Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Pour the Original New Orleans Cocktail--The Sazerac

Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook includes everything New Orleans, including the city's most famous cocktails. Perhaps the oldest recipe among them is the Sazerac, a rye whiskey-based drink that is flavored with Peychaud's bitters and Herbsaint anisette liqueur on page 401.

Chuck Taggart of Gumbo Pages had this to say about the Sazerac experience:
This is an absolutely exquisite cocktail. As you sip it, you come across layer after layer of flavor -- the warmth and glowing burn of the rye, effused with the flavors of spice and honey, the bite of the bitters balanced with the sweetness of the sugar, with the subtle yet complex flavor of the anise underneath and the perfume of the lemon oil from the twist feel like a symphony inside your mouth. This is also a drink that warms up well, revealing even more flavors. Sip it very slowly. Savor it. Take your time with it.
In the 1830s, a Creole apothecary by the name of Antoine Amadie Peychaud came from the Caribbeans and set up his shop in the French Quarter. Using a family recipe, he created Peychaud bitters which he would dispense to his fellow citizens in a brandy-based beverage with a splash of water and some sugar. Many assume that the way the drink was served, in an egg cup called coquetier, led to the name cocktail, but Robert Hess of Spirit World in a post dated May 29, 2006, shoots down this theory, pointing out that the word "cocktail" had been in existence since at least 1803.

The drink quickly became a staple in the city's coffee houses (read: Bars). At Wikipedia, it's stated that in 1859, John Schiller opened the Sazerac Coffee House in the French Quarter. Schiller also had a sideline in the sales of a French cognac called Sazerac-de-forge et fils and he used this brandy with Peychaud's bitters. The drink eventually came to be known by the name of the coffee house where it was served.

The drink underwent a change in 1870. A gentleman by the name of Thomas Handy took over the Sazerac Coffee House. With changing tastes and a new difficulty in getting cognac, rye whiskey became the base of the drink. Handy formed the Sazerac Company as well, buying the Peychaud Family's bitters recipe along with the bar. An absinthe coating of the glass was introduced at this time as well, the final evolution of the drink we know today.

While Hurricanes are the drink most commonly associated with the city of New Orleans, Chuck Taggart observes that "Hurricanes are for tourists. Sazeracs are for natives." The Sazerac is viewed as the quintessential New Orleans cocktail and was under consideration for the title of official cocktail of the State of Louisiana. On April 10, 2008, The Daily Illini in a post from the AP newswire reported that an effort had been made by Senator Ed Murray to declare the drink the official state cocktail. Due to concerns of the state's image, the Louisiana State Senate voted the legislation down in a vote of 27-8.

While not officially recognized, the people of New Orleans hold the drink close to their hearts. Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook advises using Old Overholt rye whiskey in preparing the Sazerac.

Gumbo Pages: "The Original Sazerac Cocktail"
The Spirit World: "Sazerac" 05/29/06
Wikipedia: "Sazerac (cocktail)" 04/09/08
The Daily Illini: "Odds and Ends: Senate Rejects Bill Making Sazerac Official La. Cocktail" 04/10/08
photo courtesy of Lee Coursey, used under this Creative Commons license

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Oysters Rockefeller

With the abundance of oysters available to the New Orleans chef, it's no surprise that Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook features more than 10 recipes starring this fruit of the sea. Among the most famous of oyster dishes is Oysters Rockefeller, which is featured on page 80.

Oysters Rockefeller was created in 1899 by a New Orleans chef named Jules Alciatore. His great grandson, Roy F. Guste, Jr., writes at that his ancestor created the dish after having difficulty procuring the necessary European snails for cooking. Being unable to get the desired snails, Alciatore decided to look closer to home for a more reliable supply of product, choosing gulf oysters as his substitute. He created a rich sauce that was green in color and in naming the dish, chose the name Rockefeller as an exemplar of "rich." At the time the dish was created, John D. Rockefeller was the famous robber baron of Standard Oil Company and at the height of his fame as a capitalist and philanthropist.

Rockefeller came from humble beginnings, first getting his start in business acting as an assistant bookkeeper for Hewitt and Tuttle, produce shippers and commission merchants in 1855. The Rockefeller Archive's biography tells us that Rockefeller became involved in oil refinery in 1863 with partners Maurice Clark and Samuel Andrews. In 1870, Rockefeller and assorted partners created Standard Oil Company with the company being organized into a trust in 1882. By the 1890s, it's estimated that Standard Oil owned 75% of the petroleum business in America. According to's study of the richest people in history, when Rockefeller retired from active leadership of Standard Oil in 1896, its estimated his fortune was worth around $200 million.

His tendency to philanthropy was there from his earliest days in business when he would tithe 10% of his paycheck to the church. lists his many philanthropic enterprises. He favored educational and public health causes as well as basic sciences and the arts. While he gave money to recognized institutions such as Harvard, Columbia, Vassar and Yale, he also helped small colleges become major institutions such as the University of Chicago which started life as a small baptist college and became a world-class university by 1900 with Rockefeller's help.

While a northerner, his programs had great impact in the South. In 1884, he was the major financial backer for an Atlanta college for African-American women that became Spelman College. In 1902, he created the General Education Board. Designed to help education at all levels across the country, its biggest impact was in the pioneering schools for African-Americans in the South. His 1909 Rockefeller Sanitary Commission was a key component in wiping out hookworm disease in the South.

While he gave huge donations throughout his life, totalling about $550 million dollars, he was noted for his more playful habit of giving out dimes to children though he switched to nickels during the Great Depression. Cheekily, he even passed dimes to President Herbert Hoover and fellow mogul Harvey Firestone.

While some recipes call for a puree of green vegetables to create the green-colored sauce, Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook uses spinach to give the dish its signature color. "The Real Oysters Rockefeller"
The Rockefeller Archive: "John D. Rockefeller" 09/97 "Richest People in History: John D. Rockefeller"
Wikipedia: "John D. Rockefeller" 04/28/08
photo courtesy of zzzack, used under this Creative Commons license

Monday, April 28, 2008

Meet the Man Behind the Book: Ralph Brennan

According to his profile at the Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook website, Ralph Brennan is a third-generation restaurateur who entered the restaurant business after a stint as a CPA for Price Waterhouse and Company. It's stated that his grandfather, Owen Edward Brennan, opened the first of the family's many restaurants in 1947, which quickly became a popular eatery of the French Quarter scene. Since that time, the Brennan Family legacy of fine food has only increased, composing 12 restaurants owned by different branches of the family. Among Ralph's restaurants are Bacco, Ralph's on the Park, Red Fish Grill and Disneyland's Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen. He also co-owns Mr. B's Bistro, Commander's Palace and Brennan's of Houston.

His love of fine food has garnered Ralph the laurels of success. Among his many awards are the The International Foodservice Manufacturers Association's Gold Plate Operator of the Year for 2004 as well as his 2005 induction into the Louisiana Restaurant Association's Hall of Fame. But along with his love of food is his love of the city he calls home: New Orleans. He chooses to open restaurants in historic structures which are lovingly renovated. Among them are Ralph's on the Park which is located in a structure identified as the first concession stand opened at City Park in 1860 and Commander's Palace which has been a restaurant since 1880.

His current project, Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook, has been garnering rave reviews. Ironically, this book may never have happened had Ralph not had his first oyster as a teenager. With his father very allergic to seafood, Ralph was raised on a diet of steaks and potatoes. In a piece at by Judy Walker, he states:
"I was in high school when some older guys invited me to play golf with them," Brennan said. After their round they went to Bozo's, where a couple of beers helped the first oyster, perched on a cracker, go down." I said 'That isn't bad,' and had a couple more," he said.
The spark of inspiration for a cookbook was lit when Charlee Williamson, VP of Ralph Brennan's Restaurant Group, overheard food writer John Mariani comment that the definitive seafood cookbook has yet to be done. At in an article by Emilie Bahr, Ralph states the idea floated around in his head for about five years before he began to bring together his team of talent for the project. Originally projected to take about two years, the project took four, largely due to Hurricane Katrina. He had this to say about his cookbook:
“What makes this different is it’s not just a restaurant cookbook,” Brennan said. “I think it will have a broader appeal. We also wanted to make a statement. Seafood is very, very important to our cuisines here, to the people that live here.”
Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook: "Ralph Brennan and The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group" 2008 "Seafood city: New Orleans Recipes Abound in Ralph Brennan's Cookbook" 04/17/08
New Orleans City Business: "Ralph Brennan Serves Up Seafood Cookbook" 04/08/08

Photo by Kerri McCaffety. Copyright by The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, April 25, 2008

It's Friday! Who Wants Pizza?

If there is one dish nearly everyone can agree on enjoying, it's pizza. And Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook is ready to please with a Crawfish Pizza with Pancetta and Roasted Garlic on page 249. In the introduction, it's stated that "cooks in South Louisiana never seem to run out of ways to cook crawfish, so the appearance of a crawfish pizza was probably inevitable." Inevitable indeed, as pizza and it's variations have been prepared since Neolithic times.

According to Linda Stradley's, the dish has been prepared since the Stone Age and was baked beneath the stones of the fire. Having the toppings on top of the bread permitted people to enjoy the dish without the need of plates or utensils. In Virgil's The Aeneid, one stanza refers to the devouring of cakes of flour:

Their homely fare dispatch’d, the hungry band

Invade their trenchers next, and soon devour,
To mend the scanty meal, their cakes of flour.
Ascanius this observ’d, and smiling said:
“See, we devour the plates on which we fed.”

Pizza as we know it today, with its rich tomato sauce, developed after tomatoes were brought back from South America. At, it's stated that tomatoes, initially viewed as poisonous by Europeans, began to be eaten in the late 1600s. Peasants in Naples, Italy, began to use tomatoes on their herbed bread about this time. Queen Maria Carolina (1752-1814), wife of Ferdinando IV, King of Naples, enjoyed pizza so much that she arranged to have a pizza oven installed at their summer palace at Capodimonte.

According to a history written by Cliff Lowe at, pizza became the break-out food of 1889 when Queen Margherita, wife of Umberto I, became curious about the flat-bread dish the peasants dined on. She horrified members of her decorous court when she became a fan of the peasant dish, though the common people embraced her for it. She ordered a local pizza chef, Rafaelle Esposito, to the palace to bake a selection of pizzas for her dining pleasure. In her honor, he created the Pizza Margherita that commemorated the Italian flag with its colors of red (tomato sauce), white (mozzarella cheese) and green (basil), which is still a popular dish to this day.

The dish came to America in the late 1800s with the arrival of Italian immigrants. It remained a dish associated with the Italian community until the end of WWII, though pizzerias opened in New York City and Chicago prior to the war. American servicemen became fans of the dish while stationed in Italy and sought it out after the war ended.

Today, the pizza is entrenched in our culinary culture with 23 pounds consumed annually by the average American and its own holiday, International Pizza Day on February 9. The Guinness Book of World Records credits a 100-feet and one inch diameter pizza made in Havana, Florida, as the largest pizza made and consumed.

With New Orleans chefs' tendency to put its own spin on recipes, it's only natural that an enterprising chef jumped at a chance to put local seafood on pizza. "History & Legends of Pizza" 2004 "Pizza Facts and History" 2003 "Pizza History"
photo courtesy of bucklava, used under this Creative Commons license

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Use That Stale Bread

Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook features a recipe that uses stale ingredients -- bread, in this case -- to make a Praline Bread Pudding with Praline Creme Anglaise and Caramel Sauce. The recipe, on page 282 in the "Desserts and Dessert Sauces" chapter, uses a water bath for the baking of it and calls for a nine- or ten-inch piece of day-old French bread. The praline creme anglaise sauce can be prepared with praline liqueur -- or not, as the home chef desires.

The Food Timeline site by Lynn Olver has an extensive history of pudding. Most likely developed as a way to use stale bread and extend food resources, it has gradually evolved from the Middle Ages into the desserts of today. An excerpt from the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani suggests a Roman origin to the dish:
"The word seems to derive from the Old French boudin, (sausage), and, ultimately, from the Latin botelinus, for many puddings were a form of encased meat or innards. The earliest examples of this word in English refer to such dishes. Dr. Johnson's Dictionary (1755) defines the word as a "kind of food very variously compounded, but generally made of meal, milk, and eggs."
Mark R. Vogel of dates the creation of bread puddings to the 13th Century. Bread was soaked in water or milk and was seasoned with sugar and suet with fruits or spices adding flavor then baked. Sometimes these ingredients would be placed in the center of a hollowed out piece of bread called a "sop." French variations called for the bread to be prepared with milk, eggs, raisins, rum and oranges. Today's bread puddings are made by pouring custard over cubed bread and baking.

Stephanie Jaworski's includes in its history of bread pudding a discussion of the use of water baths in its preparation. It's necessary in order to protect more delicate recipes from burning, drying out or curdling (where a milk or egg mixture breaks down into its liquid and solid parts.)

Ian McNulty of has this to say about bread pudding:
"When most bread goes stale it gets tossed in the trash or fed to the birds. But for some lucky loaves, going stale is just the beginning of a transformation into bread pudding - the ambrosial dessert that is a mainstay finale at Creole restaurants across New Orleans."
He credits bread pudding's popularity to the bread itself. The bread soaks up any sauce it is presented with, infusing the dish with further flavor, and its softer texture makes a nice contrast to the pecans, raisins or walnuts that often top the dish. Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook's version of the recipe is topped with a pecan and brown sugar crumble.

The Food Timeline: "Puddings" 06/10/07
Reluctant Gourmet: "How to Make a Delicious Bread Pudding"
Joy of Baking: "Bread Pudding" "Proof in the Bread Pudding--
Chefs Add Variety to New Orleans' Classic Dessert" 2006

photo courtesy of FotoDawg, used under this Creative Commons license

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Seafood is Best... Fresh

After sampling the Shrimp and Bacon en Brochettes during the launch party for Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook I had to try this recipe at home. (That's an image of the passed party appetizers above.) Since it was such a crowd pleaser at the party my boyfriend and I opted to test out the recipe as a main course instead of the appetizer option.

Unfortunately our first attempt at preparing this recipe was delayed. Due to deadlines and a busy weekend schedule we bought the shrimp a day ahead of time. Rule number one... read the instructions about checking freshness and quality in the Seafood Cook's Manual at the beginning of this book.

"The best measure of freshness for store-bought shrimp, raw or cooked, is their smell. The fresh ones carry a clean, rather astringent smell with no unpleasant 'fishy' odors..." (Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook, pg. 38)

Had I remembered this tip on checking freshness I would have insisted that the clerk let me smell the shrimp before sealing them in the take-away bag. However, I relied on the reputation of the store to provide quality seafood.

We began to prep the next day and pulled out the shrimp, which were very fishy smelling. Now, it may have been the day-long delay from purchase to cooking time which ruined these shrimp, however typically store-bought seafood should last for a day if refridgerated.

So my advice to readers... become familiar with the ways to safely select, store and prepare seafood. The section in Ralph Brennan's cookbook called "A Seafood Cook's Manual" offers an excellent array of tips and methods for safely securing and preparing seafood for consumption. Keep these instructions in mind when you head to the store and use this section even when you're making seafood recipes from other cookbooks.

As for my attempt at Ralph's Shrimp and Bacon en Brochettes, you'll have to check in on the blog later for an update. This seafood scandal didn't dissuade me from testing the recipe, it's just delayed the process a bit. I'll keep you posted.

Photo: Courtesy of

Potatoes Pontalba

With New Orleans chefs' tendency to commemorate great events and important personages, it's not surprising that the Baroness Micaela Almonester Pontalba numbers among those so remembered. On page 341 of Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook in the "Accompaniments, Etc." chapter, the Baroness receives her due. Potatoes Pontalba is a homey, comfort-food dish made with cubed potatoes, onion, garlic and tasso (a spicy, dry-cured ham traditional in Cajun cooking) and makes a wonderful side dish to the main courses featured in the cookbook.

At, it's stated that Micaela Almonester, born in 1795, was the daughter of a genteelly poor Creole mother and Spanish-born father by the name of Andres Almonestera y Roxas. Roxas established a large fortune in New Orleans during the late 1700s and contributed large sums of money to establish today's St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo and the Presbytere. He also left his daughter the land bordering Jackson Square where Micaela built the Pontalba buildings during the later 1840s. The buildings were a sensation, both for their beauty and utility as well as being built by a woman at the center of a notorious scandal.

At the age of 15, Micaela married a French cousin by the name of Clestin de Pontalba and moved to France. A New York Times article written August 31, 1997, by Angeline Goreau tells the tale of a troubled marriage complete with meddling in-laws, greed and violence. Her in-laws' constant maneuvering to take control of her finances finally exploded into violence and scandal October 19, 1834:
". . . on the morning of Oct. 19, the 80-year-old Baron de Pontalba, dueling pistols in hand, burst into the sleeping quarters of his 40-year-old daughter-in-law (the future Baroness de Pontalba) and fired three shots into her chest. Perceiving that she was wounded but not yet dead, he pursued her through several rooms of their country estate, repeatedly shooting - but missing. Finally, he gave up, rewrote his will in favor of a military school and killed himself."
The murder attempt eventually led to the Baroness' separation and she returned to New Orleans. Bill Thayer's website has an article from the Louisiana Historical Quarterly by Henry Renshaw that details the Baroness' quest to build the Pontalba buildings on the land inherited from her father. Emphasizing her family's ties to Jackson Square is the fact that the Battle of New Orleans was fought on her uncle Ignace Delino de Chalmette's plantation.

After completing the buildings, she returned to France and (eventually) her husband, dying at the age of 78 in 1874. "Micaela Almonester Pontalba: The Baroness of Extremes " 2006
New York Times: "A Spectacular Mess of a Marriage" 08/31/97
Bill Thayer's Website: "Jackson Square by Henry Renshaw"
photo courtesy of David Paul Ohmer, used under this Creative Commons license

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Fishy Returns Anticipated in Lake Pontchartrain

Part of the appeal of Louisiana is the variety of hunting and fishing opportunities available to both locals and tourists, providing the base that New Orleans' culinary habits are built on. While Hurricane Katrina played havoc with the coastal environment, it has also permitted an opportunity for residents and policy makers alike to change their approach and look at new ideas for the rebuilding of environmental assets.

A Times-Picayune article dated April 20, 2008, by Christine Harvey reports that a new proposal has been presented by Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana (CCA) to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development requesting that rubble from the old I-10 bridge span be used in Lake Pontchartrain to build two new artificial barrier reefs:
"The reefs would measure an acre each and be midway between I-10 and the U.S. 11 bridge, which links Irish Bayou in eastern New Orleans and Eden Isles south of Slidell. . . The project would mimic shell reefs found in nature and give marine life, such as oysters and clams, a hard surface to attach themselves to, John Walther Walther, a volunteer coordinator with CCA Louisiana's reef restoration and building program said. Their presence is invaluable for the food chain, as they attract more fish to the area, he said."
The Coastal Conservation Association has sponsored 3 other artificial reef projects, the most recent being a reef constructed in Calcasieu Lake. According to the CCA, the 1.5-acre reef is located 20 yards from Turner's Bay Island and was designed to protect the small island from erosion and enhance fishing in the area. The reef attracts oyster beds, which helps in both cleaning the water and attracting other fish to the area. Chas Drost claims that he has noticed an increase in the number of fish being caught at the site this spring.

The St. Tammany Parish Government website has a news release dated April 4, 2008, regarding the proposed projects. While reef restoration is part of the proposal, it also includes a plan to use 2000 feet of the west twin span as a fishing pier. Anticipated returns on the project are expected to be seen within two year's time. “Reefs and bridges make great fishing locations,” says Parish Environmentalist Brian Fortson. “The combination of these two projects in Lake Pontchartrain will create an excellent fishing environment.”

All in all, it's safe to say that Louisiana's rich bounty of seafood is well-protected for chefs and gastronomes to continue to enjoy in the future.

SOURCE: "Proposal would turn rubble into reef" 04/20/08
SOURCE: "CCA builds new reef to protect Turner’s Bay Island in Calcasieu Lake" 09/17/07
SOURCE: "New Angles Proposed for Recreational Fishing" 04/04/08
photo courtesy of diongillard, used under this Creative Commons license

Monday, April 21, 2008

On Today's Menu: Sauteed Frog Legs

If the home chef is feeling adventurous, Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook is able to take one on an unforgettable culinary cruise. Sauteed frog legs with wilted baby spinach and creamer potatoes, on page 263, is one of the more unique recipes in the cookbook. In the notes, it's suggested that the best quality legs are domestic frogs, most of which are from Florida. If using frozen legs, it's best that the meat is used as soon as it is thawed as this meat has a short shelf-life of a day or two.

The modern history of this dish begins in the 1880s. At, a short history of Rayne, LA, is presented by Amy Snyder about the city known as the "Frog Capitol of the World." A gourmet chef called Donat Pucheu began to ship bullfrogs to restaurants in New Orleans. As time went on French businessmen, the Brothers Weill, arranged to export the delicacy to restaurants around the world including Sardi's in New York City.

In the cookbook, it's stated that Chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier (The Chef of Kings and the King of Chefs) introduced the dish to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales in the early 1900s while running the Carlton Hotel's kitchens. In order to slip the dish onto the menu, Escoffier renamed it as the more appealing "cuisses de nymphes aurore" or "thighs of the dawn nymphs," rather than frog thighs.

By the mid 1900s, Rayne has stopped the exportation of bullfrogs. According to, Bangladesh became a major exporter of frogs for a time but later banned exporting frogs because the heavy cultivation of frogs led to an increase of the fly population. Insecticides proved to be too costly to be practical so the frog population was kept at home, catching flies.

While the modern diner views frog legs as a delicacy, an archaeological dig in the Czech Republic revealed the remains of 893 frog bones, most of them the bones of thighs, the meatiest part of the frog. Salvador Bailon, a leading expert of frogs in history, revealed in an article by Rossella Lorenzi that, "Everything seems to confirm that frog consumption was merely an opportunistic choice at that time." Neolithic Czechs tended to hunt frogs in the months of March or April:
Those months see the height of mating activity, when frogs tend to gather in great numbers and can be easily captured. "The frogs could have been simply gathered directly from the pond, or ... other more specialised methods could have been used, such as ground traps during their migration or by fishing on a line and hook," writes Rene Kysely, an archaeologist of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The mild and pleasant flavor of the frog, comparable to other white meats, makes this unconventional dish an elegant surprise. Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook suggests serving this with a soup or salad to make a complete meal.

Exploratorium: "Frog City: Rayne, LA"
Food Reference Website: "Frogs & Frog Legs"
ABC: "Stone Age Europeans Ate Frogs' Legs" 06/27/07
photo courtesy of mbloore, used under this Creative Commons license

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Walker Weighs In...

While restaurant, food and cookbook critics nationwide will be commenting on Ralph Brennan's cookbook the most anticipated reviews are those from New Orleans. In creating this cookbook the Ralph Brennan team sought to capture the essence of seafood cooking beyond their restaurants and across the city... no small feat in a celebrated culinary community known for spectacular seafood dishes.

Judy Walker, Restaurant and Food Editor for The Times-Picayune New Orleans' daily newspaper, evaluates the book in "Seafood City: New Orleans Recipes Abound in Ralph Brennan's Cookbook"

Walker's story headlined the newspapers' living section this week and shares the story behind the cookbook... from Ralph's first New Orleans experiences with seafood to compiling a book through the challenges of Hurricane Katrina. The review supports the cookbook and it's comprehensive coverage of local seafood.

Following Walker's post-Katrina commitment to share recipes from New Orleans the article lists several recipes from the cookbook:
- Crabmeat and avocado with spicy vinaigrette
- Louisiana seafood boil
- Grilled redfish and crabmeat with lemon-butter sauce

We thank Judy Walker for sharing the story behind Ralph Brennan's first cookbook and look forward to hearing what other locals have to say about the book.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Take Off With Pompano en Papillotes

New Orleans has long been known as a capitol of fine dining, where all the senses are shamelessly indulged with the aromatic food attractively presented among background music of fine silver ringing against even finer china. Showy presentation in the finer dining establishments of the city still reign supreme and Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook can help the home chef make a showy presentation as well. On page 176 is a recipe for Pompano en Papillotes with crab butter sauce.

Preparation en papillotes means preparing and serving a dish in a paper case. During the cooking process, the paper case puffs up from the steam, making a delightful surprise for the diner to discover upon opening. The traditional sauce, made with a white wine base, has been updated to a savory crab butter sauce. This particular recipe was created in the early 1900s to honor Brazilian-born aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.

Wikipedia has an excellent history of the aero-pioneer. Santos-Dumont was born the sixth of eight children to a coffee plantation owner, a French-born engineer who created various labor-saving devices on his plantation. After his father fell ill in 1891, the family relocated to France where 18-year old Santos-Dumont went to Paris in order to continue his studies in physics, chemistry, mechanics and electricity.

In the late 1890s, Santos-Dumont became interested in flight, taking balloon rides and moving on to learning how to pilot the balloons themselves. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics recounts his flight career in great detail. While his first balloon, the Brazil was successful, achieving flight with a payload of about 114 pounds in 1898. His second balloon, the America, won first prize from the Aero Club of Paris study of atmospheric currents and stayed afloat for 22 hours. He went on to design and fly dirigibles and planes. He retired from flying in 1910 after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and later committed suicide in 1932 in his native Brazil.

His flying exploits made Santos-Dumont a celebrity. To this day, debate rages over whether Santos-Dumont or the Wright brothers were the first to fly an airplane. He delighted Parisians by dropping into Paris by way of his flying machines to have a coffee or greet state officials. He is also credited as being the inspiration for the male wristwatch. During a celebratory dinner after a successful flight in 1904, Santos-Dumont complained to his friend, Louis Cartier about the difficulty of timing his flights using the traditional pocket watch during flight. Cartier responded with the creation of a watch mounted on a leather band and fastened by a metal buckle, which Santos-Dumont wore on all his future flights.

Santos-Dumont was passionate about the future of flight. He felt that advances in air travel heralded a new era of prosperity for mankind. Acting on his convictions, he released his plans for the Demoiselle monoplane to the general public for free. It was published in America by the magazine Popular Mechanics in June 1910.

In a New York Times article (pdf) published April 11, 1902, celebrating his arrival in America, it's stated that, "He wants no patents, cares not who imitates his machine, invites competition, and is willing to spend his money, but will not consent to display his achievements without influential backing."

The airy Pampano en Papillotes are a perfect tribute to this innovator of flight who delighted the hearts of New Orleanians.

Wikipedia: "Alberto Santos-Dumont" 04/14/08
AIAA: "Alberto Santos-Dumont" 2008
New York Times: "Santos-Dumont Arrives" 04/11/1902
photo courtesy of Brianfit, used under this Creative Commons license

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Devilishly Divine Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake is a southern recipe dating to 1902 and is usually frosted with butter roux icing or cream cheese buttercream icing. Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook has a Creole version of red velvet cake on page 308. Rather than a traditional flat-cake presentation, this sponge cake is rolled up into a spiral with a layer of white chocolate mousse inside and drizzled with a cafe-brulot inspired creme anglaise that is simply delicious to contemplate.

While most research shows that the dessert is most likely of southern origin, its been strongly associated with the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City due to urban legend. According to, the legend has it that a lady asked for the cake recipe from the hotel and was charged $100 for it. In revenge, she in turn handed out free copies of the recipe to her friends and acquaintances. But a search of restaurant archives produced no records whatsoever proving that the restaurant developed this cake.

This myth was probably reinforced by the media printing articles referring to it. At The Big Apple website by foodie Barry Popik, a full history of the cake along with reprints of articles featuring the cake is available. Many versions of the recipe dated from the 1950s are identified as Waldorf red cake. An article published in the Hillsboro, OH Press-Gazette in May 1959 had this to say about the cake:

This is a $300.00 recipe! Yes, that price was actually paid for it, and you are getting it free! It seems that two young ladies were served this cake when eating at a Chicago hotel one day, and since it was a bit unusual they asked if they might have the recipe. The hotel obliged, and asked them to write down their names and addresses. A short time later they received a bill for $300 and after going to court about it, the verdict was made that they were obligated to pay the bill.

At Wikipedia, it's said that earlier versions of this cake needed no additional color because the reaction of vinegar and buttermilk tends to naturally turn cocoa a reddish-brown color. Before the introduction of a more alkaline dutch-processed cocoa, this color would have been more intense and pronounced. During WWII, rationing of food stores was common and clever bakers would use boiled beats in order to enhance the red color when making this dessert.

While this cake reached the heights of popularity across the country in the 1950s, Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook presents this old Southern favorite with a contemporary twist making an elegant and tasty conclusion to any dinner party.

SOURCE: "History of Devil's Food Cake"
SOURCE: "Red Velvet Cake" 02/14/07
SOURCE: "Red Velvet Cake" 04/12/08
photo courtesy of Darwin Bell, used under this Creative Commons license

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Mix Up A Ramos Gin Fizz with Ralph Brennan

In the Spirits chapter of Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook, it's stated on page 400:
"It should be a given that New Orleans has a very old acquaintance with liquor, in light of its having been the country's favorite party town as long as anybody can remember. . . What is certain is that New Orleans has produced more than its share of famous cocktails over the last century and a half, the gin fizz, the Sazerac and the hurricane among them."
The Gin Fizz, a concoction featuring cream, egg white, and orange flower water, is a genuine New Orleans phenomenon. It was even referred to as a New Orleans Fizz up north at the height of its popularity during the 1910s. Chuck Taggart of Gumbo Pages tells of former Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long and his affection for the beverage, which drove him to bring along the New Orleans Roosevelt Hotel bartender to the New York Roosevelt in order to enjoy the creamy, floral-flavored beverage. The trade name of "Ramos" was acquired by the Hotel Roosevelt after Prohibition was repealed. has an excellent short history on the Ramos Gin Fizz taken from New Orleans Drinks and How To Mix 'Em by Stanley C. Arthur. An enterprising bartender named Henry C. Ramos came to the city of New Orleans by way of Baton Rouge and introduced his signature drink in 1888 after purchasing the Imperial Cabinet Saloon located at Gravier and Carondelet. Upstairs was a restaurant called The Old Hickory, where Ramos mixed up his soon-to-be famous beverage.

Ramos and his drink really broke into the mainstream after his purchase of the infamous Tom Anderson saloon, The Stag, in 1907. At the height of its popularity, 35 shaker boys were employed at the saloon in 1915 for Mardi Gras and were unable to keep up with the demand. At, Paul Clarke posted a history of the Ramos Gin Fizz dated September 11, 2005. Ramos kept his very popular drink mix a secret, but when Prohibition and the Volstead Act was enacted on January 16, 1920, it is surmised that he revealed the recipe to the world as an act of civil disobedience, hoping to inspire the home mixologist.

Ramos is to be thanked for two reasons. First, for creating such an excellent beverage and secondly, for sharing it with the world, ensuring its survival for the past 110 years. And thanks to Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook, the home chef can prepare a piece of New Orleans history.

SOURCE: "The Original Ramos Gin Fizz"
SOURCE: "Ramos Gin Fizz"
SOURCE: "In Praise of Difficult Drinks, Part I: The Ramos Gin Fizz" 09/11/05
Photo by Kerri McCaffety. Copyright by The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Fix Up a Dish of Spicy Fried Calamari Today

If you are looking for a spicy dish to serve as "finger food" at your next party, Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook has just the dish for you. On page 98, the cookbook presents a Spicy Fried Calamari with Lemon Aioli Sauce. The spicy flavor comes from the tablespoon of cayenne pepper used in the recipe.

Calamari is actually a corruption of an Italian word, calamaro, which means squid. In America, the word was adopted to indicate dishes made from squid. Peggy T. Filippone at states that the squid is a cousin of the mollusk family and has evolutionary links to the octopus and the cuttlefish. Like the octopus, the squid releases a dark inky substance when feeling threatened. Surprisingly, this ink is edible and can be used in cooking calamari dishes. identifies calamari as being of Mediterranean origins and is usually served as a fried appetizer. Common sauces include peppercorn mayonnaise, tzatziki or marinara sauce. Ralph Brennan's offering is served with a side of lemon aioli sauce. Unlike traditional aioli sauces which are made from olive oil, this sauce is made from canola oil and has an added dash of Dijon mustard.

In August 2006, had a short debate about the name calamari vs. squid. Among the responses, Peter Cherches on August 8, 2006, quoted from a 1996 New York Times article touching on how squid entered the culinary scene, tentatively dating its popular entree to around the early to mid 1980s:
"Once only caught for bait, squid, a mollusk that has long been popular on Mediterranean, Asian and southern European menus, was little more than an overabundant throwaway for Long Island fishermen. . . Even up to 15 years ago squid fetched fishermen barely 10 cents a pound. Today the price is more that $1 a pound, and squid, or calamari, as it is increasingly being called, has become fancy fare at gourmet restaurants and seafood markets." states that squid imports have increased by 30,000 tons a year since 1990 with California waters producing up to 50,000 tons annually though El Niño has affected that total.

SOURCE: "What is Calamari?"
SOURCE: "Squid (food)" 04/14/08
SOURCE: "Peter Cherches" 08/08/06
SOURCE: "Squid (AKA Calamari)"2005

Photo by Kerri McCaffety. Copyright by The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Bridget Makes Sesame-Seared Tuna

We're happy to announce one of the first customer reviews. Bridget of Blake Makes tested Ralph's Sesame Seared Tuna and looking at the picture above the recipe was definately a success in her kitchen.

Ralph Brennan's Sesame-Seared Tuna with Avocado-Horseradish Sauce is listed under the appetizer section in the cookbook, but Bridget makes a great point that it can be served as a main dish too. Who said all New Orleans cooking is heavy? This recipe is a perfect light meal for hot summer months, especially in New Orleans!

One thing I love about cookbooks is that you can add and subtract according to taste. So if you're looking for a healthy, lighter meal hold the sauce. Looking to indulge? Pour it on! With a little creativity you can make this book work not only for the way you want to cook, but the way you want to live.

Thanks to Bridget for testing out this recipe. Her Sesame-Seared Tuna looks fantastic and was created sans professional chef, photographer or food stylist.

Ralph, thanks for creating a cookbook really works for the home cook... and to Bridget, Bravo!

Photo courtesy of

Friday, April 11, 2008

Crab Cakes, Ralph Brennan Style

While crab cakes are a dish most commonly associated with Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay area, Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook offers a spicier local version on page 56, prepared with Creole seasonings and pepper sauce. According to Wikipedia, the cake is usually served with a sauce of some kind, the most common being remoulade, tartar sauce or ketchup. Mr. Brennan's version is served with a spicy ravigote sauce using peppers, lemon, horseradish, mayonnaise and hard-boiled eggs. The ravigote recipe can be found on page 372.

Crab cakes are the result of a lengthy evolution of minced meat recipes that have been around since ancient times. At the, economy is cited as being a primary reason for the development of minced meat and bread recipes. It was a subsistence strategy in order to further limited supplies of meat. This food tradition was most likely brought to America with the earliest of English colonists where such economy was vital. One of the earliest American Recipes dates to 1685 by Robert May in The Accomplist Cook, which was reprinted in facsimile form in 2000 by Prospect Books: Devon. While the recipe isn't the easiest to follow, May uses unusual ingredients in his seasoned breading:
Take the meat out of the great claws being first boiled, flour and fry them and take the meat out of the body strian half if it for sauce, and the other half to fry, and mix it with grated bread, almond paste, nutmed, salt, and yolks of eggs, fry in clarified butter, being first dipped in batter, put in a spoonful at a time; then make sauce with wine-vinegar, butter, or juyce of orange, and grated nutmeg, beat up the butter thick, and put some of the meat that was strained into the sauce, warm it and put it in a clean dish, lay the meat on the sance, slices of orange over all, and run it over with beaten butter, fryed parasley, round the dish brim, and the little legs round the meat.
Crab dishes prepared with breading reached the height of popularity in the mid-1800s according to surveys of cookbooks. At's history of the crab cake, the first printed mention of "Crab Cake" came in 1930 in Crosby Gaige's New York World's Fair Cook Book. Tom Fitzmorris in New Orleans Menu Daily argues that crab cakes came to New Orleans in the early 1990s, replacing stuffed crabs on local menus.

With the abundant supply of crabs along the Gulf Coast so readily available to the home chef, crab cakes will enjoy a long sojourn in many a kitchen.

SOURCE: "Wikipedia: Crab Cake" 03/31/08
SOURCE: "The Food Timeline: Lobster, Crab, Shrimp & Oysters" 02/26/08
SOURCE: " Crab Cakes" 05/10/07
SOURCE: "New Orleans Menu Daily: Crab Cakes" 2007

Photo by Kerri McCaffety. Copyright by The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Get to Know Executive Chef Haley Bitterman

In Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook, Mr. Brennan equally credits Executive Vice President Charlee Williamson and Executive Chef Haley Bitterman (née Gabel) of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group with moving the cookbook forward. He states on page 16 that, "It has been exciting to watch the two of them grow over our many years of working together."

According to the Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook website, Chef Haley first met Ralph Brennan at Mr. B's Bistro during her externship for the Culinary Arts Academy of Cincinnati. After her 1990 graduation, she returned to Mr. B's and served her apprenticeship under Gerard Maras where she was influenced by Maras' use of the freshest and finest of regional and local ingredients. The website identifies Haley as a trend-setter:
"In 1993, Haley was the first woman to be named Executive Chef of a Brennan Family (of Commander’s Palace Fame) kitchen when she was named Executive Chef of BACCO, Ralph Brennan’s Creole Italian restaurant adjacent to the W Hotel in the French Quarter. "Haley's combined talent, personality, and genuine love of food contributed to her early success at BACCO and her continued success today", says Ralph Brennan."
Her profile at the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group site states that she became Corporate Executive Chef in 2000 and she has also served as Director of Operations since June 2005. Among her many accomplishments, she appeared on John Schoup's Great Chefs of the New Guard television series as well as being a featured chef in the accompanying book.

Not only is Executive Chef Haley Bitterman an award-winning chef, she has also represented Louisiana and New Orleans culinary traditions on the world stage. She has prepared dishes for the United States Ambassador to Canada's residence in Ottawa as well as at the Montreal Highlights Festival, which features chefs from around the world preparing indigenous recipes. While she has worked her magic for two presidents, President Bill Clinton at a private home reception in New Orleans and President George W. Bush at Bacco's post-Katrina, she most recently prepared a luncheon for First Lady Laura Bush at Ralph's on the Park.

Her adventurous culinary side led her to support the move to eliminate trans fat from the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group's chain of restaurants, stating that, "As people are becoming more aware of trans fat and are now reading their labels in the grocery store, we wanted to lead the way in bringing a healthier menu to our customers."

SOURCE: "Chef Haley Bitterman" 2008
SOURCE: "Our Team: Haley Gabel"
SOURCE: "First Lady Visits Ralph's on the Park" 03/12/08
SOURCE: "Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group Eliminates Trans Fat" 05/16/07
Photo by Kerri McCaffety. Copyright by The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Industrial Fish Farms in the Gulf of Mexico Questioned

An article Monday in The Times-Picayune by Chris Kirkham states that federal fisheries regulators are meeting in Baton Rouge this week to debate the ecological sustainability of large-scale, industrial fish farms off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It is hoped that such a plan will help redress the balance of the trade deficit in seafood. Currently, America imports 80% of the seafood consumed in this country and more concern has been shown recently by consumers about imported seafood, particularly from China. There is evidence that farm-raised seafood from China, particularly shrimp, are tainted with banned antibiotics and other chemicals.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States currently has a seafood trade deficit of over $9 billion annually. Some fish farming does occur in the U.S., generating about $1 billion income, two-thirds of which comes from the farming of oysters, clams and mussels. Another 10% is generated by shrimp production.

In an article dated April 8, 2008, posted at about a new study titled "Fish Story: Why Offshore Fish Farming Will Not Break U.S. Dependence on Imported Seafood," it is argued that large-scale farming will not affect the trade deficit in seafood. As stated in the article:
"According to the report, the United States exports more than 70 percent of its seafood to countries where it fetches the best prices. In turn, U.S. retailers buy their seafood from wherever they can get it cheapest, oftentimes in places with lower quality and health standards, such as China and Thailand."
According to the study, over half of domestic demand for seafood can be satisfied with current United States production, cutting down the necessity of importing seafood.

There are fears that large-scale fish farming might harm the environment and the economy. At, in an article dated October 25, 2007, Sal Versaggi of Versaggi Shrimp Company and the Southern Shrimp Alliance argues that the issue is larger than the economic problems aquaculture production would address:
"People are so personally and economically linked with the ocean and coasts here - residents and visitors alike enjoy boating, fishing, seafood, swimming and so many more benefits. These are important and need to be safeguarded from the threats associated with offshore aquaculture."
SOURCE: "Fish farm plans under scrutiny" 04/07/08
SOURCE: "Aquaculture in the United States" 03/19/08
SOURCE: "Ocean Fish Farms Will Not Eliminate Seafood Trade Deficit" 04/08/08
SOURCE: "Offshore Aquaculture in Gulf of Mexico "May Yield Economic Distress" 10/25/07
photo courtesy of ewen and donabel, used under this Creative Commons license

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Versatile Beignet

Beignets are a dish closely associated with the city of New Orleans and were in fact declared the official state doughnut in 1986. In an article by Linda Stradley at, the etymology of beignet stems from the Celtic word bigne, meaning "to raise." Coincidentally, the word bigne also means "fritter" in French. The pastry was brought to New Orleans in the 18th Century, with Stradley crediting the Ursuline Nuns of France who came to the city in 1727. The 1902 Picayune Creole Cookbook had this to say about the dish's origins and popularity:

"The ancient French colonist brought the custom of serving sweet entrements and eatres, such as Beignets, Compotes, Souffles, Gelees, etc., from the old mother country to Louisiana. . . The custom of serving these sweet entrements spread from New Orleans to other portions of the United States, till now no fastidious chef would think of keeping a fashionable hotel or restaurant with including some of these in the daily bill of fare."

According to Wikipedia, the beignet is a type of choux pastry which is made of butter, flour, water and eggs, but unlike most choux pastries, the beignet is fried rather than baked. The high moisture content acts as the raising agent of the pastry, puffing it out during cooking. Wikipedia also correctly notes that the pastry, though usually served with a coating of confectioner's sugar, can be served as a savory dish as well with the addition of crawfish or shrimp., the online edition of The Courier of Houma, Louisiana, has an article by Laura McKnight dated November 16, 2007. In the article, McKnight reports a number of southern Louisiana family traditions related to the beignet. Windell Curole of South Lafourche remembers that the pastry was named from the French baigner, meaning "to swim" or "to bathe." Curole said, "The lump of dough 'swam' or 'bathed' in the hot oil to become a beignet."

Charlene Breaux of Raceland recounts this story told to her by her grandmother:
"In the very early days, the Cajun women would make their own bread each day. A small portion of the bread would be pulled and stretched thin, then deep fried for a quick breakfast. This could be given to the men as they left for the field to begin their day’s labor."
Breaux added that the beignet would be served plain, with cane syrup or with fig preserves.

Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook offers a savory beignet recipe stuffed with crawfish with a tomato-tarragon tartar sauce on page 324. According to the book, this recipe can also be made with shrimp, lobster or a mixture of crab and smoked, flaked redfish.

SOURCE: "History of Beignets" 2004
SOURCE: "Beignet" 04/03/08
SOURCE: "Choux Pastry" 03/26/08
SOURCE: "Beignets: More Than Just a Doughnut" 11/16/07
photo couresy of elizabethtrittpo, used under this Creative Commons license

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What's on the Menu?

In just a few short hours we will be celebrating the launch of Ralph Brennan's Seafood Cookbook at Ralph's on the Park. The weather is holding steady at a bright 85 degrees and all signs are pointing to a successful event tonight. It's perfect New Orleans weather for a sipping a Sazerac on the balcony overlooking City Park.
As the invitations were recieved and more people heard about the event the number-one question I have been asked is "What's on the menu?"

So for all of you who haven't asked but are dying to know what food Ralph Brennan has planned to serve at the party of the year, here you go... dig in!

Passed Appetizers
Shrimp and Bacon en Brochettes
Sesame-Seared Tuna with Avocado-Horseradish Sauce
Crawfish Springrolls
Red Fish Grill Barbecue Oysters with Blue-Cheese Dipping Sauce
Redfish Court-Bouillon (in rocks glasses)
Mini Redfish Burgers

Action Stations
Crawfish Ravioli - BACCO
Barbecue Shrimp - Jazz Kitchen
Shrimp and Crawfish Vol-au-Vents - Ralph's on the Park
Andouille Crusted Redfish & Creole Mustard Aioli - Red Fish Grill
Fried Green Tomatoes with Ravigote Sauce & Hot Butter Sauce - RBRG

Dessert Display
Double Chocolate Bread Pudding
Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie
Lemon Icebox Pie
Creole Red Velvet Roulade with Café-Brulot Crème Anglaise

White Wine
Red Wine
Abita Beer
Red Fish Grill Lemonade
Pimm's Cup

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Nutritional Facts of Seafood

In Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook's Introduction, it's stated that seafood is the strongest thread in the fabric of New Orleans' culinary history. From the cookbook:
Over many generations, New Orleans cooks relied heavily on fish and shellfish to energize their imaginations. The reason may be that seafood offered them almost limitless options in their seasonings, sauces and methods.
New Orleans' cooks and chefs were on to something more than they realized. Not only were these people responsible for presenting the hungry diner with delicious, multi-varied dishes, they were often serving up plates full of health benefits. presents a survey conducted by McCormick & Schmick's, featuring an array of facts about seafood consumption in America. Surprisingly, a quarter of respondents ate seafood primarily for the health benefits conferred such as the consumption of Omega-3. Of the respondents, 37% cook seafood at home at least once a week. has an excellent discussion by Dr. John La Puma, MD FACP, of why seafood is rightly called "Brain Food". Omega-3 is an excellent source of unsaturated fats and with the human brain composed of 60% fat, the fat truly goes to your head! As well, eating seafood also helps lower the risk of heart disease and heart attack in three ways:
They act to thin the blood naturally. They keep the lining of the arteries smooth, and clear of thickening and inflammation. They act as a natural anticoagulant by altering the ability of platelets in your blood to clump together.
A seafood nutrition chart featuring the United States' top 20 seafoods can be found at Unlike most traditional nutritional charts, this chart features information on Omega 3 found in different fish and shellfish as well as the expected calorie, carb, protein and cholesterol counts.

SOURCE: "Seafood Statistics"
SOURCE: "FAQs: Nutrition and Seafood"
SOURCE: "Seafood Nutrition Chart"
photo courtesy of rastafabi, used under this Creative Commons license.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Presenting Charlee Williamson

Among the nine-person team who brought us Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook is Charlee Williamson. A 15-year veteran of Ralph Brennan's Restaurant Group, she is the Executive Vice-President. In the cookbook's acknowledgments, Ralph Brennan credits her (as well as Executive Chef Haley Bittermann) as spear-heading the project amidst the chaos of life in post-Katrina New Orleans (which included the loss of her home during the storm) as well as earning an MBA from Tulane University.

Her profile at the Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook website is a tale of a young woman slowly working her way up in the restaurant industry including stints at TCBY Yogurt and the Embassy Suites' Plaza Grill in Austin, Texas. She joined the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group in 1993 as the marketing manager at Bacco and Mr. B's Bistro. She defined the position, a new one in the company at the time, showcasing her multiple skills in the process.

Her profile at the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group lists her extensive duties:
As Executive Vice President, Charlee is responsible for company strategic planning and development, comprehensive annual marketing planning, full service, in-house advertising services, ongoing guest feedback, recognition and satisfaction programs, market growth strategies, continuous improvement initiatives and consumer, community and media relations.
An alumna of the University of Texas at Austin, she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Advertising and has recently completed her MBA at Tulane University. A life-long resident of New Orleans, she is active on the Board of Directors of the National Restaurant Association's Marketing Executives Group, the Junior League of New Orleans and the Preservation Resource Center.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she was immediately active in getting the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group's dining establishments open for business despite losing her home. In an article published September 30, 2005, in New Orleans CityBusiness, she announced that the Red Fish Grill had received the first state-approved, post-Katrina health permit and hinted at a grass-roots marketing campaign to advertise the reopening of the restaurant.

SOURCE: "President and Mrs. Bush Dine at Bacco" 10/10/05
SOURCE: "The Team: Charlee Williamson" 2008
SOURCE: "Our Team: Charlee Williamson"
SOURCE: "New Orleans' Red Fish Grill issued first health permit after Katrina" 09/30/05
Photo by Kerri McCaffety. Copyright by The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Jazzy Jambalaya

Jambalaya is yet another characteristic dish of New Orleans. Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook features a creole version of the dish made with andouille sausage, pickled pork or ham and shrimp on page 266. The book states that Jambalaya is one of the oldest of creole recipes. The dish seems to share origins between paellas, which are of Spanish origin, and traditional African rice dishes. Etymologically, the word Jambalaya is a combination of French and African Bantu terms. The French jambon means "ham", while the Bantu word "ya-ya" means rice.

Creole Jambalaya, as opposed to the Cajun version which does not feature tomatoes, originated in New Orleans' French Quarter according to Wikipedia. It evolved from Spanish paellas. A key spice in paellas, saffron, was difficult to acquire in the early days of the city due to the high cost of importing the spice from abroad. Creatively challenged, cooks began to substitute tomatoes, creating the dish we know today. The first printed reference to the word dates to 1872 while the 1909 edition of The Picayune's Creole Cookbook identifies the dish being of Spanish-Creole origin., in an article by Diana Rattray, offers an alternate explanation to the origins of the dish with this colorful story taken from The Dictionary of American Food and Drink:
A gentleman stopped by a New Orleans inn late one night to find nothing left for him to dine upon. The owner thereupon told the cook, whose name was Jean, to "mix some things together" --balayez, in the dialect of Louisiana -- so the grateful guest pronounced the dish of odds-and-ends wonderful and named it "Jean Balayez.
In Gonzales, Louisiana, a gentleman by the name of Steve Juneau developed the idea of naming the city the "Jambalaya Capitol in the World" with an accompanying annual festival in order to promote the city. The city's title was confirmed in 1968 by Governor John J. McKeithen. Held over Memorial Day weekend, the festival's main event is the Jambalaya Cooking Contest. Other activities include a carnival, live music, car show and the crowning of the Jambalaya King and Queen.

SOURCE: "Jambalaya" 03/31/08
SOURCE: "Southern Food: Jambalaya"
SOURCE: "The Jambalaya Festival" 2008
photo courtesy of MetalCowboy, used under this Creative Commons license

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Our First Review

I’m very excited to report that the first review of the cookbook appeared in the Tyler Morning Telegraph last week! Food editor Shauna Wonzer reviewed newly and soon-to-be released cookbooks and here’s what she had to say about Ralph’s…

"Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook" (Vissi D'Arte Books, $45) is one of the most visually appealing and mouth-watering collections I have seen in a long while. The 430-page hardback book includes color photography throughout. Its visual appeal would make it a conversation piece on anyone's coffee table. But it might not stay there long. It's sure to make its way into your kitchen for use. If you love New Orleans-style cooking, the recipes are ones you will find yourself using.

The book is divided into several sections, including a seafood cook's manual with chapters on crawfish, shrimp, oysters and specialties such as alligator, frog legs and turtle. There is also space dedicated to appetizers, gumbos and soups, salads, main courses and desserts. The basics are also included with chapters on stocks, seasonings, sauces and drinks. Recipes for shrimp bisque, seafood-stuffed flounder with garlic butter sauce, redfish court-bouillon and chocolate bourbon pecan pie are sure to inspire you to become adventurous in the kitchen. If you are looking to take a culinary travel adventure without leaving home, this is the perfect way.”

Read the full review

Shauna comments that cookbooks are a great way to give your kitchen a makeover. I’m excited to see how Ralph’s cookbook can freshen up my kitchen and interested to hear what it does to yours…

Introducing the Ubiquitous New Orleans Poor Boy

Whenever a visitor arrives in our fair city on the crescent, it's almost inevitable that at one point or another, a poor boy is ordered by the hungry traveler. And its the only sandwich that "dresses" for the occasion, usually with iceberg lettuce, tomato slices and mayonnaise along with the diner's choice of filling, ranging from beef to ham and even french fries. Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook features a poor boy recipe on page 256 filled with fried oysters. presents a story by Ian McNulty of the origins of the poor boy. In the 1920s, two brothers and former street car conductors, Clovis and Benjamin Martin, opened a restaurant on St. Claude Avenue. In 1929, the city's street car conductors went on a four-month strike. Taking on the cause as their own, the Martin brothers began to feed the strikers from the back of their restaurant, creating an inexpensive sandwich made of bits of roast beef slathered with gravy. When a striker would arrive, the call would go through the kitchen, "Here comes another poor boy!" Over time, the sandwich became known as a poor boy.

Wikipedia presents other stories of the origin of the sandwich, one of which comes from Jay Harlow's The Art of the Sandwich. According to Harlow, the term stems from the French phrase, pour boire, which means peace offering and referred to the sandwiches men would bring home to their wives after a late night on the town.

Wikipedia also correctly identifies the importance of the proper bread in order to have a genuine poor boy sandwich:

A key ingredient that differentiates po' boys from subs, gyros and grinders is the bread. Louisiana French bread is different from the traditional baguette, in that it has a flaky crust with a soft, airy center. . . The crust of Louisiana French bread is very crispy--so much so that it is difficult to eat without leaving crumbs. But the interior is very light and airy, often less dense than regular white bread.

The sandwich is considered such an important part of New Orleans' culture that a festival has been created to celebrate it called the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival. Part of the festival is the collection of stories about the poor boy. In a question emphasizing the importance of the bread to an authentic poor boy is, "How far away from NOLA have you encountered po-boys (and how bad were they without authentic New Orleans French Bread)?"

SOURCE: "New Orleans' Po-Boy Is A Rich Food Tradition"
SOURCE: "Po' Boy" 03/30/08
SOURCE: "Share Your Po-Boy Story"
photo courtesy of Jef Poskanzer, used under this Creative Commons license

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Tomatos Make The Dish

Tomatoes are part of the Creole triumvirate of a seasoning blend made from tomatoes, onions and sweet peppers, according to Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook. The Shrimp Creole on page 220 features this saucy seasoning in an easy-to-prepare recipe that takes less than an hour to make. Tomatoes entered the New Orleans stage of the culinary arts thanks to the Spanish Conquistadors, who encountered the vegetable in South America and later brought it to New Orleans during their 40-year period of colonization beginning in 1762.

According to Wikipedia, the tomato was discovered when the Spanish first came to South America in the early 1500s. It was distributed throughout Europe and the Spanish Colonies with cultivation in Spain starting in the 1540s. By the mid-1700s, cultivation of the plant had spread throughout the colonies though many plantings were ornamental in nature and not necessarily used in cooking due to a false belief that the plant was poisonous.

In an article, "The Tomato Had to Go Abroad To Make Good," it is stated that the tomato has been commonly eaten for about the past 100 years in the United States. Being largely cultivated as an ornamental plant, the vegetable was also known as "love apples" from the French phrase pomme d'amour. The article argues that the tomato's first known appearance in New Orleans is in 1812.

It was embraced by Mediterranean cooks when first introduced in Europe. The first cookbook with tomatoes listed among the ingredients was published in 1692 in Naples, though the recipes appear to be of Spanish origin. Terry Thompson-Anderson, author of Cajun-Creole Cooking, states in an excerpt of her book the identifying characteristics of Creole-Italian cuisine:

The most unique feature of the cuisine is its tomato sauce, commonly referred to as "red gravy" or "tomato gravy." This rich sauce, used over meats and pasta, has dozens of variations from family to family.
The acidic property of the tomato helps to bring out the other flavors in a dish, making it beloved ingredient of chefs. This vegetable is rich in anti-oxidants, particularly lycopene and benefits the heart and the prevention of prostate cancer.
photo courtesy of Sylvar, used under this Creative Commons license