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TODAY

Friday, October 20

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I've been back from New Orleans for less than two months, and I already miss it. My last visit provided me with so many new meals and ideas and I've not had the time or energy — or desire to stand over a stovetop covered in pans when the kitchen is so hot — to really investigate and make some of the dishes I had.

You kinda have to wonder about people who think hollandaise sauce over creamed spinach and poached eggs is a good way to start a day that is 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity when you wake up. But as a tourist, it's nice to know you can eat Eggs Sardou, take a nap, go for a long walk, rest a bit, go for more walks, and then have a light snack to get you through till dinner.

The cuisine has obvious influences from the French. There are sauces for everything; everything starts off with the trinity: onion, celery, and bell pepper; and seafood plays a huge role. Crawfish, crabs, shrimp, catfish, grouper and other mostly white fishes are common on menus throughout the area.

It was fantastic and I ended my trip thinking I'd had just about every Creole or Cajun dish that could be made at a restaurant. I'd love to have somebody's mama take me inside and give me a lesson on how to make some family dishes, but I read restaurant reviews and settled on what I could find.

Our last morning, Hugh and Mary Ramsey, the wonderful owners of the Banana Courtyard B&B, gave us a copy of a book called Sleep on It. One-hundred fifty innkeepers around the country submitted recipes that can be made the day before and then warmed up or finished just before serving. It's a concept I can get behind. Being brain-dead after work means that I have to force myself to plan dinner ahead of time, and if I can actually cook it earlier and just reheat, that's even better.

So I was happy to see their recipe for a dish I didn't get the opportunity to try while I was visiting. Since I've never had it before I had nothing to compare it to (so if your family recipe is different, let me know). But the name of the dish and the ingredients had me ready to give it a shot. I actually followed this recipe pretty closely.

Crawfish or Shrimp Maquechoux
It's pronounced mock-SHOE and it's Cajun for a smothered dish made with fresh corn. And forget about using fresh crawfish for this dish. They went out of season about a month ago, so any fresh crawfish you see are likely to have been frozen for a long time.

2 12-ounce packages of frozen crawfish tails (or 1 package of crawfish tails and 12 ounces of peeled and deveined shrimp, or 2 pounds of medium shrimp, or 1 pound of crab claw meat and shrimp)
1/2 cup of dry white wine
juice from 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon of salt
8-10 ears of white corn on the cob to get 6 cups of corn kernels
1/3 cup of bacon drippings or olive oil
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
3 cups of chopped onion
1/4 cup of butter (1/2 stick)
2 tablespoons of heavy cream
2 cups of chicken stock (or substitute all or part shrimp or crab stock)
3 large coarsely chopped tomatoes or a 12-ounce can of drained tomatoes
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco or other hot sauce
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

Marinate the crawfish, shrimp or crab in a large bowl with the wine, lemon juice and salt. In a separate bowl (or pie plate) cut the corn kernels off the cob with a knife. Then use the back of the knife to scrape the cobs to get all the small corn bits and the corn milk. This is where a lot of the corn flavor will come in. (If you can't find white corn, use frozen corn but add 3 tablespoons of heavy cream to replace the corn milk.)

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Once it is warm add the bacon drippings or olive oil (half and half worked good for me). Add the bell pepper and cook for about two minutes while stirring frequently. Now add the onions and saute until they're soft and translucent but before they start to brown. Use a slotted spoon to remove the vegetables to another bowl. Add the corn, butter, cream and stock to the skillet. Stir thoroughly and frequently for about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, the cooked onions and bell pepper and saute for another five minutes.

Discard the marinade from the shellfish and add the meat to the skillet. Cook while stirring frequently for another 5 minutes. If the mixture seems dry add a little bit of water or stock. Season with the black pepper. Taste. Add the Tabasco sauce to taste and then add more salt if needed.

This tastes just as great the next day and the next, and most traditional compliment to the dish, is cornbread. Southerners don't put sugar in their cornbread and they swear by buttermilk instead of milk. But since I'm not a southerner, I'll add a little sugar and stay away from the buttermilk, but I do cook mine in a cast-iron skillet. A pie pan or other round dish should work, but I would avoid using a glass dish.

Cornbread
1 cup of yellow corn meal
1 cup of flour
1 tablespoon of sugar
4 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of salt
large sprinkle of pepper
1 large egg
1 cup of milk
1/4 cup of vegetable shortening, margarine, or butter
1/2 tablespoon of bacon drippings

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Sift the corn meal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and pepper into a large mixing bowl. Add the egg, milk, and shortening and stir with a heavy wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth. Don't overstir. Pour the bacon drippings into the skillet and and swirl around until the pan is coated (you could use olive oil or vegetable oil, I guess). Pour in the batter and shake until the top is mostly smooth. Place your pan in the oven for 25-30 minutes. The cornbread should be lightly golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean. Cut the cornbread into squares and serve with butter.

Even though I didn't have the pleasure of eating maquechoux with the Ramseys, their wonderful recipe just might hold me through till Autumn when I can handle stirring hollandaise sauce, poaching eggs, and making creamed spinach; let alone eating it, of course. And since local corn will be available at the farmers markets soon, it's a great seasonal dish.

If you're thinking of visiting New Orleans, I whole-heartedly recommend the Banana Courtyard B&B. It's warm, homey, packed full of stuff, inviting, comfortable, and just far enough off the beaten path that it is quiet and restful. But it is also close enough to Bourbon Street and all that action so you can stumble back safely. And if you're thinking that you'll visit New Orleans "in a few years," what are you waiting for? Sure they still have a lot of work to do. Sure there are still some major struggles that need to get battled out. But if you stay in the main touristy areas you'll have little idea that anything happened to the city. And since it is a city that survives on tourist dollars, they'll bounce back faster if you go and party. So go! And tell Mary and Hugh I miss them.

 

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