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Home Cooking

Chef John Besh watched his restaurants and his hometown cuisine nearly get wiped out by a hurricane. Now he’s sharing the culinary secrets and local-food traditions of New Orleans with the world.

shrimp

All of us are from somewhere, but do we care? For John Besh, being from somewhere — specifically, the tight-knit hunting-and-fishing community of Lake Pontchartrain, across the water from New Orleans — was something he didn’t think too much about. It was just who he was, and he was busy building on that: fighting in the first Gulf War, raising four little boys, and cooking, cooking and cooking some more as he worked to establish a small empire of good restaurants in the Big Easy (including Restaurant August, Lüke, Besh Steak and La Provence).

But then Hurricane Katrina struck. In moments, the “somewhere” Besh was from went from something he didn’t think too much about to something he was in ­danger of losing forever. It changed him dramatically.

“Katrina woke me up,” Besh told me from his home in New Orleans. “It’s that old saying, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,’ and I suddenly realized what America would lose — what the world would lose — if this national treasure disappeared.

“New Orleans truly is the birthplace of so much ­richness we have in our country today. Not just jazz — which most people understand was born here and then moved up the Mississippi to become blues and rock ’n’ roll — but also cuisine. New Orleans has the only native urban cuisine in America,” Besh says, referencing the area’s historic blend of French technique, African ingredients and foodways, and local, Native American ingredients like crayfish and redfish.

It wasn’t just the physical devastation of the storm that threatened New Orleans’s food, however; it was the way the storm revealed that many of the city’s most important food traditions were, in fact, just hanging on by a thread.

Take shrimp, for instance. Locals have been ­harvesting clams, crayfish, oysters and shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico waters near New Orleans for as long as people have lived there. When the storm wrecked so many family-owned shrimp boats, it wasn’t just the destruction that was the problem: In the months it took for families to process their insurance claims, repair their vessels and get back in the water, the local market was swamped by cheap, imported farmed Asian shrimp. When local fishing families got back on their feet, they found their customers were now ­accustomed to paying prices they couldn’t hope to meet.

“I encourage every American to think about the shrimp they buy,” says Besh. “Are they wild-caught American shrimp, which are harvested sustainably? The commodity shrimp that come from Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, China — who knows anything about them? I have no patience for them. They’re processed with ­chemicals so they all look the same color; texturewise, they’re kind of chewy; and if you think about all the problems we have with simple things coming from these unregulated places — like ­children’s toys being painted with lead — how can you feel comfortable with foods coming from them?

“You’re just getting something so much better when you buy American shrimp, whether they’re sweet, little pink Maine shrimp; or big, briny sweet spot prawns from California; or brown shrimp from New Orleans,” he insists. “I’m a big advocate of knowing where food comes from and then doing as little to it as possible. Everybody, at one time in their lives, should try a fresh wild-caught American shrimp next to one of those rubbery cheap ones — they’d learn right away what they’d been missing.”

In the interest of letting the wider world know what they’ve been missing (and what they very nearly lost at Katrina’s landfall), Besh wrote My New Orleans: The Cookbook (Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2009). It’s a fascinating book, filled with 200 of Besh’s gorgeous recipes, along with historical photos of the New Orleans food culture that have never before been seen outside of Louisiana. Plus, there’s lots of good information about unique ingredients and current foodways.

For me, it’s not just a cookbook: It’s a work of ­contemporary anthropology. I wish there was a book like this about every “somewhere” in the United States: one on Maine and New Hampshire, another on Washington State, another on Wisconsin. All of us are from somewhere, and a lot of those somewheres are vanishing because of forces just like those commodity-farmed shrimp.

“After Katrina,” Besh says, “I made the decision to procure as much as I could locally — last year [my ­restaurants] spent $15 million on local groceries. I’m doing what I can to make sure we don’t lose the passion, the soul or the vitality of my home.”

WEB EXTRA!

Red Beans and Rice

Serves six

  • 2 onions diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 2 tbs. rendered bacon fat
  • 1 pound dried kidney beans
  • 2 smoked ham hocks
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Tabasco
  • 3 cups cooked Louisiana long-grain white rice

Sweat the onions, bell peppers and celery in the rendered bacon fat in a heavy soup pot over medium-high heat.

Once the onions become translucent, add the kidney beans, ham hocks, bay leaves and cayenne, then add water to cover by 2 inches.

Increase the heat and bring the water to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and allow the beans to simmer for two hours. Periodically stir the beans to make sure that they don’t scorch on the bottom of the pot, adding water if necessary, always keeping the beans covered by an inch or more of water.

Continue cooking the beans until they are creamy and beginning to fall apart when they’re stirred.

Remove the ham hock meat from the bones, roughly chop it, and add it back to the pot of beans.

Stir in the green onions and season with salt, black pepper and Tabasco. Serve with white rice.

Recipe excerpted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook by John Besh (Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2009).

WEB EXTRA!

Shrimp Remoulade

Serves 12

For the boiled shrimp

  • 1/2 cup kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 head garlic, halved crosswise
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1 tbs. whole black peppercorns
  • 1 tbs. ground coriander
  • 24 jumbo shrimp, unpeeled (preferably wild-caught)

For the remoulade sauce

    • 1 cup mayonnaise
    • 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
    • 2 tbs. prepared horseradish
    • 2 tbs. chopped fresh parsley
    • 1 shallot, minced
    • 1 clove garlic, minced
    • 1 tbs. white wine vinegar
    • 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
    • 1 tsp. hot sauce
    • 1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
    • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
    • 1/4 tsp. garlic powder
    • Salt
    • 8 cups baby arugula, mache or other greens

For the boiled shrimp, put the salt, sweet paprika, cayenne, garlic powder, lemon juice, bay leaves, onion, garlic, thyme, peppercorns and coriander into a large pot. Add 1 gallon of cold water and boil over high heat for 10 minutes. Add the shrimp, reduce the heat to moderate, and simmer for five minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let the shrimp finish cooking off the heat until they are just cooked through, five to seven minutes more.

Drain the shrimp and plunge them into a large bowl of ice water to stop them from cooking. Drain the shrimp again once they are cool. Reserve for up to a day or two in the refrigerator. About two hours before serving, peel the shrimp and
devein them.

For the remoulade sauce, combine the mayonnaise, mustard, horseradish, parsley, shallot, garlic, vinegar, lemon juice, hot sauce, sweet paprika, cayenne, garlic powder and salt in a large bowl and stir well. Set aside.

Toss the shrimp in the remoulade sauce. Cover the bowl and let the shrimp marinate in the refrigerator for one to two hours. Serve the shrimp with the greens.

Recipe excerpted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook by John Besh (Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2009).

WEB EXTRA!

Ragout of Root Vegetables, Pear and Chestnuts

Serves 12

  • Salt
  • 1 1/2 pounds celery root, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
  • 1 1/4 pounds turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
  • 4 Bosc pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch dice
  • 1 1/4 pounds baby golden beets, stems trimmed
  • 2 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 1 tbs. chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup jarred roasted peeled chestnuts
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tbs. butter, at room temperature

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the celery root and boil until tender, about six minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the celery root to a large pan or platter. Add the turnips to the pot and cook until tender, about five minutes. Transfer to the pan. Repeat with the pears, cooking them for two minutes, then transferring them to a pan. Add the beets to the pot and boil for 15 minutes. Drain the water from the pot and transfer the beets to a large plate. When they’re cool enough to handle, peel and quarter the beets.

Return the same pot to the stove over moderate heat. Add the olive oil and, when it’s hot, add the garlic, shallots and thyme, and cook until softened, about three minutes. Add the stock and boil over high heat until reduced to 1 cup, about five minutes.

Add the celery root, turnips and pears, cover and cook over medium-high heat, folding the vegetables gently a few times with a rubber spatula, until heated through. Add the beets and chestnuts. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook until heated through, about three minutes more. Gently stir in the butter and transfer the ragout to a serving bowl.

Recipe excerpted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook by John Besh (Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2009).

 

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic. Nominated seven times for James Beard Foundation Awards — the Oscars of the food world — she has received four awards for her restaurant and wine columns. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies. Her new book, Drink This: Wine Made Simple (Ballantine, 2009), is being released in November.

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