New Orleans has its obvious charms, with which I have long been acquainted. Intriguing rumors of post-Katrina changes to the grande old dame I’ve known for so long reached me in Austin, though, so we visited recently to dig a little deeper and found much to surprise and delight: a thriving local, sustainable food movement; creative food entrepreneurs; long time favorite spots holding fast to standards of quality and flavor; and sweet surprises for the culinary treasure hunters. We’re so in love with this city, we’ll have to go again soon — and I’d love for you to share your favorite New Orleans culinary spots in the comments! Scroll all the way down for a recipe for strawberry & cream cheese-stuffed pain perdu inspired by the Ponchatoula strawberries and Creole cream cheese we found at the farmers market.
Nestled on a two acre corner of New Orleans’ beautiful City Park, alongside a bayou under spreading oaks and cypress trees, we discovered this incredible program creating meaningful and supportive job opportunities for inner city high school students through connections to food and agriculture. At their urban farm, the folks at Grow Dat! are cultivating responsibility, community, and leadership skills along with almost 40,000 pounds of delicious, fresh food each year for their neighbors.
In the heart of Central City, Hollygrove Market & Farm offers weekly boxes of abundant produce from their own community gardens out front and other area farms and artisan food producers. We stocked up on leafy greens, gorgeous colorful beets, freshly baked breads, fair trade coffee, local eggs, meats and cheeses and locally grown grits and rice.
Out front, we wandered through the community plots to discover rabbits, chickens, healthy compost piles and neighborhood kids planting seeds and learning where their food comes from, and left inspired by the deep sense of community rooted in this little spot.
When I eat oysters in New Orleans, I eat them at Casamento’s, an almost century-old restaurant where I’m content to stand in line for however long it takes to inch my way to the oyster bar.
There, Mike Rogers will shuck me a dozen oysters, hands moving in a blur, and I’ll happily slurp them down as a prelude to crispy fried shrimp on house-baked “pan bread” and perhaps even more oysters, broiled with parmesan and garlic, eaten greedily with lemon and a shake of Tabasco on top.
On Saturday morning, we wake up early to hit the farmers market downtown. There, fueled with hot chicory coffee, we load up on buttery pastries, flats of Ponchatoula strawberries, juicy citrus and just-caught Gulf shrimp and fish to cook later.
When I picture heaven, it looks a lot like Lucullus. In his gorgeous shop on Chartres St in the Vieux Carre, owner Patrick Dunne has amassed a museum-worthy treasure trove of culinary antiques for sale: 19th century Parisian bar glasses, 18th century English wooden bread bowls, drawers full of silver, piles of copper pots.
Patrick tells me stories of each piece’s provenance as I feel the weight in my hand of cooks and diners from centuries past and the food and culture that connects us.
You all know my little cookbook obsession, right? Well, imagine how I swooned upon discovering Kitchen Witch Books on Toulouse — packed floor to ceiling with nothing but cookbooks, both new and vintage. Owners Debbie Lindsey and Phillipe LaMancusa are kindred spirits — we could (did?) talk for hours about cooking, working the line and the front of the house, and named our favorite cookbooks and recipes reverently to one another in the hushed tones usually reserved for talking about spiritual subjects.
Stylishly spartan and intriguingly minimal in a city known for excess, this locally-sourced, whole animal butcher shop establishes personal relationships with farmers within 200 miles of New Orleans, visits each farm, and sources the finest quality meats handcut by skilled butchers on site. Did I like it? Perhaps the cooler I brought home filled to bursting with boudin-stuffed chicken, handmade Andouille, house-smoked Canadian bacon and duck confit can best answer that question.
Kitchen Inspirations: Strawberry & Cream Cheese Stuffed Pain Perdu
In New Orleans, French toast is “pain perdu,” or “lost bread,” which speaks volumes about the city’s roots: American thrift, Creole inventiveness, and a romantic French sensibility that can make something decadent and indulgent even out of lowly stale bread. Our trip inspired me to dress up this brunch staple with Louisiana strawberry jam and Creole cream cheese.
Strawberry & Cream Cheese Stuffed Pain Perdu
- 8 thick slices of challah or other soft white bread
- 1 jar strawberry jam or preserves (not jelly)
- 1 8 oz package cream cheese, cut into 8 cubes
- 4 c milk
- 4 eggs
- 1/3 c sugar
- 1 Tbs vanilla
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- butter for frying
- butter, powdered sugar, maple syrup to serveCut a pocket in each slice of bread and stuff with a cube of cream cheese and a spoonful of preserves. In a large baking dish, whisk together milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon until thoroughly combined. Place stuffed bread slices in mixture to soak for about five minutes, turning once or twice. Heat butter on a large griddle or skillet; remove each slice from soaking liquid, letting excess drain off, then fry over medium heat until golden and cooked through.