Eat to the Beat at the New Orleans Jazz Festival

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

People who love New Orleans celebrations but have written off Mardi Gras for its raucous crowds often find the city's gentler Jazz & Heritage Festival just the ticket.

More than 400,000 tourists are descending on the Big Easy for the more subdued but no less spirited event, which begins tomorrow and runs through May 4.

No matter how alluring the sights and sounds, festivalgoers will want to graze on the city's world-famous food. From haute cuisine at Emeril's to down-home fare at Mother's, Cajun cafes in the bayous to temples of Creole in the French Quarter, New Orleans is nirvana for food lovers.

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For starters, "Breakfast at Brennan's" can't be beat. In the early 1950s, Owen Edward Brennan started this culinary tradition at his French Quarter restaurant; his three sons, Owen Jr. (Pip), Jimmy, and Ted, who inherited their father's business, have carried out his vision ever since.

If you go, leave your watch (and calorie counter) at home. Fast food Brennan's is not. In keeping with the legacy of leisurely French aristocrats, breakfast is an all-morning affair. The morning meal is served to 1,000 people each day, and even diners with a reservation can expect a wait.

After settling down and tasting Brennan's signature eggs, all distractions are forgotten. We're not talking the standard plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. Not even traditional Eggs Benedict, although that's always an option. Poached eggs on artichoke hearts nestled in a bed of creamed spinach, or fried trout, or andouille Cajun sausage and Holland rusks - all topped with hollandaise sauce, are just a few of the imaginative egg dishes served at the salmon-pink mansion on Royal Street.

Brennan's flair for creativity shows up all over its morning menu, which also features such atypical breakfast fare as Oysters Rockefeller, Blackened Redfish, and even New Orleans Turtle Soup, a house specialty.

Bananas Foster (flambed over ice cream) is a famous finish to the breakfast as is Crpes Fitzgerald (crpes filled with cream cheese and sour cream, topped with strawberry sauce).

At the heart of the kitchen is executive chef Michael Roussel, whose many TV credits include appearances on "Good Morning America," "The Today Show," and a recent PBS cooking series.

The youngest of the Brennan sons, Ted, wins the award for understatement with his comment: "One thing about this place, you don't leave here hungry."

That said, resist the temptation to skip meals till the next day. New Orleans isn't often called America's greatest food city for nothing.

Stroll through the French Quarter, and allow for serendipity.

Celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme's K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen is a sure bet for fine Cajun cooking; Emeril Lagasse's trendy Nola's is also memorable; and for more modest-priced fare, try the Gumbo Shop.

Like Brennan's, both Antoine's and Galatoire's on Bourbon Street as well as Commander's Palace in the Garden District are palaces of gastronomy. They are to food what Preservation Hall is to jazz - landmarks inextricably linked to the city's colorful culture.

After grazing in such style, it's tough to go home. But New Orleans shops help ease the transition. Hot sauces like those that spiced up your gumbo can be bought on any corner; the French market sells everything from canned alligator to Cafe du Monde beignet mix; and Aunt Sally's pralines are sure to please your friends back home.

* For information on the Jazz & Heritage Festival, visit the event's online site: www.nojazzfest.com

Eggs Sardou

8 large artichokes

3 cups creamed spinach (see recipe below)

8 poached eggs

2 cups hollandaise sauce (see recipe below, or use a quick blender or food processor version)

Slice off artichoke stems and remove all the leaves. Steam or boil the artichoke bottoms (they are also called "hearts") until tender, (about 20 minutes). Scoop out the furry "choke."

Mound creamed spinach on four plates and top with two warm artichoke bottoms. Set a poached egg in each artichoke, spoon hollandaise over each eggs and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Creamed Spinach

3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) butter

10 ounces fresh spinach, washed, stemmed, and chopped

1-1/2 cups onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups scalded milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

Pinch of white pepper

Pinch of nutmeg

Melt 1/2 cup butter in a large sautpan; add the spinach and cook over medium heat a few minutes until wilted.

In a large saucepan, melt the remaining butter. Add the onion and cook over medium heat until tender. Using a whisk, blend the flour into the mixture; gradually pour in the milk. Stir until smooth; stir in spinach. Season with salt, white pepper, and nutmeg. When the mixture is thick and warmed through, remove it from heat and serve.

Hollandaise Sauce

1 pound butter

4 egg yolks

1-1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Pinch of cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1-1/2 teaspoons water

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan; skim milk solids from the top of the butter. Keep butter over very low heat while preparing the egg yolks.

Place egg yolks, vinegar, cayenne, and salt in a large stainless steel bowl and whisk briefly. Fill a saucepan (large enough to accommodate the bowl) with about 1 inch of water. Heat the water to a simmer. Set the bowl in the saucepan over the water; do not let the water touch the bottom of the bowl. Whisk egg yolk mixture until slightly thickened, then drizzle the clarified butter into the yolks, whisking constantly. If the bottom of the bowl becomes hotter than warm to the touch, remove the bowl from the pan of water for a few seconds and let cool. When all the butter is incorporated and the sauce is thick, beat in the water. Serve immediately or keep in a warm place until ready to use.

- Adapted from 'Breakfast at Brennan's and Dinner, Too.' (1994, Brennan's Inc.)

Cajun or Creole - What's the Difference?

Fred Halliday's useful and engaging gastronomic guide,"New Orleans Food Explorer" (1996, Fodor's) offers this explanation of the often-misunderstood difference between Cajun and Creole:

The two main thrusts of the New Orleans food empire - its most enduring and stable - are Cajun French and Creole French. Cajuns and Creoles alike speak the French language but that is about all they have in common. The cuisine that the Cajuns produced did not grow out of their French heritage, but from this new experience and place. It was natural, economical, and simple; the basis was an improvisational creativity with the natural raw materials at hand.

The Creole French, on the other hand - those arriving after the French Revolution - came directly from France. They brought haute cuisine with them. True, they found superb ingredients new to them in their New Orleans home, but these they bent toward French treatment and taxonomy. What they produced was a complex cuisine that was sophisticated and artful and as elegant as themselves (just ask them.) When ice became too expensive in the sultry, Southern capital (once going from $6 to $65 a pound), Creoles went as far as to sew broken glass into cheesecloth to float in water so it would tinkle in the glass. (Few guests noticed the trick.) In cuisine today they are also tricky. They put puff pastry around a costly black truffle; few notice the truffle is really an olive. But they are very charming, and their cuisine is full of surprises, and never too far from its French heritage.

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