It seems only fitting that my husband should be the author of my very first guest post, considering he takes all of the amazing photographs on my blog. And shortly after tucking into this scrumptious birthday feast he concocted for me, I realized we had found the perfect subject for him to write about!
Anyone who knows me at all knows that I've had a lifelong love affair with the city of New Orleans. One of the luckiest things about my adult life is being able to share this love with Trix. The first bunch of times I visited the Crescent City my palate was more in the po boys / beignets realm of New Orleans cuisine, but as Trix and I explored the city together we were able to share many culinary firsts: Commander's Palace, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, Mr. B's Bistro, Galatoire's, and many more. Eating the food of New Orleans has played a large part in our own growing enthusiasm over cooking at home.
That's why I decided to cook up a Creole feast for Trix's birthday this year. I planned to not only use the flavors of some of our favorite restaurants, but to also pace it as closely to a leisurely Creole dining experience as I could, with one dish followed by another and another. In the end I might have gone a little overboard, but it was worth it not only for the great tastes but to prove to myself that it's possible to recreate these great dishes at home.
In order to start with something a little on the lighter side I prepared a simple salad inspired by a Creole tomato salad we had at K-Paul's. I didn't have access to Creole tomatoes (a simple, sweet New Orleans tomato that's available for a short time in the early summer) but I did have some beautiful organic tomatoes from our CSA. I put three slices on each plate, topped with some thinly sliced red onion, seasoned with salt and pepper, and drizzled a small amount of extra virgin olive oil and white wine vinegar.
I didn't want enough to make a dressing, since I didn't want to drown the simple ingredients, so I dipped the butt end of a chopstick in the oil and vinegar and shook it over the salad. Then I placed an extra thin slice of provolone on top of the whole thing. I had taken the provolone and onions out of the fridge for a half hour before plating (and, of course, tomatoes should never be refrigerated) so that the cheese would almost start to melt just from being at room temperature.
This salad is entirely dependent on having great tomatoes since there's so little else to it. I think it would make a great palate cleanser, maybe between a rich soup and an entree, but in this case it was meant to serve as a "calm before the storm" dish, since New Orleans BBQ shrimp was up next.
I basically followed Mr. B's recipe for this one since they do it to perfection. New Orleans BBQ shrimp is actually not BBQ at all. Rather it consists of large head-on shrimp cooked in a sinister brew of butter, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, pepper, and lemon juice. I also used a little of Trix's Creole seafood seasoning. The recipe calls for a shocking three sticks of butter for two servings, which I cubed (pictured, right) and kept chilled until I needed it. I only ended up using about two sticks worth, however, since I added the butter bit by bit and stopped when I felt that the sauce was right. So I guess you could call this the diet version of BBQ shrimp!
The only thing I added to the recipe was a garnish of fresh chopped parsley. Green onions would have been good too, but I forgot to get them. I also warmed some French bread in the oven and served it on a cutting board. The bread is crucial for sopping up all that buttery sauce.
The other variation was that I couldn't get jumbo head-on shrimp. Both area Whole Foods were unable to special order them for me so I drove out to Asian supermarket H-Mart, where the head-on shrimp were more in the medium-to-large range. I used the same weight but there were so many more shrimp than I intended to use that they were a little tricky to handle. Also, I suspect they were frozen and thawed, rather than fresh, which probably affected their flavor and the way that they cooked. I have a feeling the Brennan family has better access to quality purveyors than this home cook. There were times, however, when dipping the French bread into the sauce took us right back to Mr. B's. This is a really easy dish to make and has one of the most unique flavors I've ever had. I just wouldn't recommend eating it every day!
Since this was a feast I decided to make dessert, which I don't normally do. One of the best desserts we've ever had is Commander's Palace's Creole bread pudding souffle with whiskey cream sauce. While I've made a successful souffle before I thought that I had too much else going on to attempt it with this dish, plus I don't have access to the extra-puffy French bread that you can get in New Orleans, and Commander's Palace warns that if the bread is too dense the souffle will fall, so I made a regular Creole bread pudding instead, using this recipe (which includes the whiskey sauce) as inspiration.
The major differences between the recipe and my version were the bread and the portion size. Since all the French bread that I found was too dense, I went with a round bread that had a salty taste to it. I have a feeling that the extra salt in the bread actually enhanced the sweetness of the bread pudding. I also left some of the crust out of the mix. It was pretty thick, which isn't really recommended for bread pudding, so I only used about a third of the crust that I cut up for texture and mostly went with the soft, fluffy insides of the bread.
As for the portions, I made two individual servings in ramekins (rather than one big serving, which is what the recipe is for) by halving all the ingredients. I also let them sit in the fridge for three hours before baking them, which helped make them really creamy. The cooking time was about 1 1/2 hours, but the key thing is to check them every so often starting at about 45 minutes. My bread puddings were popping out of the top of the ramekins like muffins (to emulate the souffle a little bit) so I skipped the tinfoil-covering that the recipe calls for and just made sure that the bread had really fully soaked up the liquid.
I prepared the whiskey cream sauce right before serving and stuck a candle in Trix's bread pudding. Pouring the sauce at the table added a little extra drama to the whole thing, as did putting the ramekin on another plate and letting the sauce drip over the edges onto the base plate. I mean, if you're going to cook something so decadent why try to be prim and proper when serving it?
Bread pudding, pre-and post saucing:
By the end of this meal we sort of felt like a truck had run us over. A delicious truck, but a truck nonetheless. Could I have gotten away with making one bread pudding and splitting it? Definitely. But that's the Creole way. More butter, more cream, more more more. That said, I think we'll be eating more salads for the next week or two.