365 Project Day 273: Farewell to this year's Vegan Month of Food!

Well folks, that's all she wrote for VeganMoFo 2014. It was a pretty great ride though huh? I hope my dedicated followers now feel well and truly versed - or at the very least thoroughly overviewed - in the food stylings of New Orleans.

Questions? Comments? Did I fail to answer any burning questions? Please holler at me! I would love to appease all appetites.

And now for the final post of the month, we'll take one last look at the produce still growing in and around Nola.  What could be more New Orleanian than the foods that grow in our own soil?  Just yesterday at Hollygrove I found this abundance of edible plantlife from New Orleans and its many nearby farms:

Baby lettuces

Grown-up lettuces

Shy cucumbers

Perfectly purple eggplants

Unassuming oyster mushrooms

Plump persimmons

Tantalizing tabasco peppers

Thai basil



and more radishes

And of course not edible but oh-so-lovely fall flowers.

Farewell fellow MoFoers!  Until next year!  Of course, I'll be here no matter when you pop by.  ;)


365 Project Day 272: On New Orleans' Food Influences: African pulls it all together

Today we wrap up our conversation about the cultures that have fed into Nola's recipes and tastes.  How does it all come together?  Beautifully.  To wit:

It may be impossible to overstate the influence that African traditions have exerted on what we now call New Orleans food.  I'm thankful that a population who were so brazenly abused nevertheless shared cooking techniques and ingredients which have been crucial to the development of the local cuisine.  That said, these contributions are often so ingrained and intermingled that it's hard to draw a direct line.

One of the most visible examples is okra - an incredible vegetable that is referred to in many parts of Africa as a word something like "gumbo."  Yep, that most New Orleanian of dishes began to take form when okra was brought to New Orleans by enslaved Africans in the 1700s.  Okra grows well here, and we've been growing it ever since.

But how did we get from okra to the stew we now call gumbo?  It seems to go something like this: You take a (Spanish) trinity of onion, bell pepper, and celery.  You add (African) okra, (Choctaw) file powder, and/or a (French) roux.  You add plenty of water, salt, and seasonings and let it boil down for a while, maybe with (German) sausage or some (Italian) tomatoes.  Then you serve it all over (Chinese) rice with a side of (French) bread.  In this way, gumbo is a pretty literal melting pot of tastes from around the globe.

Okra is not in every gumbo, which at this point has seemingly endless variations.  But gumbo with okra and/or file powder has always struck me as the most traditional and delicious.  Maybe that's because it's what my daddy always made.  There are a variety of meats that can define gumbo (seafood vs. chicken and sausage, and so on), but what makes a gumbo a gumbo has more to do with its base.  My own gumbo is a chicken and sausage number, and particularly with okra in season right now it is thickened and flavored with okra and file powder.  Like so:

Mel B's Chicken and Sausage Gumbo!

You will need:
  • a large soup pot
  • a large skillet
  • a large wooden spoon
  • water
  • veg oil (I prefer olive) - enough to sautee your trinity and then some; this will be the only oil in your gumbo and is crucial for mouth feel
  • one yellow onion
  • one large green bell pepper
  • three stalks of celery
  • a large can of crushed tomatoes
  • about a pound of okra
  • four veg bullion cubes (or enough for eight cups of broth)
  • seasoned salt (I prefer Tony's)
  • regular salt
  • four bay leaves
  • one package of your favorite vegan sausage (I like Tofurky Italian)
  • one package of your favorite vegan chicken (I like Beyond Meat grilled strips)
  • gumbo file powder
  • rice and French bread for serving
You will do:
  • heat your oil in your large skillet over medium-high heat
  • chop your onion and let it caramelize in the skillet with the oil for a few minutes
  • chop your bell pepper and celery and add to the skillet; leave the lid off and let these cook until soft, stirring frequently
  • meanwhile, fill your soup pot about halfway with water and set it to boil; add bullion cubes and bay leaves early
  • add the can of tomatoes, liquid and all, to the soup pot
  • cut your Okra in 1/2" to 1" rounds, and add to the pot once it's at a boil (If you've never dealt with okra before note: cut the tops off - they are *not* edible.  Also it may make your hands a lil itchy.)
  • once your trinity is just about done, give it a heavy sprinkling of seasoned salt and then of regular salt; stir and let cook for a minute or two, then add it all to your soup pot
  • don't clean your skillet!  cut your sausage into 1/2 inch rounds and brown them on each side in the skillet that still has oil and seasonings in it; once browned on both sides, add to the soup
  • still don't clean your skillet!  tear up your chicken into bite-sized pieces and heat it gently in the skillet, as most vegan chicken doesn't really want to be cooked.  Try to use one that tastes good on its own!
  • let the soup boil down for about an hour, until the saltiness is where you want it and the okra is well cooked
  • turn off heat and let sit for about 20 minutes
  • add your chicken and stir in a teaspoon or so of file powder
Serve it over your favorite kind of rice, with some good French bread on the side for dipping.  Optionally, also serve with Tabasco sauce and file powder on the table.  This will make enough to feed your family, your friends, a few neighbors, and probably some co-workers as well.


SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: Cowspiracy is coming to Nola!
But it needs YOUR HELP!

Hello dear friends!  In case you haven't heard: Cowspiracy, the possibly ground-breaking documentary about the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, is coming to New Orleans!!  The showing is scheduled for Thursday, October 16th at 7:30pm at the AMC Clearview.

BUT.  Here's the super-duper important part: the showing will be cancelled unless enough folks purchase tickets in advance.  So:

It works like so:
  • you purchase your ticket
  • nothing actually happens until we reach a critical mass of 79 people
  • when the 79th person purchases their tickets, the event becomes official!
  • at that time your card will be charged, and your ticket(s) will be emailed to you
  • we all go see this movie and leave better educated and ready to explain things to folks in a way that inspires them to effect change along with us
  • we all win Nobel prizes and everyone we meet instantly becomes vegan
  • we save the entire world
Please note: none of this will happen unless at least 79 tickets are purchased by October 9th!  Which means, don't delay!  Also please help spread the word.  Do so via facebook, by sharing a link to this post, by writing your own post - whatever!  Just get it done.  I know we can do it!

365 Project Day 271: On New Orleans' Food Influences: Latin

The most recent cultural influx experienced by New Orleans came on the heels of Katrina.  As recovery began, a large population of Latinos came to the city to join in rebuilding efforts and take advantage of prolific job opportunities in the construction trade.  Many stayed, raising Nola's Latino population by 50%.  With them, of course, came wonderful food.

New Orleans is no stranger to Latino folk; Metairie has homed a large Honduran populations since the 1970s along with Cubans and a number of others from Central and South American countries.  But previously restaurant-wise we'd really only had Americanized Mexican - nothing very exciting, and offering little to vegans past stale corn chips and pico.

Excitingly, the revitalized Latino population has led to numerous new vegan dining options.  While more traditional Latino food vendors do tend to use animal fats and stocks in seemingly vegetarian foods, other recent additions offer vegan tacos, pupusas, tamales, empanadas, and more.  We've also seen an influx of Ideal Markets, making relatively exotic fruits and vegetables more available in Nola.

Below, a fun occasional offering from the Taceaux Loceaux food truck - a direct descendent of the more traditional taco trucks that have proved indispensable to the city's workers for the past nine years.

The Notorious V.E.G. (tofu scrabble in corn tortillas) from Taceaux Loceaux


365 Project Day 270: On New Orleans' Food Influences: Vietnamese ~OR~ Vegan MoPho!

Tofu and veggie com at Pho Cam Ly
For folks who haven't spent time in Nola, they might assume that French, Spanish, and Italian foods have had the most influence on New Orleans cuisine.  And they wouldn't be wrong - all of these cultures have played defining roles in creating what is now known as "New Orleans food."

What y'all might not know, however, is that more recently, Vietnamese food and people have helped shape the landscape.  Following the Vietnam War, Vietnamese families and communities began a chain migration to the Gulf Coast area, due to its amenable climate and availability of fishing and shrimping opportunities.  As a result, Vietnamese is one of the predominant cuisines found all over the city.  Making it even more interesting, Vietnamese culture had already intermingled with French culture.  Witness, for example, the banh mi sandwich.  Perhaps that's part of why it has been embraces so wholeheartedly in Nola.

The history behind Nola's much-loved Pho Tau Bay restaurant is particularly illustrative on Vietnamese settlements in Louisiana:
The history of their successful restaurants began in the 1960s, when their grandfather opened 13 restaurants in Vietnam under the name of Pho Tau Bay. Due to the fall of Saigon in 1975, the family was forced to flee to the United States for a better life and a new beginning.

In 1982, Vy and Alys’ parents, Chau and Anh Thu Cao, along with a brother-in-law, opened the first Vietnamese restaurant in New Orleans, LA. They chose the same name that Anh Thu’s father used in Vietnam, Pho Tau Bay, simply meaning “Flying Soup Boat.”  It was an immediate success due to the thriving Vietnamese population in New Orleans.

By 2001, Ninh, Vy, and her mother opened the second Pho Tau Bay Restaurant in Metairie, LA.  In 2004, with their marketing and business degrees, Bernard and Alys decided to join the family business in order to build a bigger and better empire.  By 2005, the family ran 3 of the 4 most successful Vietnamese restaurants in the Greater New Orleans area.
Tofu and Avocado spring rolls
at Jazmine
Luckily we still have one PTB here in Nola (the others were closed after Katrina), as well as a huge number of other Vietnamese restaurants that have opened in the past decade.  In fact, the city has seen ten or more new Viet restaurants open their doors in the past two years.  This growth has been a boon (bun?) to Nola's vegans, as many of the newer restaurants offer vegan pho, tofu dishes, and to-die-for fresh spring rolls that are vegan by default.  Magasin on Magazine Street even offers vegan nuac mam, a common dipping sauce that is traditionally made with fish sauce.  Jazmine in the Riverbend will automatically bring you peanut sauce instead of nuac mam when you order veggie bun.

With this unbridled explosion of local Vietnamese cuisine, it's not too surprising that some older-school local boys wanted to get in on the action. Mid-City natives Michael and Jeff Gulotta saw an opportunity to fuse Nola cooking styles with Vietnamese standards.  Their Mid-City restaurant, MoPho, is not in fact your "typical" Vietnamese joint.  You'll see some familiar dishes on the menu such as pho and bun, they're a bit different than what you're used to.  They have bubble tea, and they'll even booze it up for you.

As has happened so many times before, another culture's foods are folded into the tapestry that is New Orleans cuisine, giving us an even greater depth and breadth of delicious foods.

Mix-n-match vegan pho at MoPho


365 Project Day 269: On New Orleans' Food Influences:
Middle Eastern

Some folks seem surprised to find a plethora of Turkish and Lebanese restaurants dotting New Orleans.  But the presence of these populations - and the resulting divine, vegan-friendly restaurants - is nothing new to the streets of the Crescent City.  People from the "near east" countries of Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria have been settling in New Orleans since at least the late 1800s, partially because it was a major port of entry for travelers of entry at the time.

Middle Eastern restaurants have been a mainstay in New Orleans since the 1970s.  These include Mona's Cafe (three locations: Mid-City, Marigny, and Carrollton), Lebanon's Cafe in Carrollton,  Fatoush in the Marigny, Haifa in Mid-City, Phoenicia in Metairie, and many more.

Each restaurant boasts vegan options such as hummus, falafel, and babaganouj, and often offer more exciting fare like foul and dolma.  Regional variations make each restaurant's offerings slightly different, making it worthwhile to try them all.  Below, a sampling of babaganouj, dolma, flatbread, and chai with soy milk.


365 Project Day 268: On New Orleans' Food Influences: French

Yes, we've gotten around to talking about the French influence on New Orleans food.  And I'll sum it up for you in one word: butter.  We embrace France's butter obsession wholeheartedly - much to the chagrin of vegans, as well as those who try to eat heart-healthy, those who watch their waistlines, and so on, and so on.

Luckily, another more vegan friendly French Tradition also sunk in bone-deep: bread.  Literally French for bakery, La Boulangerie on Magazine Street is in fact both a boulangerie and pastisserie - though from what I can tell only their traditional breads are vegan.  No matter; the bread will do just fine.


365 Project Day 267: On New Orleans' Food Influences: Italian and Sicilian

Italians and Sicilians both came to New Orleans in droves in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  (Yes, Sicilians are Italian, but it's different.  I promise.)  Like many New Orleanians, my immediate family on my mother's side came from Contessa Entellina, a small village in Palermo, Sicily - many of the residents of which actually trace their lineage to Albania.  I have numerous cousins (second, third, first once removed, and so on) haling from further north on the boot.  Family names include Grisaffi, Ragusa, Cangelosi, and Castrogiovanni.

We are all over Nola.  But how did our ancestors impact our food culture?  Well.  We've talked before about muffulettas, and Brocato's, and St. Joseph's altars, and Italian ices  and Roman candy - are you seeing a trend?  Italians came here so prolifically (and long enough ago) that Italian culture has permeated the city.  Italian families owned little groceries like Central all over town - my great grandparents included.  And of course, these immigrants bought with them tomato sauce and pasta, which are now ubiquitous.

While Italians north of the Alps were historically more wealthy and drowned pastas in cream sauces, further South tomatoes were the thing - since the 1500s at least, when nightshades were brought back from the "New World."  Existing creole cooking techniques were applied to Sicilian sauces, and red gravy was born.  However, many Sicilian families refused to adopt the roux-based tomato sauce, and stuck with their traditional sauce-making ways.  My (Irish) grandmother on my dad's side made red gravy; my second-generation Sicilian mother was appalled.

Sadly, many restaurants in Nola today cook their red gravies or traditional tomato sauces with meat or meat stock, so options for eating out are limited, particularly at old-line restaurants like Venezia in Mid-City.  You can visit Louisiana Pizza Kitchen for a meal with a decidedly Italian slant if you care to go out - they've even got vegan desserts for you.

For today's taste adventure, we're staying home with items we obtained from Hollygrove Market.  The sauce made by New Orleans Tomato Company isn't nearly as good as my mama's, but you can only expect so much from a jar.  It's pretty good for a jar though, made as it is with locally grown Creole tomatoes and herbs, and a short ingredient list.  As for Esses, this handmade pasta doesn't contain eggs and is brought to you via the area's farmers markets from a local chef.

How easy it can be to have a traditional, vegan, Italian meal with locally sourced products.


365 Project Day 266: On New Orleans' Food Influences: Spanish

Before VeganMoFo wraps up, I want to talk to y'all about the cultures that have come together to create what we now see as New Orleans food.  We'll begin with one of the most obvious: Spanish.  Yes, Spanish!  People always remember the French influence, but may not recall that Spain also spent a fair amount of time in control of the city.  In fact, the brick buildings with their courtyards and wrought iron railings which define the French Quarter are, in fact, of Spanish design.

Let us turn then to Spanish food.  Like our local cuisine, it is heavy with seafood - and logically so.  But it also contains hearty quantities of Mediterranean mainstays like tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil.  To have a lovely sample of vegan Spanish food in New Orleans, one need not look further than Lola's in Esplanade Ridge.

Lola's serves traditional dishes from Spain in a cozy, comfortable atmosphere.  Vegan options there include starters of garlicky mushrooms or Brussels sprouts, soups and salads, and entrees of pisto or their signature paella - the granddaddy of Nola's beloved rice dish, jambalaya.  I recently sampled the following, to great success:

Salty, garlicky Brussels sprouts tapas

Tomato-based lentil soup quite different from Sicilian or Middle-Eastern styles, thinner and with vegetables including carrots, green beans, baby corn, and water chestnuts.

Pisto, a traditional vegetable stew similar to ratatouille, here served in a grilled portobello mushroom cap with sides of black beans and rice and grilled asparagus.


365 Project Day 265: Zat.

Speaking of local brands, we haven't talked about Zatarain's yet.  They're from Gretna (on the Westbank), and they make things taste good.  Like peanuts.  They make peanuts taste good.  Also, they make the best Creole mustard around.  If you haven't tried it, you need to.  They were bought out by McCormick in 2003 which is super sad, but we know where they really come from.


365 Project Day 264: Zap!

Maybe it's weird that New Orleans has its own potato chips.  Honestly I can't tell.  We had "kettle chips" before it was a thing, and we keep right on eating them in lieu of the fancier brands that have come along.  They're called Zapp's, they're made in Gramercy, and they've got team spirit.

Of note: Dirty chips obviously come from the same chippery in Gramercy, but the to brands don't advertise any relationship.


365 Project Day 263: Poppin.

Today we're gonna talk more about sugar.  Specifically, about soda (or cold drinks or "pop" if you're from a particular slice of the Midwest).  Much like we've had a spate of rum makers pop up due to local sugar supplies, we've also had an influx of soda makers.  Two such products popped out at me when I last visited the Carrollton Avenue Rouses: Fest and Swamp Pop.

Both are made with local sugar, and both come in exciting flavors.  Fest is apparently made by a Chicago-based company, but is licensed under "Vibe Cola LLC" of New Orleans,  and is only sold in the Nola area.  It's offered in Bamboula (Almond Cola), Flambeaux (Satsuma Mint Soda), Papa Joe (Pecan Root Beer), and Lulu (Bourbon Cream Soda).  They boast a bold motto: "Flavor is our Birthright."  At 44 grams of sugar per bottle, I'm not sure where their claims of "healthier" are coming from, but it's tasty.

Swamp Pop came out of Lafayette but is distributed nationally.  It's offered in Ponchatoula Pop Rouge (theoretically this is strawberry flavored; Ponchatoula has a strawberry festival each spring), Noble Cane Cola, Satsuma Fizz (satsumas are the much tastier local answer to clementines), Praline Cream Soda, and Jean Lafitte Ginger Ale.  (Jean Lafitte is, of course, our most favorite local pirate.

I haven't tried all of these yet, and at the rate that I drink sodas it'll probably take me a year or more to do so.  If I find anything truly spectacular, I'll let y'all know.