Put Snap, Crackle, And Popcorn In Creole Meals

It's no secret, New Orleans knows how to throw a party. In late winter, there's the rollicking Mardi Gras. In April, the more subdued Jazz and Heritage Festival. And smaller festivals enliven the city throughout the year. But the Big Easy is less known for its Christmastime celebrations.

Emeril Lagasse just might turn that around.

The popular chef whose "new New Orleans cuisine" draws crowds from around the world to his restaurants, Emeril's and NOLA, has just published a yuletide cookbook.

In "Emeril's Creole Christmas" (William Morrow, 161 pp., $23), he raves about the holiday traditions, celebrations, and customs - culinary and otherwise - of his adopted hometown.

When Mr. Lagasse moved his family here from Massachusetts 15 years ago, he was charmed by the novelty of opening gifts in balmy temperatures beside banana plants and camellia bushes.

But beyond climate, he was struck with the city's strong religious ties, especially evident at Christmastime. He writes: "Although this port city, with its infusion of other ethnic cultures, has long been considered a free-living, roaring, flamboyant (and to some, very wicked) place, it is one that sustains an incredibly strong belief in religion and the outward demonstration of it."

In New Orleans, a good meal is never far away, and Christmas Eve churchgoing is usually followed by a late supper.

Many families serve traditional favorites like grillade (a Creole dish of braised meat in gravy made with onions, bell peppers, celery, tomatoes, herbs, and spices) and grits, glazed hams, hot biscuits, and cornbread.

Others eat a more contemporary supper of gumbo and jambalaya. But the food never strays far from the city's strong French and Spanish roots and its Gallic-based customs.

Lagasse is fond of his city's long-held traditions. And its new ones, too: the candlelight caroling in Jackson Square, the outdoor choir concerts, the Christmas tree lightings all over town, and the majestic Celebration in the Oaks lighting display at City Park.

But this party-loving chef and dynamic television personality likes the season's socializing and entertaining best.

To him, holiday meals here are about sharing "the incredible food that can be enjoyed not only in the many restaurants ... but also in people's homes, where everyone is welcomed with open arms - all the time."

On Christmas Day at the Lagasse home, feasting never ends. "I just can't seem to stop cooking and enjoying watching others eat," Lagasse says. "I always like to kick things up a notch, but during the holidays, hey, I kick them up two, three, maybe four notches."

Much as we'd like to, most of us won't be crashing Emeril's party this year. But thanks to his new cookbook, we can add some zip to our own holiday feasts.

From Lobster Cheesecake with Christmas Caviar Sauce to Crawfish Quiche, he shares more than 100 recipes. And he doesn't overlook stocking stuffers from the Creole kitchen like Orange Pralines and Butter Cream Mints.

Emeril Lagasse's Firecracker Shrimp

1 pound medium-size shrimp, tails on, rinsed, peeled, and deveined

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons hot pepper oil

1/4 cup popcorn kernels

1 teaspoon Creole seasoning (may be purchased, or use recipe below)

Season shrimp with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1 tablespoon of pepper oil. Place shrimp in concentric circles around the inside edge of a large covered saut pan, leaving space in the center in which to place the popcorn. (If you don't have a large enough cover, you may use aluminum foil to tightly cover the pan.)

Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of pepper oil in the center of the pan and sprinkle popcorn kernels into the oil. Cover pan and place it over medium-high heat. After about 3 to 4 minutes, shrimp will begin to sizzle and corn will begin to pop. At this point, start shaking pan at frequent intervals.

Continue cooking and shaking the pan until corn stops popping. Remove pan from the heat. Let sit a few more seconds until the corn finishes popping. If using aluminum foil, carefully remove the foil because of the steam.

Pour the mixture into a large bowl, and toss it with the remaining Creole seasoning. Taste, and add remaining salt if you feel it's necessary.

Must be served immediately.

Makes about 10 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

Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight container. Can be kept for several months.

Makes about 3/4 cup.

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