I’ve just returned from a frantic visit to New Orleans. I’ve returned to Toronto less than 72 hours after I left.
Short trips like these barely count as visiting a place. On top of the limited duration, a busy work schedule often mandates activities from early in the morning through late in the evening. I did have the chance to explore the French Quarter and try some of the food but it was hardly enough to make me any type of authority on what the food is like or recommend where to eat. I do know that I’d like to head back and the people of New Orleans were fabulous.
I also learned what some may see as a very obvious lesson: I’ve never had gumbo, jambalaya or any other food from Louisiana before. I’ve had items on menus that claim to be those things but they have fallen dreadfully short. This observation isn’t uncommon when traveling but the level of disparity between what I ate in Louisiana and what I had there was as drastic as only two other foods I recall: baguettes in France and Pizza in Italy.
The biggest difference in my limited opportunity (which unfortunately did not allow for a visit of any of the local/ slow food restaurants which do offer alternatives from typical expectations) was the sheer abundance of flavor that was packed into every bite. It’s far from subtle. It’s my belief that most places trying to simulate such flavors here wouldn’t dare to go so intense with the fear that they would alienate people from liking it. The food is intense, often spiced and absolutely wonderful.
I really fell in love with Etouffee. Think of it as shellfish gravy (apologies for butchering my description to any locals; I am certainly no expert on this awesome dish). It may not sound that appealing on the surface but it’s absolutely awesome. The base generally starts with a roux (flour and butter) or butter only and is heavily spiced with cayenne, paprika, dried garlic, onion flakes, pepper and salt. Some start with the holy trinity of celery, onions and green peppers and many add other herbs – dried or fresh. Like so many things in the world of food, each place has it’s own way and the claim that they are doing it the right way or the best way. I found it delicious any way I could have it.
And this leads me to my problem with search engines and food. A search for ‘Etouffee’ (there are several alternate spellings though the pronunciation is ‘A two FAY’) will bring up the most popular recipes for the sauce. That popularity is often on the back of 1000′s of recipes from a mega archive of 1000′s of recipes. Those mega sites (and sites like ours) benefit from the volume of articles they have to steer us to their pages – but specialty food like this can be tough to find done well. We’ve been able to bridge this gap by using social tools like Facebook and Twitter to find people in areas such as New Orleans that can share their recommendations (I was spoiled with a list of suggestions from our FaceBook Group) to cut through the clutter of the mega-sites but am still looking for other ways to push my knowledge of their authentic cooking techniques. With cuisine this great, I am willing to do some extra homework.
The trip has really inspired me to examine herb and spice combinations that I haven’t tried before and try to dig deeper than the first page or two of a search engine. I think of them as compound spices – flavors made my specific combinations of herbs and spices. I want to pursue these with new vigor – starting with etoufee but exploring other cultures as well (I’ve been meaning to make curry powder for a long time and I think that it’s about time I get on that!).
Ideally I’d like to dry the ingredients myself and share the recipes with you as we go. We’d also love to hear about your favorites and successes.
In the meantime, I’m beginning my research with an inferior cheat:
These are the first pre-mixed spices (other than curry) that I’ve bought in years. They’ll give us a jump start to see what we like about each and what we want to alter. While these seasonings probably taste decent, the ingredient list reads more like a science experiment than our typical meal. But you have to start somewhere so we’ll see if these get the ball rolling.
In the meantime, we’ll be actively looking for authentic sources of recipe inspiration and spice combinations – both from New Orleans and elsewhere. We’ll share those sources (they will be the real experts) and welcome your suggestions as well.
In the summer we’re going to have to do some extra dehydration – including some items that we haven’t tried before (like bell peppers, celery and smoked peppers) as well as some of our favorites (garlic, onions, celeriac, hot peppers, mushrooms and more).
What compound spices/ recipes do you adore? What resources do you use to find recipes for authentic flavor combinations? What do you want to learn to make?