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.