As I mentioned in my last post, J surprised me with two awesome gift certificates for my birthday– one for a manicure and pedicure right before our vacation so I could kick off the trip with pretty nails, and the other for a demonstration cooking class in New Orleans!! I was so excited to have such a fun activity waiting for me in Nola.
The class took place at Crescent City Cooks in the Riverwalk Marketplace, which is pretty much a long mall right next to the Mississippi River. The classroom had a wall of windows overlooking the Mississippi, about three rows of tables that were set with recipes for us and local potato chips to snack on, and a demo kitchen in the front of the room.
I sat in the front row because I’m like that.
We were also offered something to drink at the beginning of the class (and of course we got to sample all the food once it was done!). I haven’t attended many cooking classes, but I thought the setup was very nice. Our instructor was not the most polished, but his slight awkwardness made him fun and approachable. He told lots of funny anecdotes and definitely knew his stuff. (Interesting side note: the class instructor grew up just outside New Orleans, and he, like many other New Orleans locals I met, had no discernible accent at all, southern or Cajun or otherwise. That surprised me– I guess I expect everyone in the southeast part of the United States to “sound Southern”.).
The agenda for that day’s class included jambalaya, gumbo, and bread pudding. He started with the bread pudding since it had to be in the oven for an hour, then moved onto the jambalaya.
The holy trinity of cajun cooking– bell peppers, celery, and onion.
I took careful notes when he described the meats that are supposed to go into jambalaya– tasso pork, andouille sausage– since I knew I can’t get those in Estonia, but I wanted to be able to find substitutes that are as similar as possible. As he cooked the instructor also told us about the history of Cajun and Creole cooking.
After the jambalaya was left to sit in its thick-bottomed pot for an hour, he started on the gumbo. Gumbo starts with a roux, which is a mixture of flour and fat (butter or oil) cooked together. I’ve made a roux before, but never a dark one, so I looked on in fascination as he stirred the roux and it grew darker and darker, from golden to caramel and then he stopped just as it took on the look of melted chocolate. Cooking the rouz until it’s so dark lends the final product a nutty flavor.
When the roux had hit the right point he dumped in the veggies, and the smell produced by vegetables sizzling in dark roux was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever smelled. EVER. I think I may have just closed my eyes and inhaled while thinking “This must be what heaven smells like…”
While he was making gumbo I also learned about a seasoning I’d never heard of before: filé powder, which is made from sassafras and an important component of gumbo. It doesn’t have a very strong taste– sort of mild and leafy– but it also acts as a thickening agent for the soup.
The gumbo was the first thing we got to taste, served over white rice. It was lovely but I have to say the taste didn’t blow me away. It seemed kinda plain and predictable. I happily picked out the bits of seafood, but left most of the rice uneaten. I was saving tummy space for jambalaya, which is much more my speed.
I love jambalaya’s slow cayenne burn (what the instructor called “latent heat”) and varying textures in every bite from the different meats, veggies and rice. As a matter of fact, it was one of the first things I made after we got home from our trip (and I must say that the meat products I substituted for the authentic ones worked quite well!).
For dessert we had the bread pudding. One stick of butter went into the custard for the pudding and another stick went into the rum sauce that was poured over it, so of course it was outrageously delicious.
We also received an additional dessert– freshly made pralines (but we didn’t get their recipe, as it’s a secret!). The praline (which they say prah-leen) was still warm when I took my first bite. Such a simple confection, but so phenomenal! I’d love to experiment with making my own. It was the perfect sweet ending to the fun and informative class– I may ask to start taking classes every time we travel!
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