cooking from the heart

CALL IT CREOLE AND IT'LL SELL

BY CHEF JOHN BESH

It's Creole tomato season, and boy are they delicious!

The Creoles of my childhood were ugly and deformed, split to the point of bursting. Picked the day they went to market or set on the windowsill to wait for whichever meal came next — that’s what these tomatoes were good at. Creole tomatoes should be eaten warm, right off the plant, a thing I still look forward to like a child. I’m not saying that I don’t love herbs and fancy cheeses, but a good ol’ ripe Creole doesn’t need any help; it just needs to be eaten.

The Creoles of my childhood were all grown in the St. Bernard or Plaquemines parishes, which flank the Mississippi south of New Orleans pretty much all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. That fertile farmland was formed by hundreds of years of rich silt deposits that the mighty Mississippi brought downstream. Cattle, a gift from the king of Spain, and brought here in 1779 by the Isleños, or Canary Islanders, once grazed on these same lands. Descendants of the Isleños still grow many of our Creoles today. This rich soil, with its low acidity, makes our tomatoes particularly sweet tasting; our moderate climate gives us a gloriously long growing season.

Much mystique surrounds the identity of the famed Creole tomato. Turns out it is not so much a variety as an idea of a tomato, evoking a memory of the field-picked, just-ripe tomatoes of our childhood, before hybrids and industrial farming took the flavor away. Experts say the definition comes down to geography: any red, ripe tomato grown in
the state of Louisiana, but most often in the southeast in the parishes along the Mississippi, can be deemed a Creole. It can be grown from any seed variety, such as the Celebrity, favored by Jim Core, or those newer, hardier varieties, like Amelia and Christa. Historically, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes were tomato central, but following Hurricane Katrina the area shrank to the upper Plaquemines.

Today, more than 250 growers cultivate the almost 500 acres of Louisiana that are dedicated to this buxom fruit so fundamental to Creole cooking. The crops are mostly sold locally at wholesale warehouses, farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and supermarkets, and there is rarely enough of a surplus to cause a Creole ever to head out of state. Nowadays, some of us feel that the Creole is looking a little too pretty and uniform, but in general locals will tell you with pride that a Creole tastes the way a real tomato should.

Here are some of my favorite tomato recipes. As always, if you don't have access to Creoles, you can use any other ripe tomato; they're all bound to be beautiful this time of year. Click the name of the dish for a link to the recipe.

 

Eggplant, Summer Squash & Tomato Tian

The key to this Eggplant, Summer Squash & Tomato Tian is to precook the eggplant to remove any bitterness before assembling the tian. The proportions of the vegetables don’t matter much, though I love to mix the summer colors of zucchini, tomato, and golden summer squash. I make this tian when garden vegetables are at their peak ripeness.

 

Salad of Heirloom Tomatoes, Cheese, and Country Ham

When shopping for this Salad of Heirloom Tomatoes, Cheese, and Country Ham, don’t worry about finding the exact varieties I list here; just use the ripest local tomatoes you can find. For the most beautiful salad, look for a range of colors, shapes, and sizes. I love paper-thin slices of country ham, but prosciutto, jamón Serrano, or your favorite salami will work equally well.

 

Crabmeat-Stuffed Tomatoes

If you don’t have the time or the inclination to peel the tomatoes for these Crabmeat-Stuffed Tomatoes, use the juiciest tomatoes you can find, slice and season them, top with the crabmeat and basil, and enjoy.

 

Terrine of Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

This Terrine of Cherokee Purple Tomatoes might seem somewhat involved, but it’s not much more difficult than those old-fashioned tomato molds that used tomato juice and gelatin. Here, we’re dehydrating the tomatoes slightly to intensify their flavor, then binding them together in a terrine — just an update on an old-time idea.

 

Shrimp Creole

Traditionally a roux-and-tomato-based dish, Shrimp Creole in my new version has Vietnamese influences; it’s spicy and sweet, full of herbs and flavor. Any ultra-ripe tomatoes will work. The amounts given feed a typical Sunday supper at my house; for six to eight, halve the ingredients, but don’t worry too much: there’s a lot of forgiveness.

 

Chilled Tomato Soup with Tapenade

This Chilled Tomato Soup with Tapenade is the place to use the finest aged sherry vinegar to brighten the flavor of the ripest tomatoes. I love using old vinegar because its acids have mellowed and truly complement the tomatoes’ natural sweetness.

 

Recipes from "My New Orleans: The Cookbook" and "Cooking from the Heart: My Favorite Lessons Learned Along the Way," by John Besh / Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC

THE WAY TO A MAN'S HEART

BY CHEF JOHN BESH

Looking to impress that special dad, grandfather or great-grandfather in your life? Instead of going out this Father's Day, why not make him a special meal in your own kitchen.

Here are just a few recipes I suggest making for this Sunday's celebration. Click on the name of the dish, drink, or side for a link to the recipe. Some of my suggestions use fresh, local,  in-season ingredients such as Creole tomatoes, Louisiana oysters, and crabmeat.

  • Garlicky Baked Oysters The presentation alone of these baked oysters on the half shell makes a great statement on a buffet table. Or you can use freshly shucked oysters sold by the pint or quart, and assemble them in a large baking dish or in individual ramekins. Either way, be sure to get the flavorful oyster liquor. You can make the sauce and topping ahead and combine them at the last minute.

 

  • Trout Amandine In New Orleans we prefer the skinless trout filet. Properly browning the butter makes all the difference. Don't rush it; take your time swirling the butter in the pan so that the milk solids brown and give off the signature, nutty aroma that is heightened once you add the almonds. Add the lemon juice and serve while the sauce is still foamy. We love it that speckled trout are fished recreationally, never commercially. Pan-frying one of these boys is the perfect finale to a day well spent fishing.

 

  • Crown Roast of Pork with Dirty Rice Dressing It is made with two racks of lamb, veal, or pork, tied together to form a circle. Ask your butcher to prepare and tie the pork racks for you, planning on one rib per person. Then assemble the stuffing, bake, and serve it forth! I just love rice dressing (“stuffing” to some of you) as it so reminds me of my childhood, its flavor reminiscent of our boudin sausages. As the pork roast renders and browns, the dressing will absorb all of its wonderful flavors.

 

  • Provençal Stuffed Tomatoes Beautiful Louisiana Creole tomatoes are currently in season, but any type of tomato will work for this recipe. Medium or large, red, yellow, or orange, it makes no difference as long as they’re fresh and flavorful.

 

  • Basic Cornbread Most self-respecting Southerners wouldn’t admit to adding sugar to corn bread, but it’s both acceptable and good in New Orleans. Grand-daddy never put sugar in his, but I find that I can omit the sugar and still have it taste right only when I use a fine-ground white organic cornmeal such as that milled by my friends at McEwen’s in Wilsonville, Alabama. Make sure the skillet is so hot that the batter begins to fry when you pour it into the pan. And don’t fret about the calories. Corn bread is about love – you can diet tomorrow.

 

 

  • String Beans with Garlic I make sure to have a serving bowl ready with paper-thin sliced garlic and butter just waiting for the hot string beans to arrive. Then all I have to do is boil the beans, toss, and serve. The residual heat from the beans will warm the garlic and melt the butter. I like to salt the water for the beans to the point where it tastes like the sea.

 

  • Perfect Mashed Potatoes If you don’t already own a good old-fashioned food mill, now’s the time to go get one. Potato ricers wok fine, but it takes so long to refill the potatoes, the mixture cools down so much that you’re liable to overwork the potatoes as you add the butter. A food mill makes mashed potatoes a cinch and is indispensable for making tomato sauce. Good butter matters here!

 

  • Sazerac It may or may not be America’s first cocktail, but it is one of my favorite drinks. Famously made in the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel (which is now home to our Italian restaurant, Domenica), my version has Herbsaint, the anise-flavored liqueur invented in New Orleans when absinthe was banned in the 1930s.

 

  • Brown Butter Fig Tart There are few fruits more fascinating than the fig, and in Louisiana we are spoiled, as they weigh down the trees in backyards all over the state, where they thrive on our abundant sunshine and temperate winters. The ones we grow the most in Louisiana are the Celeste (which my granddaddy knew and loved), a small but resilient fruit with a purplish-brown skin and a reddish-pink flesh, and the larger and ruddier Southeastern Brown Turkey.

 

I hope you enjoy my suggestions! Happy Father's Day to all you dads out there.