Will Janette Desautel ever cook her famous crawfish ravioli again?
The fictional chef in HBO's Treme practically ripped her business partner's head off like a crawdaddy at a boil when the subject arose at the end of last season.
"No. No [expletive] frozen crawfish, ever," said Desautel. "It is a seasonal special. People will look forward to it all year long."
Fans of Treme, the series based in post-Katrina New Orleans that has earned a relatively small but devoted following, are surely looking forward to its final season, debuting this fall, when Desautel's culinary fate, along with the show's numerous other story lines, are hopefully resolved.
But those crawfish ravioli don't have to wait. They are included, along with more than 100 other recipes, in the recently released Treme cookbook (Chronicle Books, $29.95.)
HBO has dabbled in cheeky culinary tie-ins for other shows before, from a series of (excellent) Ommegang beers for Game of Thrones to a campy cookbook for True Blood.
This book, however, deserves some extra attention on its own merits. The restaurant world is one of the major cultural pillars around which this drama and its characters spin, whether in the white-tablecloth universe of Desautel's or GiGi's, LaDonna's down-home corner bar. And the fact that much of the kitchen scenes and dialogue rings so true (Anthony Bourdain is one of the show's writers) is partly what makes Treme so compelling.
Just as the show's soundtracks have exposed viewers to the surprising depth and variety of the Crescent City's music scene, the range of dishes represented here - from the inevitable gumbos to newer Vietnamese, Latin, and modern American influences - unlock a treasure chest of subtle diversity that may surprise those who only casually know the city's food by its cliches.
The book is organized in chapters devoted to the show's characters, who in first-person narratives offer recipes that reflect their corner of the city, from brass-band musicians to Uptown lawyers, Mardi Gras Indians and high-end chefs. Together, their collected dishes present a layered patchwork that truly represents the flavors of life in New Orleans today.
Author Lolis Eric Elie, a native New Orleanian and former Times-Picayune columnist, was the story editor for Treme. Having written at different points scripts for many of the characters, he is uniquely placed to channel their voices.
From the character of lounge owner LaDonna Batiste Williams comes smothered turnip soup, an okra- and crab-infused Creole gumbo (inspired by Elie's mother, Gerri Elie), and a microwaved praline recipe that is one of the book's all-star keepers.
From Mardi Gras Indian "Big Chief" Albert Lambreaux there are stuffed mirlitons and the pumpkin-like cushaw squash pie.
From trombonist Antoine Batiste and his girlfriend, Desiree, there are authentic recipes from relatives of the New Orleans-born actors - a smothered okra ("basically gumbo without the liquid") from Wendell Pierce's mother, Althea Pierce; a hearty Creole succotash from Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc's mother, Clovina Rita McCoy.
From Davis McAlary, the son of Uptown privilege-turned-rabble-rousing DJ, we get waffles Lafon (infused with bourbon) and a pheasant-quail-andouille gumbo from Prejean's (the Lafayette restaurant and Jazz Fest stalwart) that is a soulfully authentic Cajun game stew.
Treme's seamless interplay between fiction and reality, with frequent cameos from real chefs and New Orleanians, works to the book's advantage as a pretext to offer a hit list of local favorites. Among the best are oysters St. Claude from Upperline, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins' butter beans, Gabrielle's roast duck with cracklin' skin, chili-prawn po'boys from Stanley, gumbo z'herbes from Dooky Chase, Bayona's cafe au lait pots de creme, and Brigtsen's banana bread pudding.
A companion essay on the history of bread pudding is one of several thoughtful sidebars detouring into culinary histories (and controversies) of gumbo, "French" bread, deep-fried calas (a batter cousin to doughy beignets), Croatian and Vietnamese oyster farmers, and the fascinating evolution of an Afro-Asian fusion known as yaka mein.
The overprominence of recipes from star New York chefs (David Chang, Eric Ripert) may be the book's only false note. Their regular appearances on the show make their presence here legitimate, but their culinary contributions (Momofuku poached eggs; Le Bernardin's pounded tuna) feel irrelevant.
Far more intriguing are the "New" New Orleans dishes from Soa Davies, a former Le Bernardin chef who consulted on Treme's set and actually cooked the dishes served on camera in Desautel's. Among my favorites are the green onion pancakes with seared duck breast and Asian slaw that are a riff on Momofuku's steamed pork buns.
Davies also created the recipe for those famous crawfish ravioli with sea urchin butter that Desautel introduces with unmuted joy: "The happiest moment in my professional life! Maybe by putting this recipe in this book, I won't have to make it anymore."
The Treme cookbook is good enough that those ravioli - and dozens of the other genuine New Orleans flavors illuminated within - will survive long after HBO pulls the plug.
Makes 24 to 34 two-inch pralines
1 pound light brown sugar
1 cup heavy cream, plus 1 to 3 teaspoons cream or milk for thinning batter
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 cups pecan halves, cut in half again
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into four pieces
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1. Line a heatproof surface like a countertop or two baking sheets with wax paper.
2. In an 8-cup, microwave-safe glass measuring cup with a handle (or a Pyrex mixing bowl), combine the brown sugar, cream, and corn syrup, mixing until all the sugar lumps are dissolved and the batter is well blended.
3. Position the measuring cup in the microwave so you can see how the batter inside measures; the batter will be at or near the 2½-cup mark. Microwave on high without covering or stirring, watching it continuously, until the mixture slowly bubbles up to slightly higher than the 8-cup mark, and then deflates to near the 4½-cup mark, 10 to 16 minutes (depending on how quickly your microwave cooks).
4. Do not open the microwave during the cooking process and, if in doubt, cook for less time, not more. (If you want to make praline sauce instead of pralines, let the batter cook as directed until it has expanded to slightly over the 8-cup mark and then has slowly deflated to the 7-cup mark. Use warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate leftovers, tightly covered, for up to 1 week.)
4. Carefully remove the very hot measuring cup from the microwave and, using a sturdy metal mixing spoon, gently stir in the pecans, butter, and vanilla, being careful to not splash any of the hot mixture on your skin. Continue stirring, until the mixture is noticeably less glossy, about 3 minutes.
5. Working quickly, and using two spoons, scoop rounded tablespoonfuls of the mixture onto the wax paper, about 1 inch apart, using a second tablespoon to push the batter off the mixing spoon. If necessary, thin the batter with the remaining 1 to 3 teaspoons of cream as you reach the end of the batter and it thickens as it cools. Let the pralines cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes, then serve as soon as possible. Any leftovers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.
Per praline (based on 34): 123 calories; 1 gram protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 14 grams sugar; 7 grams fat; 8 milligrams cholesterol; 15 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 8 main-course servings
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 pound fresh or frozen okra, trimmed and cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
1 pound fresh or frozen lima beans
1 pound fresh or frozen corn
1 pound smoked pork sausage, cut crosswise into 3/4-inch slices
1 pound boneless smoked ham, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 bay leaves
Pinch of dried thyme
1/2 to 1 cup water, if needed
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
Hot cooked rice for serving
1. In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, and celery, and stir to coat well in the fat. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, 10 to 15 minutes.
2. Stir in the okra, lima beans, corn, sausage, ham, bay leaves, and thyme. Cook, still uncovered, until vegetables are soft, about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. If the mixture seems dry toward the end of the cooking time, stir in water to moisten, a little at a time, then cover the pan and continue cooking. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
3. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the shrimp. Cook, stirring often, until the shrimp are cooked through and the flavors have blended, about 15 minutes longer. Remove from the heat. Mound the rice on large plates, spoon the succotash over the rice, and serve at once.
Per serving: 783 calories; 47 grams p.rotein; 114 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams sugar; 26 grams fat; 207 milligrams cholesterol; 1,532 milligrams sodium; 11 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 5-6 servings
For the green onion pancakes:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg, beaten
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions, white and tender green parts
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
Butter for frying
1 tablespoon whole cilantro leaves
For the duck:
12-16 ounce duck breast halves (depending on breed, halves can range widely, 6 to 16 ounces)
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
For hoisin vinaigrette:
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sriracha sauce
3 tablespoons canola oil
For vegetable salad:
½ cup peeled and julienned daikon (or regular) radish
½ cup peeled and julienned carrot
¼ cup julienned green onion
Fine sea salt and fresh ground pepper
¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves
1. To make the pancakes: In a large bowl, combine the flour, egg, water, sliced green onions; season with the salt and some pepper, and stir to mix well. Set the batter aside and let rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
2. Place a large nonstick skillet or cast-iron griddle over medium heat. Add 1 teaspoon of butter. Working in batches, spoon tablespoonfuls of the pancake batter into the skillet and spread evenly to make thin pancakes 3 to 4 inches in diameter, spacing them about 1 inch apart. Do not crowd the pancakes in the pan. Gently press the cilantro leaves into the pancake batter. Cook until golden brown on the bottom, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook until browned on the second side, about 1 minute longer. Add a little butter to the pan between each batch. Transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining batter to make a total of 10 to 12 pancakes. Cover the plate with aluminum foil and place in a low oven to keep warm while you cook the duck. (Note: Pancakes can be made earlier in the day, kept under cover at room temperature, and reheated in oven just before serving.)
3. Score the skin of the duck breasts in a ½-inch diamond pattern, being careful not to cut into the flesh, and season generously all over with salt and pepper. In a large heavy skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Swirl the butter to coat the pan bottom. Place the duck breasts, skin-side down, in the hot pan and sear until the skin is golden brown and crispy, 5 to 7 minutes. Turn the breasts and cook for 2 to 3 minutes longer for medium-rare (large breasts may require additional time). Transfer duck to a cutting board and let rest for 10 minutes. Strain remaining duck fat into a glass jar and store in refrigerator for another use.
4. While the duck is resting, in a small bowl, stir together the hoisin sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, sriracha, and 3 tablespoons oil. In a medium bowl, combine the radish, carrot, and green onion, and toss to mix well. Season with salt and pepper. Dress the vegetables with 2 tablespoons of the hoisin vinaigrette.
5. Arrange two green onion pancakes each on small plates. Cut the duck breasts crosswise into slices about ¼ inch thick, and place two slices in the center of each pancake. Top with a generous pinch of the vegetable salad, dividing it equally. Garnish with the cilantro leaves and hoisin sauce. Serve immediately.
Per serving (based on 6): 273 calories; 16 grams protein; 21 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 13 grams fat; 38 milligrams cholesterol; 623 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.