In the Big Easy, it’s so hard to choose

Jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo. . . No one can say New Orleans cuisine is boring. It was the last day of a four-day trip to New Orleans and I couldn’t help feeling torn. In four days I had eaten a lot of food — Creole-style gumbo, crawfish etouffee, turtle soup, blackened catfish, beignets, pralines, soufflé potatoes, and cajun shrimp to name just a few local delicacies.

The Po’Boy

The Po’Boy

Jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo. . . No one can say New Orleans cuisine is boring.

It was the last day of a four-day trip to New Orleans and I couldn’t help feeling torn. In four days I had eaten a lot of food — Creole-style gumbo, crawfish etouffee, turtle soup, blackened catfish, beignets, pralines, soufflé potatoes, and cajun shrimp to name just a few local delicacies.

The trouble was, I had yet to try either a po’boy or a muffuletta sandwich and I couldn’t figure out how I could possibly eat both.

You can’t really experience New Orleans without coming to know its cuisine; food is where you’ll find the soul of the city. A visit that starts out focused on seeing the sites can quickly evolve into one that’s more about the food — if not entirely about the food. You’ll find yourself thinking about what you ate already, what you plan to eat later on, and what you wish you had time to eat.

People in the Big Easy love to eat, but there’s no doubt that Katrina took a toll on the city’s dining scene. Even restaurants in the French Quarter that are on high ground and were never flooded suffered huge losses when the city was evacuated and the lights went out. For instance, Brennan’s Restaurant had the largest wine cellar of any establishment in the city when Katrina struck. The power outage affected the storage temperature of the wine and cost them their entire inventory of 35,000 bottles. The collection included rare vintages — some dating back to the 1800s. The entire collection was insured for US$1 million.

Fortunately, life is returning to normal. The high-profile restaurants have re-opened and new ones are joining them. By some counts, there are more restaurants in the basic tourist areas than there were pre-Katrina. Brennan’s wine collection isn’t quite as large as it was, but 8,000 bottles is still nothing to turn up your nose at. The good times are rolling once again.

The key thing to know about Louisiana cuisine is that it can usually be separated into either Creole or Cajun-style.

As a visitor it can be difficult to tell the difference, but one way to tell them apart is by the use of tomatoes and spices.

Creole cooks usually incorporate tomatoes into their recipes, while Cajun cooking tends to be missing the tomatoes and be more spicy-hot. If your gumbo has a broth that is brown in colour with a bit of a bite, you’re likely enjoying a Cajun-style gumbo.

You’ll also notice several standard dishes that appear on menus at restaurants all over the place. Classics include such items as turtle soup, crawfish etouffee, shrimp rémoulade on fried green tomatoes, blackened fish, and white-chocolate bread pudding.

New Orleans is the city where great chefs come to eat — if they don’t work here already. Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse honed his skills at the Brennan family-owned Commander’s Palace. Today he owns restaurants across the United States including two in New Orleans.

But you don’t have to eat at the fancy-pants places with high prices to get a taste of New Orleans. A classic shrimp or hot sausage po’boy sandwich is what locals enjoy most often for lunch.

When it comes to dining New Orleans` style, your biggest problem will likely be trying to figure out how to make your dining schedule meld with a 24-hour clock. And if you find yourself faced with a decision of whether to eat a po’boy or a muffuletta sandwich on the last day of your visit, there is only one solution — have both.

Brennan’s Chicken

Andouille Filé Gumbo

1 whole chicken (about 1 kg)

1/3 cup vegetable oil

3/4 cup all purpose flour

1 cup diced green bell pepper

1 cup diced onion

1 cup diced celery

2 cups thinly sliced andouille sausage or other spicy smoked sausage

4 ripe tomatoes seeded and chopped

2 litres chicken stock

1 teaspoon thyme leaves

4 bay leaves

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

1 tablespoon filé powder

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt to taste

3 cups sliced okra

1 cup cooked white rice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F

Rinse chicken under cold water and cut into 10 pieces. Then halve the breasts for a total of 12 pieces. Place the chicken pieces skin side down in a large oven-proof skillet or pan. Roast in hot oven until the chicken is brown (about 20-30 minutes).

While the chicken is browning, combine the oil and flour in a 3-litre pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture turns chestnut brown (be careful not to burn). Add the bell pepper, onion, and celery and cook over medium high heat until the vegetables are tender. Stir in the sausage and the tomatoes. When well mixed, add the chicken stock. Add the thyme, bay leaves, black pepper and garlic. Use a whisk to stir in the filé. Bring the mixture to a boil, then add the cayenne. Add salt to taste.

Remove the chicken from the oven and pour off the fat. Reduce the heat under the gumbo to low and add the chicken and the ocra. Simmer for 20-30 minutes until the ocra is tender. Then spoon the gumbo into bowls containing about a Tablespoon of hot cooked white rice.

Recipe compliments of Brennan`s Restaurant New Orleans.

New Orleans Cuisine Lingo

Po’boy — A po’boy is a traditional submarine sandwich from Louisiana. It almost always consists of meat or fried seafood served on French-style bread.

Muffuletta — The muffuletta sandwich was developed in New Orleans at Central Grocery. It is served on muffuletta bread and consists of layers of meat and provolone cheese topped with an olive salad.

Oysters Rockefeller — This was created at Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans in 1899. The dish consists of oysters served on the half shell and topped with butter, parsley, spinach, cheese and bread crumbs.

Crawfish Etouffee — A Creole or Cajun crawfish dish similar to gumbo that is served over rice.

Shrimp Rémoulade — A cold shrimp appetizer with a zippy sauce.

Blackened (fish, chicken) — Blackening is a quick cooking process designed by New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme. Blackening produces a peppery, black crust.

Gumbo – A roux-thickened stew containing, seafood, chicken or sausage that originates from Louisiana.

Jambalaya — A rice dish similar to the Spanish rice dish paella.

Filé — The powdered leaves of the sassafras tree.

Okra — A plant of African origin that produces an edible pod and is eaten as a vegetable. It was brought to America during the slave trade.

Creole — A style of cooking that originated in New Orleans and blends French, Mediterranean, African, Spanish and American influences.

Cajun — Cajun cuisine originates from the French-speaking Acadian immigrants deported from Acadia in Canada to Acadiana in New Orleans. These people were known as Cajuns.

Soufflé Potatoes — A specialty of Antoine’s Restaurant, this appetizer is made from aged potatoes that are hand- cut and cooked in oil until they puff. Once puffed, they are switched to hotter oil to crisp.

King Cake — A large donut-shaped pastry served at Mardis Gras. There is a tiny baby doll inside one of them and the person who gets it in their piece of cake must buy the cake at the next Mardis Gras party.

Sno-ball — Shaved ice served with flavoured syrups.

Note: Stay tuned for the second instalment : Just Desserts in New Orleans

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, T4R 1M9.