'Treme' Cookbook Captures The Flavor Of A Show And A City

Aug 20, 2013
Originally published on August 21, 2013 8:34 am

If you find yourself craving New Orleans food, you could go there and melt in the sweltering heat for a dose of gumbo or praline bacon. Or you could settle in on your couch, as I've been doing, and torture yourself watching reruns of the HBO series Treme. It's set in post-Katrina New Orleans and, along with the music, it puts the city's food on center stage.

Now, if you want to cook the food for yourself, there's Treme: Stories and Recipes From the Heart of New Orleans. It's written by Lolis Eric Elie, a writer and story editor on the show, who was born and raised in New Orleans.

The cookbook is divided into sections, each told in the voice of one of the characters — from Janette Desautel, the chef, to Antoine Batiste, the trombonist. Elie says he wanted them to have their own chapter so they wouldn't interrupt each other.

"These are the voices I hear when I walk down the street: 'Boy, you gotta soak your red beans the night before or otherwise they're going to take forever to cook. Or you need to put pickle meat in those beans — I don't know what all this vegetarian stuff is about,' " Elie says. "People talk about the fact that they're sitting in the supermarket line in New Orleans, and people say, 'How you gonna fix that? White beans and shrimp? What you gonna do with that?' I don't think that happens as much in other cities."

The show includes real life musicians and cooks. When we see Kermit Ruffins, he's often cooking over a barbecue.

Elie says he called Ruffins to get his butter bean recipe, but he realized Ruffins wasn't going to write it down for him. Instead, he interviewed the musician to get the details.

For more, listen to my conversation with Elie on Tuesday's All Things Considered. And while you wait for Treme to start up again in December, Elie says you can do one thing: eat.

Recipe: Stuffed Mirliton

(from Treme character Davina Lambreaux)

8 medium mirlitons (chayotes)

3/4 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 teaspoon Basic Creole Seasoning Blend

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 cup unsalted butter, plus about 5 tablespoons

1 yellow onion, chopped

2 celery stalks with leaves, finely diced

1/4 large green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

3 tablespoons finely chopped green onions, white and tender green parts

2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic

1/2 cup very fine dried bread crumbs, plus about 5 tablespoons

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 large egg, lightly beaten

Put the mirlitons in a 3-gallon pot, or two large stockpots, and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot(s) and continue boiling, just until the mirlitons are fork tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from the heat and, using a slotted spoon, immediately transfer the mirlitons to a colander to drain and cool.

Once cool enough to handle, place the mirlitons on a cutting board or other flat surface. Cut them in half lengthwise. With a paring knife, shallowly trim away any spiny or blemished spots from the skin and tough pulp from the end nearest to the seed. Remove and discard the seed and use a small spoon to carefully remove the pulp from the inside of each half, leaving a 1/4- to 1/2-inch-thick shell. Drain the mirliton pulp in a colander, lightly squeezing it to release excess moisture, then chop the pulp. Set aside the pulp and shells.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

To make the stuffing: Season the shrimp with the Creole seasoning and cayenne, mixing well. Set aside. In a heavy 5-quart saucepan or large Dutch oven over low heat, melt the 1/2 cup of butter. Add the onions and cook until they start to soften, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the celery, bell pepper, parsley, green onions and garlic, and cook and stir for 2 minutes. Add the reserved mirliton pulp and cook for 6 minutes. Put 1/2 cup of the bread crumbs into a small bowl.

Once the mirliton pulp mixture has cooked for 6 minutes, add 2 tablespoons of the reserved bread crumbs, mixing thoroughly, then continue adding 2 tablespoons at a time until you have added all of them, stirring thoroughly between additions.

Cook the mixture over low heat, until it is noticeably dryer but still moist, about 3 minutes, stirring as needed. Next, add the seasoned shrimp, salt, and pepper.

Continue cooking until the shrimp turn pink, about 1 minute more, stirring almost constantly. Remove from the heat and stir in the egg, blending well.

Mound the stuffing in the 16 mirliton shells, using it all. Place the stuffed shells in a baking pan, such as a 12-by-17-inch baking pan, that will hold the shells in a single layer touching each other lightly to help support their shapes as they cook. Sprinkle about 1 teaspoon more bread crumbs evenly over the top of each stuffed shell and center a scant 1 teaspoon butter on the top of each. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake in the hot oven for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the tops are browned, about 1 hour more. Serve at once.

Note: To make ahead, prepare through the point of stuffing up to 1 day in advance. Cover the stuffed mirlitons tightly and refrigerate. Bake as directed when ready to serve.

Makes 8 main-course servings or 16 appetizer servings.

Recipe: Microwave Pralines

(from Treme character LaDonna Batiste-Williams)

1 pound light brown sugar

1 cup heavy (whipping) 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 (in other words, not too big or small)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 4 pieces

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Line a heatproof surface like a countertop or 2 baking sheets with wax paper.

In an 8-cup microwave-safe glass measur­ing cup with a handle, combine the brown sugar, cream and corn syrup, mixing until all the sugar lumps are dissolved and the bat­ter is well blended.

Position the measuring cup in the micro­wave so you can see how the batter inside measures; the batter will be at or near the 2 1/2-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 4 1/2-cup mark, 10 to 16 minutes (depending on how quickly your microwave cooks). 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 just to the 7-cup mark. Use warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate the leftovers, tightly covered, for up to 1 week.)

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.

Working quickly, and using two spoons, scoop rounded tablespoonfuls of the mixture onto the wax paper, about 1 inch apart and, 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.

Makes 24 to 34 two-inch pralines, or 3 cups of praline sauce.

From Lolis Eric Elie, Treme: Stories and Recipes From the Heart of New Orleans, Chronicle Books (2013). Excerpted with permission.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

If you find yourself craving New Orleans food, you could go there and melt in the sweltering heat for your dose of gumbo or beignets or praline bacon - trust me, one of the best things on the planet - or you could settle in on your couch, as I've been doing, and torture yourself watching reruns of the HBO series "Treme." It's set in post-Katrina New Orleans and, along with the music, it puts the city's food on center stage.


KIM DICKENS: (as Janette Desautel) We start with the sweet potato, andouille shrimp soup.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, beans and rice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What's this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Oysters mosca.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Bread pudding.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Unintelligible) on sandwiches.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Their way of life.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Frenchalata. It's our version of the mufulleta served on French.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, breaded pork chops and butter beans.


BLOCK: Well, now, if you want to cook it for yourself, there's the "Treme" cookbook billed as stories and recipes from the heart of New Orleans. It's written by Lolis Eric Elie, who's a writer and story editor for "Treme" and a food writer before that. And, Lolis, important to say you are native of New Orleans, right?

LOLIS ERIC ELIE: Born and raised.

BLOCK: Born and raised. Let's talk about the cookbook. It's divided into sections, and each of them is told in the voice of one of the characters from the show, right, whether it's Janette the chef or the trombonist Antoine Batiste or all the others.

ELIE: Well, a big part of what we try to do in the show is introduce you to different aspects of New Orleans, having characters of different races, different social backgrounds and even from different parts of the city. So when they get together to tell you about their New Orleans, I thought it would best if they told it to you in their own voice and have their own chapter and not be interrupted by each other.

BLOCK: It must be fun to channel those voices, both for the show and for the book, when you're thinking about the food that they would want from their kitchen.

ELIE: You know, these are the voices I hear when I walk down the street here. Boy, you got to soak your red beans before you do them the night before. Otherwise, they're going to take forever to cook. Or you need to put pickle meat in them beans. I don't know what all this vegetarian stuff is about. You need some pickle meat, that kind of thing.

BLOCK: Yeah. Everybody has an opinion, right?

ELIE: Exactly. And, you know, people talk about the fact that you'd be sitting in the supermarket line in New Orleans, and people would say, oh, how are you going to fix that? Why beans and shrimp? What are you going to do with that?


ELIE: I don't think that happens as much in other cities.

BLOCK: You know, one thing about "Treme" that's so interesting is that it includes real-life musicians and real-life chefs along with the fictional story. And often in the show, we see the trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. And when we see him, he's often cooking, right? He's over a barbecue.

ELIE: Well, that's exactly the kind of thing that is true. And people think, well, you know, you wrote that. You created this character. No, that's Kermit. His parents created that character. We talk about in the book how Fats Domino used to bring his food when he go on tour in Europe so that he could cook his own food in Europe. So there's a long tradition of musicians cooking.

BLOCK: Tell me about Kermit Ruffins' butterbeans.

ELIE: Ah. I called Kermit to get a recipe, and it was clear to me that I was not going to get a recipe written down. So what I did was I went and interviewed him. And in the course of the interview, I asked him how he made his butterbeans. And so based on what he told me, I wrote a recipe, sent it back for him to look at. And so unlike some of the recipes that, you know, sometimes have that -a kind of whimsical, this is exactly Kermit recipe.

BLOCK: You should have just had Kermit make you the beans, don't you think?


BLOCK: You could have had a sampling right there.

ELIE: Have you ever tried to catch up with Kermit Ruffins?


BLOCK: I have not.

ELIE: I wouldn't advise it. Kermit, if you're out there, please call.


BLOCK: There is a chapter that's devoted to the voice of an older generation, right? This is Albert Lambreaux. He's a Mardi Gras Indian chief. He has in his chapter a recipe that I've got to ask you about. It's for stuffed mirliton. Am I saying it right? Mirliton?


ELIE: Mirliton.

BLOCK: Mirliton.

ELIE: Well, there are only two places in the world that use that term, New Orleans and Haiti. And the rest of the world, they call it chayote squash. It's big in Latin America and even in Jamaica where they call it cho-cho or christophene. And that is a staple here on Christmas and Thanksgiving menus. You'll take the mirliton, you boil it, you scoop out the meat, and then you stuff it with onion, shrimp and/or sausage, garlic, celery. Put it back in and bake it. It's fabulous.

BLOCK: And what does it taste like?

ELIE: The mirliton itself is relatively bland. The stuffed mirliton tastes not unlike, say, stuffed eggplant in the sense that the truth is by the time you put all those seasonings in it, you get a whole other sense of it.

BLOCK: You know, you do get a really strong sense looking through the cookbook, Lolis, of what a multicultural city New Orleans has been and continues to be and continues to be more and more ethnically diverse.

ELIE: Well, it was important to me that the book reflect that cultural diversity, in part because as I have come to understand the city better and better, I'm realizing that we can no longer talk about New Orleans in terms of merely black and white, that we need to open up the discussion, because our food traditions have come from mixing of cultures from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean from centuries ago. And now, what we're finding is that Vietnamese food, for example, is part and parcel of the New Orleans tradition.

We have one of the largest populations of Vietnamese in the United States. Additionally, I see the infusion of Latino workers in the post-flood era as another infusion of one of the key elements of the building blocks of New Orleans cuisine before. So what happens now is you can now go and have tacos or go and have pupusas and know exactly what their country of origins are.

But if I know New Orleans as well as I think I know New Orleans, 100 years from now, those tacos are going to be Creole, and it will no longer be clear exactly when they came from Mexico or that they came from Mexico. They're going to be ours.

BLOCK: So if you were to put together, Lolis, your ideal New Orleans meal, start to finish, what's on the menu?

ELIE: First thing, you got to have gumbo. Even though gumbo is enough for a meal, it's always where we start Thanksgiving, Christmas, any major meals - got to have gumbo. The other thing I would do is go to what we call salad without papers. As you may know, wop was a derogatory term for Italians, meaning these are immigrants without papers. And so until recently and less politically correct time, you'd see wop salad on the menu. It's a salad consisting of fresh grains but also pickled vegetables. We add shrimp to that as well.

And then where would I go after that? Probably to the roasted duck from Gabrielle Restaurant. Greg Sonnier is the chef. And this restaurant closed after the levee failures in 2005, and so I wanted this recipe in the book because it's sort of a tribute to that restaurant. Then I suppose we'd need some sort of dessert.

BLOCK: I think we do.

ELIE: We go to Pound Cake Paul Trevigne, which is a recipe named after one of the great heroes of the New Orleans civil rights movement of the 1800s. This man was a newspaperman. And, of course, some cafe ole.

BLOCK: And that pound cake, I think, has chocolate chips and pecans in it.

ELIE: Well, Melissa, sometimes you can't decide what you want.


BLOCK: Just throw it all in there.

ELIE: Exactly.

BLOCK: Lolis, it's great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

ELIE: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

BLOCK: That's Lolis Eric Elie, creator of the "Treme Cookbook: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans." And, Lolis, when does season four of "Treme" start?

ELIE: Season four starts December 1, so please stay tuned.

BLOCK: Long time to wait.

ELIE: Indeed, indeed. Eat between now and then.

BLOCK: OK. Will do.


CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.