Sunday, February 8, 2009

The New Orleans Cooking Experience with Frank Brigtsen

As a Christmas present, my sister had given my parents two tickets for classes at the New Orleans cooking experience. After some hemming and hawing, they decided that they wanted to take a lesson from Frank Brigtsen, owner of Brigtsen’s. They picked a particular class, and asked me if I wanted to tag along. Who would turn down a cooking class in New Orleans? So, a weekend in New Orleans it was.

The classes were taught at a plantation turn b&b.

The House on Bayou Road is a beautiful Indigo plantation, which features a sizeable kitchen, well fit for teaching.

The man of the hour: Mr. Frank Brigtsen. Frank is an award winning chef, having garnered honors as the 1994 Chef of the Year in a New Orleans Magazine poll and a James Beard award for best chef southeast.

The man has a mind like a steel trap, and a great demeanor for teaching.

One of the first lessons from Frank: mise-en-place, or “everything in place”

Frank was very adamant about having everything ready before cooking. Even though it can come off as quite pedantic, having everything premeasured and ready for cooking is the best way to cook.

The cooking started off with a little lagniappe, which roughly means a little extra, crawfish calas with green onion mayonnaise . As explained by Frank, calas are rice fritters that are originally from Africa. Frank started by quickly sautéing some crawfish tails that he had boiled that morning.

He only heated them through, as he quickly moved onto the green onion mayo.

Frank is a big proponent of creating flavor by repeating ingredients. In the case of the crawfish calas, the rice was boiled in crawfish stock, half the crawfish were pureed and the other half left whole. By pureeing half of the crawfish, you are able to get the full flavor in each bite, instead of sporadic chunks of crawfish.

Here are the calas in the fryer. Don’t they look fantastic?

A great presentation, and they were delicious, moist and bursting with crawfish flavor.

After the great crawfish calas appetizer, Frank went right into oysters Bienville, a New Orleans favorite that was invented at Arnaud’s Restaurant.

Like any good New Orleans dish, this one features the trinity of onions, bell pepper, and celery. Also featured is Nueske’s bacon, chisesi ham, salt, thyme, oregano, white pepper, cayenne, bay leaf, garlic, mushrooms, green onions, and sherry, oyster liquor, diced shrimp, and finally a mixture of heavy cream and whole milk (a homemade half&half).

A funny thing happened while Frank was making the Bienville stuffing. Instead of pureeing the mixture and then adding the roux, he forgot to puree and started right in with the white roux.

That’s not an illusion. It’s simply a pound of butter and flour.

By a popular vote, the class elected to keep the chunky stuffing.

We were each given a small taste, and let me tell you; it was a rich as it looked.

I was glad he didn’t puree the stuffing. I felt that it gave a chance for each of the ingredients to shine through.

With the oysters Bienville stuffing cooling, Frank took a few minutes to talk to us about roux. He decided to teach us the secret of a 7 minute dark roux. For those of you that are unaware, a dark roux is usually a tedious task that requires you to constantly stir a mixture of flour and oil over medium heat for about an hour.

Using just a cup of flour and 14 tablespoons of oil, Frank was able to make this.

It was a sight to behold, and it was something you have to see to believe.

The reason Frank made this dark roux was for his crawfish étouffee. I’m sure there are some who are unaware of étouffees. The word étouffee is from the French word “étouffer” meaning to smother. Essentially the crawfish will be smothered in a roux based sauce.

By taking this simple mixture of the trinity, a bay leaf, spice mix, and garlic

Adding crawfish stock

Adding the roux to thicken

And finishing by filtering through a chinoise.

You end up with this spectacular sauce smothering the crawfish

Like the calas, this is another magnificent example of multiple layers of crawfish flavor.

Frank then started on his jambalaya, a true example of Cajun food. Unfortunately, he cooked it all in this tall pot.

As a result, I have no pictures of the process.

While the vegetables for the jambalaya were cooking down, Frank moved onto the Louisiana strawberry shortcake. Early on Frank had been waxing poetic about buying locally grown food and the wonders of Louisiana food.

Now was a chance to see these strawberries in action.

If I learned one thing from the shortcake recipe, it was the best way to cut the butter into the flour.

Use a box grater.

It turned out this wonderful dough, that soon became this pan of biscuits.

Frank had also done his magic with the strawberries. By boiling them in a simple syrup and then using a food processor. Frank had strained the sauce.

And we were all given a taste of the sublime strawberry syrup.

Moving back to the oysters Bienville, the stuffing had cooled, and Frank whipped out this container of freshly shucked oysters.

We were all allowed to give them a taste before he started stuffing the shells. These were the best gulf oysters I’ve ever had.

Before we were shown out of the kitchen, I took one last shot of Frank with this work in front of him.

He seemed like an artist about to prepare another masterpiece.

After a fascinating history of the House on Bayou road, we were ushered into the dining room. The meal began with the oysters Bienville.

I was ecstatic that we had kept the stuffing chunky. With a closer view, you can see how there are large chunks of onion, shrimp and crawfish.

I may not be a connoisseur of oysters, but I’ve had my fair share, and these were far and away the best I’ve ever enjoyed. Frank had said he had made 35 versions of oysters Bienville over the years, and after trying this, version #36, he thinks he has found the stopping point.

The empty oyster shells were soon cleared from the table, to make room for the main event: jambalaya served with crawfish étouffee.

Knowing how much butter was in this dish, I knew this was a symphony of decadence. Frank’s version of these classic Louisiana dishes may lack the punch that I normally favor, but his take offers up so much depth of flavor that you don’t even miss this heavy seasoning.

For a grand finale, the Louisiana strawberry shortcake:

More a biscuit than a shortcake, this wasn’t an overly sweet dish. Instead of being inundated with sugar, you were allowed to enjoy the sweetness of the strawberries themselves.

Even though the strawberry shortcake was the dessert, the real treat of the evening was when Frank came out of the kitchen and talked with all of us over dinner. Even though the 8 of us had never met before, it felt like we were all old friends. Frank was able to captivate us with stories of his tutelage of Paul Prudhomme, and tell us plenty of stories about Prudhomme’s character. Paul was in cooking for the right reasons, and he had taught Frank that. I was sad to see the evening draw to a close. What had been sold as a 3 hour course had turned into a 5 ½ hour event, but that’s life in the south. What starts as a meeting with strangers turns into a party with friends.

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