In April, I attended a conference in New Orleans. It was my first trip back since Hurricane Katrina, and I’m pleased to say, New Orleans is looking good. Of course, the French and Spanish built above sea level, so the French Quarter and Garden District weren’t hit all that hard, compared to a few of the sprawling, below-sea-level suburbs.
Restaurants were among the first businesses to be up and running after Katrina. (In talking to a few restaurateurs, I learned that many were back in business three weeks after the hurricane.) ‘Cause NOLA is all about eating well, so you have to get the restaurants running.
New Orleans has some of the country’s oldest restaurants. Antoine’s was opened in 1840, Tujagues started up in 1856, and Galatoire’s dates to 1905. You can dine in the places that originated some of the country’s greatest dishes: Brennan’s, which created bananas Foster; K-Paul, where blackened redfish was invented; the Central Grocery, home of the original muffuletta sandwich; and Antoine’s, which introduced oysters Rockefeller and pompano en papillote. (Though even the places that aren’t famous are generally great, as well.) Dine on Cajun and Creole classics. Stop to buy pralines. Or just sit and watch the crowds pass by as you sip chicory-laced coffee and eat beignets at Café du Monde.
On my previous visit, I’d hit the Commander’s Palace (one of the best restaurants in the country), Brennan’s, Palace Café, Antoine’s, K-Paul, and Central Grocery. In April, I tried Emeril’s and Galatoire’s. Highlights of these recent meals were the braised pork-belly salad with citrus slaw at Emeril’s and the crab sardou (crab and hollandaise on a base of artichoke heart and spinach) and café brulot (flaming coffee, spice, and brandy beverage) at Galatoire’s.
Of course, there is more to do than eat in New Orleans. The area’s rich history offers delightful ways to spend any time not occupied with dining. There are wonderful museums (one that I particularly enjoyed was the Pharmacy Museum, housed in the country’s first compounding pharmacy). You can stop by the Napoleon House for a drink (Pimm’s Cup is traditional) in the building that was to be Napoleon’s home, had the Louisiana French succeeded in rescuing him from St. Helena. There are delightful historic homes to tour. And it’s a great town for just hiking around looking. Plus day trips can take you to bayou country, to feed the ’gators, or to splendid plantations.
I did all of that my first time in New Orleans. This time, I was in town for a convention. But I managed to fit in a fair bit of wandering one day, a tour of a historic home, and two great restaurants. However, because the convention was for food professionals, even at the convention, there was lots of good Nawlins cooking, from a class on étouffée with Emeril Lagasse to a panel on Cajun boudin to an overview (with samples) of all foods indigenous to the region.
One of the nights of the convention, we had a “Gumbo Giveback”—an opportunity to sample some of the many varieties of New Orleans gumbo and support the rebuilding of New Orleans. From Paul Prudhomme, I learned that potato salad is a delightful alternative to rice, when serving gumbo, and just as traditional. (Ladle the soup over a scoop of potato salad, just as you would ladle it over a scoop of rice.) Among the delights we enjoyed at the Giveback were seafood gumbo, duck-and-andouille gumbo, chicken gumbo, and a new gumbo I’d never seen before—gumbo z’herbes. Gumbo z’herbes is pretty dramatically different from other gumbos, but this thick green gumbo, which combines a wide array of greens, is a delicious alternative. The z’herbes in the name is a corruption of the French aux herbes, which just means “of greens.” Enjoy.
3 Tbs. vegetable oil, butter, lard, or bacon fat
1 ham hock, about 2 pounds
2 medium onions, chopped
6-8 fat cloves of garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
5 bunches assorted greens, chopped (see Notes below)
½ small head of green cabbage, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped (including most of the green)
2 quarts chicken broth
2 Tbs. vinegar
Salt and pepper
2-3 Tbs. filé powder, or to taste
Cooked white rice for serving with the gumbo
Cut several ½-inch-deep slits across the ham hock. In a large stockpot (10 or 12 quarts is good), heat the fat or oil. Add the ham hock and onions, and cook for 10 minutes, until the onions are softened and the slits in the ham hock have begun to open up. Stir in the garlic, bay leaves, thyme, and cayenne pepper. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chopped greens, cabbage, parsley, and green onions. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until some of the greens begin to wilt. Pour in the chicken broth and vinegar. Increase the heat to high. Stir frequently, to make sure all the greens spend some time in the broth, until the greens have gotten soft enough to all be in the liquid. When all the greens are in the liquid and the broth boils, reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 2½ hours, or until the greens are really tender. Stir occasionally, and check to make sure it isn’t bubbling too hard. (If you boil it the whole time, too much liquid will cook off.)
Remove the ham hock and cut the meat off the bone. Cut up the meat and add it to the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper (though, with the ham hock, and if you used broth with salt, you may not need salt). Stir in the filé powder just before serving. (You don’t want to let the gumbo boil after you add the filé.) Ladle the gumbo over a scoop of hot rice in a large bowl.
Traditional greens from which to select include collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, spinach, watercress, chicory, beet tops, carrot tops, or radish tops. As I worked on developing this recipe, I found that, for greens that weren’t available fresh, frozen was acceptable. I used fresh as much as possible, but turnip greens and mustard greens were much easier to find in 1-lb. bags in the freezer case.
A 1-lb. bag is a little more than you’d get if you chopped up a bunch, but not enough more to affect the recipe. If you use two or more bags of frozen greens, add another cup of broth or water, to compensate for the fact that frozen greens aren’t going to be quite as juicy as fresh. If you’re going to use collard greens, fold the leaf in half down the middle and cut off the heavy spine before using. Collards are pretty tough, so cut them up a bit smaller than, say, watercress or spinach.
My favorite combo ended up being spinach, turnip greens, mustard greens, collard greens, watercress and spinach. This, along with the cabbage and parsley, gives you seven greens, which is considered lucky in New Orleans. The greens take up a lot of space when fresh, which is why you need a large pot to start.
Filé powder is available at most grocery stores. It is an ingredient introduced by the Choctaw Indians to early New Orleans settlers. It’s made from pounded sassafras leaves. It has a slight thickening effect, but it also has a strongly herbal flavor— something a bit like oregano. If you don’t want to buy filé, the flavor of the gumbo won’t be quite the same, but it will still be great. However, if you want to try it, filé will make your gumbo more authentic.