With Mardi Gras coming up, we’ve got New Orleans on the mind. For our friends heading to the capital of all things Fat Tuesday, we wanted to get some food recommendations outside of the beignets at Café Du Monde. So, we headed to Mimi Sheraton’s culinary bible, 1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die, to get some answers.
American (New Orleanian), Italian
Italo-New Orleanian cuisine is the special gift of the Italian immigrants, mainly from Sicily, who developed a Southern American culinary repertoire all their own, and one of its most lavish examples is this delectable riff on the hero, po’boy, and submarine sandwich. Brought to true and epic magnificence at the Central Grocery, and to almost equal glory at the bar-tavern that is the old Napoleon House, both in the French Quarter, the muffaletta begins with a lightly golden, soft-crusted, round, Italian-style bread— really a giant roll, about ten inches in diameter.
The cut inner white surfaces of the bread are lightly brushed with olive oil, and then the sandwich construction begins. Layerings of firm, fatty, pungently peppered and garlicked Italian salami and rose-pink slabs of cooked ham alternate with sharp provolone cheese and, unless declined, abundant minced garlic. The real magic is supplied by slathers of olive oil and layers of finely chopped vegetable salads— green Sicilian olives and red pimientos, and a rainbow of vinegar-and-olive-oil-dressed pickled vegetables such as cauliflower, red and green peppers, carrots, and white onions, all seasoned with oregano, more garlic, and a verdant toss of parsley. The oil will deliciously seep into the bread as the sandwich is firmly pressed together, somewhat in the manner of Provence’s pan bagnat.
Cut into quarters, the muffaletta—or “little muff”—is a lusciously leaky indulgence, and a meal best eaten with a bib of paper napkins.
Where: In New Orleans, Central Grocery, tel 504-523-1620; Napoleon House, tel 504-524-9752. Further information and recipes: Cooking Up a Storm by Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker (2008); allrecipes.com (search muffaletta sandwich; olive salad for muffalettas; real n’awlins muffaletta).
2. Oyster Po’boy
American (New Orleanian)
The signature sandwich of the city of New Orleans, the po’boy belongs to the general class of handheld super-sandwiches like heroes, subs, gyros, and grinders—this one a Depression-era staple first created around 1929, when the coffee shop owners and onetime streetcar workers Bennie and Clovis Martin were trying to find a cheap and easy way to feed their former colleagues, who were on strike for higher pay. “Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming,” Bennie Martin recalled, “one of us would say, ‘Here comes another poor boy.’” The Martins enlisted a baker named John Gendusa (whose eponymous bakery is still in operation in New Orleans, with his great-grandson at the helm) to create loaves wide enough to hold substantial fillings that were cheap then, and a sandwich classic was born.
New Orleans–style French bread was already well suited to the sandwiching task: unusually crumbly on the outside, but very soft and airy inside. Its texture partially results from the city’s high ambient humidity, which causes the yeast to become more active. One notable variation is the homemade pan bread, more of a Sicilian loaf, used on the epic oyster po’boys at the venerable Casamento’s.
Several po’boy versions around town are considered authentic, with fillings ranging from roast beef and gravy to fried shrimp, and they’re happily joined by newfangled contrivances like the cheeseburger po’boy. But the most cherished of all is the po’boy plumped with local, cornmeal-coated, fried Gulf Coast oysters. The juicy, crisp golden oysters are the filling that makes the sandwich truly sing, and the ingredient that truly established its fame.
A po’boy may be dressed, meaning it will be slathered with mayo or rémoulade and piled with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and onions. But the fewer trappings the better, to allow the full flavor of oysters accented by lemon and a dressing to truly speak for itself.
Where: In New Orleans, Acme Oyster House, tel 504-522-5973; Casamento’s, tel 504-895-9761; in Akers, LA, Middendorf’s, tel 985-386-6666; in Baton Rouge, LA, Tony’s Seafood Market & Deli, tel 225-357-9669. Further information and recipes: The Hog Island Oyster Lover’s Cookbook by Jairemarie Pomo (2007); for fried oysters, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen by Paul Prudhomme (1984); saveur.com (search crabby jack’s oyster po’boy). Special event: Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, New Orleans, November, poboyfest.com.
Red Beans and Rice
With a large ham bone adding smoky overtones to this savory, garlic-zapped dish, the hearty, richly satisfying meal of red beans and rice deserves top billing in the annals of the world’s most delectable peasant foods. A staple of all Louisiana cooks, like the hoppin’ John of the Carolinas and Georgia, it is considered a good-luck dish, to be consumed on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Far more complex in flavor than its humble ingredients suggest, red beans and rice came to New Orleans via the city’s French, Spanish, and African settlers and the Creole culture they developed. Indeed a poor man’s food, sold inexpensively in diners and luncheonettes in the French Quarter, the dish was a customary Monday special—it takes a long time to prepare, and many family cooks got started on Sundays. Incidentally or not, it’s also considered a great hangover cure, and by mid-morning on Monday, the red-beans-and-rice aroma permeates entire blocks of this party-minded city.
The most noteworthy of all red-beans-and-rice joints was called Buster Holmes, after its chef and owner. For nearly fifty years, it stood watch on the corner of Orleans and Burgundy Streets, a down-and-dirty joint with crowded tables and a counter, big pitchers of Dixie beer, and the world’s most delicious red beans and rice. “Smoked ham and hot sausage are nice, and I like a little garlic,” Buster Holmes told The New York Times. The real secret of his dish, however, was its texture. The beans were cooked until they were just tender enough to be falling apart and yet still maintained their shape, resulting in a velvety smoothness that a diner could nonetheless sink his teeth into. Buster Holmes retired in the early 1980s and passed away in 1994, but there are still plenty of New Orleans outposts, plain and fancy, where diners can find quality examples of red beans and rice. One of the best is Mother’s, where the dish is a staple at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
So reassuring is this dish that after Hurricane Katrina, in 2006, chefs took to the streets and ladled it out to rescue workers and displaced victims as the city was being rebuilt.
Where: In New Orleans, Mother’s, tel 504- 523-9656. Mail order: amazon.com (search zatarain’s new orleans style red bean seasoning mix; bootsie’s Louisiana Cajun red beans; organic kidney beans). Further information and recipes: The Buster Holmes Restaurant Cookbook by Buster Holmes (2010); The Dooky Chase Cookbook by Leah Chase (1990); nytimes.com (search new orleans buster holmes sheraton).
Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce
Hot butter and sweet, oozy lacings of bourbon whiskey bathing spongy bread that beckons with a crisply golden top crust . . . This is the enduring magic of an epic Cajun dessert. Pudding, the kind we eat for dessert, is one of those loosely defined, age-old dishes indigenous to many cultures around the world. But the origin of the term is much meatier, most likely tracing back to the Old French–inspired Cajun word for sausage, boudin. In the Middle Ages, the word referred to black and white savory sausage “puddings,” and over the course of time evolved into the more common idea of a sweet, generally baked, generally milk-based dessert.
As always, frugal and inventive cooks realized that something delicious could be made from the stale bread with which they were continually confronted, and the bread pudding was born: slices or chunks of bread baked with eggs, milk, sugar, and various sweet and fragrant fixings into a sweet, chewy dessert. It took the Cajuns, those French-speaking Acadian exiles to Louisiana from maritime Canada, to spice up the formula with a creamy, bourbon-spiked sauce, poured over the pudding when it’s fresh out of the oven. Long a staple of New Orleans restaurants, the Cajun pudding is lusciously thick and mouthwateringly sticky, made with porous, dry French bread that’s excellent at soaking up plenty of sugar, freshly ground cinnamon, and vanilla complemented by the chewy sweetness of raisins or currants—which is not to say that executive chefs like Emeril Lagasse have not come up with delectable riffs, such as praline, and lemon-blueberry bread puddings. The pudding is generally served as dessert, but a nice big, thick chunk along with a cup of bracing, chicory-laced, Creole coffee makes a decadent breakfast.
Where: In New Orleans, The Bon Ton Café, tel 504-524-3386; K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, tel 504-596-2530; Emeril’s Delmonico, tel 504-525- 4937. Further information and recipes: New Orleans Classic Desserts by Kit Wohl (2007); The Dooky Chase Cookbook by Leah Chase (1990); Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen by Paul Prudhomme (1984); epicurious.com (search favorite bread and butter pudding; bread pudding souffle).
About the Book:
The ultimate gift for the food lover. In the same way that 1,000 Places to See Before You Die reinvented the travel book, 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die is a joyous, informative, dazzling, mouthwatering life list of the world’s best food. The long-awaited new book in the phenomenal 1,000 . . . Before You Die series, it’s the marriage of an irresistible subject with the perfect writer, Mimi Sheraton—award-winning cookbook author, grande dame of food journalism, and former restaurant critic for The New York Times.
1,000 Foods fully delivers on the promise of its title, selecting from the best cuisines around the world (French, Italian, Chinese, of course, but also Senegalese, Lebanese, Mongolian, Peruvian, and many more)—the tastes, ingredients, dishes, and restaurants that every reader should experience and dream about, whether it’s dinner at Chicago’s Alinea or the perfect empanada. In more than 1,000 pages and over 550 full-color photographs, it celebrates haute and snack, comforting and exotic, hyper-local and the universally enjoyed: a Tuscan plate of Fritto Misto. Saffron Buns for breakfast in downtown Stockholm. Bird’s Nest Soup. A frozen Milky Way. Black truffles from Le Périgord.
Mimi Sheraton is highly opinionated, and has a gift for supporting her recommendations with smart, sensuous descriptions—you can almost taste what she’s tasted. You’ll want to eat your way through the book (after searching first for what you have already tried, and comparing notes). Then, following the romance, the practical: where to taste the dish or find the ingredient, and where to go for the best recipes, websites included.