Guest Blogger Gisele Perez Reviews John Besh's My New Orleans

Guest Blogger Gisele Perez Reviews John Besh's My New Orleans

(note from kat: Gisele Perez was born in New Orleans and was part of the mass migration westward from there in the 1950's and 60's. She writes, as the LA2LAChef, about her experiences as an expatriate New Orleanian, and her life as a professional chef now living in Los Angeles at painperdu. She is also the owner of small pleasures catering in Los Angeles, and co-host of the Drinking Liberally chapter there.)

John Besh dedicates his newly released cookbook, My New Orleans, to the people of New Orleans, and to those who hold the city close to their hearts.

“After Katrina, being from New Orleans became the focus of my identity,” he writes in his introduction. I hear ya, brother! I had just begun to write about my early life in New Orleans when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I remember e-mailing a fellow writing workshop member that it seemed trivial to be writing about backyard family parties, and okra and shrimp and gumbo at a time like this. He wisely responded, “that’s precisely what you should be writing at a time like this. Food is a means of preserving culture.” And so, Katrina was the impetus for beginning my blog, pain perdu. Likewise, Mr. Besh felt the urgent call to preserve the culture of New Orleans, using food as his window.

He threw himself into feeding people, returning to New Orleans quickly to feed “policemen and national guard troops, evacuees and refugees, doctors and nurse, all who were hungry...” It didn’t stop there. He writes that he “became obsessed with finding ingredients with the flavor of here,” and began raising his own cattle, hogs and chickens, and working closely with local farmers to supply his restaurants, believing that New Orleans is “a true national treasure”, and that it’s “important to come from somewhere”. I couldn’t agree more.

While Besh’s New Orleans is not exactly the same as mine, and I found myself quibbling over the details of recipes for basic dishes like gumbo and jambalaya (New Orleanians can be very proprietary about their recipes), I realize that the wonderful thing about this city is that it's like Rashomon. We all see different sides of New Orleans, and defend our view. Yet unlike other cities, there is so much commonality that is essential to life as a New Orleanian- like the extraordinary love of food (“In New Orleans, folks live to eat; they don’t just eat to live”) and festivity (“there’s a Mardi Gras taking place in every household and every neighborhood of New Orleans on Fat Tuesday”)- that binds us together. And our fierce love of New Orleans binds us further together.

Besh acknowledges, and his book embodies “...a tension in New Orleans cooking between preserving the classics and modernizing them for today’s palates, between home cooking and restaurant food.” He offers some updates of classic dishes which reflect NOLA’s evolving demography, like Shrimp Creole infused with lemon grass to reflect the arrival of the Vietnamese and their imprint on the city and its cuisine. And because he trained as a chef at the Culinary Institute of America, and apprenticed in Europe, he also offers us some modern reinterpretations of classic ingredients, like Grilled Watermelon, Tomato and Goat Cheese Salad, with a knowing aside, “where I grew up, grown men did not eat grilled figs with baby greens and artisanal goats’ milk cheese.”

Besh’s book is not just another cookbook. While it contains 200 recipes, it’s also a beautiful coffee table book with gorgeous archival and present day pictures of NOLA, and its families and characters at work and play, at Mardi Gras, on the waterways, and at the table. Its contents are not organized in traditional cookbook “appetizer to dessert” order, but rather by ingredients, seasons and feast days- some of those days meriting their own chapter- like Mardi Gras and Thanksgiving. Speaking of ingredients, the book is also full of sidebars with background notes on the glorious ingredients available to New Orleans cooks-i.e. Creole tomatoes, Ponchatoula strawberries, and mirlitons, and speckled trout and Gulf oysters.

My New Orleans is a “must add” to the library of anyone who loves New Orleans, or anyone who has flirted with the possibility of falling in love with the city. At a retail price of $45, it seems a bargain to me, and will, no doubt, to every one who holds the city in its heart.

Shrimp Creole

5 pounds jumbo Louisiana or wild American shrimp
Freshly ground black pepper
1 T. minced fresh lemongrass
1/2 C. olive oil
3 medium onions, diced
10 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 bell pepper, red, green or yellow, seeded and diced
5 pounds very ripe Brandywine or other heirloom tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 bay leaf
1/4 t. ground allspice
1 T. crushed red pepper flakes
Leaves from 2 branches of fresh basil
Leaves from 1 sprig of fresh mint

1. Put shrimp into a large bowl, season with salt and pepper, then mix in the lemongrass. Heat 1/4 C. of the oil in a large deep skillet over moderate heat. Add the shrimp, stirring and tossing them with a spatula, until they turn pink, about 2 minutes. Remove the shrimp from the pan and set aside.
2. Into the same skillet with the oil and and shrimp juices, put the remaining 1/4 C. oil, and the onions, garlic, celery, and bell peppers and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, for about 2 minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes. Reduce the heat to medium low, and when the sauce comes to a simmer, add the bayleaf.allspice, and red pepper flakes. Simmer for 10 minutes.
4. Add the shrimp back to the skillet, along with the basil and mint. Cook for a minute or two. Season with salt and pepper. If the sauce is a little too tart, add a little sugar to balance the flavors. Serve over steamed white rice.