New Orleans chef sheds light on her foods

Published 9:43 am Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Some days are just better than others, and I had a good day in New Orleans a few weeks ago. I was just walking down the street in the French Quarter when I saw a man sitting in a chair right outside a little coffee shop. He looked vaguely familiar but he had on a cap, sunglasses and sported a beard. I said, “good morning,” to him and he said, “Good morning, ma’am,” in return. As I walked on I realized I had said “good morning” to Brad Pitt. A good way to start the morning.

My morning walk was to take me to the French Market, where a group of officials and Leah Chase were kicking off the “Gulf Alive,” a three-day seminar series. I knew nothing about this, but my husband saw it in the Times-Picayune and told me this could be an article. The Gulf area is trying to get the public to buy their seafood again, so this seminar was to make the public aware that the seafood is being tested and is safe. I did hear Leah Chase speak for a few minutes. She is a well known chef in New Orleans with her Dookie Chase Restaurant and her many cookbooks.

A lady taking some photographs asked me what I was doing there, and I told her I was looking for an article for a newspaper in Alabama. Well, she said you should go over to the Riverside Hilton where the Central Regional Conference for the Culinary Institute is being held. She wrote a note for me on her card and told me to take it to the Hilton and they would give me a press pass. Boy, did I feel important! Sure enough, I got the pass, and Susan Spicer was just beginning to do a cooking demonstration for about 600 culinary institute students.

Susan Spicer is the owner and chef of Bayona’s in the French Quarter and has had this successful restaurant for 21 years. She has just opened a new less formal restaurant called Mondo (meaning world in Italian) in the Lakeside area of New Orleans. I hear it is good, but I have not been able to get over there yet.

I enjoyed Susan Spicer’s demonstrations because she is not afraid to use spices from India or Thailand to add to her New Orleans cuisine. She spent the first seven years of her life in Holland, and her mother was an adventurous cook, so Spicer gives her credit for her own love of cooking. She cooked for the group a crawfish curry, smoked quail salad with a bourbon-molasses dressing, and a rabbit stuffed with boudain. She gave some tips as to what you should have in your kitchen and pantry. You will need at least two good knives, one for paring and an 8-inch chef knife, as well as a steel to keep them sharp. Basic equipment is a blender, food processor and a heavy-duty electric mixer. There is not much you can’t do with that lineup. I liked it that she is not a gadget person, since I tend to not like gadgets.

The pantry should include Asian spices such as hoisin, plum, oyster and sweet chili sauce. She always uses unsalted butter, because it tends to taste fresher and sweeter.

She uses canned tomatoes, usually whole tomatoes in juice, crushed, or pureed. She likes the ones from the San Marzano region of Italy. The pantry should include capers, anchovies, olives, and horseradish. These provide big flavors for instant pasta dishes, jazzing up tuna salad, flavoring mayos and more. As for curry paste, she uses the brand Patak’s (found in most stores), Indian and Thai red or green paste. A spoonful of one of these pastes can add instant flavor to any number of sauces or creamy condiments. Thai curry pastes and a can of unsweetened coconut milk make a super-easy chicken or shrimp curry with jasmine rice and scallions. For flour, she uses unbleached all-purpose for almost everything. She uses Crystal or Louisiana Hot Sauce for most dishes and thinks Tabasco is more intense and best reserved for finishing a dish. She uses Hellman’s mayonnaise unless she makes her own. Kosher salt is the workhouse in her kitchen. As far as soy sauce goes, she feels Kikkoman has the deepest, truest flavor.

She did not give out recipes for her demonstrations, but I do have her cookbook and found a recipe that uses her Indian spices. The yogurt in this recipe gives moisture to the turkey pieces, and the lentils eliminate the need for a sauce.

Taken from Susan Spicer’s Crescent City Cooking:

Indian Spiced Turkey Breast with Creamy Red Lentils

Serves: 4

Prep Time: 1 hour

2 (8-ounce) pieces boneless turkey breast

Juice of one medium lemon (about 3 tablespoons)


Zest of one lemon, grated (about 2 teaspoons)

1 cup plain yogurt (low-fat is fine), preferable a Middle Eastern or organic brand

1 serrano chile, seeded and minced, or ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon grated fresh ginger

¼ teaspoon minced garlic

Vegetable oil, for greasing the baking sheet

Creamy red lentils

Chopped fresh cilantro and lemon wedges, as garnish

Rinse the turkey breasts and pat dry. Pour the lemon juice over the turkey and sprinkle it lightly with salt. Let it sit for about 10 minutes. Combine the lemon zest, yogurt, chile, olive oil, spices, ginger and garlic in a shallow bowl. Turn the turkey over in the marinade and let it sit at room temperature for at least ½ hour, or chill overnight.

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees or turn on the broiler.

Place an oiled baking sheet in the preheated oven for about five minutes.

Remove the turkey from the marinade and strip off the excess marinade with your fingers. Place the turkey on the hot baking sheet and cook for about 5 minutes, and then use a spatula to flip it and cook another 5 minutes, or until just cooked through. Remove it from the oven and allow to rest before slicing. If you’re using the broiler, broil the turkey eight to 10 minutes, turning once.

To serve, place a generous spoonful of the lentils on the plate, then plate a few slices of the turkey alongside. Garnish with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro and a wedge of lemon.

Creamy Red Lentils

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

½ teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 cup red lentils, rinsed with cold water

Cilantro stems and a bay leaf, tied together with a string

½ teaspoon ground cumin


Heat the oil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the lentils and pour 3 ½ cups water, then add the cilantro bundle and cumin and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat and cook gently for about 45 minutes, adding a little more water as necessary.

When the lentils are tender and ready to serve, remove the cilantro stems and season with salt.