Well, it’s official. The leaves have commenced their change-of-life in northern Michigan, which means summer is coming to a close, and autumn is on its way. As always, I have bittersweet emotions about this inevitable seasonal shift.
On the one hand, I hate knowing that I’ll soon be vacating my relatively peaceful habitat beside Big Bear Lake. On the other hand, leaving Michigan in less than six weeks means that Dan (the hubby), Ruby (the kitty), and I (the blogger) will be in New Orleans by late September. So, what we typically lose in serenity, we’ll surely gain in gastronomic pleasure. New Orleans, after all, offers a veritable cornucopia of culinary delights – and despite an unwillingness to wish my summer away, my mouth is starting to water at the thought of fresh seafood, yummy Southern cuisine, and other diet-busting delectables.
‘Cause let’s be honest. Though Dan and I have every intention of sticking to our present diets (or, as my mother likes to say, “healthy lifestyle changes”), we’re not foolish enough to think that we’ll be able to resist the Big Easy’s evil temptations for long. There’s just too much awesome food in the region!
While I could write several hundred blog posts about my favorite New Orleans dishes and treats, I’ll spare you the agony and just share a handful of my greatest weaknesses – in no particular order, of course:
Oysters: Although Dan attests that I’m the worst New Orleanian he’s ever met (given my lack of an accent, aversion to spicy foods, intolerance of extreme heat, and poor sense of direction in the French Quarter), I am definitely a good little Louisianian when it comes to seafood – and I mean, all seafood. You name it, I probably love it – shrimp, crab, crawfish, alligator, catfish, trout, redfish, oysters – well, especially oysters. In fact, one of the first things I usually have to do upon arriving in the Big Easy is to head to Oceana Grill for a platter of fresh, sizable raw oysters (otherwise, known as oysters-on-the-half-shell). Oh, man, just thinking about slurping those little suckers down with some lemon juice and cocktail sauce is making my tummy grumble.
While I’m always – and I mean, always – in the mood for raw oysters, I’m a fan of cooked ones, too. At Café Maspero, I like to sit beside one of the open French windows, watch the passersby on Decatur, and munch on a plate of fried oysters. On other days, I’ve been known to stop by Felix’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar for a mixture of Oysters Rockefeller (for those who like spinach) and Oysters Bienville (for those who like a little of everything).
Seafood boils: While I do love a mean cup of seafood gumbo (which can vary in flavor and excellence, depending on the joint), I’m an even bigger fan of boiled seafood. Depending on the season, you can purchase boiled shrimp, crawfish, or crabs in many restaurants and seafood markets throughout the city. Of course, at the risk of sounding like a Daddy’s girl, the best boiled crawfish and crab I’ve ever had is at my father’s house in Slidell (which lies north of Lake Pontchartrain). During the spring, Dad routinely buys large sacks of live crawfish for weekly crawfish boils – and for these awesome occasions, I usually lift my “no spicy food” ban and go hog-wild... ‘cause my dad sure knows how to add the Zatarain’s seasoning – sometimes, so much so that the corncobs, mushrooms, and garlic bulbs that he tosses into the bubbling pot are just too darn hot to eat! Even better than the crawfish, however, are the crabs – which Dad catches from his boat or from the traps that hang alongside his deck. They might be time-consuming to eat, but the meat sure is worth every sweet bite.
Fish fry: Naturally, the best food is the kind you catch yourself. Last spring, Dan took his first crabbing trip with me and my dad – and while pulling up the nets was backbreaking work, even he admitted that the boiled crabs were well worth the agony. Of course, he’s an even bigger fan of our frequent fishing trips into the salty waters south of New Orleans. Over the years, we’ve headed out there several times – usually returning to the boat launch with at least a few speckled trout and redfish – both of which make for excellent meals. Our best trip was several years ago, when Dan, Dad, my stepmom, and I spent a weekend out at Dad’s old fishing camp (since lost to Hurricane Katrina). Late one night, by the glow of a floodlight that seemed to attract a million insects, we lured seventy-five trout into our coolers. What a haul indeed! And there’s nothing quite like a fish fry to punctuate such a trip. Mmm-mmm, good.
Muffuletta: Now, just so we’re clear – seafood isn’t the only thing that New Orleanian cooks prepare well. Another favorite treat of mine is the muffuletta: typically, a combination of ham, salami, mortadella, provolone, and olive salad on a round load of soft Italian bread. And, though some New Orleanians might disagree, my muffuletta of choice can be found at Café Maspero (which, if you haven’t guessed by now, is my all-time favorite restaurant in the French Quarter). A twist on tradition, the muffuletta at Maspero’s includes pastrami, is served warm, and comes with delicious steak fries. Man, am I gonna get fat this fall!
Beignets: No trip to the French Quarter is complete without a visit to Cafe Du Monde on Decatur – a historic coffee shop that’s unbelievably open twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. Dan and I have been there more often than we should, and though we try hard, we usually can’t bring ourselves to leave without having a café au lait and an order of three beignets – essentially, French doughnuts covered in powdered sugar. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been to Cafe Du Monde – it was always the preferred after-hours stop following a high school dance or other blessed occasion. So, if you ever find yourself in the French Quarter, make sure to stop there at least once. Just be forewarned – that sugar can be messy, so messy, in fact, that all self-respecting police officers (dressed in their customary black uniforms) must order sugarless beignets, or else face the consequences – because, no matter how hard you try, the powdered sugar will find its way on your clothes. Trust me.
Lucky Dog: I’m sure, by now, you’ve wearied of my ode to New Orleans cuisine, but I must share one more nugget with you. For those who have ever read about the misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces, you might recognize the Lucky Dog carts that pepper the French Quarter. Of course, if you’re not into hot dogs, then, by all means, don’t stop by one of the ubiquitous umbrellas. But I, for one, am grateful for their presence. When the late-hour munchies set in after a night of boozing on Bourbon Street, you just might be grateful, too.
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