Symposium offers glimpse into food world

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 5, 2009

I had a double treat last month when I visited New Orleans, La. The Southern Food and Beverage Museum had their first annual Words in Food Symposium. Visiting the museum should be on your list of things to do in New Orleans. Located at Riverwalk, you can explore the heritage of Louisiana’s many dishes and view the photographs and artifacts of food traditions from around the South.

The symposium consisted of a guest speaker from Yale, mainly talking about the foods existing around the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans and comparing those foods with the foods of the 1984 World’s Fair, held also in New Orleans. There was a big discussion of what is Creole versus what is Cajun, and the thought was that the food writers at the 1984 World’s Fair, wrote about these two cuisines as about the same, since they did not have enough time to get down to the differences between the two.

I got to meet the writer of the food column of The Times-Picayune, Judy Walker, as well as some food critics, restaurant owners, and authors of some local cookbooks. All there agreed that newspapers are having a hard time these days and are lucky if they can have a food writer.

Cookbooks are still selling quite well, because people like to read them as well as try the recipes. I also learned that some food magazine articles are pretty much fake; for example, the magazine picks the recipe, not the people in the pictures, and some of the people in the magazine never saw each other or ate together before the photo shoot. That rather disappointed me! So the writer of one article for a famous food magazine (she would not name the magazine) made up the entire story and was a little ashamed she had done the article, but she needed the money!

Our food that day was a sit down meal catered by the Intercontinental Hotel and they also did a cooking demonstration of shrimp creole. They gave us a sazarac made with brandy (served at the 1884 World’s Fair), and a sazarac served with rye whiskey, served at the 1984 World’s Fair. What can I say? I liked them both!

My other treat, that weekend, was getting to eat at the new Jon Besh restaurant, Domenica. It is located in the newly renovated Roosevelt Hotel, another must visit on your next trip. Besh has several restaurants, and is considered the new Emeril of New Orleans, and his food is good. It is fairly inexpensive at Domenica since you can get small plates for a few dollars. We had fried squash blossoms, which I had done all summer at home, but had never seen them on anyone’s menu, so I was impressed. We had a rabbit ragu – delicious – a risotto with white truffle and pancetta, and paneed Louisiana grass fed veal with lemon and arugula. What a treat! My son and daughter-in-law have been there six times already! I can understand why. It is on my list to visit again next time I am there.

After writing this, I did get back with my son this past weekend. We shared a pizza, with prosciutto and arugula added after cooking (Domenica is rumored to have the most expensive pizza oven in the US); the truffled risotto seemed even better; a cheese and sausage plate with the “sausage” being head cheese; monkfish; the highlight was perhaps the octopus carpaccio; only the rapini side was disappointing; the squash blossoms were not on the menu – too late in the season perhaps.

Try this shrimp Creole over grits. It is very similar to the one served at the Southern Food Symposium. The secret we were told is the tomato paste. It helps thicken everything. You also need to make a good shrimp stock, but in this recipe you can use water, but it will not make the final dish taste as rich.

Creole Shrimp and Grits

Serves 8-10

For Sauce:

1 carrot, diced about 1 cup

1 yellow onion, diced about 1 cup

1 bell pepper, diced about 1 cup

2 stalks celery, diced

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

¼ cup tomato paste

2 (8-oz) cans tomato sauce

2 (15-oz) cans crushed tomatoes

1/3 cup white distilled vinegar

1 cup shrimp stock or water

chopped fresh thyme and parsley to taste

For Grits:

4 ears corn, shucked

6 cups water

2 tablespoons salt

¼ cup butter

2 cups heavy cream

2 cups instant grits (use stone ground instead if you can find them)

½ cup freshly grated Parmigiani-Reggiano

For Shrimp:

4 tablespoons butter

36 extra large shrimp, peeled and deveined (I have lately been buying frseh wild caught at the weekly farmers market in New Orleans and freezing some until I can get back—we eat a lot of shrimp.)

Make sauce: Cook carrot, onion, pepper, and celery in oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned, about five minutes. Add garlic and cook an additional two minutes.

Stir in tomato paste, tomato sauce, and crushed tomatoes. Add vinegar and stock, and bring to boil. Simmer 30-40 minutes. Add thyme, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste.

Make grits: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Roast corn, turning occasionally, until golden brown on all sides and tender, about 30 minutes. Cut corn off cobs. Combine water, salt, butter, cream, and corn kernels in a 4-5 quart heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Transfer mixture to the blender and purée. Return mixture to saucepan and bring to a boil. Whisk in grits and simmer until thick and creamy, about five to seven minutes. Stir in cheese.

Cook shrimp: In a large skillet, heat butter over medium heat, add shrimp and sauté until cooked halfway. Add Creole tomato sauce and simmer an additional five to eight minutes.

To serve, spoon grits onto plate, top with shrimp and sauce. Garnish with cheese and green onions.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!