Friday, July 1, 2011

Cooking to Save the Planet: Stuffed Summer Vegetables, Creole Style

So, readers keep asking me to write more about food, and I hardly need encouragement to do that.  And I hope that, as I do so, I'm not boring readers who visit this site for other reasons.  I'll continue to try to set the table here with dishes of sufficient variety that a diverse group of visitors may find something to their liking on the table.

Perhaps because I'm in Houston, which isn't totally removed from south Louisiana either geographically or culturally (and so, as you drive around, you see Cajun names like Broussard displayed here and there, or restaurants named Pappadeaux's or with "N'Awlins Style" as part of their title), I'm thinking of a set of Creole summertime dishes I particularly like.  As with so many other Creole dishes, these reflect the bon ménage style of thrifty French housewives, bonnes femmes, who know how to pinch a penny, spot top quality in the market, and obtain it for the best price possible.

And who know then as well how to stretch that top-quality meat, vegetable, or fruit, so that its flavor is enhanced and it feeds a number of hungry mouths in the most mouth-watering way possible.  In the Creole cooking of New Orleans and its environs, one of the ways that the traditional cuisine has long sought to accomplish these goals (echoing its Franco-Spanish-Afro-Indian roots) is to take some of the gorgeous summer vegetables that are so plentiful in south Louisiana and to stuff them.  With rich, herb-laced fillings that make use of another staple of the south Louisiana table of which not a mouthful is allowed to go to waste--french bread.

Just as they're capable of cooking almost anything, good Creole cooks can and do stuff almost any vegetable possible, so that one can find on the tables of traditional Creole households aubergine farcie, or stuffed summer squash, or stuffed pepper or mirliton.  The latter is a vegetable I had never encountered before heading to college in New Orleans in 1968.  Though my family had often taken vacations in New Orleans throughout my childhood, we'd never seen this or the other stuffed vegetables I'm describing here at restaurants, because these are home-cooked dishes that seldom appear on restaurant tables.  The only restaurant where Steve, our friends, and I learned to find reliable versions of these home-cooked dishes always on offer was a small cafeteria near our house, Wise Cafeteria, which has long since been out of business, I think.

The mirliton, or vegetable pear, as many New Orleanians call it, will probably be known to buyers in other parts of the world who know this vegetable at all as chayote.  It will be known as chayote, in particular, where there are concentrations of people from central and south America.  I never saw it in any store in central Arkansas until large numbers of Latino folks began settling in our area in the final decades of the 20th century, and when I do see it now in stores catering to that segment of our population, it's always labeled "chayote."

It's a light green, pear-shaped vegetable produced by a vine that grows rank and lush in the semi-tropical climate of New Orleans.  A single vine can both shade a large patio and produce abundant fruit, and, if one avoids Jonah's mistake of thinking that God cared only for him and other righteous folks, it will produce constantly through a long, hot summer, providing many meals for those who have the good fortune to have access to a mirliton vine.  The flesh of the mirliton is, to my taste, insipid, but glorious when stuffed--and I have never encountered it in any other treatment on a New Orleans table, though other ways of cooking it may well exist about which I know nothing.

And so here's what Creole cooks do with the alluring mirliton, with yellow crookneck summer squash, with smaller eggplants, with peppers: in the case of the mirliton, squash, or eggplant, you boil the vegetable whole in plain water, an abundance of it, until the vegetable is just fork-tender.  No more.  You want to avoid boiling the vegetable until it begins to be mushy or will fall apart as it's stuffed.

On the other hand, it has to be tender enough for you to scoop the flesh out from the inside of the vegetable, leaving a shell of the other part of the vegetable to be stuffed.  I can't tell you how long to boil these vegetables, because everything depends on the size of vegetable you've chosen and whether it's mature and hard or less mature and tender.  The summer squash should normally be somewhere beyond the baby squash stage and the hard stage of a fully grown squash. You'll have to learn by doing, I'm afraid, and if you do overcook the vegetable, all is hardly lost, since you can simply chop the entire thing and serve the stuffed vegetable as a casserole.  I've certainly had to go that route, many times . . . .

When your vegetable is ready to be stuffed (the pepper will have needed only a tiny bit of parboiling to reach this stage), you carefully slice it lengthwise, and using a tablespoon, you carefully scoop the meat out of the vegetable, leaving a shell to be stuffed.  (These instructions don't apply to bell peppers, of course, since they're already hollow on the inside/)  In the case of the mirliton, you'll find a seed inside, in the very center of the vegetable, which is not included in the stuffing, but which many folks find tasty in and of itself.  

Place the vegetable meat you've removed from the shell into a bowl, and then mash it well or chop it finely and set it aside.  Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat some olive oil, and in the oil sautée what Creole cooks sometimes call the holy trinity on which almost any Creole dish is based--a mix of finely chopped bell pepper, celery, and onion.  Fastidious Creole cooks add the first two a little ahead of the onion, since they take longer to become tender.

I can't tell you how much of these seasoning vegetables to use, since I don't know how many squash/mirliton/eggplants/peppers you're stuffing.  As a very rough rule of thumb, I'd guess about one medium pepper and two stalks of celery with one medium onion for, say, a half-dozen mirliton or squash and two or three medium eggplants.  

When the seasoning vegetables are tender, add to them a good bit of chopped parsley, some crushed garlic (careful Creole cooks add the garlic last because it tends to burn and become bitter if added to the other seasoning vegetables as they sautée), chopped or dried thyme to taste, and a bay leaf or two.  If you want to add the bay leaf as a chopped seasoning, you can crush or chop it, taking care to remove the central stem of the leaf, which can, or so people say, cause harm inside the innards.  Add salt and pepper to taste, as well, and stir the mashed or chopped vegetable you had previously set aside back into this seasoning mix, turning all well and heating a bit to meld the flavors.

And now you add the french bread.  In thrifty Creole households, this will have been the stale, dried ends of loaves of bread eaten at dinners during the week prior to your current meal.  They may have been finished off in the oven (that is, dried on cookie sheets at low temperature), and then crumbled.  Many Creole cooks also keep on hand boxes of dried bread crumbs, some labeled Italian style, which will have Italian herbs and parmesan cheese in the mix.  

Much depends here on the "signature" of the particular cook making these dishes--much depends, I mean to say, on whether she/he prefers crumbled french bread or store-bought bread crumbs that may include other seasoning.  I learned to cook these dishes from watching and helping two elderly New Orleans ladies, both natives, who volunteered to cook for a group of students with whom I lived in a house made available to us by the chaplaincy office at Loyola, when we decided to live together in a Christian community experiment.

One of the cooks was the daughter of a "real" Creole, a woman of French and Spanish descent who had actually grown up in the French Quarter.  The other was an uptown woman, from the tony Garden District of New Orleans, whose family was lace-curtain Irish, but who had lived in the French Quarter as an artist for many years.  Each had her own different way of adding a tiny touch here or there to these dishes.  One used Italian bread crumbs.  The other didn't.  But the basic seasonings--bell pepper, celery, onion, garlic, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, salt, and pepper--didn't vary.  They're standard seasonings in much of Creole cooking.

As you mix the bread into your mixture, your goal is to end up with a stuffing that is on the moist side--not dry.  It will dry somewhat and cohere as you bake your stuffed vegetable.  You may also add here--and most Creole cooks I knew, though not all, did do so--several raw eggs, mixing them carefully into the stuffing, to help bind and enrich it.  And to keep it moist.

And now comes another decision point: will you add seafood or meat to the stuffing, and if so, what combination?  Or will it be a vegetarian stuffing, in which case, you may want to add some melted butter to make the mixture richer and to add flavor?  Or some grated cheese, particularly parmesan, though in my experience, this twist on the Creole dish is usually more common among Creole cooks with some Italian background.

A classic combination for these stuffed Creole vegetables is a mixture of coarsely chopped ham and coarsely chopped boiled (and peeled, it goes without saying) shrimp.  Or either the ham or the shrimp alone.  Or perhaps crabmeat, in which case cooks often do add some butter and/or cheese, because crab can appear meager to some folks' palate without the mouthfeel of butter or cheese.  

Or perhaps--less orthodox and traditional, but I like it very much as an alternative--merely chopped mushrooms sautéed in butter or olive oil.  Everything depends on what you have on hand (these are dishes designed to make maximum use of bits and pieces left over or on hand, combined with vegetables producing in abundance in summertime).  And it depends on what you like.  You could well try some chopped spicy sausage that has first been fried--in New Orleans, this would likely be chaurice--or some tasso, the piquant, spicy ham found in Cajun country, chopped up.

Once you have added these final ingredients and folded them well into your stuffing mix, you then carefully--a plain tablespoon is the most reliable implement I've found to use--stuff each shell you've reserved, and arrange these on a lightly greased cookie sheet or in a casserole dish.  You will probably have stuffing left over, and if you're using a casserole dish, that can be carefully added around the vegetables.  Or it can be baked on its own.

To my mind--and the Creole cooks from whom I learned these dishes agreed--adding cheese either to the stuffing or on top is gilding the lily.  But nothing should stop your heading in that direction, if it's to your taste.  I have definitely tried some parmesan in the stuffing, and have liked it, especially when I serve vegetarian versions of these dishes.

Pop the stuffed vegetables into a medium oven (350 degrees F) and let them bake for about a half hour.  The goal is just to set and begin baking the stuffing, since all the ingredients will already have been cooked in the stuffing process, and you don't want to collapse the stuffed vegetables.  If you want the tops browned, run them under the broiler at the end.

And serve.  And don't forget the persillade, which most Creole cooks with any sense of tradition and the niceties of their cuisine would never omit as they prepare a dish like this for the table, and which may simply be plain chopped parsley or may incorporate some finely chopped garlic along with the parsley.

With a simple green salad tossed in a simple garlicky vinaigrette, some good french bread and butter, and bottle of cool dry white wine, you already have a meal, though most traditional New Orleanians would be horrified at serving what they consider a delicious vegetable side-dish as a main dish, in lieu of a serving of trout meunière or roast daube preceded by a soup or gumbo of some kind.  And a salad.  And wine.  And french bread.  And strong black coffee laced with chicory at the end of the meal, with a dessert and perhaps a glass of brandy or a cordial for the ladies.  If, that is, they were eating a real meal . . . . 

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