FOOD & DRINK / King Creole's feast day: Enjoy a Po' Boy sandwich, say ya ya to the gumbo .. and all that jazz. At Christmas, the best of New Orleans cuisine goes on parade

In New Orleans, even the trams get kitted out for Christmas, looped with festoons of greenery and big red bows. That really impressed me, but then so did a lot of things during my brief visit some years ago. Over a long December weekend, we revelled in the sheer exuberance of the city. Sure, we only scratched at the tourist surface, but there's no doubting it, New Orleans has a great veneer.

There was the coolest Santa I've ever seen, complete with Ray-Bans, playing his sax on a street corner near the French Market. We sat and watched him, as we tucked into 'un ordre' at the Cafe du Marche. We'd been warned that it was deeply uncool to ask for beignets - their famous doughnuts - and cafe au lait. That's what you get when you call for 'un ordre', anyway.

The elegant, balconied wooden houses of the Vieux Carre were, like the trams, decked out in full Christmas finery, greens and scarlets from one corner to the next. On Bourbon Street, a small parade threw strings of cheap coloured plastic beads and notes of swinging southern jazz out to bystanders.

We shopped, we listened, we watched, we drank and we ate. How we ate] Well, food is a serious business there, one that everybody cares about, whatever their status or age, black or white, man or woman. Stop anyone on the street and ask them what makes for the best gumbo or the finest Po' Boy, and they'll give you an impassioned answer.

Every restaurant - and there's no shortage, from the cheap and marvellously cheerful (often the best) to the grand stalwarts of the rich and famous - displays an arm-length 'reveillon' menu for Christmas Eve or the New Year. The character of the food stays much the same as usual, there's just more of it.

No time now to go into the intricacies of the cuisine. Suffice to say that it is one of the most vibrant and successful regional cuisines I've come across. New Orleans Creole cooking is a highly individual blend of French, African, Spanish and native American, joyfully re-invented with local ingredients.

Recipe: Fried oysters with remoulade sauce

Plentiful supplies of seafood - crab, oysters and prawns, not to mention the succulent crawfish from the bayous - are the crowning glory of Creole food, and relatively cheap, too. Oyster fanciers in this country may consider it sacrilege to deep-fry our expensive morsels, but I'm not so sure. Enclosed in a crisp casing, they remain juicy and sweet.

New Orleans remou1ade sauce bears little resemblance to its French namesake. It is a heavily embellished vinaigrette, laden with finely chopped greenery, often used to dress prawn cocktail. And very good it is too. It will keep, covered, for several days in the fridge.

The fried oysters can also be included in a Po' Boy, the classic New Orleans sandwich: while you are frying them, warm a half baguette per person in the oven. Split the loaf, slather with mayonnaise, fill with shredded lettuce and tomato, the oysters, a few drops of tabasco, and salt if needed, then clamp back together and eat hot, with the melting mayonnaise oozing out.

Ingredients: 4-6 oysters per person

flour

egg, lightly beaten

fine cornmeal

oil for frying

Remoulade sauce (enough for 8 people):

6 spring onions, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

4tbs parsley, chopped

2tbs white wine vinegar

2tbs lemon juice

2tbs Creole mustard, or Dijon mustard

1tbs paprika

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

salt and pepper

8fl oz (230ml) olive oil

1tbs creamed horseradish, or better still, freshly grated horseradish

Preparation: The sauce can be made in advance. Mix onions, celery and parsley and chop very finely. Whisk the vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, paprika, cayenne, salt and pepper. Gradually whisk in the oil. Stir in the chopped greenery, and horseradish. Taste and adjust seasoning. Store, covered, in the fridge.

At the very last minute, open the oysters and separate them from their shells. Save any oyster liquor, strain and freeze for use in fish soups or stocks. Dip the oysters first into flour, then into lightly beaten egg. Coat evenly with cornmeal. Fry in very hot oil, so that the exterior cooks quickly, until golden brown. Drain briefly on kitchen paper, then serve immediately with the remoulade sauce.

Recipe: Gumbo ya ya

A gumbo is a soup-stew, served as a first or main course, made with seafood, chicken, duck, sausage or whatever is to hand. Gumbo ya ya takes chicken and 'andouille' (a smoked pork sausage, not at all the same as the French andouille) as its starting point. I usually substitute a good French garlic sausage. The wonderfully named 'holy trinity' of vegetables - celery, onion and green pepper - are in there too.

Two things are essential to a gumbo: first, the roux, which, unlike the traditional French roux, is cooked slowly and carefully until it turns a deep brown; and, second, the particular smooth texture given either by okra, or by 'file', powdered sassafras.

Serves 6-8 as a main course

Ingredients: 4fl oz (110ml) sunflower oil

1 large chicken, cut into 8 pieces

2 1/2 oz (70g) plain flour

1lb (450g) garlic sausage, or other smoked cooked pork sausage, skinned and cut into 1/2 in (1cm) slices

4oz (110g) cooked ham, diced

12oz (340g) okra, topped, tailed and halved

2 onions, chopped

2 green peppers, chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2tbs finely chopped fresh parsley

1tsp each cayenne and black pepper

1 bouquet garni

salt

Preparation: In a large, heavy flame-proof pan or casserole, heat the oil over a high heat. Brown the chicken pieces evenly in the oil. Set them aside. Keep the heat high, and stir the flour into the oil. Turn the heat down slightly and keep stirring with a metal spoon, scraping the brown bits off the base of the pan, until the roux turns a dark nut brown (allow a good 15-20 minutes for this).

Add the sausage, ham, vegetables, garlic and half the parsley. Stir for a minute. Stir in about 1/4 pint (150ml) water, then add the chicken pieces, cayenne and black pepper, bouquet garni and salt. Gradually add another 3 pints (1.7 litres) of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasonings. Sprinkle with remaining parsley and serve in individual bowls, spooned over a mound of hot rice.

Recipe: New Orleans bread pudding with whisky sauce

This is a killer of a bread pudding, particularly when it is slathered with sauce. If you want to make it really OTT - it is the festive season, after all - use all single cream, instead of diluting it with milk. Normally, I'm not keen on tinned peaches or apricots, but here they seem to work perfectly. If they are not part of your culinary vocabulary, use a whole apple, and increase the raisins.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 10in (25cm) stick of French bread, cut into 1in (2.5cm) slices

2oz (55g) raisins

1/4 pint (150ml) milk

1/4 pint (150ml) single cream

2oz (55g) unsalted butter, diced

2 eggs, beaten

4oz (110g) sugar

1 1/2 tsp vanilla essence

1tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 large cooking apple, cored, peeled and diced

1/2 of a 14oz (400g) tin sliced peaches or apricot halves, roughly chopped

Whisky sauce: 6oz (170g) sugar

1tbs cornflour

8fl oz (230ml) water

2tbs lemon juice

1oz (30g) butter, diced

2fl oz (56ml) whisky or bourbon

Preparation: Quarter the slices of French bread, arrange in a close single layer in a shallow, oven-proof dish, and sprinkle the raisins over. Bring the milk and cream to the boil and draw off the heat. Add the butter and stir until melted. Pour over the bread. Leave for half an hour, turning the bread once to make sure that it soaks up liquid evenly.

Whisk the eggs with the sugar, vanilla and spices. Pour over the bread and add the peaches or apricots and apple. Mix well, turning the bread carefully so that it doesn't collapse entirely. Smooth down the surface lightly, and stand the dish in a larger oven-proof dish. Fill the outer dish to a depth of 1in (2.5cm) with water. Bake at 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 for 40-50 minutes or until just set.

To make the sauce, mix the sugar and cornflour in a small saucepan. Gradually stir in the water and lemon juice. Add the butter and bring to the boil, stirring constantly. Simmer until it thickens. Draw off the heat and add the bourbon or whisky. Reheat, without boiling, when needed. Serve the pudding hot or warm with the whisky sauce.

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