Thanksgiving in New Orleans features ingredients and foods that have been central to South Louisiana cooking for long time. Today I want to feature ingredients and recipes that the Creole people have feasted on for generations and that I grew up eating during the holiday season.
Harvest time in Louisiana combines influences from Europe, Africa and the Americas for a quintessentially American melting pot culinary experience. Some of the ingredients historically featured in Creole Thanksgiving dishes include sweet potatoes, rice, and even mirliton (chayote squash).
Sweet Potatoes (“Yams”)
There is some confusion about what differentiates a yam from a sweet potato. Yams are starchy tubers that have a dark, bark-like skin and white, purple or reddish flesh. They vary in size and are native to Africa and Asia. Sweet potatoes, however, are native to the Americas; they were grown in Peru as early as 750 B.C. Two main varieties are grown in the United States – one has a golden skin with creamy white flesh and a crumbly texture and the other has a copper skin with an orange flesh that is sweet and soft. Due to the differences of texture between the soft and firm varieties, commercial producers found a need to differentiate between the two. As African slaves had already been calling the soft sweet potatoes “yams” because they resembled the yams in Africa, the commercial growers continued calling the soft sweet potatoes “yams” to differentiate them from the firm varieties.
It is the soft variety that is typically grown in Louisiana and are known as “Louisiana Yams”. In order to create the Creole version of the Candied Sweet Potatoes below, I recommend using the softer, orange-fleshed sweet potato as opposed to the firmer, lighter-fleshed ones.
Mirliton (Chayote Squash)
The mirliton, better known throughout the United States as chayote squash, is native to Mexico. However, it has a long and unique history in New Orleans. It appears to have been grown in New Orleans as early as 1867, and is virtually the only major North American city where the mirliton was grown throughout the 20th century. It is surmised that its prevalence in New Orleans may be due to its close proximity to the Caribbean, where the squash is more popular, as well as to the large immigrant populations from the Caribbean living in New Orleans. Though the US Department of Agriculture tried to introduce chayote squash to US consumers in the 1920s as the “vegetable pear”, the public outside New Orleans did not jump on board. It seems as if the majority of people were confused about whether to treat the squash as a fruit or a vegetable, and couldn’t figure out how to incorporate it into their everyday cooking. So, the folks of New Orleans held on to this secret ingredient for several more decades without the rest of the country enjoying its unique flavor and texture, until the late 20th century, when it enjoyed a national comeback.
Whereas white potatoes are featured in most traditional American Thanksgiving dinners, rice takes center stage in Creole cooking. Rice is fundamental to Louisiana cooking and is the base for many Creole staples such as red beans and rice, dirty rice, jambalaya, étouffée, and even gumbo.
Southwestern Louisiana is one of the nation’s top rice producers – third in the nation. Our love of rice most likely stems from the lasting influence that the Spanish colonizers had on Louisiana cooking, as opposed to the outsized influence Northern European countries had on most of the rest of the United States.
Here are a few of my favorite Creole Thanksgiving side dishes using these ingredients:
Shrimp & Mirliton Stuffing
6 mirlitons, about 3 3/4 pounds total
4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups finely chopped yellow onions
1 cup finely chopped bell pepper
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons Creole Spice
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 pounds peeled, shrimp (may substitute crawfish, if available)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1 cup, plus 1/4 cup dried bread crumbs
2 large eggs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
Place the miriltons in a large pot and cover with water by 1-inch. Bring to a boil and cook until a knife can be inserted easily, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain in a colander and cool. When cool enough to handle, halve the mirlitons, peel, and remove the seeds. Discard the peel and seeds and cut the flesh into 1/2-inch cubes.
While mirlitons are cooking, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, onions, bell peppers, garlic, Creole Spice and salt. Cook until the vegetables are very soft, give off their liquid and begin to caramelize, about 25 minutes. Add the cubed mirlitons and cook, stirring frequently, until they give off their liquid and soften, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and cool slightly before adding the shrimp, butter, green onions, parsley, thyme, 1 cup bread crumbs, and eggs. Stir well to combine.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Lightly grease an 8-cup casserole dish. Transfer the stuffing to the casserole and sprinkle the top with the remaining 1/4 cup bread crumbs and cheese. Drizzle with the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of the olive oil, then bake until golden brown, 40 to 45 minutes.
Creole Candied Sweet Potatoes
2 cups white sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 pinch salt
1/2 cup butter
6 sweet potatoes (Louisiana yams), peeled and diced
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Add potatoes to a pot. Add cold water, and boil potatoes until fork tender. Drain and allow to cool.
In a small bowl, mix the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt together.
Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat; add sweet potatoes, and stir to coat. Sprinkle sugar mixture over the sweet potatoes, and stir. Cover skillet, and reduce heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the sauce is dark and the potatoes are candied. They should be tender, but a little hard around the edges.
Stir in vanilla, and serve.
Use green bell peppers if you want a relatively mild result. If you are looking for something spicier, use jalapeño chili peppers.
1 1/2 cup long-grain rice
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 cup chicken livers
3 slices of bacon, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper or 1-3 jalapeños, seeded and chopped
1 Tbsp Cajun/Creole seasoning
2 green onions, chopped
Cook the rice according to the package instructions, but use chicken broth for one third of the cooking liquid. So, for example, if the package says to use 3 cups of water for 1 1/2 cups of rice, use 2 cups of water and 1 cup of chicken broth. Once the rice has finished cooking, remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Turn the rice out onto a sheet pan and drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil over it. Mix to combine and let cool.
While the rice is cooking, mash and finely chop the chicken livers, or purée briefly in a blender. In a large pan that can eventually hold the rice plus everything else, put 1 tablespoon of oil plus the bacon in and cook over medium-low heat until the bacon is crispy.
Add the ground pork and increase the heat to high. Allow the meat to brown before stirring. As soon as the pork starts to brown, add the final tablespoon of oil and add the celery, green bell peppers (or jalapeños), and onions. Brown them all over medium-high heat. You may notice the bottom of the pan getting crusty. Keep it from burning by lowering the heat if needed. Add the minced liver and cook for a few minutes more.
Add the remaining cup of chicken broth and deglaze the pan by scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add the Cajun/Creole seasoning and turn the heat to high. Boil away most of the chicken stock and then add the cooked rice. Toss to combine.
Turn off the heat and add the green onions. Toss once more to combine and serve hot.