I close my eyes and take a sip of hot chicory coffee, with a bite of crispy fried dough doused in powdered sugar. I am in heaven, or pretty close to it, at Café du Monde. This restaurant serves nothing but café au lait and these fried French doughnuts called beignets. As Mark Twain said “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”
Unlike any other region of the United States, the state of Louisiana boasts of a rich amalgamation of cultures from around the world. The French in Nova Scotia, Canada were exiled to this area by the British and, later, came to be known as Cajuns. These Cajuns along with Germans, Italians, Spaniards, the Dutch, and the Choctaw Indians made New Orleans their new found home.
My morning often began with coffee, beignets, and a hearty bowl of grits. I nibbled during lunch but made up for it with an absolutely sinful dessert—bread pudding, banana fosters, pralines and more. I was truly on a vacation from my healthy SF Bay Area diet. New Orleans is a foodie’s paradise, so long as you are not a vegetarian and don’t care to eat healthy.
Lil’ Dizzy’s and More
We talked to the locals to find what they liked. Lots of bars in the French Quarter (such as Coop’s) served good Cajun food. What we found was that most dishes in New Orleans (or N’awlins as they call it) were smothered, blackened, or fried. Cajun food used to be simple and bland but has evolved into a spicy, robust cuisine. Creole is the rich cousin to Cajun, using butter and cream instead of pork fat. Cajun seasonings is made of garlic and onion powder with cayenne, white pepper and paprika. Creole seasoning is all that plus dried basil, marjoram, and oregano.
Muriel’s with their high-end Cajun food was delectable. Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge near the swamps was truly outstanding Cajun—Creole fusion. A highlight in N’awlins was talking with the owner of Lil’ Dizzy’s Café, Wayne Baquet. He was a friendly and kind gentleman who showed us Southern hospitality at its best. He knew how to satisfy a vegetarian woman’s palate. I had a plate of sautéed vegetables, potatoes, and macaroni and cheese to die for.
Cajun Meets Desi
New Orleans cuisine has many similarities to Indian food. The gumbo and etoufée are similar to our curry dishes. Etoufée is a spicy and saucy dish with seafood usually served over rice. Gumbo is a famous Southern stew that incorporates ingredients and cooking methods of several cultures: French (roux to thicken), African (okra), Spanish (tomatoes and peppers), German (sausage), and Choctaw Indians (filé spice powder). Red beans and rice and dirty rice are similar of our own khichdi and pulao. Grits is a close cousin to our porridge or kanji.
Restaurants in New Orleans have a great opportunity to reach vegetarians, by building on their wonderful Creole and Cajun foundation. Something like smothered okra with rice, Cajun eggplant or tofu, would be a vegetarian treat! New Orleans gave me a lot to nibble on, enjoy and kept my stomach full and happy.
I was inspired by Donna Simon’s Cajun Vegetarian cookbook to try some Cajun fusion at home once we got back.
Spicy Blackened Paneer
1 block of paneer cut into squares. Marinade
1 tablespoon of Creole seasoning juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon of oil salt to taste
Marinate the paneer in the Creole marinade and prick it on the surface with a fork. Leave it overnight in a refrigerator covered.
Place the paneer on a greased sheet of aluminum foil and broil in a hot oven or grill until its browned or fry on a pan with oil until blackened. Serve warm as an appetizer.
Hominy Grits Khichdi
Hominy is hulled corn kernels without the bran and germ. You will find it canned. You can also buy it as a coarse powder. This powder is used for making grits.
1 teaspoon oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon urad dal
1 green chili chopped
1 teaspoon fresh ginger chopped fine
a few curry leaves, chopped
1 cup hominy grits
2 cups water
salt to taste
pinch of asafetida
Heat oil in a saucepan. Add the mustard seeds, urad dal, green chilli, ginger, asafetida, and curry leaves. Now add water and salt and bring it to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and slowly mix in the hominy grits stirring continuously. Lower heat, cover and let it cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove and serve with chutney.
1cup lukewarm water
3 teaspoons instant active dry yeast
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg, room temperature and beaten
2 tablespoons butter, softened
½ cup evaporated milk
4 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour oil for frying
powdered sugar for dusting
Place the yeast in a small jar with lukewarm water and a teaspoon of sugar and let it activate (about 10 minutes).
Mix the evaporated milk, butter, egg, rest of the sugar, and salt in a bowl till its smooth. Mix in the yeast.
Place the flour in a large bowl and make a hole in the center. Add the yeast mixture to this flour, mix and knead until it’s a wet dough.
Now place the dough on a floured surface and knead well, until the dough is similar to a bread dough (smooth and airy). Mould the dough to a round surface, oil the outside well and place it in an oiled bowl.
Cover with a damp cloth and let it rest and rise overnight.
Remove the dough place it on a floured surface and roll it out to about ½ inch thickness.
Cut it into squares. Heat oil in a fryer to 360 degrees and fry the beignets to golden brown.
Remove and drain on paper towels. Then generously sprinkle powdered sugar and serve hot with a cup of chicory coffee. Enjoy!