AMERICAN CUISINE CELEBRATES A BIRTHDAY 

By John DeMers

History was on the plate everywhere in New Orleans recently when the American Cuisine and Hospitality Symposium attracted luminaries from all across the country to discuss how far we’ve traveled. After all, the first (and only other) such symposium in 1983 is still considered one of the foundational moments in American cuisine.  And all those years ago, as a notably younger news reporter, I was there.

Two of the most important luminaries of that original gathering were sadly missing from this latest edition, held like the first at the Brennan family’s landmark Commander’s Palace. Ella Brennan, the matriarch and certainly one of the most important champions of our country’s food and drink, passed away in May at age 92. And Cajun master chef Paul Prudhomme, such a fixture at the first event, was but a spicy memory as well.

If the program at the first symposium was about establishing credibility for “American cuisine” in a country long addicted to French, Italian and other European imports, last week’s was able to take that for granted. Instead, there were sessions on women in the professional kitchen (something much harder to imagine in 1983) and the renaissance of the all-American cocktail.

On hand for this go-round, among many others, were Emeril Lagasse, who followed Prudhomme as executive chef at Commander’s Palace, New York chef restaurateur Larry Forgione, one of the earliest zealots for all things American,  Drew Nieporent, Jeremiah Tower, Ruth Reichl, Danny Meyer and Jonathan Waxman.           

GUMBOLAYA

With origins in two classic Creole-Cajun dishes – gumbo and jambalaya – this delightful hybrid is the kind of things New Orleans chefs and home cooks have been doing ever since that first symposium at Commander’s Palace in 1983. The foundational flavors are all traditional, yet the addition of cilantro and jasmine rice makes us think of Thailand. It’s the sort of freedom and fusion American food does best.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound spicy andouille (or smoked) sausage, sliced
8 chicken tenderloins (or 2 skinless/boneless chicken breasts), cut into bite-size pieces
Salt
Pepper
3 celery stalks, finely diced
1 large onion, finely diced
1 large bell pepper, finely diced
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon Creole seasoning
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon, heaping, tomato paste
½ pound okra, sliced into ¼ – ½” thick slices
1 (16 oz) can Fischer and Wieser’s Salsa A La Charra
2 cups chicken stock, hot
½ pound peeled and cleaned, medium size shrimp (raw)
1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped

Fragrant Garlic Rice:

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, pressed through garlic press
2 cups jasmine rice
1 teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper
3 cups water 

Place a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, and add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add the sliced sausage, and allow it to caramelize and brown for a few minutes; once well browned, remove the sausage from the pot, and set it aside for a moment. Next, add the chicken pieces into the pot along with a sprinkle or two of salt and pepper, and allow them to brown in the oil/sausage drippings for about 2-3 minutes; remove the chicken pieces from the pot, and set aside for a moment.

Add in the diced celery, onion and bell pepper, and caramelize it for about 2-3 minutes in the oil, then add in the bay leaves, the Creole seasoning, the cayenne pepper, ½ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of black pepper, and stir to combine. Add in the garlic and stir, and once it becomes aromatic, add in the tomato paste, and cook for about 1 minute to cook out the “raw” tomato flavor.

Next, add the sliced okra, the marinara, the hot chicken stock, and the browned sausage and chicken, and stir to combine, and allow the stew to simmer gently on low/medium-low, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Now, add in the shrimp (you can season with a sprinkle of salt/pepper if you wish), and simmer for only 2 minutes more as to not overcook the shrimp. Finish by stirring in the chopped parsley and cilantro, and serve over the Fragrant Garlic Rice, with some additional spice/heat options like hot sauce, red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper, if desired.

To prepare the rice, place a medium pot over medium-high heat, and add in the olive oil; once hot, add in the pressed garlic, and stir to combine. As soon as the garlic becomes fragrant, add the rice, the salt and the pepper and stir, allowing the rice to “toast” in the garlic oil for about 2 minutes. Add in the water, stir, and simmer the rice, covered, for about 20 minutes, or until tender. Turn off the heat, and after 5 minutes, fluff with fork and serve. Serves 6-8.


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