Not too long ago, we began our love affair with Louisiana, not in Louisiana itself, but at home in Seattle at a little food truck called Where Ya at Matt. We spent months on a diet rich in red beans, grits, fried shrimp and beignets, which made us crave it directly from its source. Luckily, a ridiculously cheap rental car deal led Austin and I to pay a visit to Louisiana this past spring. We set out on a week-long tasting adventure across the state, and while the foods that follow are now familiar friends, we imagined you might need a bit of a Cajun crash course.
A po' boy is an overstuffed sandwich full of tasty fillings like shrimp, oysters, or even roast beef. On a recent trip to Louisiana, we found them everywhere from fast food shops to more upscale establishments. Our favorite submissions to the unofficial po'boy hall of fame, aka our bellies, were found at Crabby Jacks in New Orleans. There you can find the standards, like the fried shrimp seen above, but also have unique find like cochon de lait (or suckling, ie. baby, pig) or fried green tomato. (For those who have heard a lot about the restaurant Jacques-Imo's, Jacques and Jack are one in the same.)
And while we did a hearty sampling, what we are really looking forward to is attending the po' boy preservation festival one day. This annual celebration of the art of this saucy, napkin-required sandwich is surely not to be missed.
With few exceptions, people like fried dough. A beignet is Louisiana's version of the treat and made famous by Cafe du Monde in New Orleans. Despite its tourist appeal, we still highly recommend a stop for a messy bite of the powdered sugar topped confection. Beignets, however, are not the only option, as we sampled an oreille de cochon (or pig's ear) at Cafe des Amis in Breaux Bridge. The bigger, crispier brother of the beignet, an oreille is a meal in and of itself.
With all that sweetness, the most obvious accompaniment is a cup of coffee. In Louisiana, your brew will most likely will include some chicory in the mix. The endive root, or chicory, is a common addition to their brew, stemming from leaner times when coffee was scarce and needed to be stretched a little further. It's said that it adds body and mellows out the bitterness, but I can't say that I noticed. It was, however, a fine start to the morning.
Sauces and stews served over rice are a common meal in Louisiana. Étouffée is one of these dishes made with shrimp or crawfish. Meaning smothered in French, it's a rich, thick stew that begins with a roux made of fat and flour. Depending on where you're from a roux can be any shade of brown from light to very dark.
Another rice centered-dish is red beans and rice, a Creole staple. Beans are slow cooked with onion, celery, and bell pepper, as well as Tasso ham, a peppery smoked pork. Served with rice and a generous dose of hot sauce, it's comfort food at its finest.
We sampled both of these dishes at Igantius Eatery, an unassuming spot on Magazine Street in New Orleans. A handful of tables, walls lined with Louisiana culinary treasures(kitchen storage perhaps?), and quirky signs to entertain you. My favorite, "Eat Rice or Leave." Not a problem.
I always confuse these two, but in name only. They couldn't be any more different. Jambalaya, on the left, is a a meat and rice dish. The initiated will know that I sampled this outside of New Orleans by the lack of red hue. Outside of the city, jambalaya doesn't contain tomatoes, but instead the trinity (onion, celery and bell pepper), browned meat and rice. I sampled this pork jambalaya at a Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. I think I fall in the brown jambalaya camp.
Gumbo, however, is a stew that also comes in a variety of styles. I haven't sampled enough of it to be an expert and am guessing this bowl, from Cajun Critters in Houma, LA would be more of a Creole variety. Brothy with whole crab legs inside, it was a satisfying lunch. It's a stew that requires more research.
If there's a critter that should be the mascot for Louisiana cuisine, I'd nominate the crawfish. Devouring the tiny lobster-like crustaceans is a rite of passage and there's nothing better to mark the beginning of summer than a crawfish boil. We were fortunate enough to stop by the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana and sat down to feast. Boiled up with potato and corn, the mudbugs are spicy little peel-able bites. I can't tell you enough - put your squeamish self aside, and follow the orders to "suck dem heads." That's where all the salty, spicy flavor lies.
When I first read up on Boudin, I found story after story of people finding it at gas stations throughout the state. It seemed to be the ubiquitous porky roadside snack. The (what seemed to be) odd recommendations that the best way to enjoy it was to squeeze it directly from the casing into your mouth did not deter us. At every opportunity, we sampled the pork and rice sausage and enjoyed the different variations. The most elegant incarnations were found at Cochon Butcher in New Orleans, paired with a spicy Abita mustard, and at Cafe des Amis in Breaux Bridge where it was paired with a fried egg. One thing for sure, it's the perfect sausage snack anytime of day.
Also at home in the gas station is the cracklin', a fried piece of pork fat and skin. My father left me firm instructions to try some of this local delicacy. My first sampling was a complete failure; the big chucks were soft, fatty and unappetizing. I quickly learned that its texture may vary. An emergency call to my father to berate him for instructing me to try such a disaster came with better instructions. "Kelly, you've got to look for small ones. The crispy, crunchy ones are the best." With a better eye we found these, and while they're still not something I'd be able to eat much of, a perfectly fried one is a thing of beauty. (Warning, they also label bags of pork rinds as cracklin'. These are not what you want.) Head to a gas station and look for cracklin' where other hot foods are kept, usually near the register in a glass case. Ask for the small, crispy ones if you can.
Hot, soft, and sweetly welcoming, bread pudding is one of the desserts of choice in Louisiana. I'd recommend sharing, as the sweet, cinnamon and raisin filled concoction can fill you up faster than you might expect. We found it everywhere, even this lovely bite at Abita Brew Pub.
I've already shared our epic snowball exploration on the site, but these icy, sweet treats are a summer staple. Snow-like ice covered in a variety of syrups and topped with marshmallow or condensed milk are worthy of the blood sugar spike. To say that I love them would be a gross understatement.
I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss adult beverages in Louisiana, the land of drive-thru daiquiris, to-go beers and Mardi Gras debauchery. Most have heard of Abita Brewing, whose raspberry-infused Purple Haze has a wide distribution. But the brewery has a wide range of beers, including seasonal varieties and trying them on tap is well worth the trip. We sampled the sweet Strawberry Harvest Lager that suited the balmy (80 degree) spring temps perfectly. The most exciting brewery we found was Bayou Teche, a trio of brothers who make beers with complex flavors in their hometown of Arnaudville, Louisiana. The brews are well-suited to their homeland and its cuisine. I loved the Grenade, inspired by native passion-fruit and again well-suited to our visit's weather. As for daiquiris, who doesn't love a booze-filled frozen fruit concoction? And you don't have to booze up to enjoy a Louisiana local, Barq's rootbeer is made there, as well.
This sampling just begins the entrée into the world of Louisiana cuisine. I didn't even get into muffaletta, pistole, king cake, andouille, shirmp and grits, crawfish bread, or king cake. Louisiana is a tasty and diverse culinary excursion and a place we fully intend to devour. With this tasty food comes an insatiable joie de vivre that's intoxicating and only one visit will make you fall in love.