Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook Launch Party

Confed Dunces CoverPlease join me for the release of  A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook, Tuesday, October 13, 6:00 p.m., Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania Street, New Orleans. I’ll be signing books and you can enjoy Fortuna’s Black-eyed Pea Hummus, Coconut and Macadamia Macaroons, Dr. Talc’s Bloody Marys, and Lucky Dogs, served by Jerry Strahan, the real-life Mr. Clyde.

A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook

Ignatius J. Reilly on the cover of 'A Confederacy of Dunces.'

Ignatius J. Reilly on the cover of A Confederacy of Dunces

Anyone who’s read John Kennedy Toole’s satirical masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces knows that the book’s main character Ignatius J. Reilly likes to eat. And so does just about every other character in this Pulitzer Prize winner. So for the past few months I’ve been hammering away at the computer and the stove developing recipes for a cookbook based on the foods that became such an important part of Dunces, and which includes everything from Miss Trixie’s longed-for ham to Darlene’s “juicy” wine cakes.

LSU Press will publish my manuscript, and has given me a deadline of December 31, 2014. Until then, I’ll be writing and cooking, doing research in New Orleans, posting to Twitter and Pinterest, and hoping that my finished manuscript shapes into something more coherent than the disorganized, but promising mess it is now.

So stay tuned. Santa Battaglia’s recipe for Daube and Spaghettis is coming your way. Now — back to work.

Cutting the Cost of Vanilla

Dried Vanilla Beans

Dried Vanilla Beans

Planning ahead for holiday baking, I recently did an inventory of one of the most important and pricey flavorings in my pantry — vanilla.

A familiar bottle of vanilla extract.

A familiar bottle of vanilla extract.

Vanilla was first grown in the highlands of Mexico, where 15th-century Aztecs called the mature seed pod the “black flower.” After the French discovered Mexican vanilla, they started plantings in the Comoros Islands, Reunion and Madagascar. Today, Indonesia and Madagascar produce 80% of the world’s vanilla.

Vanilla is a tropical orchid that grows on a vine. The main cultivars are Bourbon vanilla (from the Indian Ocean region), Mexican vanilla, Tahitian vanilla and West Indian vanilla. Vanilla beans and extract cost so much because harvesting and preparation are extremely labor intensive. For this reason, saffron is the only spice more expensive than vanilla.

A Jar of Homemade Vanilla Extract

A Jar of Homemade Vanilla Extract

Because it seems like I use it by the gallon, I’ve learned to brew my own from pods I buy in bulk. To make a pint of homemade vanilla, just slit three vanilla beans all the way down, place in a clean glass pint jar and cover with a distilled spirit such as vodka or rum. Let the covered jar sit for a month and, voila, you have vanilla extract!

And guess what? I just found a jar I’d started brewing a few months ago and had forgotten about. Now, on to baking those Thanksgiving cake and pies — and I won’t have to scrimp on expensive vanilla.

Caponata

imageMakes 3-4 cups. Recipe is by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles.

Although strongly associated with Sicily, there is evidence that this “agro dolce” (sweet and sour) eggplant dish was created by Arabs who lived in Spain. It was likely first concocted onboard ships, where cooks needed to make use of Mediterranean produce that was close to spoiling. The use of cocoa in caponata is a Sicilian custom.

 

1 large eggplant

Salt

½ cup olive oil

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 medium onion, finely sliced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup tomato paste

2 cups water

⅔ cup red wine vinegar

1 cup roughly chopped olives

½ cup capers

2 tbls. honey

2 tsp. cocoa

¼ cup pine nuts

¼ cup chopped parsley

¼ cup chopped basil

Black pepper

Toasts or crackers for serving (optional)

 

1. Cube unpeeled eggplant. Place in a colander and sprinkle with salt. With a weight on top (a skillet with a few cans is good), set aside to drain for 1 hour. Drain and rinse eggplant, and pat dry.

2. Heat ½ cup olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and sauté eggplant until it begins to color. Add celery and onion and sauté until onion begins to brown.

3. Add tomato paste, water, vinegar, olives, capers, honey, cocoa, and pine nuts. Simmer 15 minutes.

4. Add parsley, basil, salt and pepper to taste. Simmer another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve warm or cold as a side dish or an hors d’oeuvre.

Stir-Fried Shrimp and Asian Eggplant

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Makes 4 servings. Recipe is by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles.

 

3 tbls. canola oil, divided

1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. black pepper

3 oriental eggplants (about 1 lb. total)

1 tbl. chopped garlic

1 tbl. chopped fresh ginger

2 tbls. rice vinegar

1 tsp. honey

2 tbls. soy sauce

½ tsp. hot red pepper flakes

1 tsp. sesame oil

¼ cup sliced green onion

 

1. Over medium-high, heat 1½ tablespoons canola oil in a large heavy skillet or wok. Toss shrimp with salt and black pepper and sauté until curled and pink, about 3 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.

2. Slice unpeeled eggplants in half lengthwise and then on the diagonal in ½-inch pieces. Heat remaining oil in same skillet over medium-high heat until very hot and sauté eggplant until soft. If necessary, add more oil. Add garlic and ginger and sauté 30 seconds.

3. Gently stir in vinegar, honey, soy sauce, pepper flakes and sesame oil. Stir in cooked shrimp and sauté 1 minute. Stir in green onion. Serve hot.

Ratatouille

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Makes 6 to 8 servings. Adapted from a recipe by Sir Robin Hixson in the Delta Queen Cookbook (LSU Press, 2012).

Ratatouille originated in southern France’s Provençe region, where produce is abundant. It is cooked in stages and layered, resulting in a dish with rich texture.

 

2 pounds eggplant, peeled and diced

3 medium zucchini (1½ lbs. total), peeled and diced

Salt ¾ cup olive oil, divided

2 onions (1 lb. total), thinly sliced

3 bell peppers (1½ lbs. total), any color, seeded and cut into thin strips

3 large tomatoes (1½ lbs. total), peeled, seeded, and diced

Freshly ground black pepper

4 cloves garlic (3 minced and 1 whole, peeled)

2 bay leaves

1 small bouquet garni (fresh parsley, thyme, and oregano tied together in a cheesecloth bag)

 

1. Place eggplant and zucchini in separate nonreactive bowls (glass or stainless steel). Sprinkle lightly with salt and set aside for 20 minutes.

2. Heat half of the olive oil in a skillet. Add onions and cook until onions are soft but not brown. Remove onions from skillet. Add bell peppers to skillet and sauté, then remove from skillet.

3. Drain eggplant. Add to skillet and sauté, then remove from skillet. Drain zucchini. Add to skillet and sauté, then remove from skillet.

4. Pour remaining olive oil into a heavy-bottomed pot. Add layers of vegetables in the following order: onion, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers. Season with salt and pepper. Add minced and whole garlic, bay leaves, and bouquet garni. Cover and cook for 1 hour over gentle heat, being careful not to let vegetables stick to bottom of pot. Serve hot or cold.

Fried Eggplant

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Makes 6 servings. Recipe is by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles.

 

⅔ cup cornstarch

½ tsp. garlic powder

½ tsp. salt, divided

¼ tsp. ground black pepper

¼ tsp. Tabasco sauce

2 large eggs

1 tsp. dried oregano

1½ cups fine breadcrumbs

1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound)

Canola oil for frying

Coarse salt for finishing

 

1. In a small bowl combine cornstarch, garlic powder, ¼ teaspoon salt, and pepper. In another small bowl beat together Tabasco sauce and eggs.

2. Combine oregano, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, and breadcrumbs in a third small bowl.

3. In a deep fryer, heat at least 1½ inches oil to 375°F. While oil is heating, peel eggplant and slice into ½-inch sticks, about the size of large French fries.

4. Dredge eggplant pieces in cornstarch and shake to remove excess. Dip in egg and then coat in breadcrumbs. Fry until a deep golden brown and eggplant sounds hollow when tapped with a spoon. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt and serve hot.

Shrimp and Bacon Creole Cream Cheese Cheesecake

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Makes 12 slices Recipe by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles. Served as an appetizer or lunch entrée, this rich, savory cheesecake is best baked a day ahead so the flavors can mingle. Top with tomatoes and pepper jelly up to eight hours before serving.

 

Nonstick vegetable spray

2 tbls. fine bread crumbs

2 tbls. vegetable oil

½ cup minced onion

½ lb. shrimp, cleaned, deveined and coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

6 slices bacon, cooked crisp, drained and crumbled

2 tbls. minced green onion (plus extra for garnish)

2 11.5-oz. cartons Creole cream cheese (or neufchatel cheese)

½ cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 large eggs

¼ tsp. liquid crab boil seasoning

¾ tsp. salt

½ tsp. ground black pepper

⅛ tsp. cayenne pepper

1½ pints grape tomatoes, washed and thoroughly dried

½ cup red pepper jelly

 

1. Preheat oven to 325°. Coat bottom and sides of an 8 or 9-inch springform pan with nonstick vegetable spray and dust with breadcrumbs. Set aside.

2. Heat oil in a small skillet over medium heat until hot and sauté onion until translucent. Add shrimp and sauté until beginning to turn pink, about 1 minute. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in bacon and green onion. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl, beat cream cheese, cream and flour on medium speed 2 minutes. On low speed, add eggs 1 at a time, blending well after each addition. Beat in crab boil, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper.

4. Thoroughly combine shrimp and Creole cream cheese mixtures. Pour into prepared pan. Bake until set but still jiggly in the middle, about 1 hour.

5. Cool in pan until room temperature. Cover and chill thoroughly. Remove sides of pan from cheesecake. In a small saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon water and pepper jelly until jelly melts. Remove from heat. Arrange tomatoes on top of cheesecake and brush with melted jelly. Pour remaining jelly over tomatoes. Refrigerate until jelly sets, about ½ hour. Garnish slices with green onion.

Creole Cream Cheese

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Makes 10-12 cups. Recipe from Chef John Folse’s Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine (2004).

This is one of those historical recipes created of necessity. In Louisiana before refrigeration, almost everyone who had a cow made cream cheese with cream that was ready to spoil. My mom remembers making cream cheese by hanging fresh cream in cheesecloth on the sink faucet and simply letting it drain overnight, the way Creole cream cheese was made before rennet was widely used. In Old New Orleans, the Creole cream cheese lady would peddle her wares in the streets every morning, and her customers would typically eat the creamy breakfast treat with sugar, cream, and strawberries.

 

2 gallons skim milk

½ quart buttermilk

½ rennet tablet (available at cheese specialty stores)*

Half-and-half (optional)

 

1. In a stainless steel pot, combine skim milk, buttermilk and rennet, stirring constantly. Carefully monitor temperature with a thermometer until milk reaches 80 degrees F.

2. Continuing to stir, hold milk at 80 degrees F for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover tightly and let sit 3 hours.

3. Drain off whey (liquid remaining after curds are formed) and discard. Pack solids (curds) in 8-ounce portions. Top each portion with equal parts half-and-half, if desired. Chill and serve with sugar or fruit.

 

*Or substitute ½ teaspoon liquid rennet.

 

Testing Notes: Recipe is easily halved. To drain, line a colander or large sieve with a double layer of cheesecloth and spoon the curds into the cheesecloth. (Try not to break up the chunks of curds.) Drain one hour, or until cheese has formed one solid piece. Do not squeeze the moisture out of the cheese while in the cheesecloth; the final product will end up too dry.

The Dolly (Apple Pie Moonshine Martini)

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Recipe is from Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine. Ole Smoky Moonshine invited me to Chef John Folse’s Restaurant Revolution in New Orleans for a gourmet moonshine-themed meal. But these before-dinner drinks were so good and addictive that I really don’t remember what was on the menu.

 

For each drink:

1 part Ole Smoky® Apple Pie Moonshine

1 part ginger ale

Splash lime juice

2 Ole Smoky® Moonshine [marinated] Cherries

 

Shake Apple Pie Moonshine, ginger ale, and lime juice with ice. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with cherries.