Many of the mainstays of Creole cuisine are based on our warm-weather crops: bell peppers, tomatoes, okra, and eggplant. Deep fried or panéed, roasted, stuffed, or sauteed—you can prepare them any number of ways. Feature any of these as side dishes (because they do deserve all that attention) or try them in various combinations. Together, they serve as a satisfying base for vegetarian entrees, and they also pair well with shrimp and redfish—New Orleans's summer-season proteins.
Only the Freshest Ingredients
When the French colonized present-day New Orleans, they brought with them their cuisine, including mirepoix, or a mixture of two parts onion, one part carrots, and one part celery, which serves as a base for many dishes. Carrots don't grow so well in our swampy clay. Bell peppers, a New World plant that is resistant to humidity and heat, stepped into carrots' place to form the Cajun (and later, the Creole) Trinity. From gumbos and shrimp creoles to stuffing and red gravy, bell peppers find their way into Creole food all year round, nearly every day.
The tomato is another indigenous American fruit that found its way into Creole cuisine indirectly. Spanish conquistadors brought both peppers and tomatoes from Central America to Europe, and then to New Orleans when they took reign. The tomato is a member of the nightshade family, which means its leaves, roots, and stems can be deadly. Unlike NOLA Creoles, colonists in the Northeast were afraid to eat the fruit and grew it only as an ornamental, until it was cultivated at Monticello by Thomas Jefferson. The inclusion of tomatoes distinguishes a Creole from a Cajun (i.e. strictly Acadian French) dish. Creole green beans always include tomatoes; tomatoes differentiate a shrimp creole from a shrimp etouffee.
Eggplant is another member of the deadly nightshade family. However, unlike peppers and tomatoes—native American plants—eggplants came from Africa and have been cultivated in India, Asia, and the Middle East for thousands of years. Moors brought the eggplant to Italy, and then Sicilian immigrants brought it to New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Eggplant parmesan may be served around the country, but only in New Orleans will it come with baked mac swimming in red gravy. Eggplant also serves as an excellent platform for buttery French-Creole seafood sauces.
Last, but not least, in our list of NOLA's seasonal summer fruits is okra. Okra holds a special place in New Orleans's cuisine, since gumbo came to us from African Bantus—their word for okra (ochinggômbo or ki ngombo) and their cooking techniques. Okra, when heated, releases a slimy substance, which works as a thickening agent. This mucilage becomes less viscous when sautéed and cooked with an acid, like tomatoes, which makes okra and tomato a perfect pair. Okra is part of the mallow family (like marsh-mallow), so it grows easily here. When companion planted, tall okra plants provide tomatoes with shade from the late summer's scorching heat.
So Many Ways to Dish Up Delicious
Macque choux (pronounced mock-shoe) is a quintessentially New Orleans blend of Creole and Native American cultures. The base is formed by sautéing onion and bell pepper, first, and then kernels of corn and chopped fresh tomatoes. However, there are endless varieties. Use bacon fat, butter, or olive oil. Throw in some thyme or basil. Kick up the spice with cayenne pepper. Thicken it with heavy cream—or okra. If you want to get super-local, go to a farmers' market and get a giant cucuzza squash to add to the mix (or sub this ingredient with zucchini). Make it an entrée with shrimp and serve it over rice or with French bread.
New Orleans's summer seasonal entrées include stuffed bell peppers, stacked and stuffed eggplant, and grilled or blackened redfish. A local spin on stuffed peppers is sometimes adding shrimp and always adding the Trinity. Usually, rice is replaced with Italian breadcrumbs or day-old French bread—which, when added to sauteed Trinity, is also the base of our seafood stuffings. One popular dish in restaurants around New Orleans is Eggplant Napoleon: medallions of crumb-crusted and pan-fried (aka panéed) eggplant, stacked in alternating layers with seafood stuffing (remember, in June, the freshest is shrimp!), and topped with a spicy butter or cream sauce. These sauces often also feature seafood and are often served slathered on a fillet of redfish. To highlight the fresh flavors of our summer produce, bake your own redfish under a layer of sliced tomatoes, or oven-roast your eggplant, sans sauce and stuffing—and don't forget the macque choux.
Stewing up a pot of Creole seafood and okra gumbo takes hours, but shrimp creole is a solid summer NOLA Creole dinner that can be on your table in little time. While it simmers, roast a pan of eggplant or okra as a side. Even less time? These dishes appear on menus around town. Macque choux is not so commonly found in restaurants, but Briquette on South Peters Street, in the Warehouse District, features it alongside Lump Crabmeat Napoleon—and its redfish is among the best. Creole Cookery, on Toulouse Street in the French Quarter, also serves a Napoleon, as well as shrimp creole and creole green beans. A visit to Charlie's, on St. Bernard Highway in Violet, is definitely worth the drive. Start with an order of fried okra and Charlie's award-winning seafood gumbo. Finish with eggplant—Napoleon, parmesan, or panéed.