Moscow nights. From caviar to catfish: chef takes a ton of fish to Russia for summit

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HUNDREDS of American fish are defecting to Russia. A ton of farm-raised Louisiana cat fish will be flying to Moscow next week specifically for the United States-Soviet meetings.

But there's a good reason for the defection.

Chef John Folse will introduce Cajun-American food at a restaurant in the Soviet Sovincenter, overlooking the Moscow River, during the 10-day meetings of President Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

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``To me catfish is as all-American as mom and apple pie,'' says chef Folse, owner of Lafitte's Landing restaurant in Donaldsonville, La., about 45 miles west of New Orleans.

``This is the first time regional American cooking has been open to the public in the Soviet Union, and I'm taking plenty of seafood,'' he adds.

For those who may not know the taste of the new kind of farm-raised catfish, it compares well with other whitefish. It has been said to be as sweet as sole, and as firm as salmon.

But catfish isn't all that's making the trip.

``Along with it will be the best of everything Louisiana has to offer,'' Folse says. ``We're shipping 1,500 pounds of Louisiana crayfish, 1,500 pounds of jumbo lump crab meat, 25 gallons of oysters, 500 Louisiana quail, one ton of shrimp - plus lamb, chicken, mushrooms, and many regional specialties.

These include such items as alligator meat, tasso (the highly seasoned smoked ham), and andouille, the popular Cajun pure pork sausage,'' says Folse.

With three other Louisiana chefs, he will be serving dishes like Louisiana seafood gumbo, the dish made with a roux and fil'e, and jambalaya and crayfish 'etouff'ee. His customers will be dignitaries, journalists, and staff members of the American and Soviet government attending the meetings.

The restaurant is on the second floor of the Hotel Mezhdunarodnaya, in the Moscow World Trade Center, home base of the Sovincenter, a national Soviet organization designed to increase and foster international cooperation. It's also the location of the Soviet government's media center, where most of the summit press conferences will be conducted.

The restaurant seats 175, but there will be several seatings at both lunch and dinner. Folse expects to serve 5,000 to 10,000 meals during the 10 days.

Catfish will be featured in three courses. But when it comes to dessert, Michael Roussel, a chef who has been at the famous Brennan's Restaurant in New Orleans for 30 years, will make Bananas Foster, a dish he also served at President Reagan's inauguration when 50 American chefs prepared their specialties for 12,000 guests on the White House lawn.

``Bananas Foster is one of the dishes that made our restaurant famous,'' Mr. Roussel says, ``but we're also famous for breakfast - and although we may not be serving breakfast in Moscow, I'll be willing to cook any foods requested.

``The dessert menu will also include Louisiana Bread Pudding, Praline Cr^epes, and probably a custard dessert,'' he adds.

Brennan's is known for the very best New Orleans French Creole food - which is sophisticated Louisiana city cooking. Cajun food is country cooking - less inhibited and with more spices than Creole, more herbs, more hot pepper, and more gusto.

Other Louisiana chefs on the Moscow team are Kim and Tim Kringlie of Baton Rouge, La., and Bruce Cain of Shreveport.

The whole idea of taking Louisiana food to Moscow started in August of 1987, when chef Folse invited members of a Soviet delegation to sample Cajun cuisine at Lafitte's Landing.

Vladimir Pletnev, an official of the Soviet Chamber of Commerce and Industry, enjoyed the food so much he agreed to carry back chef Folse's request to cook a Cajun meal in Moscow.

Then in February a letter from V.Vokhmin, deputy director general of the Sovincenter, said the idea of a Cajun meal ``is undoubtedly interesting for us.''

On short notice, Folse and his associate, David Young, were invited to Moscow for two days to meet with Pavel Taichaika, director of the Soviet National Cuisine, to discuss details, to sign an agreement entitled ``Intentions of Protocol,'' and to be interviewed by Soviet news people.

Returning to the United States, Folse enlisted his team of Louisiana chefs, started working on a menu, and decided that catfish would be one of the featured foods. As executive chef of Delta Catfish Processors in neighboring Indianola, Miss., Folse is very familiar with the fish and has developed countless catfish recipes.

``It's the blue channel catfish, or Ictalurus punctatus, that we farm,'' says Carolyn Ann Fledge, assistant marketing director at the catfish company. ``We are the country's largest processor of farm-raised catfish and are active in export sales to Indonesia and to Japan, where the Japanese people call it `happy fish.'''

Admittedly, the catfish won't win any beauty contests. But most people find the long, catlike whiskers amusing. It has long been a favorite of the Cajuns of Louisiana and many other Southerners, who insist there's nothing better than a ``catfish feed.''

``Because it is quickly processed, catfish is top quality and the only fish I can depend on for a trip like this. It's versatile, light-textured, and sweet-tasting,'' Folse explains.

``We'll use it for Catfish Beignets, which are mustard battered with Sauce Creole, and for Catfish Gumbo. We'll also serve Pan Saut'eed Delta Pride Catfish with Crawfish in a Crawfish Butter Sauce and Stuffed Catfish Louisianne, which is catfish stuffed with shrimp, crab, and catfish.''

Louisiana has a wealth of fresh seafood because of the state's diverse water resources. The brackish waters in the coastal wetlands, freshwater lakes, and streams, and salt water in the Gulf, provide the abundance of shrimps, crabs, crayfish, oysters, turtles, catfish, wild ducks, and geese.

The tropical climate produces a taste in fruits and vegetables that is unmatched.

A variety of basic American food will be served in Moscow as well, including hamburgers and steaks.

At a request from the Soviets, Folse expanded the food schedule to include other examples of Louisiana's culture. Cajun artist George Rodrique was commissioned to do an official painting for the restaurant opening, and there will be a Cajun band.

``Moscow is setting the price for the meals, so I don't know yet what they will be,'' Folse says. ``We're bringing most of the food, but milk, cream, butter, and other things will be available. The Soviet government has agreed to provide waiters and other support personnel, but our trip is financed by Louisiana businessmen and community leaders.''

Folse was recently named ``Restaurateur of the Year'' in Louisiana and has been recognized both nationally and around the globe. He has cooked Cajun and regional American foods for people in Japan, France, Hong Kong, England, Canada. And he has been invited by the Chinese government to prepare an official state dinner in the Forbidden City in October.

Although Cajun cooking has been one of the most exciting US food trends of the '80s, it is difficult to describe. People say you have to taste it to understand it. Some say you have to be a Cajun to cook it well.

``Cajun cooking is more than a recipe,'' Folse explains. ``Cajun is a culture. It's a 250-year-old life style that tells me who I am. It comes from the land - it's dependent on the bayous, the Louisiana marshes, the woods.

``The early Acadians were small farmers, hunters, trappers, and fishermen. They lived from day to day, never intending to get rich.

``When I grew up, all Cajun boys cooked. We hunted for the wild herbs and plants and mushrooms. You almost have to be from this land, to live here in the bayous, to understand it,'' he says.

Folse was born in St. James Parish, an area called the Acadian coast - the landing site of the Acadians when the British drove them out of Nova Scotia in the mid-1700s.

``Cajun is very old, French country cooking,'' he explains. The flavors of our foods are heavy Acadian. The ingredients always depended on what you could get, so it was very seasonal cooking.

``We'll try to transport that real happy Cajun bayou country spirit in our Moscow restaurant. We're calling it `Lafitte's Landing East.'

``We're hanging 15 of George Rodrique's Cajun paintings around the walls. When people arrive, we'll have our band with fiddlers and accordion music playing the Cajun national anthem, `Jolie Blond.'

``I'll be there boiling and steaming my live crawfish and saut'eeing the wild Louisiana mushrooms just picked in the swamps today,'' he continues.''

Here are two recipes from ``Fishing for Compliments: Cooking with Catfish,'' from the Catfish Institute:

Catfish Meuni`ere 1/4 cup milk 1 egg 1/3 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 4 Mississippi farm-raised catfish fillets 1/2 cup butter 1/4 cup vegetable oil 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce Parsley sprigs Lemon wedges

In a shallow pan, combine milk and egg. In another shallow pan, combine flour, salt, and cayenne pepper. Dip catfish fillets in milk mixture and then in flour mixture, shaking off excess. Heat 4 tablespoons butter and all of oil in large skillet. Add fillets and cook until golden brown, turning only once.

Meanwhile, melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter. Combine with lemon juice, parsley, and Worcestershire sauce. Transfer fillets to serving plate. Pour butter sauce over catfish. Garnish with parsley sprigs and lemon wedges. Serves 4.

Catfish Gumbo 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 cup chopped celery 1 cup chopped green pepper 1 cup chopped onion 2 cloves garlic, chopped 4 cups beef broth 1 can (16 oz.) tomatoes 1 package (10 oz.) frozen sliced okra 1/2 teaspoon thyme 1 bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1/2 teaspoon oregano 1 teaspoon salt 4 Mississippi farm-raised catfish fillets, cut into 1-inch cubes Cooked rice

Heat oil in large stock pot. Saut'e celery, green pepper, onion, and garlic. Add beef broth, tomatoes, okra, thyme, bay leaf, cayenne pepper, oregano, and salt. Cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add catfish and continue simmering 15 minutes or until catfish flakes easily. Remove bay leaf.

Serve over cooked rice, if desired.

Serves 10.

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