Thursday, March 25, 2010

What's Duckna? A Caribbean St. Patrick's Day Treat

I had the wonderful and  exciting pleasure of celebrating St. Patrick's Day on the island of Montserrat in the West Indies.  Montserrat is the only country besides Ireland to celebrate March 17th as a national holiday.  The day commemorates the Irish, English and African immigrants and their heritage. Cheers to all!

One of the highlights of the day happens in the afternoon at the Village Festival of National Heritage in Little Bay.  Replicas of slave huts are erected and locals prepare traditional dishes and bring them for sale. 

I learned all about Duckna, a Caribbean treat, from chef Bessie and her daughter. Duckna is made from a paste of shredded sweet potato, coconut, oil, sugar and spices. The sweet potatoes are a deep ruby color on the outside and white inside.  
The mixture is wrapped in elephant-ear leaves (taro)  and tied with strands of banana palm. I'd say something like preparing a Mexican tamale, except tamales use cornmeal and cornhusks.  Bessie said it is important for the duckna to be boiled a long time- about an hour and a half. 

To eat one, simply untie and enjoy the starchy sweetness.  Islanders like to nibble them along with the national dish, Goat Water. While I thought the name sounded less than enticing, Goat Water was delicious. Taxi driver Reuben Furlonge, a warm, caring and special man, made a batch and shared.  Looks, tastes and smells like spicy gumbo with pieces of tender, succulent goat meat. Yum.

Other favorites were souse (pig's feet), spinach-- sort of creamy, and rice.  I skipped the souse.

Naturally, the kids at the festival wanted more modern treats. They begged their parents for ice-cream cones, which I admit, I enjoyed, as well as a few rum punches in the bar.
Quite a different St. Patrick's Day from corned beef and cabbage and green beer.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Lessons Learned at New Orleans Cooking Experience

When I think of New Orleans, I can almost taste beignets, Cajun jambalaya, po’ boys and Shrimp Etouffée.  Let’s not forget gumbo, pralines, Bananas Foster, Andouille Sausage, King Cake and Café Brulot. No wonder I love the city.

New Orleans food makes me recall favorite restaurants such as: Arnaud’s, Commander’s Palace, Emeril’s, Po’ Boy Johnny’s, Pat O’Brien’s, the Gumbo Shoppe and Court of Two Sisters. I crave the mix of Cajun and Creole food, fancy service or hole in the wall goodness.  

This year I decided to improve my culinary skills by signing up for the New Orleans Cooking Experience, a three hour lesson followed by a multi-course dinner at the House of Bayou Road. I talked my best friend, Chris Granfield, into joining me.

Upon arrival at the cottage-like home, we were immediately offered a glass of wine and took a self-tour of the warmly furnished 18th-Century B & B. It was a cold rainy evening and the fireplaces added a warm, welcoming touch. The small inn sits within two lushly gardened acres (huge for a city parcel) and was used during filming of the movie, Interview of a Vampire.

Soon, other class members started to trickle in, a young couple from nearby Lake Ponchartrain, two ladies from xx, a local couple with house guests, plus ourselves.  We were introduced to the teacher: Chef Frank Brigtsen, co-owner of New Orleans’ own Brigtsen’s Restaurant.  Frank’s credentials are impressive and numerous, including a Food & Wine magazine’s listing of “ America’s Top Ten New Chefs,” a James Beard Award and a 2009 Zagat for “Best Food” in New Orleans. 

While Frank could boast about his award-winning skills, he remains very warm and humble.  He told us about answering an ad for kitchen help listed by Paul Prudhomme and then progressing through training with the internationally renowned Cajun Chef. Frank said he learned to use local, fresh ingredients in season and follow Prudhomme’s classic Louisiana techniques.

Chef Brigtsen started our class with preparation of duck leg-quarters (because the pieces would only need two hours cooking time instead of five for a whole duck.)    He stressed the importance of draining off the fat every hour and preheating the oven to 500 degrees, then lowering the temperature to 350, once the pans go in.

Frank talked about food sticking to the bottom while roasting and creating tasty nuggets.  He said, “In cooking, color is flavor, and brown is the color of flavor.”  I love that.

While the duck pieces roasted, Frank moved on to start the dressing or stuffing.  First, cornbread batter, including finely chopped jalapenos and green onions, was made.  After it baked and cooled, the second stage was begun.  The following technique became an eye-opening lesson for me.  When sautéing vegetables (in this case, onions, celery and peppers) start cooking just three-quarters of your measured amount.  When these vegetables begin to caramelize, add the remaining portions.  This method produces a variety of flavors and textures. Seems so simple, yet it truly made a difference.  

The best trick of the night came during the preparation of the pie crust for a pecan pie. Begin with cold butter, actually freeze it for 10-15 minutes and then grate it using the large-sized holes in a hand-grater. Mix the dough with your hands. No need to cut the butter in or clean a messy Cuisinart –a made from scratch fabulous, flaky crust. 

Chef also used a combination of pecans, some that had previously been roasted to release their flavor and then ground. These smaller pieces would rest below the larger unroasted ones for added crunch.  And, after I sampled a slice, there’s no doubt -- this was absolutely the best pecan pie I have ever tasted. 

Brigtsen also encouraged us to use recipes and measure accurately.  He hates it when something turns out only 90% of what it could be. He stressed, “Recipes have been tested, if you follow the same preparation each time, you should get great results.” He added that all items served in his restaurant are prepared using recipes and precise measurements. 

While learning all these useful kitchen lessons, the class attendees sipped never-ending glasses of wine, learned about the history of the Bayou Road home and toured a few rooms.  Chris and I had a blast, as did everyone in the class.  But…the best was yet to come--eating Frank’s cooking, a decadent and divine meal.

Oyster Soup with Spinach and Brie

Roast Duck with Tart Dried Cherry Sauce
Cornbread Dressing
Green Bean Medley

Pecan Pie

The next day, Chris and I raved so much about our experience that our husbands wanted to go to Brigtsen’s Restaurant, however, our concierge talked us out of it—sadly due to a logistical concern. Seems a  grand Mardi Gras parade would be “rolling” Uptown (near the restaurant) and it would likely take us 1 ½ hours to get to his place.  We were disappointed, but looking forward to going there next year on our annual Mardi Gras Adventure. In addition, Chris and I will definitely return to cooking school at the House of Bayou Road. 

If You Go:
The New Orleans Cooking Experience offers classes in classic Creole and Cajun cuisine.  Judy Jurisich, the Founder, has assembled a staff of highly innovative and skilled chefs. She can also offer personalized classes or group events.  Call for information and reservations at 504-945-0992.  Website:

Friday, March 5, 2010

Georgia Oyster Roast and Low Country Boil

I don’t do raw oysters. I suppose…if you added a large dollop of cocktail sauce and bribed me, I might be able to get one down—but I’m just not into slimey food. However, I recently tasted a roasted oyster and well, that's a different story.  I've added a new sensation to my repotoire. Captain Andy Hill made a succulent, savory concoction with roasted oysters, melted cheese, bacon bits and jalapeños.  They had me asking for seconds…and thirds.

On my first night at serene Eagle Island, a ten-acre private barrier island off the coast of Georgia, my group was lavished with a double feast. David Goode, Guest Services Director, shucked and roasted oysters  in the outdoor kitchen. Meanwhile, Andy Hill changed hats and as Chef Andy, he continued the preparation. Then, they both worked together creating a traditional Georgia low country boil.

The simmering broth contained onions, carrots, potatoes, corn on the cob, sausage and freshly caught shrimp- right off the shrimp boats in nearby Darien. While the night was exceptionally clear and chilly, the hot presentation warmed our tummies and souls. Truly yummy. Let’s hear it for locally grown, regional fare.