All About Louisiana Cuisine (Just in time for Mardi Gras!)
If ever there were a state in this union that was known and renowned for the quality, diversity, and sheer quantity of food it both produces and consumes, it must be Louisiana. A territory that, over the centuries, has been inhabited by everyone from the French, Spanish and Native Americans to exiled Canadian trappers (Cajuns) and that beautiful mix of ethnicities that are Creoles, its food is as varied as its people. Whether you’re in the deep of the swamp or the revelry of the city, in the warmth of someone’s home or in a two-hundred year-old restaurant, finding a wonderful meal is never very difficult. The staggering variety of dishes is something that fills many books to this day, and will likely continue to do so, however we’d be remiss if we didn’t comment on a few of our favorites from a state so historically known for its adoration of good food.
Naturally, any discussion of Louisiana cuisine has to include gumbo, which was invented by French settlers as an attempt to make bouillabaisse with “new world” ingredients. Instead of using a traditional French mirepoix of onions, celery and carrots, they employed what’s now known as the Louisiana holy trinity: onions, celery and green bell peppers. Gumbos vary by their thickening agent, specifically okra, file powder (ground sassafras leaves), or a roux. While most people think of seafood when they think of gumbo, one of our favorites, from Lafayette, employs smoked duck, pheasant and andouille sausage in a dark brown, almost black roux.
Speaking of ducks and pheasants, we can’t help but marvel at the wild bounty available in Louisiana. While Louisianians revel in the fruits of the Gulf of Mexico, many don’t realize that one of the state’s mottos is “Sportsman’s Paradise.” The sporting this slogan refers to isn’t football or baseball, but hunting and fishing. Spend a reasonable amount of time in the state, and you’ll undoubtedly come across dishes featuringvenison (especially deer sausage), duck, wild boar, even squirrel and nutria. We’re particularly fond of the traditional preparation of rabbit, pan fried with Creole mustard and served with braised greens and mashed potatoes.
Louisiana is also well known for its most abundant staple crop: rice. You can find it at almost every meal across the state. Most notable are jambalaya, a Cajun version of the Spanish dish paella, made with anything and everything, including shrimp, fish, chicken, sausage, or whatever happens to turn up in your rifle’s scope that afternoon. Most other Louisiana soups and stews, such as gumbo, shrimp or crawfish étouffée, or alligator sauce piquant, are spooned over rice. Also in Cajun country, you can find boudin, a spicy sausage made from rice, pork meat and livers, vegetables and seasoning in a natural casing. Another version of this dish, boudin balls, is breaded and deep fried as a snack.
A definite influence of Louisiana’s Spanish history can be found in the ways that its people employ ham. We’re particularly fond of tasso, a very spicy ham that’s cubed and used to flavor soups, stews and pastas. Ham is also found in many other iconic Louisiana dishes, such as the famous red beans and rice. Served every Monday, red camellia beans are soaked overnight, then slow simmered with the “holy trinity,” bay leaf, garlic and spices, and a whole ham hock, preferably smoked, as well as cubed ham and sausage.
We’ve tried to find a decent po-boy sandwich outside of the state of Louisiana, but we’re consistently disappointed. There must be something magical in the state’s air and water, especially when it comes to the “French bread,” for po-boys, which is not a traditional baguette (although it’s the same shape), but soft and chewy on the inside, with a delicate, flaky crust. Many love po-boys filled with fried shrimp, oysters, catfish or alligator, but we’re in love with roast beef long simmered in a rich, dark brown gravy, as well as hot sausage, and, new to the scene from Mahoney’s restaurant in New Orleans, a fried chicken liver po-boy with creole slaw. Whatever your favorite, make sure to order it “dressed” with mayonnaise, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and hot sauce.