Two days ago we learned all about Mardi Gras and King Cakes so I thought it’d be natural to today talk about the city where both reign: New Orleans. Now before you scroll on and say “I don’t care for New Orleans; it’s so dirty and sleazy,” hang tight. I agree with part of that as I’ve seen the seedy side of NOLA, but come along as we discover its many charms far from Bourbon Street.
Don’t get me wrong, the Big Easy can most definitely morph into the Big Sleazy if you are a rookie NOLA visitor, but it’s also home to a bevy of natural attractions and unique culture. Distinctive lace-work balconies. Legendary lanterns. Colorful shutters. Epicurean wonders. And can we talk a minute about that accent?! It’s got to be one of the most unique and impossible to imitate in all the world. Melt my heart Nawlins!
Okay, in order to appreciate more than a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s though, you need to venture off the Bourbon Street beaten path to discover history and eats comparable to those in many a world renowned city. Let’s geaux!
I’ve been to the home of the Saints (and sinners!) several times and like many New Orleans visitors, I started with the French Quarter, which is a good idea if you’ve never been. Be sure to peek into historic Preservation Hall and the Hermes Bar at Antoine’s is a nice quiet retreat from the normally noisy street that can be both festive and fun but can also border on the “Big Cheesy.” Jackson Square, roughly bordered on one end by St. Louis Cathedral and on the other by the Mississippi River, is where you’ll find horse carriage rides; street performers; great people watching; one of my favorite restaurants, Muriel’s; and if you look closely you’ll also find an amazing cooking school and a great little book store.
A few years ago I traveled to New Orleans with my husband on one of his business trips. It wasn’t my first time there so I knew that while he was out doing deals, I needed to keep busy but I’d seen it all: Bourbon, Café du Monde, the Riverfront, and Jackson Square. Considering this, I also knew I had to dig deep to discover what really makes NOLA special. In doing so, I discovered what I still consider one of the coolest things I’ve ever done on a trip; anywhere. I took a class at the New Orleans School of Cooking and not only ate well but learned so much.
The Crescent City (called that because the Mississippi River takes a crescent shape at New Orleans)is synonymous with imaginative fun, but it’s also home to imaginative food. Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of Cajun or Creole food except for maybe red beans and rice but I walked out of that cooking class with a whole new respect for both. And trust me, they are two very different and distinct cooking methods. So what’s the difference and what’s the big deal you ask? Read on.
Disclaimer: I’m no native so what I’m writing here is what I learned and what I’ve read. Any of you natives out there who can add to this or even correct me, please do!
New Orleans and Louisiana cuisine have a rich heritage, but unless you’re from there it can all be kind of confusing. Here’s a quick glance at the most integral parts. For starters, I learned that onions, celery, and green pepper are called the “Holy Trinity” and garlic is called “The Pope.” From there, it was what’s Creole and what’s Cajun.
Creole food originated in New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana amid strong French, Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences. The term “Creole” is from the Spanish “criollo,” which translates to “native to a specific place or locality.” In short:
- Creole cuisine is considered a little higher brow or aristocratic than Cajun.
- Creole cuisine uses tomatoes and Cajun food does not. It’s richer than and not as spicy as Cajun food.
- Creole cuisine is considered “city food” while Cajun cuisine is often referred to as “country food.”
- Creole gumbo is thicker than Cajun and generally contains shellfish; tomatoes; a lighter colored roux; and file, and fine green powder of young dried ground sassafras leaves.
- Remoulade sauce is Creole.
- Beignets and pralines are both considered Creole food.
Cajun food originated in the country, specifically the Acadiana region of southwest Louisiana. The word “Cajun” originates from the term “les Acadiens,” used to describe French colonists who settled in the Acadia region of Canada. The Acadians were forcibly removed from their home and many settled in the swampy region of Louisiana that is today known as Acadiana. The Acadians were extremely resourceful and used the flatlands, bayous, and wild game of South Louisiana and Gulf of Mexico to create a truly unique local cuisine. Like Creole, it also incorporates French influences alongside bayou flair and has a focus on hearty, meat-based, one-pot dishes filled with boudin, Andouille, or crawfish. In short:
- Cajun gumbo is generally based on a dark roux and is made with shellfish or fowl. No tomatoes.
- Cajun Jambalaya is generally considered better than the more tomato-based Creole Jambalaya.
- Cajun food is famous for being very well seasoned, which is sometimes misunderstood as spicy.
- Crawfish boils are considered Cajun.
- Cajun motto: “If we can catch it, we can cook it.”
What the heck is roux?
Roux, pronounced “roo,” sounds fancy but it’s simple and is similar to gravy but with lots of varieties and cooking rules. It is the foundation for many Cajun and Creole recipes and is basically a cooked mixture of flour and fat (oil, butter, or lard) and is used as a thickening agent. The basic rule of preparing roux is “never walk away from the roux.” Constant watching and stirring are essential to making any level of roux, all categorized by their color, which is dictated by the amount of time they take to cook. The longer a roux cooks, the darker and more flavorful it becomes. Creole roux is usually made with butter and flour while Cajun roux combines oil and flour.
THE BIG 3
When you think of New Orleans food, whether Creole or Cajun, three dishes often come to mind: Jambalaya, Gumbo, and Etouffee. Similar is some ways but different in so many others.
Think of Jambalaya as a distant relative of paella, the famous dish of Spain, only without saffron and shells are taken off the shrimp. The Creole version of it includes tomatoes while the Cajun version doesn’t. It also usually does not have roux.
Gumbo is a mix of veggies and meat or shellfish with a dark roux. It’s normally served with rice and potato salad…something I just recently tried and found it sooooo good!
Etouffee, which means “smoother,” is generally made of one type of shellfish, usually crawfish or shrimp, that have been smothered in a thick sauce and sometimes served ladled over rice.
Our cooking class also consisted of Bananas Foster and pralines, so I thought I’d throw in some history on what makes the first one so delicious and famous.
In 1951, when the Brennan restaurant operation consisted only of Brennan’s Vieux Carre on Bourbon Street, Owen Brennan asked his sister Ella to come up with a fancy dessert for a dinner that night honoring Richard Foster for being named chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission. An already-overworked Ella gathered her chef, Paul Blange, and headwaiter in the kitchen to help her dream up a dessert. Scanning the kitchen and spying bananas, she thought of a simple dish her mother had made by splitting the yellow fruit and sautéing the halves with butter and brown sugar. To jazz it up, they poured rum and banana liqueur on top, setting the mixture on fire at tableside, tossing in cinnamon to make it sparkle, and serving the concoction over vanilla ice cream. They called it “Bananas Foster” and a classic was born. The Brennan family not only created the famous flaming dessert, but was also instrumental in bringing bananas into New Orleans and helping its port become one of the largest to import bananas to the U.S. Today “Bananas Foster” is still the signature dessert at Brennan’s famous pink restaurant. We had it last year and it’s as decadent and delicious as ever.
That’s just what I learned in my cooking class. I feel obligated to also mention three of my favorite food stops when in NOLA: Drago’s for their uh-mazing and one-of-a-kind charbroiled oysters, Mother’s for lunch, and I do love me some beignets and coffee at Café du Monde. Note to fellow breakfast goers: if there’s a line, don’t line up near the street. Loop around the back and line up on the side.
As for Drago’s, visit the original location in Metairie as you head from the airport to the city rather than the one downtown. It’s suburban and nothing fancy but trust me, even if you think you don’t like oysters, give them a try. They are unbelievable. And, don’t let anywhere else claim to serve them. Drago’s has the only authentic and divine ones.
Of the “Big 5” commonly referred to when talking about Commander’s Palace, Arnaud’s, Galatoire’s, Brennan’s, and Antoine’s, I’ve eaten at all and enjoyed the meals but wasn’t totally overwhelmed. I was actually underwhelmed with Antoine’s “famous” Oysters Rockefeller but will say brunch at Brennan’s signature pink building is worth not only the service and food but the legendary green latticed-wall interior and black-and-white tile floor. One more thing: Galatoire’s, Antoine’s, and Arnaud’s are considered classic Creole restaurants and Commander’s Palace is a bit off the downtown beaten path with its Garden District location. IMHO on all of this, Mr. B’s on Royal Street is just as good and I’ve had many a foodie tell me about other restaurants that I still haven’t tried. So many restaurants, so little time.
Another thing New Orleans has plenty of is hotels. My favorite? Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street. A city staple since 1886, the venerable and classically-old school hotel sits majestically at the foot of Royal Street, home to many of the city’s best antique shops. Close enough to all of New Orlean’s traditional tourist traps yet quietly tucked on Royal, Hotel Monteleone is the perfect place to stay. It’s also the home of the famous Carousel Bar & Lounge, a long-time favorite New Orleans hot spot and the city’s only revolving bar. Yes, the Merry-Go-Round bar actually spins as you sit at it and this is important to know before you order a Pimms Cup or Sazerac and wonder if it’s just you who is spinning! I’d like to add here that I’ve also stayed at the Cambria Hotel in the Warehouse District and loved, loved, loved it. It’s a bit further away from all the action but it’s a wonderful little property.
Okay, so now you know where to stay and where to eat in NOLA, but what to do? Yes, if you’ve never before, do Bourbon and all the trappings around it but then venture off. The Garden District , with its mansions, Tulane and Loyola Universities, and Audubon Park, is worth the fun trolley ride. For live jazz, a night on Frenchmen’s Street is as close to classic New Orleans nightlife as you’ll get as a tourist. Check out the Spotted Cat and just walk along the street and enjoy the many street musicians known as Second Line Parades.
If you’re looking for a day away from the city, consider taking a swamp tour. Yep, I said that right: a swamp tour. They are actually very fun and educational and you’re sure to see a gator…or 10…as you ride amidst hanging moss and Cypress Trees. Spoiler alert: they feed them marshmallows to get them to jump out of the water! Very fun. Very different.
I can’t close without recommending a quick stop at Faulkner House Books just off the French Quarter near St. Louis Cathedral. This tiny gem is located in the building where author William Faulkner, a fan of and one-time resident of New Orleans, once lived and wrote his first book. The shop may be small but it packs a big historic and quaint punch and has many rare books as well as bestsellers and those by and about Faulkner. I stumbled onto it and was so glad I did. Next door to what many collectors and writers call America’s most charming bookstore is a nice little pub where you can sit outside and read whatever you may have bought in the store. Give it a stop. You’ll be glad you did.
So have I convinced you? Have I gotten everything right? Are you ready to give New Orleans a second chance and second glance? Ready to make some roux? I seaux hope so and hope you take it easy on and in the Big Easy!