The Comforts of Food During times of misery and despair, one basic human need is food. First to fuel the body, and then to comfort the spirit. Bonny Wolf writes about Gulf Coast food and shares recipes for red beans and rice and gumbo.
NPR logo The Comforts of Food

The Comforts of Food

Gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee -- New Orleans is rich in food. Red beans and rice is the classic, Cajun comfort food. Recipes below. hide caption

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According to news reports, many evacuees from New Orleans arrived at the Houston Astrodome to a breakfast of grits and eggs.

A restaurant owner who couldn't get back into the city made red beans and rice for evacuees and emergency workers in Slidell, La.

One New Orleans family landed at a shelter in a small Texas town and took over the cooking, serving catfish and bread pudding.

About the Author

Bonny Wolf is a regular contributor to Kitchen Window and to NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. She is working on a book of food essays for St. Martin's Press.

During times of misery and despair, one basic human need is food. First to fuel the body, then to comfort the spirit.

This is a particularly poignant truth for Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, where food is a large part of identity. The comfort foods of Louisiana are gumbo and jambalaya, scrambled eggs and buttery grits, oyster po' boys and muffaletta sandwiches, red beans and rice, and crawfish etouffee.

In small ways, rescue workers have tried to comfort hurricane victims with foods from home. One group of evacuees in an Arkansas shelter were given Cajun food. Instant grits are sometimes available in styrofoam cups.

Marguerite Kelly, a syndicated columnist, native New Orleanian and excellent home cook, says eating and entertaining are part of life's purpose in New Orleans. "I always thought you made money so you could have a party," she says.

Disaster may diminish the means, but not the spirit. One TV reporter told the story of the kitchen staff at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the French Quarter who pulled a gas grill from the patio into the dining room to cook a Creole breakfast for stranded hotel guests. A piano player serenaded them with "Stormy Weather."

Hanging on to their foods allows Louisianans to hang on to their dignity and their identity to some extent. A woman housed in the Astrodome told the Houston Chronicle: "The only complaint I have is about the coffee, and we don't have red beans and rice."

Because of New Orleans' status as a culinary shrine, chefs, restaurateurs, food writers and food organizations are banding together to help.

Restaurants across the country are planning a Dine for America Day Oct. 5 to raise money for hurricane relief. The Southern Foodways Alliance, the Council of Independent Restaurants and the James Beard Foundation are building a job bank for displaced restaurant workers. Other organizations hope to give displaced chefs work preparing food for evacuees.

New Orleans restaurateurs are determined to return from the devastation. Brad Brennan, whose family owns Brennan's, Commander's Palace and other iconic New Orleans restaurants, told The New York Times: "We have been instructed by the matriarchs that we will rebuild."

One of the many touching stories of the last 10 days was the rescue of legendary musician Fats Domino. His New Orleans house was flooded; a Coast Guard helicopter rescued him and his family and took them to a shelter in Baton Rouge. Domino had returned to his native New Orleans in the 1980s for good, he said, because he couldn't get food he liked anyplace else.

Marguerite Kelly's Red Beans and Rice

Red beans and rice was traditionally cooked in Louisiana on Monday while the laundry was being done because the beans and a ham bone could be left to simmer on the stove while the wash dried on the line. Soaking the beans means the dish isn't instant, but neither is comfort.

Serves 10-12.

1 pound dried red beans

3 tablespoons vegetable oil (Kelly uses bacon grease)

3 large onions, chopped

3 green peppers, chopped and seeded

6 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 bunch of celery, chopped and stringed

1/4 pound tasso, chopped*

1 smoked ham hock

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

3 links andouille sausage, cut in bite-sized pieces

3 links kielbasa or other smoked sausage, cut in bite-sized pieces

Tabasco, salt and pepper to taste

Cooked rice (white or brown)

Soak beans overnight. Drain, rinse and set aside.

In a deep skillet, heat oil and saute onions, peppers, garlic, celery and tasso.

Add beans, ham hock, bay leaf and thyme. Add water to cover (plus a little).

Cover and cook over low-medium heat for two hours, or until beans are soft but not mushy. Add andouille and smoked sausage for last 30-45 minutes. Season to taste.

Serve over rice.

This dish freezes well. If you're cooking for a big party, multiply recipe by 10 and cook in two heavy roasters. When Kelly makes this for a party, she serves the beans in one big bowl and the rice in another.

* Tasso is a chunk of pork that is highly seasoned and then smoked. It can be found at many specialty food stores. If you can't find it, an extra link of andouille -- a spicy, smoked Cajun sausage -- will have to do.

Chicken and Andouille Gumbo

Gumbo comes in many forms depending on who's cooking and what's handy. It can feature any combination of meat, poultry, game, fish or shellfish. Shrimp and crawfish are popular, as are sausage and chicken. This recipe comes from the classic cookbook: Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen (1984).

It makes 6 main-dish or 10 appetizer servings.

One 2-3 pound chicken, cut up

Rub for chicken: Salt, garlic powder, ground red pepper (preferably cayenne)

1 cup finely chopped onions

1 cup finely chopped green bell peppers

3/4 cup finely chopped celery

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne)

Vegetable oil for deep frying

About 7 cups chicken stock

1/2 pound andouille smoked sausage (preferred), or other good smoked pork sausage such as Polish sausage (kielbasa), cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1 teaspoon minced garlic

Hot, cooked rice

Remove excess fat from chicken pieces. Rub a generous amount of salt, garlic powder and red pepper on both sides, making sure each piece is evenly covered. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

In a medium-size bowl, combine the onions, bell peppers and celery; set aside.

Combine the flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper in a paper or plastic bag. Add the chicken pieces and shake until chicken is well coated. Reserve 1/2 cup of the flour.

In a large heavy skillet heat, 1 1/2 inches of oil until very hot (375 to 400 degrees F). Fry the chicken until crust is brown on both sides and meat is cooked, about 5 to 8 minutes per side; drain on paper towels. Carefully pour the hot oil into a glass measuring cup, leaving as many of the browned particles in the pan as possible. Scrape the bottom with a metal whisk to loosen any stuck particles, then return 1/2 cup of the hot oil to the pan.

Place pan over high heat. Using a long-handled metal whisk, gradually stir in the reserved 1/2 cup flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until roux is dark red-brown to black, about 3 1/2 to 4 minutes, being careful not to let it scorch or splash. Remove from heat and immediately add the reserved vegetable mixture, stirring constantly until the roux stops getting darker. Return pan to low heat and cook until vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping the pan bottom well.

Meanwhile, place the stock in a 5 1/2-quart saucepan or large Dutch oven. Bring to a boil. Add roux mixture by spoonfuls to the boiling stock, stirring until dissolved between each addition. Return to a boil, stirring and scraping pan bottom often. Reduce heat to a simmer and stir in the andouille and minced garlic. Simmer uncovered for about 45 minutes, stirring often toward the end of the cooking time.

While the gumbo is simmering, bone the cooked chicken and cut the meat into 1/2-inch dice. When the gumbo is cooked, stir in the chicken and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

To serve as a main course, mound 1/3 cup cooked rice in the center of a soup bowl; ladle about 1 1/4 cups gumbo around the rice. For an appetizer, place 1 heaping teaspoon cooked rice in a cup and ladle about 3/4 cup gumbo on top.