'Kick it up a notch' for Super Bowl Sunday

It's almost Super Bowl Sunday. Guys (and many gals) around the globe will soon be poised before their sets to watch the grand gladiatorial combat. An abundance of party food - typically chips and dip, burgers and fries, or pizza - will likely be close at hand to graze on.

All manly choices, of course, but why not serve something with a little more class and creativity? One of TV's best-known and most engaging cooks is Emeril Lagasse, who regularly labels a meal "manly," and who appeals as much to male viewers as to female. When he says let's "kick it up a notch" (daily), he takes an already exotic meal and makes it fancier - adding unexpected ingredients with a theatrical "Bam!" - tossing the pinch of cayenne or herbs into the pot like a genie with an ounce of magic dust. Or, he builds from the basic recipe a daring and sometimes exquisite presentation out of, say, snails.

It's amazing to watch - and partly because his shows don't look or sound like instructional video. He's not boring.

OK, so he's not situation-comedy material. NBC pulled the plug on "Emeril," which never seemed to find an audience. It wasn't that bad. The writers just didn't know how to make the best of what he does well - he's a showman, not an actor.

"Emeril Live" (featuring an audience that gets to taste his creations) and "Essence of Emeril" (which offers an "in-depth exploration of a single subject"), both on the Food Network daily, celebrate good food, lovingly assembled with a kind of daring-do about its creation. Emeril urges his audience to experiment with unusual ingredients and to feel at home with a high level of cooking skill.

Watching him is a bit akin to watching a fine jazz musician. That's natural - music was the career he renounced in favor of fine cookery. But like a jazz musician, he knows his instrument well - just what each herb or spice will do to each basic recipe. He appears to riff on a theme on his shows, making up beautiful combinations as he goes along.

Then, too, he comes off as kind of macho - reveling in mastery of his craft, expressing himself in flamboyant gestures, always friendly and easygoing at the same time.

And for such a masculine cook, he freely acknowledges that his mother, Hilda, was his formative influence. A terrific cook herself, she gave him a head start. As a teen, he worked in a Portuguese bakery, learning his way around bread and pastry. He was offered a full scholarship to the New England School of Music, but instead chose to go through the culinary program at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I. His graduate work took him to Paris and Lyon to study classical French cuisine.

Born and bred in Fall River, Mass., he embraced the Big Easy - with all New Orleans implies of Cajun spices and informality and high French cuisine.

After opening his first restaurant in New Orleans, he won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Southeast Chef. He now owns a slew of restaurants; hosts his Food Network shows; appears on ABC's "Good Morning America" weekly; has authored six cookbooks; has designed a line of cookware; and has created a line of seasonings, salad dressings, marinades, and pepper sauces.

The guy is a dynamo.

His latest cookbook is "Prime Time Emeril: More TV Dinners From America's Favorite Chef." And as we envision that upcoming Super Bowl spread, where better to turn our gaze than to Lagasse's tube food?

"It's OK to play with your food - be innovative, kick it up with spices, with sauces, with fillings, with toppings," he advises in the introduction.

"Be imaginative. Go beyond the basics."

But, he cautions, "it's the extra attention you give a dish, not just kicking it up, but knowing when it's been kicked up enough." Enough is enough.

This year, with New Orleans as host of the big game on Feb. 3, try turning to "Prime Time Emeril" for a little Cajun or Creole inspiration from the city's most celebrated chef.

The following recipes from his book are simple, clearly written, and can be made ahead. And most of all, they'll introduce your Super Bowl party guests to the bold and delicious flavors of the Big Easy.

Turkey Chili

This dish is best if made a day ahead, refrigerated overnight to let the flavors marry, and then slowly reheated before serving. Put out some bowls of grated Cheddar cheese and minced green onions or chopped yellow onions.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 to 1-1/4 pounds lean ground turkey

2 tablespoons chili powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1 cup chopped yellow onions

1/2 cup chopped green bell peppers

1/2 cup chopped celery

1/2 cup seeded and chopped tomatoes

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

2 teaspoons seeded and minced jalapeƱos

2 teaspoons chopped garlic

2 cups each black and white beans (follow recipe below for cooking instructions)

4 cups homemade chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth

Heat the oil in a large heavy stockpot over medium-high heat. Add turkey, chili powder, cumin, salt, and cayenne, and cook, stirring to break up the meat, until the turkey loses its pink color, about 5 minutes. Add the onions, bell peppers, and celery, and cook until they soften, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeƱos, and garlic, and cook to blend the flavors, about 3 minutes.

Stir in the white beans, black beans, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has thickened, about 45 minutes. Serve immediately. Makes 6 cups; 4 to 6 servings.

Basic Beans

2 cups each black and white dried beans, rinsed and picked over

2 bay leaves

Salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Put beans in a large pot or mixing bowl, add enough cold water to cover by 2 inches, and soak beans at room temperature, uncovered, for at least 8 hours. Or, for the quick-soak method, bring the pot of beans to a boil over high heat and boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour.

Drain the beans. Place them in a medium saucepan with bay leaves and enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, until the beans are tender, about 50 minutes, skimming occasionally to remove foam.

Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water to cool. Discard the bay leaves and season with salt and pepper. Put beans in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use.

Corn Bread

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup bleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1 cup buttermilk

1 large egg

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Pour 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil into a 9-inch round baking pan or cast-iron skillet. Put it in the oven to heat for at least 10 minutes. Stir together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, and cayenne in a large mixing bowl. (Add more cayenne if you like a very spicy corn bread.) Add the buttermilk, the remaining 1/4 cup oil, and the egg, and stir just to blend.

Pour the batter into the preheated pan. Bake until lightly golden brown, about 25 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving. Makes about 6 servings.

Crunchy Pralines

1 pound light brown sugar (about 2-1/2 packed cups)

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup water

2 cups pecan pieces

Line a large baking sheet with wax paper. Combine brown sugar, butter, and water in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Continue to stir for 3 to 4 minutes. The mixture will begin to boil. Add the pecans and continue to stir for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Drop by small spoonfuls onto the wax paper. Let cool. Remove from the paper with a thin knife.

Pralines may be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for about two weeks. Makes about 2 dozen.

Onion Crisps

Vegetable oil for deep-frying

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Emeril's Original Essence or Creole Seasoning (recipe below)

1 large egg

2 cups thinly sliced yellow onions, separated into rings

1/2 teaspoon salt

Pour enough oil to come halfway up the sides into a large heavy pot or electric deep-fryer and heat over high heat to 360 degrees F.

Combine the flour and 1 tablespoon of Essence or Creole Seasoning in a shallow bowl. Whisk the egg and 2 tablespoons water in another shallow bowl. Dip the onions in the egg mixture, then toss in the seasoned flour, shaking to remove any excess flour.

In batches, without crowding, deep-fry the onions until crisp and golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper-towel-lined baking sheet. Before serving, season with remaining 1 teaspoon Essence or Creole Seasoning and salt. Makes 4 servings.

Creole Seasoning

2-1/2 tablespoons paprika

2 tablespoons salt

2 tablespoons garlic powder

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon cayenne

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried thyme

Combine all ingredients. Store in an airtight container away from light. Use within three months. Makes about 2/3 cup.

Recipes on these pages adapted from 'Prime Time Emeril' (Harper Collins)

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