Crescent City Cooking: Unforgettable Recipes from Susan Spicer’s New Orleans
by Susan Spicer with Paula Disbrowe
Published by Knopf
385 pages, 2007
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Susan Spicer is proprietor of New Orleans restaurants Bayona and Herbsaint. With her long-awaited cookbook, I was hoping for a taste of a now lost New Orleans. I opened Crescent City with a mixture of sadness and anticipation. What was still there? What had been lost?
Spicer’s voice is warmly welcoming, aiming to put the less experienced cook at ease while still appealing to the knife wielders among us. She encourages readers to slow down, reminding us to enjoy the process of cooking, not just the end result. She remembers that many cooks are feeding children, and gives a few recipes tweaks for younger palates -- of her Crispy Turkey Piccata, she writes: “I dish theirs up (referring to her two children) plain, then make a quick little pan sauce for us.”
Great. But turkey piccata? In a New Orleans cookbook?
Herein lies what I found to be Crescent City Cooking’s major flaw. The book professes to offer fusion cookery, meshing the world’s great flavors with Southern classics. Instead, we’re given a rather schizoid romp across the globe, featuring Mexican, Asian, French and Mediterranean dishes easily found in other cookbooks. I don’t need another recipe for chicken with tarragon sauce or orzo with black olives and feta. I don’t need Spicer to tell me how to make enchiladas, potstickers, or gravlax (and she does). As for the fusion end of things, I’ll pass on Peppered Tuna with Asian Guacamole and Hoisin dipping sauce. Smoked Duck “PBJ” with Cashew Butter and Pepper Jelly and Apple Celery Salad? Uh, no thanks.
I wanted gumbo and muffalettas, which Spicer offers, albeit in versions far from their origins: the gumbo is smoked duck with andouille sausage, while the muffuletta calls for tuna loin and a proscuitto wrapping. I wanted long-simmered greens and maybe even a renegade alligator. In fairness, there is a recipe for Gumbo z’Herbes, a lenten version of gumbo seemingly true enough if you subtract Spicer’s addition of oysters. And the book abounds in recipes calling for shrimp and crayfish, leading me, a Californian in the land of vegetable plenty, to understand how the rest of America must feel when reading Alice Waters. I have never seen fresh crayfish here, and shrimp, while widely available, are very, very expensive: a luxurious treat rather than an everyday food.
Crescent City Cooking’s layout is also troubling; the appetizer and salad sections are clear enough, but “All that Simmers and Sandwiches with Soul” leads to “Sensational Sauces and Creamy Bread Spreads.” From there the book disintegrates into “From Brackish Waters to the Deep Blue Sea” -- a section on fish -- to “A Mess of Main Courses:” an aptly named collection of vegetarian selections, poultry, pork, duck and a very few beef dishes. These vague chapter headings make categorization difficult; will gumbo appear in all that simmers? A mess of main courses? Brackish waters?
But enough complaining. Into the kitchen.
Spicer adores eggplant, a vegetable I am barely on speaking terms with. For years I have tried to wring something tasty from the lovely purple globes emerging from my weekly farm box. My efforts are met with yellowy-gray resistance: eggplant that is chewy, dense and seedy. I tried Spicer’s Eggplant Caviar, found in “Sensational Sauces and Creamy Bread Spreads.” The recipe calls for an eggplant, onion, garlic, tomato, olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, salt, pepper, and basil. Basically, you either oven broil your eggplant or char it in a skillet until the skin blackens. Spicer tells you this will take 15-20 minutes. It took me more like 45, using a cast-iron skillet. Turning the eggplant so it would char evenly proved challenging; I ended up propping the thing artfully against the pan’s handy pouring spout. Even then, the vegetable was slightly raw in the middle.
The skin did indeed peel away, as Spicer promised it would. Following directions, I then mixed my eggplant mess with the remainder of the ingredients. Everything tasted good, save the eggplant, which wasn’t the least bit smoky, just seedy and disagreeable as usual. So it may be that I simply hate eggplant.
I had much better luck with Jalapeño Roast pork, which is no more Southern than my grandma’s latkes. This simple recipe calls for long, slow roasting of a pork shoulder bathed in fresh orange juice, orange zest, jalapeño peppers, thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper. It’s difficult to screw something like this up. I didn’t. My husband and I happily stuffed our faces. I made Red Rice with it, from the “Show Stealing sides” section. Red rice is very much in the Latin tradition, calling for pre-roasting an onion, garlic cloves and tomatoes, toasting ancho chiles, blending these items, then adding them, along with broth and herbs, to rice. Again, very good, but not very southern.
Last Sunday I decided to take a stab at the Smoked Duck and Andouille Gumbo. I have no idea why the duck is called smoked, since the recipe simply calls for plain duck legs, roasted separately. I undertook this project on one of the hottest days of the year; in so doing, I decided to roast the duck legs early in they day, finishing the dish toward the dinner hour.
Spicer says roasting the duck legs will take about an hour. Experience told me ninety minutes was more like it: I was correct. I gave the legs ninety minutes at 325 degrees instead of Spicer’s suggested 350, allowed the dish to cool, and tucked it away for later. At about five p.m., I rounded up my sous-chef, who doubles as my husband, and we set to work on the remainder of the dish.
One is called upon to make a roux, using either the rendered duck fat from roasting the legs, or, for a less heart-attack-on-a-plate version, olive oil. Spicer says this endless stirring of flour and oil will require ten to twelve minutes. It took more like fifteen to twenty. My husband spent this time slicing piles of sausage, peppers, garlic, okra and scallions, which were duly added, along with chicken broth, worcestshire sauce, thyme, hot sauce, salt, pepper, and a bouquet garni. As instructed, we picked the duck meat from the bones and added that, too. Filé powder was optional. Having none, I left it out.
After about an hour’s worth of intense work, we had a large pot o’ gumbo simmering away. Spicer says to give the dish “at least an hour” to cook. We turned our energies to cleaning up the kitchen, put on a pot of rice, and waited.
A few tastings along the way were surprisingly bland; we shook in more hot sauce and salt.
After ninety minutes, I, to use Spicer’s expression, “dished up.”
We tasted, and tasted again. We so wanted this gumbo, which, all told, took four hours and four expensive duck legs, to be delicious. It wasn’t. Given all that hot sauce, it remained surprisingly bland. The dark, unctuous flavor of duck, one of my favorite foods, was overwhelmed by the heavy roux and mucilaginous okra. Even the andouillle seemed dimmed; only heavy doses of salt and even more hot sauce brought the flavors up a bit. Somehow duck, sausage and okra, such fine ingredients, deserve more than burial in sludge.
My husband and I talked at length. I am the first to admit error on the chef’s part, but, in fairness to Spicer, there was nothing difficult about the recipe. And aside from the optional filé powder, we’d followed it the letter. Perhaps, in a nod to more moderate palates, she calmed some of the spiciness down. In the unlikely event that I attempt this recipe again, I’d make several adjustments, sticking to the chicken Spicer suggests as an alternative, and cooking it, bone in, in the gumbo rather than separately. As for the “cook for at least an hour” business, gumbo is clearly the kind of dish benefiting from hours on a back burner, along with an overnight settling, so the flavors, to quote the magnificent Fergus Henderson, get to know each other.
In Amanda Hesser’s charming Cooking for Mr. Latte, Ms. Hesser describes visiting her future mother-in-law, Elizabeth Friend, where she notices an old cookbook open to a recipe for roasted turkey. Friend has returned to the recipe repeatedly over the years, tweaking and taking copious notes. The dish has entered her repertoire. Ms. Hesser mentions this to her future husband, writer Tad Friend, who comments that she, Amanda, seems to lack a recipe repertoire. Hesser writes:
She goes on to say that many younger people don’t cook because:
Hesser nails it: Crescent City is the sort of cookbook that, for its relatively simple recipes, overwhelms in its offerings. Satay or stir fry? Enchiladas or beignets? But nothing in it resonates: there aren’t any recipes that would call me back to this book, or send me flipping through it on a Sunday afternoon with extra time and energy to cook. And that’s a shame, for Spicer is affable and clearly able. But Crescent City Cooking is destined to end up on many amateur cooks’ shelves, collecting dust. Certainly there is a good Louisiana cookbook out there. But this ain’t it. | September 2007