My name is Omar. I'm new to posting on mmm-yoso, and I'd like to thank Kirk and Cathy for encouraging me to eat and talk about eating.
Over the holidays, my wife and I spent 8 days in Louisiana, visiting some Cajun friends near Houma (just below Thibodaux); stopped in New Orleans for the weekend; and returned to the bayou country for Christmas. Here's what we ate:
We arrived in rural Louisiana on Tuesday evening, and weren't in the house 15 minutes when our friend, Mr. Mike, laid out bowls of his seafood gumbo. We were happy to eat it for him. To Louisianans, gumbo is food, party, compliment and favor, and as prepared by Mike, who spent years buying shellfish from bayou watermen, it's a blessing.
Flavored by the "trinity" (peppers, onion and celery), Zatarain's Creole Seasoning®, smoked sausage and sweet Gulf shrimp, oysters and blue crab, Mike's gumbo is one of those dishes that you don't want to fill up on, because you don't want to stop putting that taste in your mouth. My friend, like many Cajun cooks, caramelizes his vegetables to deepen the gumbo's flavor, but doesn't "cheat" the process by adding roux, okra or filé spice. "If you want it thicker," he says, "cook it longer, or add filé from the table." For what it's worth, you can start arguments by passing this advice along to the wrong cook.
Though Mike taught me how to make the dish, I've modified the recipe, so when we get together, we often "discuss" our preferences.
The biggest difference: Mike turns out a pot of gumbo in a few hours; mine takes three days. Also, Mike uses water; I use seafood stock flavored with toasted shrimp and crab shells. A third point of contention: Mike cooks his shellfish in boiling gumbo broth and serves the dish once they've cooked through. I prefer to pull my pot off the flame when the shellfish go in, letting them cook like pho meats while the broth cools.
More about gumbo:
1. To a large pot of water, add toasted crustacean shells and heads, a few fish heads if you have 'em, bouquet garni, and some carrot and onion; let the stock simmer for several hours, then rest it overnight.
2. On the second day, strain the stock well and bring it to a slow boil. Brown your "trinity" of vegetables well, then add them and spoons of peanut butter-colored roux to the stock to deepen the liquid's flavor. Once it has a savory rich taste and a tiny bit of thickness (think very thin gravy), add browned-off smoked sausage bites (preferably andouille) and shellfish, which can include: sweet Gulf shrimp, crab , small oysters, and, if they're convenient, crawfish tails. Cut the heat under your pot, let the gumbo cool, then send the whole thing into the fridge overnight.
(n.b. Crab can include cooked claw meat, cleaned raw half-bodies, even frozen scraps from your last crab feast, but it *has* to be blue crab; neither snow, king, Dungeness, spider, rock nor any other type offers the sweet, buttery flavor the gumbo needs. You can buy live, soup-sized blue crabs at 99 Ranch or Vien Dong markets, most of the year-round.)
3. A day or two later, slowly heat some or all of your gumbo and serve it over bowls of rice. For the table, some pepper sauce (I prefer Cajun Power® Garlic Sauce, but Tabasco® or other brand will do), Creole seasoning (Zatarain's® or Tony Chachere's®), and filé spice are appropriate.
Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Mike and his wife, Ms. Ruth, drove us west towards Avery Island, where we intended to visit the Tabasco plant. Instead, we toured the Joseph Jefferson Home (circa 1870), on Jefferson Island. The 22-room mansion, "listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is surrounded by the Rip Van Winkle Gardens ... and features a fourth-story cupola, 350-year-old-oak trees, heirlooms, period paintings, rare Louisiana pieces, and fine examples of American and French Empire furniture."
Along the way, we stopped at Landry's Seafood & Steakhouse (not related to the national chain) in Jeanerette, LA for a bit of lunch. The place was all but empty, and the friendly young woman who served us seemed relieved to have company. We evaluated the lunch buffet, finding little more than fried shrimp and red beans and rice, then ordered from the menu.
Lunch along the highway is a dodgy proposition. Each of us ordered something different, and while some dishes satisfied (crawfish platter), others ranged from disappointing ("stuffed" crab) to roundly rejected (seafood gumbo).
My lunch included: crawfish au gratin (greasy, but tasty), crawfish étouffée (good flavor, but needed spicing), batter-fried crawfish tails (light and not greasy at all), cold crawfish salad (hard to mess up), crawfish bisque (wow...take some of this home!), some onion rings, and a fried crab "finger," donated by my wife. I'd stop for this plate any time I was passing by.
My wife's "stuffed" crab (what we call "deviled" crab on the East coast) looked promising on arrival. The portion was large, but the filling was gummy and over-spiced, and it was served at room temperature.
The gumbo, as mentioned, was not a hit. I enjoy playing "guess what's in here?" and this dish was too simple: "sip... water... roux... vegetables... shellfish... done." I'd guess the gumbo hadn't cooked more than an hour, and its roux tasted "black" - darkened to a tar-like consistency - a flavor that, like smoke on meat, can be wonderful if it's used cautiously. Maybe the dish would have improved by suppertime, but we didn't stick around to find out.
Landrys Seafood & Steakhouse
20371 Highway 90, Jeanerette, LA
More about crawfish bisque:
This very Cajun dish was traditionally made in late spring, at the end of crawfish season, when friends and family would gather to share the work of "cleaning" lots of crawfish heads and tails and making a very large pot of bisque. Everyone counted on taking home something for the freezer.
Boiled Blue Crabs
Back home, we talked about the day and old times, and napped a bit; as Christmas vacations went, this one was shaping up nicely. Dinner was a snack of some boiled blue crabs Mike had in the fridge. These were mediums, it not being crab season, but for people who love blue crab, volume can make up for reduced size.
In Louisiana, crabs aren't steamed, they're boiled, which prompted another recurring discussion at the table. He said that boiling gets the spice flavor into the crab meat; my wife (from Philly) and I (from Virginia) said steaming preserves the delicately sweet, buttery flavor of the crab. But, since I've never met a blue crab I didn't want to hit with a mallet, I had this conversation with Mike while plowing through the pile of sooks on the table. Everything you ever wanted to know about blue crab can be found here or there.
Fried Seafood #1
Mike, a big kidder, phoned before my trip began to say he'd run out of fish; if I wanted to do a fish fry while I visited, he said, we'd have to catch them first. I told him I was glad I hadn't asked for hamburgers.
So Thursday was Fishing Day, except it rained so much that we cancelled our trip and went Christmas shopping, instead. At lunch time I suggested Dave's Cajun Kitchen in Houma, a diner Mike and I had visited a year earlier.
Owner Dave LeBeuf provides what is a favorite sort of place for me: small (maybe 15 tables), Formica floors and vinyl tableclothes, and from the back of the dining room you can see into the kitchen. The place is jammed at lunchtime; businessmen, plumbers, bank clerks and rained-out fishermen all know that Dave's serves up good food and plenty of it.
Besides salads, gumbos and daily specials, the menu offered lots of platters, including: shrimp, fish, oyster, crawfish, crab and frog legs. I've never tried frog legs. I'm not squeamish; it's just that those things don't have enough meat on 'em to suit me.
For starters, I had a cup of shrimp and okra gumbo. Oh, that gumbo. It's the only one I've ever seen Mike smile about; the one that made him compliment a waitress, the one he came back for. It had the sweet, smoky, rich flavor you get from mixing with Gulf shrimp and andouille with a well-made roux, and the okra had been cooked down to eliminate the slime.
For my main, I ordered a platter of "stuffed" shrimp and fried oysters, and my wife had catfish and something I've only seen along the Gulf coast: fried crab "fingers". Dave's definitely knows how to fry; the dusting of seasoned flour surrounding each of my bites was perfectly crisp and without a hint of grease, and the fish and seafood each bite contained was moist and intensely flavored.
As good as my meal was, though, I should have ordered what Mike got: an oyster po-boy. Simple in design, elegant in presentation, this sandwich relies on the skill of the baker as much as it does the quality of the oysters and the fryer; great po-boy bread is lightly crusted and yeasty, soft and chewy, and hard to find done right. Dave's does it right.
Dave's Cajun Kitchen
6240 West Main Street
Houma, LA 70360
(near the corner of State Route 24 & Bellaire Dr)
Fried Seafood #2
We took Mr. Mike and Ms. Ruth to dinner Thursday night at Copeland's in Houma (apparently a franchise vs. company-owned). I hadn't been to a Copeland's in years, but the menu included a broad selection of Creole dishes, and importantly, the thick, tender juicy steak I'd been craving for a week.
What a disappointment. My ribeye was thin, tough and fatty and overcooked, and the "caramelized onions" were greasy, slightly wilted chunks of white onion. Usually, I send such a plate back and choose something else from the menu, but since I didn't want to upset my friends' meals, I picked at my food and waited for my wife to get full.
She got the seafood platter, a monster plate of fried oysters, shrimp, crawfish tails, crabcake and catfish served with onion strings, fries, corn fritters and french bread. I can't say why, but she also got some sort of twice-baked potato that she raved about all evening. I waited her out, then loaded up on "leftover" oysters and crabcake. Copeland's does know how to fry.
1534 Martin Luther King Blvd.
Houma, LA 70360
More about Copeland, the man:
The chain was started by 63 year-old Al Copeland (also founder of Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits), a riotous character famous in New Orleans for: getting rich, going bankrupt, recovering nicely, brawling, getting married a lot, and prompting the Louisiana Supreme Court to rule that he does not have an inalienable right to burn as many Christmas lights as he likes.