Sunday, 30 March 2014

Super Sunday

"Super Sunday" is the day when the Mardi Gras Indian tribes show their costumes to the broader New Orleans community. Today, Jamie and a few of my Tulane Medical School friends headed to Central City to catch a glimpse of their costumes:

Hermann Grima House

I had a "double header" in the open hearth kitchen this past week. On Tuesday, I headed up to Baton Rouge for my apprenticeship at Magnolia Mound and on Wednesday I made my way to the French Quarter to cook at the Hermann Grima House kitchen. It was fascinating to juxtapose these two cooking traditions. The Magnolia Mound kitchen is modeled after a c. 1830s kitchen built in the countryside; the the Hermann Grima kitchen dates to c. 1850 and was a grand city residence. The families who lived in these two homes were relatively wealthy for their time and the supplies and gadgets they had in their kitchens reflect that. The Hermann Grima house, however, truly shines as a top of the line kitchen. The kitchen is located in the back courtyard of the main house. This courtyard would have functioned as a garden/orchard for the family. Today, citrus trees and various herbs are grown there. There is also a large cistern to catch rainwater in the back of the courtyard. Below, you can see the servants quarters - the kitchen was located on the ground floor of that building):

The kitchen has a raised open hearth and a bee hive oven - a dome-shaped oven developed during the middle ages in Europe. Similar to the brick oven at Magnolia Mound, you have to burn a fire in oven for about 4 hours before it is hot enough to bake in.

The kitchen also has a potage - the 1850s version of a stove top. The potage has 4 "burners" or metal basket where you place hot coals from the wood burning fire, kindling (pine cones), as well as coal. Once that fire gets going (typically by fanning it), you cover the metal basket with a metal grate and then set you pot/pan on top of that. And voila - a burner!

I cooked with Martha and Alece on Wednesday. Last week we met at Martha's house to plan out the menu (a feast!)
  • Calas - sugary rice fritters (a common street food from the 19th century)
  • Creole Coffee
  • French Toast
  • Fried plantains in caramel sauce
  • Pralines (another common street food from the 19th century)
  • Vanilla cake baked in a lamb mold (for Easter)
  • Gumbo Z'herbes (a gumbo based on at least 7 greens - typically served during Lent when meat was cut out of most Catholic diets)
  • Cornish game hens cooked fire-side
  • Lamb cooked in the reflector oven
I was in charge of the calas and the gumbo z'herbes. I started off preparing the calas the night before. I took my sticky rice, added yeast, and let that rise over night. The next morning, I added the eggs, sugar, nutmeg, and cinnamon and let the batter sit while I prepared the potage, heated up my frying oil, and got ready for some fun! It took some experimenting to get the potage at the right heat to make the oil hot enough for frying.

Eventually (right as some British tourists arrived) the oil was hot enough to spoon some batter for frying. The calas came out so well. Here is the recipe:

They were crispy on the outside and piping hot on the inside. I barely had time to put powdered sugar on them before we were scarfing them down for breakfast. I could have eaten 10 of them (I settled for two). Did I mention that I used an ENTIRE TUB of Crisco to fry them up. Yes, that happened. Meanwhile, Alece made French toast on the potage and Martha started toasting raw coffee beans on the hearth.

After I finished the calas, I started working on the gumbo z'herbes. One phrase: LABOR OF LOVE. Gumbo z'herbes traditionally calls for 7 types of greens. The most common greens are collard, turnip, radish, spinach, beet, and watercress. I also included fennel and some other greens (which I picked from the garden at Magnolia Mound). New Orleanians believe that the more greens you have in your gumbo z'herbes, the more friends you will make that year. Leah Chase's gumbo z'herbes served on Holy Thursday is probably the most well known iteration of the dish - very meaty.

Anyway, the recipe requires that you take half the greens and boil them over the open flame for 2 hours. While the greens are boiling, you de-stem and finely chop the remainder of the greens. My fingers were actually sore by the end of the day from all of the de-stemming I was doing!


Once all of my chopping was done, I turned my attention back to the greens that were boiling away over the fire. After 2.5 hours, I drained the pot, reserving the broth for my gumbo z'herbes and discarding the boiled greens. Then, I started a roux on the potage -- eventually adding my green onion and sweet onions.

Then, I added my chopped greens to the roux/onions on the stove, sauteing for 15 minutes. After sauteing, I put the veggies back into the big soup pot over the flame and added the z'herbes broth back in along with ham hocks. Then, I let this gumbo z'herbes cook for an hour, adding in fresh oysters and their juices in the last 15 minutes.

I have to admit, I was a bit nervous to try to the gumbo z'herbes. I imagined that my first spoonful would sort of taste like dandelion soup, or something similarly green. This gumbo, though, was something completely different. I think the roux, ham hocks, and oysters added a wonderful amount of body and complexity to this dish that made it absolutely delightful!!!

Here are a few more photos from the day:

Magnolia Mound - Last Day

My last day at Magnolia Mound Plantation in Baton Rouge was beautiful. The wisteria was in full bloom, the sun was shining, and it wasn't too hot in the kitchen. This week, I worked with Rosemary and Alece (who also brought her vibrant 10 year old daughter).

I decided to make red beans and rice this past week over the open flame, which was a good idea. I started off with the "holy trinity" - bell pepper, onions, and celery. Then, I added my smoked ham hocks, beans, and stock. The beans came out great. Surprisingly, they cooked fairly quickly on the open hearth - they were done in about 4 hours - and took on a subtle smokey flavor. They may have been the best beans I've ever made.

Our hearth was fairly crowded (in a good way). Rosemary made her famous biscuits with fried apples and rosemary jam. Yum. She also made sausage gravy. WOW. We made a variety of other foods ranging from corn bread, to pork chops, to smothered greens. It was fun to make cornbread in a cast iron skilled on the open hearth - the loaf came out really crispy on the edges. I also made rice over the open flame, which was more guess work than anything else to determine when the rice was done. I think the rice came out a bit "sticky" for my tastes, so I decided to use it to make calas the next day.

Since Rosemary is known as "the baker" - we also used the oven. I may have mentioned this in an earlier blog, but the brick oven takes quite of bit of work to get heated up properly. You have to get a good fire going and keep it burning for about 4 hours to heat up the bricks. Then, you have to take out all of the coals, wipe down the oven, and then put your bread/cake etc. in to bake. It generally takes about the same amount to bake things in this oven as it does in modern day oven (which is pretty neat!)

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Post Mardi Gras Muses Shoe

So, yesterday my friend Staci was kind enough to give me the fabulously decorated shoe that she was supposed to hand off to me during Mardi Gras at the Krewe of Muses parade. It's arrival is a few weeks later than expected, but it was well worth the wait for this most coveted Mardi Gras throw!

St. Joseph's Day

As hinted at in previous posts, Catholicism and Catholic holidays are a big deal here in New Orleans (Mardi Gras!). Catholic populations from France, Spain, Italy, and other parts of the world have had major influence on the religious traditions of the city. The Sicilian Catholic tradition is no more apparent than in the wide spread celebration of St. Joseph's day -- the patron saint of Sicily. According to Sicilian beliefs, centuries ago the island was suffering from a major famine. The people of Sicily prayed to their patron saint to help them survive the difficult period. He answered their prayers and the harvest that year was incredibly abundant. In honor of his generosity, the Sicilians create elaborate alters laden with Italian baked goods braided and shaped into religious symbols such as crosses.

There is a tradition in Scicily and New Orleans - on St. Joseph's day you collect a blessed fava bean for good luck. Many New Orleanians carry these beans around in their change purses or wallets all year until they pick up a new one on the next St. Joseph's Day.

On St. Joseph's day, I was invited to attend two alter blessings. The bishop of New Orleans met with Liz Williams as well as Mardi Gras Indians from the Apache Hunter tribe to celebrate the diverse array of traditions surrounding St. Joseph's day here in New Orleans. Liz spoke about the culinary traditions behind the St. Joseph's day alter. Then, the bishop said a prayer and blessed the alter at Rouses and then at Cafe Amelie.

It was also really interesting to have the Apache Hunter Mardi Gras Indians at the alter blessings. They led everyone there in a call and response song with a strong drum beat. Super interesting!

I even snapped a photo with one of them (and a close-up of his costume):

Later that day, I headed home and heard some call and response songs down the street. I dropped off my stuff in my cottage, grabbed my camera, and went to investigate. Just across N. Broad Street on the other side of Desoto, the Washtaw Indian tribe was getting ready to go parading on St. Joseph's Night. Community members slowly trickled out of their homes to gather around and watch as the members of the tribe revealed their beautiful costumes to the community. This year, the Washtaw tribe's theme was the pink flamingo. There were a few guests from other tribes from around Louisiana - they were wearing different colored costumes and performed ritual dances to entice the Washtaw tribe to share their costumes with the community. The Big Chief shared some of his poetry with the onlookers. He then lead the whole community in a series of call and response songs, encouraging everyone to participate. It was an amazing experience to witness and partake in this community event steeped in age-old ritual from the 18th century.

After observing the unveiling of the costumes, the tribe headed off to visit various family members who lived in other parts of the city. Eventually, they planned to reconvene uptown at Dryades and Second St. for ritual "fighting" with other tribes. You can read more about the St. Joseph's night tradition here. Here are some of the photos I captured: