Bury St Edmunds food writer Nicola Miller tackles the tricky issue of naming a recipe she's developed
At what point does a recipe cease to be traditional? When does it become so altered that it loses its identity and when it reaches this point, what should we call it?
I think about this a lot when I cook and especially when I am developing recipes for this column. Many of the questions I ask myself are to do with the genealogy of a recipe (its family tree in a manner of speaking), appropriation, and who has the moral authority to write about a cuisine. I’ve often written about culinary genealogy and the importance of credit and attribution but now I am thinking more specifically about the naming of a developed recipe and how we food writers often play fast and loose with this in the desire to innovate and come up with a new twist.
Take the New Orleanian po-boy as an example. When does a filled piece of bread become a po-boy? What is the critical difference between it and its sandwich kin? You might say the same about a Spanish open-faced montadito and a Danish smørrebrød; a Chilean chacarero and a barros luco or a Guadalajaran drowned sandwich and the American French dip. They all have things in common but possess their own, specific salient points too although this − like everything else – is up for (lively) debate.
Every recipe has its own culinary topography forged from a combination of techniques, ingredients and tradition and that’s before we start examining their geo-politics. When I make a po-boy, can I really use this name when all I have to hand is British-made bread? Every Louisianan I have consulted has insisted that without the special French bread made in New Orleans all you have made is a sandwich and not a po-boy. Eat your way around the po-boy joints of New Orleans and you’ll experience its unique migrant history through a myriad of creative fillings, far removed from the original beef debris and gravy, but the one thing that doesn’t change is the bread.
The French bread in New Orleans has a crunchy crust enclosing a light, fluffy crumb and though the crust shatters into a million sound shards as you bite into it, this bread doesn’t fight back as the traditional French baguette can do. In New Orleans, two main bakeries remain; Gendusa’s and Leidenheimers, turning out thousands and thousands of loaves which are then trucked around the city’s bars, groceries and restaurants. Quite a few other stores make French bread too, but their lack of brick ovens show.
I could spend months trying to bake an adequate facsimile but again, going back to the salient point of a recipe, I must ask myself: is baking French bread worth my time? I do not have a brick oven. I do not have the cultural inheritance required to expertly judge whether I have cracked the recipe or not. For me, this is a sandwich that exists purely in a place that has its way with you whether your po-boy is bought from the very famous Domilises, Parasol’s in the Irish Channel, Liuzza’s By the Track, or the Parkway Bakery and Tavern; the tiny Vietnamese-owned grocery store that lies kitty-corner to the place we stay at; eaten at Bevi Seafood where not a lot of money will buy you a loaded fried shrimp and oyster version plus a neon tangerine dacquari to wash it down with; or devoured standing at the back bar at Erin Rose, a place so dark we could barely differentiate between our fingers and the crumb-covered fingers of seafood.
But I am not there, and I want a po-boy or, at least, something that reminds me of one. What to do?
Instead, I shall draw inspiration from NOLA’s legion of sandwich fillings all of which reflect the joyful, noisy and messy multicultural history of this city: the fact that the main bakers of French bread are German and Italian-owned businesses bear witness to this. Vietnamese migrants to the city brought the bánh mì which has been rechristened the Vietnamese po-boy. Then there’s the influence of the Mexicans who arrived to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They have contributed French bread with chili and cumin-spiced meats and queso (and when it comes to bread, the Mexicans know their stuff). At Superior Seafood, the Angels on Horseback version consists of fried, bacon-wrapped oysters topped with ravigote sauce. You can buy a po-boy stuffed with pickled shrimp at The Grocery or ham marinated in root beer at Mahoneys, and the Thanksgiving po-boy at Parkway is filled with white and dark turkey meat, cornbread dressing, gravy, and freshly-made cranberry sauce. I’ve seen Greek-inflected po-boys filled with pork souvlaki whilst Italian-Americans contributed red-sauced meatball-filled sandwiches. And again, at Parkway Bakery and Tavern you can order a monster golden fried potato version. If you worry that this might be carb overload, then don’t make your way to Cooter Brown’s where the Coonass Special is loaded up with Mrs Wheat’s meat pies, provolone cheese, and gravy.
I am not calling this version a po-boy though. Mine has fresh skordalia – a garlicky Greek potato dip – dolloped underneath a layer of battered red shrimp. This is not as mad as it sounds; the Greeks serve skordalia with battered salt cod, so my seafood switch is not too outlandish a leap. Along with dill pickles and a top dressing of salad, the garlicky goodness is heaped inside the best approximation of French bread available to us here. You absolutely don’t want to use sourdough, or indeed any bread with an open crumb and nor do you want brioche-style bread which will disintegrate under the weight of its filling. Look for a thin-crusted, fluffy, close-crumbed white bread torpedo or a crusty roll. This is carb on carb, and it is not subtle; its salient point is its spirit of delicious collision.
FRIED SHRIMP AND SKORDALIA NOT-BOY
To make four sandwiches:
Two white batons of bread, around 32cms long, cut into two
Iceberg lettuce shredded
Four tomatoes, sliced
Mayonnaise for spreading
Sliced dill pickles, one per sandwich
Large red shrimp, peeled (three-four pieces per sandwich)
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil for deep frying
To make the skordalia:
4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
450g floury potatoes, peeled and cut into even-sized chunks
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
Juice of one small lemon
Finely chopped parsley to garnish
Salt and pepper
The skordalia can be made ahead and chilled.
Rinse the peeled potatoes under running cold water then boil in plenty of salted water until they are soft and ready to mash before placing in a colander and rinsing under running water for 20 seconds to reduce the starch. Drain again thoroughly before putting them into a large mixing bowl.
Using a potato ricer or a potato masher, mash the potatoes until you have a completely smooth purée.
Using a food processor, add the garlic, olive oil, wine vinegar, and lemon juice and process until you have a smooth paste. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Stir the garlic mixture into the potatoes, beating swiftly. If it doesn’t incorporate smoothly into a homogenous mixture, add a tablespoon of cold water and beat again; repeat if you think more water is required. Season with more salt and pepper if required and keep chilled until it is time to assemble your sandwiches.
To make the tempura batter:
85g plain flour
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
200ml of cold fizzy water
Put the flour, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl and stir to combine. Now gradually whisk in the water, making sure you don’t overbeat the batter as this results in heaviness from over-development of the gluten in the flour.
To cook the shrimp:
Take your deep fryer and heat about four inches of oil to 175C, 350F.
Have all your salad ingredients prepped and to hand as these sandwiches need to be built and eaten as soon as the shrimp
Place a little plain flour on a plate.
Make sure the shrimp are dry otherwise the batter will not stick.
Coat the shrimp in the plain flour then shake to remove excess.
Dip each piece in the batter and hold over the bowl, allowing the excess to drain off.
Drop the shrimp, one at a time and tail-first, into the hot oil and fry until the batter is light gold, puffy, and crisp.
Remove from the pan and place on kitchen paper to drain.
To construct the sandwich:
Half each piece of baton and spread lightly with mayonnaise.
Spread a layer of skordalia on the bottom piece of bread, on top of the mayonnaise.
Now add the battered shrimp on top.
Layer with iceberg lettuce, tomato slices, and the dill pickle. Season with salt and pepper.
Top with the other piece of bread. Eat.
*You’ll probably have leftover skordalia. This is not a hardship because it makes a fabulous dip for just about anything savoury.
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