2.14.2021 Dinner in New Orleans
Named after the round Sicilian sesame loaf Italian immigrants brought with them to New Orleans, the Muffuletta sandwich traces its origins to the early 1900’s. Although disputed by some (namely competing delis), general consensus attributes the creation of the sandwich to Salvatore Lupo, a Sicilian immigrant and owner of Central Grocery Co. The shop was a popular lunch spot for Italian workers and according to his daughter, Marie Lupo:
“They would order some salami, some ham, a piece of cheese, a little olive salad, and either long braided Italian bread or round muffuletta bread. In typical Sicilian fashion they ate everything separately. The farmers used to sit on crates or barrels and try to eat while precariously balancing their small trays covered with food on their knees. My father suggested that it would be easier for the farmers if he cut the bread and put everything on it like a sandwich; even if it was not typical Sicilian fashion.”
And thus the Muffuletta sandwich was born. Since its creation it’s become an icon of New Orleans cuisine and while still traditionally served on a muffuletta loaf in its hometown, we’ve opted for the more readily available bolillo rolls (which also happen to be our personal favorite bread for sandwiches) and piled it high with mortadella, salami, copa, ham and cheese, and of course topped it off with chopped olive salad. Contains gluten, fish dairy, pistachios
Smoked Turkey Gumbo with Andouille Sausage
While many attribute the roots of gumbo to the French and their famed Provençal seafood soup, bouillabaisse, the origins of gumbo go back much, much further than the French in Louisiana. Gumbo traces its etymology to ki ngombo, the word for okra in several of the languages spoken by enslaved West Africans brought to the Americas. Many of them were brought to French Louisiana and by 1721 more than half the population of New Orleans was African. They brought with them not only okra, but rice and their knowledge of how to cultivate it, along with hundreds of years of culinary tradition, including numerous soups and stews featuring okra (see our Dinner in Charleston write up for the history of another okra soup). Over time these West African soups and stews were influenced by other culinary traditions, along with indigenous ingredients like powdered sassafras leaves (a.k.a filé powder), to become the beloved dish we know today.
There is a near infinite number of ways to make a gumbo, but there are some differences, namely between Creole and Cajun style gumbos. Given how closely intertwined their culinary past is (and how frequently and incorrectly the terms are used interchangeably), it can be difficult to pin down the differences between the two. Gumbo, however, is one dish where the distinction is a bit easier to spot. Both cuisines have their version, Creole gumbo being the older style and more akin to a soup than a stew. It usually features okra (harkening back to West African roots), meat and seafood together, and almost always has tomatoes in it. Cajun gumbo on the other hand, is thicker, with a greater focus on the roux (the mix of flour and fat that acts as a thickening agent and a staple of French cooking) and the deeper into Cajun country (Southern Louisiana) one goes, the darker the roux gets. Meat and seafood are usually kept separate in a Cajun gumbo, the okra is often omitted and tomatoes are almost never included. That makes this Gumbo decidedly Cajun. We start with a roux that’s cooked until it’s a deep, brick red, before adding the “Holy Trinity” of vegetables; onions, celery, and bell peppers (again, heavy French influence in mirepoix). We then add smoked turkey legs, bone-in chicken thighs, andouille sausage and plenty of spices before simmering for several hours and finishing it all off with a healthy sprinkling of filé powder. Contains gluten.
We intentionally made a Cajun style gumbo so we could make okra the focal point of this Creole dish. As mentioned above, it was enslaved West Africans who brought okra to the Americas and helped popularize it throughout the South. Here, we’ve adapted a recipe from the seminal New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune - the spiced tomato sauce being the hallmark of Creole cooking. Okra is pan fried before being simmered in tomatoes along with onions and garlic for a deceptively simple, deeply satisfying side dish. Vegan, gluten free.
While it may sound foreign (pronounced Mock-Shoe), Maque Choux is as American as baked beans (again, see our Dinner in Charleston write up for the backstory on beans). A fusion of Indigenous and Cajun cooking, it’s believed this dish has its roots in Native American succotash. Eventually the indigenous method of preparing corn merged with the ingredients and methods of Cajun cuisine to become a beloved side dish throughout Southern Louisiana. There is a fair bit of uncertainty as to the etymology of Maque Choux. While some think it’s derived from the Spanish word machica, a traditional dish of toasted grains or cornmeal, it seems more likely that the word was a French/Creole interpretation of a Native American word. Regardless, this creamy side is a staple on dinner tables throughout Louisiana. We’ve made ours by braising sweet corn, celery, onions and a trifecta of peppers in butter and spices. Contains dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
Now an essential part of New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations, King Cake traces its roots back to medieval Europe and the Christian celebration of Epiphany. Observed on January 6th, it commemorates the date the three kings visited the newborn baby Jesus bearing gifts, hence the name, King Cake. The celebration of Epiphany also marks the start of the lenten season which culminates with Mardi Gras and concludes on Ash Wednesday. While it’s certain that it was the French-Canadians who first established New Orleans that brought with them their celebration of Mardi Gras, and thus Kings Cake, the iconic dessert has spawned a legacy all its own in the city. Take for example, the tiny baby often found in the cakes. While some swear it is meant to represent the baby Jesus, others vehemently disagree, claiming it’s just a trinket and can take any shape, be it a bean, a crown or a baby. What all New Orleaners do agree on however, is that whoever finds the baby is responsible for bringing the cake next year! Alas, we did not include a baby in our king cake, in part because we didn’t want to inadvertently choke anyone to death, but mostly because we couldn’t find one (turns out small plastic babies that are oven safe are hard to come by in Ann Arbor). We hope you get into the spirit of Mardi Gras and enjoy the cake anyways! Contains; Dairy, Gluten, Eggs.
Mardi Gras Bock
Available at Arbor Farms
Abita is located just 40 miles outside of New Orleans and is one of the best known breweries in Louisiana. For us, their Purple Haze draft is one of the best fruit-infused beers out there. They also produce 5 seasonal brews, the first being Mardi Gras Bock. It’s brewed with pale, pilsner and caramel malts and German Perle hops, similar to a traditional German maibock, which creates a rich malt flavor and full body. This beer is a perfect pairing to the rich gumbo, striking just the right balance between refreshing and structured.
Another New Orleans original with disputed origins, the sazerac dates back to the mid 1800s. Some claim it was the Creole apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud, creator of Peychaud’s Bitters, who invented the drink. Others believe it was Aaron Bird, proprietor of the Sazerac Coffee House. What is known for certain is that sometime between 1850 and 1900, brandy or rye whisky came together with absinthe and bitters to become the cocktail we know today. Great before, during and after dinner! Check out the featured recipe for our take on the classic New Orleans cocktail (our version is heavy on the absinthe since we think it pairs wonderfully with the spicy notes in a good rye whiskey; also we just like absinthe).
New Orleans, Louisiana
This week we’re traveling to two cities that certainly know how to throw parties - New Orleans, aka “The Big Easy,” and Rio de Janeiro, the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (the wonderful city). While food, dance, and music run deep in both these cities, they’re in full force the week before Lent (at least normally, ugh COVID). Each city transforms into a hedonistic cacophony of lights, sounds, costumes, parades, and drunken revelry that culminates on Fat Tuesday, or “Mardi Gras” in French, before penance must be sought on Ash Wednesday.
The roots of both Mardi Gras and Carnival are one and the same, both coming from European traditions dating back to Greek and Roman festivals celebrating wine and later adopted by the Catholic Church. The practice of finishing all of one's meat before the Lenten fast eventually evolved into week long binges in the Roman Catholic world (especially in Italy and France). The very first Mardi Gras in North America is said to have happened in 1699 when a French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville arrived in what is now Mobile, Alabama (originally called Pointe du Mardi Gras) the eve of the auspicious day. A few years later he established New Orleans where the tradition continued, albeit on a small scale. The Spanish (and later the US government) abolished the tradition, citing raucous behavior, for nearly a century until the mid-1800s when secret societies began planning parades and elegant balls. The Mistick Krewe of Comus was the first such society, followed by Twelfth Night Revelers and Rex, King of Carnival (there are more than 70 secret societies today). These krewes (societies) were responsible for the parades, floats, beads, masks, colors, and balls we associate with Mardi Gras today. As Mardi Gras became more formalized by these societies, they themselves became more classist and segregated - many of the krewes were only forced to legally integrate in 1992, and some still chose to disband. Check out our Additional Resources for more information on Mardi Gras’ legacy of racism and Dorothy Mae Taylor, the first Black woman on the City Council, who fought to desegregate krewes.
The full history of segregation in New Orleans is far too complex to cover here, nor would we be able to do it justice, so we encourage you to continue researching and learning on your own. That said, we did want to dedicate a moment to exploring the differences between Creole and Cajun, as it’s impossible to cook, read or write about Louisiana's cuisine without coming across the two terms. Yet we were often confused by the arbitrary, and often racialized, usage of them while we crafted this menu (full disclosure, we’re still a little confused so if you’re Creole or Cajun or from New Orleans and we got this part wrong, please let us know). Justin Vogt, writing for The Atlantic, had the most succinct summary of what historically is considered Creole that we found (linked in our additional resources):
“The word evolved from crioulo, a Portuguese term applied to slaves of African descent but born in the New World. Later, the definition expanded to include people of European descent born in the New World, as well. In French and Spanish Louisiana, and especially after the territory became part of the U.S., "Creole" came to signify people of all ethnicities (except Native Americans) who were "native" to Louisiana--especially French-speaking New Orleanians of European descent and the free people of color whose numbers and influence in the city were unusual when compared to the rest of the South.”
Cajuns, on the other hand are direct descendants of the Acadians who were forced out of Acadia (now Nova Scotia & Northern Maine) by the British during the French & Indian War, after they refused to swear fealty to Britain. Many of the French speaking Acadians settled in the Francophone area of what is now Southern Louisiana, now known as Acadiana. The cuisines of these two cultures are inextricably linked at this point, and while there are certainly differences, there are also numerous similarities.
Right before we graduated college, a few of us went to New Orleans. I still remember being struck by how distinctive food there was, unlike anything I had ever had — po’ boys and beignets and gumbo galore. The laziness of May sun and the bayou only added to the city’s allure. Today, it is an honor to pay homage to that cuisine, an essential link in the culinary history of the United States.
Featured Recipe: Smoked Turkey Gumbo with Andouille Sausage
For the roux::
½ cup canola oil
½ cup all-purpose flour
For the gumbo:
½ onion, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
½ red bell pepper, diced
½ green bell pepper, diced
½ lb andouille sausage, cut into half-moons
2 quarts chicken stock
2 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 dried bay leaves
½ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon finely ground white pepper
½ teaspoon powdered mustard
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
½-1 teaspoon filé powder
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ lbs smoked turkey legs (available at Kroger)
1 lb chicken, boneless skinless thighs
Salt, to taste
Make the roux: In a large stock pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high. When the oil is hot, slowly add the flour while whisking constantly. Continue to whisk over medium-high heat until the roux begins to darken in color, you’re going for something between brick red and dark brown and it should take about 15 to 20 minutes of constant stirring.
Lower the heat to medium and add the onion, celery and bell peppers into the roux. Continue to stir to prevent it from burning, until the vegetables are coated and softened slightly, 3~ minutes.
Stir in the sausage, and add the thyme, oregano, bay leaves, garlic and spices and cook until coated, a few more minutes.
Gradually add 1.5 quarts (6 cups) of the stock stirring constantly as you add the liquid.
Add the chicken thighs and turkey legs and toss to coat.
Bring to a simmer over medium-low, stirring occasionally until the chicken is cooked and shreddable, about 2 hours. For a thinner gumbo, continue to add stock, as desired.
Remove the turkey & chicken, shred and return meat to gumbo.
To thicken, add a ½ - 1 tsp filé powder.
Salt and hot sauce to taste. Serve over white rice
Featured Recipe: Sazerac
Makes 1 cocktail
1/4 oz absinthe
2 oz rye whiskey
sugar cube or splash or simple syrup
In a mixing glass, add the sugar cube or simple syrup, rye whiskey, a few dashes of Peychaud's Bitters and ice and stir to chill (muddle the sugar cube first if using)
In a rocks glass, add the absinthe and swirl to coat the interior of the glass. You can discard the excess absinthe here as is traditional, but we prefer to leave it in the cocktail.
Add a large ice cube strain the chilled rye whiskey into the glass. Enjoy!
Recipes Inspired By:
Truly THE textbook of Louisiana cuisine, River Road Recipes from the Junior League of Baton Rouge
A great write up on the true history of Gumbo and the historical usage of filé powder vs. okra
Another good read on the African roots of Gumbo from the Atlantic
Tulane University’s research on Mardi Gras’ history of discrimination and how Dorothy Mae Taylor ended segregation in krewes
The story of the Muffuletta sandwich
A quick and interesting read on Creole etymology and Maque Choux
The proof is in the Gumbo, Cajun or Creole from National Geographic
A helpful starting point for the differences in Creole vs. Cajun cuisine, from the Spruce Eats
A poetic ode and history to the famed New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac