HERE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVES
This is my own version of “Lost Bread”, a tradition I learned from my decades of living in New Orleans. It is the perfect repurposing of day-old French bread. This traditional way of reviving stale bread by dipping slices into a milk-egg mixture and frying in a pan (or baking in a casserole) until crispy golden brown is known in France, and Louisiana, as pain perdu. It is something like French toast but oh so much more delicious because of the thick custard and baking in the oven which makes it almost like a soufflé.
I have vivid memories of my years working at the Wildlife and Fisheries building in the French Quarter. When I wasn’t “in the field” chasing hunting and fishing stories all over the state of Louisiana, I would walk the streets every morning soaking up the scents of coffee roasting and brewing and breakfasts like pain perdu cooking. It was tantalizing. Of course the French Quarter in the mornings is also a mixture of unsavory smells of stale beer, urine and vomit. It may seem odd to mention this right before providing instructions for a delicious recipe, but I was fascinated by the phenomena of sweet and sour, savory and unsavory, pleasant and unpleasant. These descriptors of French Quarter scents also described the characters who lived there. There were pirates and fortune tellers and artists on Jackson Square, Ruthy the Duck Lady who skated over the rough cobblestoned streets talking to herself, pet ducks in tow. There were friendly shop keepers hosing the sidewalks in front of their establishments in the quiet mornings, chatting with the locals, passersby like me. French Quarter mornings were so different from the raucous noise and drunken revelry of Bourbon St. of the night before. Not that I was there by night but as is true in most major American cities, there are attractions for tourists where locals never go.
I think the juxtaposition of smells, tantalizing and repulsive, was representative of the mixture of beauty and decay, good and evil inhabitants, and all the joy and sadness that filled the streets of such a soulful city. But I digress, here is the recipe for a famous New Orleans breakfast tradition.
Slice the crusty stale bread into once inch slices. Generously (and I mean generously) butter the bottom of a large casserole dish or several individual sized casserole dishes. Place the slices of bread into the casserole(s). Now make a custard.
Whisk 2-4 (depending on the size of your casserole) fresh farm eggs in a bowl and add several cups of half and half or heavy cream. “Season” with a generous teaspoon of high quality vanilla extract. (Spending money on Madagascar Vanilla Bean Paste is well worth it for the flavor bonus.) Add several teaspoons of cinnamon powder; again the quality and freshness of this ingredient enhance the flavor. Add 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar. Pour the custard over the bread into small individual casserole dishes or one large casserole dish, making sure all bread is covered by the custard mixture. In fact, you can fill the dishes to the top and the custard will puff up during cooking almost like a soufflé.
This dish can be cooked right away or put into the refrigerator overnight. I often make a small one for myself for breakfast and a place a larger one into the frig to serve to overnight guests the next morning for breakfast. Bake at 350 degrees uncovered about 30 minutes or until knife inserted into middle comes out clean. Do not overcook or it will be dry. In fact, a little runny custard in the middle is not a bad thing.
After it comes out of the oven, sprinkle with sifted powdered sugar and a generous amount of maple syrup. Use real maple syrup; the higher the quality, the more you will find it worth it. My preferred syrup is 100% Grade A, amber colored, from Canada or Vermont. To me, it is always worth paying for quality to produce the best results.
A sprinkling of fresh blueberries or raspberries on top is not a bad thing. This dish is delicious alone but for a heartier breakfast, serve it with bacon or other breakfast meat and even scrambled eggs. Some mornings I love the simplicity of the pain perdu alone but if I am entertaining and we have a big day planned of hiking in the mountains or working around the ratchette, I will add the heartiness of a full, big breakfast. Believe me, guests are always impressed.
This recipe is simple in the kitchen but can easily be converted to Dutch oven for outdoor cooking on campouts. The trick with the Dutch oven over coals is to get the temperature right. For a 350 degree oven, place 17 coals on top and 8 coals on bottom (for a 12 inch oven). Adjustments in temperature and cook time may need to be made for altitude and wind as well as size of oven.
To me, this dish is a wonderful Louisiana tradition that translates into a hearty Western breakfast when bacon and eggs are added to the meal.
This simple morning recipe is delicious and easy cooked on the kitchen stove or in a cast iron skillet around the campfire. It is a hearty and easy breakfast before a day in the saddle or on the tractor. It can stand alone or be served with toast, left-over pain perdu, cheese grits (a Southern favorite), or sautéed potatoes (in the West). I sometimes call this dish “Fisherman’s Scramble” depending on what activity I have planned for the day.
Melt butter and sauté slices of shallots or purple onions and thin slivers of red bell pepper (pre-roasted if you have them makes peppers particularly tasty). Add a few slices of smoked sausage. In the South, this sausage is likely andouille but now that I am a westerner, I prefer Polska Kielbasa. A couple of slices of jalapeno adds the perfect cowgirl kick. I am not going to tell you how much of these ingredients to include because it depends on how many eggs you are cooking for how many people. But remember the mantra of one of my favorite cookbook authors, Mireille Guiliano: “Less is more.” Mireille wrote French Women Don’t Get Fat. It may sound strange to employ French influence on cowgirl cooking, but trust me, Mireille is on to something with her philosophy. A few nibbles of these ingredients provide flavor while not overwhelming the flavor of the fresh farm eggs.
To give you an example, in a scramble I make for myself, I use maybe 4 Julienne strips of the red pepper and 4 slices of shallot, two or three slices of sausage, and one or two jalapeno pepper slices (not fresh, from a jar). Then I beat one large or two small eggs in a bowl (more about how to beat eggs later) and pour them into the skillet. Not long before they are perfectly cooked, I add just a touch of high grade grated cheddar cheese. Sprinkle with coarsely ground salt and pepper.
After several cookings, it seems to work better if you take the sausage/pepper mixture out of the pan temporarily, wipe excess grease from the sausage with a paper towel, add fresh butter and begin to scramble the eggs, adding the sausage/pepper mixture end as the eggs are about ¾ done. But it can also be done all together, adding the eggs after the peppers and sausage are cooked.
PANFISH IN A CAST IRON SKILLET
This is the simplest of fish recipes. It is so easy and so delicious, quick to cook and the best thing to do with fresh caught small mountain trout not long out of the river. You can also buy wild (or farm raised) whole fish already gutted at some supermarkets. If you clean it yourself, simply make a slit on the belly below the head several inches long (depending on size of fish), gut and wash the fish. Scale the fish with a spoon and rinse (probably before gutting).
Melt butter in a cast iron skillet until sizzling hot but not quite brown. Be generous with the butter, using a half a stick at least. Amount of butter depends on how many fish and the size of the skillet. Put the fish in the pan and cook until done. Okay, that is about three minutes per side but the best test is to gently test the meat with a fork and when it is flaky, it is done. Take out of the skillet and put on a platter. Squeeze one-half to one lemon per fish (depending on the size and juiciness of the lemon) and sprinkle with fresh herbs of your choice.