Tuesday, November 22, 2011

From an interview with Poppy Tooker, a star in the New Orleans culinary scene

Poppy Tooker has contributed to both Fine Cooking and Louisiana Cookin’ magazines; she has become a mainstay at the Jazz Fest Food Heritage stage; she has taught cooking classes in Turin, London and all over the United States; she has been on various television shows, produced her own TV series, and even made an appearance on Food Network's Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Her gumbo beat the Iron Chef's in a crowd taste-test. 

Q: Your new radio show on New Orleans and Baton Rouge public radio, Louisiana Eats, highlights all things culinary in South Louisiana.  How did you come to your obsession with food?  I'm guessing it had something to do with your mother’s and grandmothers’ tables? Who were the great cooks in your family? And at whose apron strings did you learn to cook?
A: I was very fortunate that both of my great grandmother’s were alive until I was ten years old.  Both were great cooks, which was a lucky thing for me as my mother equated cooking with the worst sort of housework, so all my favorite foods were prepared by out housekeeper, Ellen and the great grandmothers. My happiest memories include beautifully laid, laced clothed tables gleaming with silver and crystal; Sunday dinners at Mamman’s that always included green cream de menthe frappe – even for the five year old me! Once the housekeeper quit and the family matriarchs died, I became a self-taught cook – learning from Miriam Guidroz in the Times Picayune and watching Julia Child on WYES.

Q: I guess I'm hoping for a portrait of the family culinary scene: big family dinners? Favorite dishes? Restaurants? Food traditions? 
A: Although no written recipes were left behind, my father, Tom Tooker who grew up at my Mamman’s table was blessed with good taste buds and the same acute taste memories as I. By trial and error, I recreated per his approval, Mamman’s landmark family dishes – chicken stew, dark with a Louisiana roux and thick with chewy dumplings; petite pois peas simmered in the same dark roux, just a little naturally sweeter and spicy with black pepper. Family Christmas Eves meant a rollicking open house, with cold lobster from Lenfant’s served skewered with colorful, frilled toothpicks, snowy sugared pecans and every petite fours and cake square ever imagined from Gambino’s Bakery.
Q: I know you have a camp in Grand Isle and never miss an opening day of the shrimping season.  Did you grow up fishing? Where? Tell us your favorite fishing story.
A: I spent much of my childhood at my best friend’s camp, Chitta’s Child situated in the middle of Grand Isle, learning to love life on the water from earliest memory.  Luckily, I married a man with a love for sports fishing who taught me how to pull a shrimp trawl in the early spring and eat salty oysters straight from the bay. Together we’ve fished the rigs on sunny warm days in late December when the Gulf is so crystalline, the schools of fish in the depths below appear aquarium perfect.

Q: What lost New Orleans restaurant do you most miss?  And, to use Calvin Trillin’s technique for ferreting out a person’s favorite restaurant, if you’d just spent 2 years on MREs (perish the thought!), what’s the first restaurant you’d go to when you got back to New Orleans?
A: For the most part, the New Orleans restaurants I miss the most are the ones that have dramatically changed over the last decade for various reasons, which, naturally include Hurricane Katrina, but also because of changes in management and family vision.  Those caused by the storm include the visual and atmospheric changes at Mandina’s and the total loss of ALL of lakefront seafood restaurants that I loved – most especially Sid-Mars, Brunings and Fitzgerald’s. And most of all, I miss that crazy, rosy pink sanctuary on St. Charles Avenue, Flamingoes Café – the first place in uptown New Orleans where it was cool to be gay and where the party never ended – until the AIDS epidemic brought the fun to a screeching halt in the mid 1980’s.
Q: And would you share with us your favorite-of-the-moment New Orleans recipe?
A: Today, in the week of Thanksgiving, my favorite recipe is something I’ve been teaching this month in my classes at the New Orleans Cooking Experience and that I’m looking forward to serving next week at my Thanksgiving dinner – my great grandmother’s Oyster Rice Dressing.

Serves 10 - 12
1 quart raw oysters
3 cups raw rice
4 stalks celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 stick butter
1 bunch green onions, sliced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup Lea & Perrin sauce
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Melt butter in a heavy Dutch oven type of pot. Sauté the celery and onion until tender but not browned. Drain the oysters and reserve the liquid. Coarsely chop the oysters. Add the rice to the seasonings in the pot and toss until the rice is translucent. Add the oyster liquid, Lea & Perrin and enough additional water to equal 6 cups in total. Bring to a full boil and then reduce the heat as low as possible and cover. Cook, undisturbed for 20 minutes. Add the oysters, green onions, parsley and salt and pepper. Toss together with a fork, cover and cook an additional 5 minutes.

For the sake of comparison, you’ll find Ruth Fertel’s Plaquemines Parish Oyster Dressing on the Chef John Folse & Company site.

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