Cooking Creole in New Orleans

(Originally published in the Fargo-Moorhead Forum,April 1998)

By Ross Collins

When he cranked the burner to high under a pan of oil and flour, I remembered why I was scared of creole cooking.
"You've made a roux before, and it takes forever, right?" said Kevin Belton, chef and big (really big, as in 400 pounds) cheese of the New Orleans School of Cooking. "Well, that's because you didn't have it hot enough. You put it right up to high."

At least that's pretty much his words. I was trying to take fast notes while fearing a flare-up on stage, and wondering why the baking soda wasn't close at hand. But this three-hour school in the heart of the French Quarter is more than a mere demonstration and meal. You really do learn a few things about creole cooking.

The school is one of three in New Orleans. It bills itself as the oldest, open since 1980. All of these schools offer the traditional dishes you love during a visit there, and are set up for tourists: reserve a place a day or more in advance, show up, watch and eat. Cost of this school is $20, for a demonstration meal of gumbo, jambalaya, bread pudding and whiskey sauce, and pralines. Recipes and a few Dixie beers are included.

Joke-a-minute Belton offers all sorts of tips not found most creole cookbooks, such as:

* If you use liquid for cooking, it should always be flavored: stock or wine are two of his favorites.

* Don't use seafood stock with seafood gumbo--too much seafood taste.

* Andouille sausage called for in many creole recipes can be hard to find up north: just use a heavily-smoked sausage.

* Add vegetables at different times to give your dish differing tastes and textures.

Someone asked about margarine. Belton stepped back in horror. Margarine instead of butter? "Look," he said. "There's one thing a gotta tell ya. You're gonna die. We're all gonna die someday. So why not use butter and die happy?"

So a roux uses butter and flour. But not this one. "Butter will only cook to a light-brown roux," explains Belton. "After that it burns." For the peanut-butter colored roux he recommends in gumbo, you need to use oil. And watch so it doesn't burn, either the roux or the house down.

One of the school's easiest recipes is for a traditional gumbo. Unlike many in books, this recipe calls for a reasonably small number of ingredients, and--well, perhaps it's not so traditional--no okra. Belton explains that the okra was commonly used to thicken the soup, but really is not necessary, and disliked by many.


(New Orleans School of Cooking; makes 15-20 servings)

1 C. oil
1 chicken, cut up or boned
1 1/2 lbs. andouille
1 C. flour
Trinity (next three items):
4 C. chopped onions
2 C. chopped celery
2 C. chopped green pepper

1 Tbsp. chopped garlic
8 C. stock or flavored water
2 C chopped green onions
Cooked rice
Joe's Stuff seasoning

Season and brown chicken in oil (lard, bacon drippings) over medium heat. Add sausage to pot and sauté with chicken. Remove both from pot.

Make a roux with equal parts oil (must be free of food particles to avoid burning) and flour to desired color (Belton recommends peanut-butter brown). Add onions, celery, green pepper. Add garlic to the mixture and stir continuously. After vegetables reach desired tenderness, return chicken and sausage to pot and cook with vegetables, continuing to stir frequently. Gradually stir in liquid and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer and cook for an hour or more. Season to taste with Joes' Stuff seasoning.

Approximately 10 minutes before serving, add green onions. Serve gumbo over rice or without rice, accompanied by French bread.

Ross's Lab of Creole Cooking

Of course, the entire meal went off without a glitch, and we left for the school's attached store full and inspired to buy cookbooks and spices.

That was there. This is now Ross's South Fargo Lab of Creole Cooking. How does this gumbo recipe work at home?

First, I halfed the recipe, though it's not a bad idea to cook the whole thing and freeze it. Soup freezes well. Next I substituted frozen chicken breasts that had been in the freezer way too long. I didn't have nearly enough, but it should help. The sausage: my frozen Polish from Schwan's is pretty smoky, so why not?

I had some "trinity" (vegetables used for all creole cooking, and since creole is of French origin and therefore Catholic, well...) chopped up already from another dish, but the proportions of what I had didn't match the recipe. Oh well. I chopped the garlic, found a couple cans of Flavorite chicken broth.

Then I began the roux. Gulp.

Belton said use any oil but canola oil, which is the one oil that will burn. Guess what I had in the cupboard? Oh well.

Starting the roux, I strongly considered leaving the burner on medium and just waiting, but that seemed like such a wimp-out. So I got out the box of baking soda, screwed the dial to high, and whisked.

Astoundingly, the roux turned peanut-butter colored in about five minutes, with no accidents. Cooking friend Brad Johnson had told me that canola actually is a very high temperature oil. Maybe Belton got that part mixed up. But--oops, I forgot to brown the chicken in the pan first. So I browned it separately, while adding the trinity and the garlic to the roux. Oh well.

The vegetables were ready in about 10 minutes or so...oops, I forgot to sautÚ the sausage. So I just threw it in the pot with the stock to boil. Can't make much difference.

Cook for an hour? I missed that, and needed things done in about 10 minutes. Well, close enough.

Season with Joe's Stuff? Belton explains that Joe was the original founder of the school, and that you could buy his mixture at the store. I neglected to do that, so I dug into another New Orleans cookbook for a substitute, and came up with a combination of:
3 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. thyme
1/8 tsp powdered cloves
1/8 tsp powdered allspice
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp basil

Must be pretty close to Joe's.

I added the green onions. Well, one green onion, actually, which was all I could find in the back of the crisper. I cut off the brown parts first.

Filé is a fine green powder of dried ground sassafras leaves, used in gumbo for flavor and thickening. You need to sprinkle it on right before serving (or have your guests do it), to avoid turning the vegetables stringy. Careful! While it's not hot pepper, it still lets the good sweats roll.

Ladling myself a bowl on rice, I added the filé, slurped up, was great! From this I learned two things:

1. Making a roux isn't so scary.
2. Making gumbo isn't so fussy.

I did not make the bread pudding myself, but relied on cooking friend Ron Matthies, who turned out a really divine dessert, unlike the bread pudding you may remember as a kid. This had the texture of oatmeal. He said it was easy, too. The key is to vary the ingredients, depending on taste, substituting, for example, pina colada mix for the milk, pineapple for the raisins, or whatever you like. Here is the school's recipe:

Bread Pudding

(16-20 servings) Ingredients:
1 10 oz loaf stale French bread
4 C. milk
2 C. sugar
8 Tbsp. butter, melted
3 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
Optional, adapt to taste:
1 C. raisins
1 C. coconut
1 C. chopped pecans
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg

Combine all ingredients. Mixture should be very moist but not soupy. Pour into buttered 9-inch by 12-inch baking dish or larger. Place into non-preheated oven. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until top is golden brown. Serve warm with sauce.

Whisky Sauce
8 Tbsp. butter (1 stick)
1 1/2 C. powdered sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 C. bourbon (to taste, or substitute your favorite liqueur or juice)

Cream butter and sugar over medium heat until all butter is absorbed. Remove from heat and blend in egg yolk. Pour in bourbon gradually to your own taste, stirring constantly. Sauce will thicken as it cools. Serve warm over warm bread pudding.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>