On an episode of “Travel with Rick Steves,” the NPR travel show that airs twice each weekend on KWBU, the host talked with Elizabeth Pearce, a culinary historian in New Orleans. Pearce talked about, in very kind words, the sometimes sordid past of her hometown, starting at the very founding of the city.
Steves wraps up his interview with Pearce, the author of two books about drinking in New Orleans, by asking her to talk about the significance to the city of three specific drinks. They talk about the Sazerac, which was supposedly the first cocktail created in America; the Hurricane, a rum-based drink popular especially at Pat O’Brien’s in the French Quarter; and the Pimm’s Cup, another New Orleans favorite.
Pimm’s Cup, the story goes, was invented by London bartender James Pimm in the 1840s. He created a gin-based liqueur — Pimm’s No. 1 — and added some herbs and fruit to it and sold it as an after-dinner drink to aid digestion. The drink made its way to New Orleans about a hundred years later when it was served at the Napoleon House restaurant and bar by the Impastato family. That family opened the business in 1914 and sold it to Ralph Brennan in 2015.
“The owner of the Napoleon House didn’t like drunks, so he pushed the Pimm’s Cup as a light, low-booze drink and encouraged New Orleanians to drink it,” Pearce said in her interview with Steves. “And now it is so popular, you’ll see it on tons of menus around the city. The Napoleon House is Pimm’s largest North American account. That is how much Pimm’s we go through in New Orleans.”
It was during that episode of Steves’ show that Abby and I first heard of the Pimm’s Cup, and we had been to New Orleans many times. A bunch of years back, I was the sports information director at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, and our athletic teams were members of the Sun Belt Conference, which has its headquarters in New Orleans. During my five years at that job, I made about 15 trips to New Orleans — sometimes for games, sometimes for meetings — and Abby came along several times.
Obviously, we ate some wonderful food in the city. One of our favorite restaurants is Jacques-Imo’s, on Oak Street, which specializes in “Nawlins”-style cooking, with lots of spice and seafood. We also enjoy Mother’s Restaurant, which has outstanding po’boys that are worth standing in the ever-present line, since the place doesn’t take reservations.
The memories of dining in New Orleans stayed with us, and in the spring of 2013, as Abby was completing her culinary arts degree at Texas State Technical College, she even chose Southern Creole as the theme for her capstone course. For this class, students plan the menu that will be served to the public in the dining room of the Greta W. Watson Culinary Arts Center on the TSTC campus. The dessert that week was, of course, beignets, which we had eaten at Café Du Monde, the famous 24-hour coffee shop on Decatur Street. But instead of simply dusting the beignets with powdered sugar, Abby served them with café au lait crème anglaise, a coffee-laced cream sauce, that was a perfect ending to her New Orleans-inspired menu. (And she received a well-deserved A in that course.)
For a detailed account of the early days of the city known as The Big Easy, read “Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans” by Gary Krist. If you can get through the graphic description of a murder in the first couple of pages, it’s a fascinating look at how New Orleans came of age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
- 1 large round bread loaf, 8-9 inches in diameter
- 1 cup Olive Salad (recipe follows)
- 6 ounces salami, thinly sliced
- 6 ounces deli ham, thinly sliced
- 4 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
- 4 ounces provolone, thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Pickled pepperoncini, for garnish
Heat oven to 350 F. Slice bread loaf in half horizontally and remove enough crumb to make room for the fillings. Layer the olive salad, meats and cheeses on the bottom half of the bread and drizzle with olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Replace the top half of the bread and wrap the sandwich in aluminum foil.
Bake the sandwich until it’s warmed through and the cheese is melted, about 30 minutes. Cut into pieces to serve. Makes 4-6 servings.
- 1 cup pitted brine-cured black olives, sliced
- 1 cup large pimento-stuffed olives, sliced
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons shallots, minced
- 2 tablespoons celery, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced
- 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. The salad can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. Makes about 2 1/2 cups. (This recipe makes more than you’ll need for the sandwiches. Use the remainder in the pasta salad recipe below.)
- 1 package (16 ounces) bow tie or rotini pasta
- 1 cup Olive Salad (or however much is left over from the muffaletta recipe)
- 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
- 1/2 English cucumber, sliced
- 4 ounces salami, diced
- 8 ounces feta, crumbled
Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain, rinse under cold water and allow to cool.
Place the pasta in a large bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Toss well and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or until chilled. Makes about 6-8 servings.
- 1 1/4 ounces Pimm’s No. 1
- 3 ounces lemonade
- Cucumber, strawberry, lemon, lime, orange or other fruit, sliced
Fill a tall glass with ice and add the Pimm’s. Add the lemonade, then top off with 7UP. Garnish with a piece of sliced fruit and serve. Makes 1 drink.
- 3/4 cup lukewarm water
- 1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 4 tablespoons softened butter, plus more for greasing
- 1 egg
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Powdered sugar
Add the water, yeast and sugar to the bowl of an electric mixer with the dough hook attached. Lightly whisk to combine. Allow the yeast to bloom for 5 minutes, until bubbly. Add the butter in pieces, then add the egg, milk and half the flour. Mix on low until combined. Add the remaining flour and salt and mix on low until combined. Increase the mixer speed to medium and mix for 5 minutes until a soft dough is formed. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead gently into a ball. Grease a medium bowl with butter and add the dough, turning to coat. Cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
After the dough has proofed, punch down the dough, cut it in half, and knead gently to form two balls. Leave one ball covered with a clean towel in the bowl. Place the other half on a lightly floured work surface. Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough to a 1/8-inch thickness. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into 2 1/2-inch squares. Repeat with the remaining ball of dough. Allow the beignets to rest at least 10 minutes before frying.
Fill a large pot about half full of vegetable oil and heat the oil to 350 F.
Fry the beignets in batches of 6 to 8 at a time for 1 minute on the first side until golden and puffed and turn over to fry on the second side for 1 minute longer. Use a slotted spoon to remove from the oil and drain on a paper-lined plate. Dust generously with powdered sugar sifted through a fine mesh sieve. Serve with Café Au Lait Crème Anglaise. Makes about 6 dozen.
Café Au Lait Crème Anglaise
- 1 1/2 cups chicory or other strong coffee
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 3 egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
Heat the coffee in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until it comes to a boil. Cook at a low boil until it is reduced to 1/4 cup, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Heat the cream and milk in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the sugar and egg yolks and beat until well-blended and pale yellow. Once the cream and milk come to a simmer, remove from the heat and pour about 1/2 cup of the cream and milk mixture over the eggs and whisk to blend. Return the saucepan to the heat and add the egg-cream mixture. Cook, stirring well with a wooden spoon, being sure to reach into the corners of the pan. Continue to cook, stirring, until the anglaise begins to thicken and coats the back of the spoon, about 5 minutes.
Once thickened, remove from the heat and strain into a clean bowl using a fine mesh sieve. Add the vanilla and the reduced coffee to the anglaise and stir to combine. Serve warm, at room temperature or chilled, with the beignets. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.