Two weeks ago I got the chance to meet Chef John Besh, dine with him (for approximately 1.7 seconds before he was whisked away), later get the chance to talk about his time on The Next Iron Chef, and last, but not least, receive a copy of his beautiful cookbook
My New Orleans: The Cookbook
Actually, beautiful does not do My New Orleans: The Cookbook justice. The book is filled with pictures capturing the essence of New Orleans, its people, and the food Chef Besh has been gracious enough to share with the world. Reading this book was like being in New Orleans once more. It clearly brought back the sights, smells, and tastes of the city, all without the awful hangover that was so much a part of my experience there. (Again, that’s another story.)
As a physical book, My New Orleans totals 374 pages, which makes it barely large enough to house sixteen chapters of recipes and almost makes it too small to be used a step stool. Almost.
In all seriousness, My New Orleans is one of those cookbooks that justifies why in this day and age of Internet (and us food bloggers who are just giving away recipes) we will still have cookbooks. My New Orleans is more than just a list of recipes. It’s a persuasive speech for returning to New Orleans. It’s a testament to the spirit of the people who live there.
And, oh yeah, it’s a engaging, fun lesson on how to make Loo-Zea-Anna cookin’. Before the recipes begin, the book starts with Chef Besh’s approach to cooking proteins, advice on how to make roux (the flour/fat thickener that is the basis of creole cooking), and gently gets one ready for the Creole mindset before blasting off into the recipes.
And blast off into recipes it does. This book has many of the classics: gumbo, etouffee, beignets, etc. as well as some favorites of Chef Besh like trout almandine and St. Joesph’s Day Milanese. There are also recipes for things like crab stuffed artichokes, grilled watermelon, tomato, and goat cheese salad, oyster gratin, and many, many more.
But, sadly, man cannot live on food pictures alone. And while I would gladly let My New Orleans on my coffee table, could I allow it a place in my kitchen?
Cooking My New Orleans
At Chef Besh’s dinner, I had had the chance to try both the etouffee and the corn bread from My New Orleans. Thus they became my candidates for testing out the book because I knew what they were supposed to taste like and after reading through the recipes, I knew they were easy enough for everyone to master.
BUT…did the recipe do them justice?
So I made the crawfish etouffee on page 32, but I had to change one thing. My wife doesn’t like seafood (including crawfish which are technically riverfood) and sadly this isn’t a divorceable offense in Kansas. (Now, if she didn’t like BBQ, any judge in the state is allowed to annul the marriage and smack the offending party with a boot. I am currently trying to arrange a transfer at work to a gulf state to see if their laws might favor a seafood-related dissolution of the marriage–check back in a few months.) So with that limitation, I made chicken etouffee which was exactly like the crawfish version except I used cooked chicken and chicken stock instead of crawfish and seafood stock.
The result? Flavorwise, my etouffee was right on. A+. Texture wise, D-. Sadly, my etouffee never thickened like it was supposed to, but I think I know the reason: I overcooked my roux. The recipe specified a dark brown roux, butby the time I got around to adding onions, it was darker than that.
For next time I am going to triple the amount of roux I make (9 tablespoons instead of 3.) I am going to do this for two reasons. First, 3 tablespoons of flour and oil didn’t cover my skillet which kept it from cooking evenly. I think if I have more roux, I can get around that problem. Secondly, I’ll have more so if the sauce looks a little soupy, I can add it. I might even remove some of the roux before it hits the dark brown stage so that it will keep more of its thickening power.
Plan of action…check.
The Corn Bread
While the etouffee was simmering away, I went ahead and made the corn bread. Here is the recipe from page 15 of the book:
You will need:
3 tablespoons bacon fat
1 cup white cornmeal, organic if possible
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 1/4 cups milk
2 tablespoons melted butter
Put the bacon fat in a 9-inch cast iron skillet. Put the skillet into the oven and preheat the oven to 425.
Combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and pepper in a bowl.
In a second bowl, put the eggs, milk and butter and mix well.
Put the egg mixture into the dry stirring until just mixed.
Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and pour the batter in the skillet. Return the skillet to the oven and bake the corn bread until its deep golden brown 15-20 minutes. Serve immediately.
The result? Good corn bread, but not great corn bread. I loved the sweetness, but I’m not sure I did it right. Either I let the skillet heat too long, the baking temp should be lowered below 425, or Chef Besh likes dry corn bread. (Since it surely couldn’t be my oven’s fault… grr…) Sadly, the corn bread was baked to brown (not golden brown) in 20 minutes and was a touch dry and black on the bottom. Strangely enough, the weird thing was that even though the bottom was burnt, that burnt part was AMAZING. It was like all the sugar settled to the bottom and got caramelized.
For next time I am going to remove the corn bread after 15 minutes instead of waiting 20. If that does not give me a moist corn bread, I’ll try to lower my oven temp.
My New Orleans is a keeper. I blame myself for the etouffee and the corn bread will become everything I know it can be with a bit of work. (And don’t get me wrong, the corn bread disappeared almost as fast as the etouffee did, but it just wasn’t perfect.) I highly recommend you get out and buy a copy of your own!
My Parting Thought
I was lamenting that I had to get My New Orleands close to the stove where it could get spattered on, potentially burnt, etc. It was suggested that I could photocopy the recipes and take those into the kitchen. That’s not a half bad idea so I share it with you.