NEW ORLEANS — At the New Orleans School of Cooking in the heart of the French Quarter, instructor Saundra Green demonstrates how to make a roux for chicken and sausage gumbo — a task the New Orleans native has performed countless times both for her cooking classes and at home for her family. A petite Creole, her head barely peeks above the top of the massive pot on the stove (the kitchen was designed for a chef nearly 7 feet tall), but this grandmotherly cook still has a commanding presence.
The class is attentive, and some even take notes.
Nina Black, of Waxahachie, Texas, is taking the class with a bevy of foodie girlfriends. No matter where they vacation, a cooking class is always on the itinerary. They are especially fond of the New Orleans School of Cooking, and this isn't Black's first time here.
She says because instructors are Cajun, Creole and black, no two classes are alike. Each ethnicity brings a unique culinary perspective.
“Each teacher here at the cooking school has a different point of view,” Black says. “They are from different cultures and backgrounds, so they all teach you something different.”
Like many cooking school participants, the ladies have been unabashedly eating their way through the French Quarter, and they are determined to acquire the necessary skills to fill their own kitchens with its enticing flavors and aromas.
Green looks up from her roux and asks if anyone is from California, that faraway land of super-healthy eating habits where tofu replaces meat and everything is organic, gluten-free and covered in flaxseeds. When a couple raise their hands, she facetiously apologizes, saying that on their New Orleans vacation they will undoubtedly consume more fat and calories than they have ever had in their lives.
“We don't count carbs and we don't calories,” Green jokes. “If we know we are going to be really bad, we just double up on the Lipitor.”
A roux is equal parts flour and fat, such as lard or oil, and is the base for many Creole and Cajun dishes. As Green stirs the roux, a time-consuming task, it darkens to a peanut color. She explains that the darker the color, the more intense the flavor.
Thanks to her health-conscious daughter, Green has started using peanut oil in her roux, but she grew up with bacon fat, and she confesses she still slips in a little when her daughter isn't looking.
“My daughter says, ‘Mom, why doesn't my roux taste like yours?'” Green chuckles. “I just say “I don't know, Baby.”
She can't resist adding that her grandmere (grandmother) ate bacon fat every day of her life and lived to be 102.
Taste of history
This class is much more than a technical demonstration; it's also a culinary history lesson. Thanks to Green's wit and humor, it's an entertaining one.
As Green throws chicken (she prefers rotisserie chicken) in the gumbo, she talks about the culinary contributions of the Europeans, Haitians and Africans during the colonial period and how these ethnic cooking styles blended and evolved, resulting in a layering of flavors that makes New Orleans cuisine distinctive.
Green explains that in the early days, many recipes had to be modified based on the availability of ingredients. For instance, mirepoix, a combination of onions, celery and carrots used in classical French cuisine, was altered to include bell peppers instead of carrots. Today the mix of onions, celery and green bell peppers is referred to as the “Holy Trinity,” a term familiar to every cook in New Orleans.
Garlic is called the “pope” because in its raw, unpeeled state, it resembles the pope's mitre. (Tall hat.) Many Europeans that migrated to New Orleans, including French, Spanish, Italian and Irish, were Roman Catholic, so it's easy to understand where these religious-based culinary terms came from and why they stuck.
Green adeptly sautes andouille sausage, and its smoky, spicy aroma whets the appetite.
At last, the demonstration is complete, and Green dishes up gumbo that was prepared ahead and has been simmering to perfection. Before serving it, she takes a moment to explain what that mysterious condiment on the table is. File (say FEE-lay) powder comes from sassafras leaves, and many New Orleanians would party at Mardi Gras without beads before they would eat gumbo without file.
Some in the class devour their gumbo like starving orphans, while others, including Black and her gal pals, seem to analyze every bite, determined to file away these complex flavors in their memory so they can duplicate the delicious combination of sausage, chicken and spices for friends and family back home.
The cooking school's Louisiana General Store sells everything from spices to spatulas, so cooks can cheat a little by purchasing pre-made roux. Preparing the roux is the most difficult, but most crucial, step in good gumbo.
A desire for delicious, nourishing food is universal, so it's little wonder that these cooking school participants that come from diverse backgrounds and different regions of the country bond over the meal, comparing and contrasting the food to what they eat at home — possibly like the various ethnicities that melded together in New Orleans centuries ago to forge this unique cuisine.
Travel and accommodations provided by The Hotel Montelone and the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.