in-law's oyster patties.
Susan Spicer, the chef and co-owner of Bayona and Herbsaint who is known for her eclectic approach to New Orleans cuisine, says oyster dishes have featured prominently on her Thanksgiving menu over the years. To prove it, she ticks off a list: oyster artichoke gratin, creamed oysters with leeks and bacon, baked oysters, fried oyster and black-eyed pea salad with jalapeño vinaigrette, and, of course, oyster and cornbread stuffing.
The presence of oysters, shrimp, spicy andouille sausage and hot pepper sauce in so many dishes—the trademarks of New Orleans cooking—can make pairing the Thanksgiving meal with wine a bit of a balancing act, says Dan Brown, wine steward at Bayona. "Shrimp has iodine in it and it makes most dry white wines taste metallic…like you put the metal point of an ink pen your mouth," says Brown. Hot foods present a similar problem. "Andouille is spicy. Dry wines aren't going to work." The answer, he says, is fruity, off-dry wines with a touch of residual sugar, such as Alsatian Rieslings or American Gewürztraminers or big, jammy American Zinfandels or Syrahs.
A similar solution was hit upon by accident in the Creole de colouer community of Chase's childhood. "In our community, no matter how poor you were—and I came up very poor—you had that glass of wine," Chase recalls. "You wouldn't dream of having a bowl of gumbo without a glass of wine. We had no knowledge, in those days, of fine wine. We grew strawberries, and the berries you couldn't ship, you made into wine. Thank goodness people are more sophisticated today."
And thank goodness that the old New Orleans eating traditions, for Thanksgiving and otherwise, live on.
Most gumbos are made either with okra or filé powder, a seasoning and thickener made from dried sassafras leaves. This one, adapted from Leah Chase's book, The Dooky Chase Cookbook (Pelican Publishing Company, 2000), calls for filé powder, available in the spice section of most supermarkets.
4 hard-shell crabs, cleaned
1/2 pound Creole hot sausage, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 pound smoked sausage, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 pound boneless veal stew meat
1/2 pound chicken gizzards
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 tablespoons flour
1 cup chopped onion
4 quarts water
6 chicken wings, cut in half
1/2 pound chicken necks, skinned and cut
1/2 pound smoked ham, cubed
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon ground thyme
24 oysters, with their liquor
1 tablespoon filé powder
Place crabs, sausage pieces, veal and gizzards into 6-quart pot over medium heat. Cover and let mixture cook in its own fat for 30 minutes. (Watch pot to make sure it does not burn.)
Heat oil in skillet and add flour to make roux; stir constantly until very brown. Reduce heat, add onions and cook over low heat until onions wilt. Pour onion mixture over meat and crab. Slowly add water, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil. Add chicken wings, necks, ham, shrimp, paprika, salt, garlic, parsley and thyme. Simmer 30 minutes. Add oysters and their liquor and cook for 10 more minutes. Remove from heat and add filé powder, stirring well. Serve over white rice. Serves 8 to 10.
Roast Turkey with Oyster Dressing and Giblet Gravy
This recipe is adapted from Commander's Kitchen (Broadway Books, 2000), which Jamie Shannon co-authored with Ti Adelaide Martin. The gravy calls for dark roux, one of the building blocks of New Orleans cookery.
For the dark roux
1 cup corn, vegetable or safflower oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 medium onion, cut in small dice
2 stalks celery, cut in small dice
1 medium bell pepper, cut in small dice
10 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
For the turkey, dressing and gravy
1 12-pound turkey
2 pounds kosher salt
5 ribs celery, cut in medium dice
3 small onions, cut in medium dice
3 jalapeños, seeded and minced
2 bell peppers, cut in medium dice
1 medium head garlic, cloves peeled and minced
3 quarts water
3 bay leaves
5 tablespoons poultry seasoning
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) butter
3 cups shucked oysters in their liquor
16 cups cubed crispy French bread (1-inch cubes)
4 medium eggs
2 cups chopped fresh parsley
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup dark roux
To make roux, prepare a clean dry pot large enough so oil comes no more than a quarter of the way up the sides. Heat oil over high heat until it just starts to smoke. Add a third of the flour, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, for 30 seconds. Add another third of flour and stir for 30 seconds more or until well blended. Roux should be dark brown. Add remaining flour and stir for 30 to 45 seconds or until the roux is the color of milk chocolate.
Remove from heat, add onion and stir to incorporate thoroughly. Add celery and stir. Add bell pepper and garlic. Scrape bottom of pot. Let cool for 1 hour. Remove any excess fat that may rise to surface. Recipe yields 2 1/4 cups roux. (Roux will keep refrigerated in airtight container for two weeks. Use in gravy, gumbo or other Creole or Cajun dishes.)
For oyster dressing and gravy, wash neck and giblets thoroughly in cold water and place in large saucepan. Add half the celery, half the onions, half the jalapeños, half the bell peppers and half the garlic. Add 3 quarts cold water and bay leaves and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and skim away foam. Stir in 3 tablespoons poultry seasoning. Reduce heat and simmer, skimming occasionally, for about 2 hours. Remove neck, pick off meat and dice it. Remove giblets, including liver, and dice and refrigerate for later use.
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a piece of foil with 1 tablespoon butter. Place 4 tablespoons butter into large pot and melt over high heat until butter starts to smoke. Add remaining celery, onions, jalapeños, bell peppers, garlic and poultry seasoning, and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, or until vegetables brown and become tender. Add oysters and their liquor and cook 4 to 5 minutes or until oysters' edges curl. Turn off heat, add half the bread and stir, soaking up any liquid. Add 1 cup unstrained stock and stir. Add remaining bread and stir. Add eggs, stirring constantly to be sure they don't cook when they hit hot mixture. Season with salt and pepper; add parsley, 1/2 tablespoon rosemary and scallions. Stuffing should be moist but pliable, damp but not wet. If it's too wet, add more bread; it it's too dry, add more liquid.
To prepare turkey, use one hand to separate breast skin from meat and place 4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces, between skin and meat, trying not to tear skin. Pat skin dry with towel and season bird inside and out with salt, pepper and 1/2 tablespoon rosemary.
Place turkey on rack in roasting pan. Tuck each wing tip under turkey. Stuff neck, pulling out skin and packing tightly. Stuff main cavity and tie ankles with butcher's twine. Cover cavity and breast with buttered foil (to protect breast and keep stuffing from burning), leaving legs, thighs and wings exposed. Add 1 quart stock and roast for 1 hour, basting exposed portions of turkey. Cook for 1 more hour, basting every 20 minutes. Remove foil, turn heat up to 375F and roast 1 hour more, or until center of stuffing reads 160F on an instant-read thermometer. Breast skin should be golden brown. Remove bird from oven and place on buttered platter, covered loosely with foil. Allow to rest at least 20 minutes.
Strain pan drippings into saucepot, and skim away excess fat. Place roasting pan over two stove burners, both on high heat. Add 3 cups stock to pan, and scrape bottom with wooden spoon. When liquid boils, remove and strain into saucepot containing drippings and bring mixture to a boil over high heat. Skim off any impurities. Whisk in 1/2 cup roux and return to a boil. Add giblets and remaining 1/2 tablespoon rosemary. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary. If gravy is too thick, add more liquid; if too thin, heat to reduce. Serve in gravy boat with turkey and dressing. Serves 10.
Mirliton, Shrimp and Tasso Casserole
Adapted from Commander's Kitchen. Shannon gives his mirliton casserole extra oomph with tasso, a dry-cured ham often used for seasoning. If you can't find tasso, roll regular ham in one part cayenne pepper and three parts paprika. If you can't get small shrimp, cut large ones into bite-sized pieces.
6 small mirliton, each about 9 ounces
3 tablespoons butter
8 ounces tasso, cut in medium dice
2 medium onions, cut in medium dice
Kosher salt and freshly ground
black pepper to taste
1 pound small headless shrimp, peeled and deveined
15 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
5 medium eggs
1 cup milk
2 cups fresh bread crumbs
1 bunch scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
Place mirliton in large pot and cover with cold salted water. Bring to a boil and cook for 1 hour, or until fork-tender. Drain and let cool. Peel the skin with paring knife, cut in half top to bottom, remove seed and mash lightly. Drain excess liquid.
Heat 1 tablespoon butter in large pot set over medium heat, add tasso and cook for about 4 minutes or until brown. Add onions, season with salt and pepper and cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until tender. Stir in shrimp and garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add mashed mirliton and cook for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper if necessary. Let cool.
Make custard by whisking eggs with milk and additional salt and pepper. Stir custard into cooled mirliton.
Use 1 tablespoon butter to coat a 3-inch deep casserole dish. Pour mirliton mixture into it. Preheat oven to 350F. Melt remaining butter in medium saucepan, add breadcrumbs, scallions and additional salt and pepper and spread over casserole. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove foil and bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden brown. Serves 12.
You'll find more great Creole Thanksgiving recipes in the November 2001 issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine.