Will a third venue be the charm for Ma Harper's?
She grew up in Algiers, Louisiana, which enjoys a reputation as one of the tougher neighborhoods near New Orleans' Latin Quarter. Money was tight for her family of 15 siblings, and whoever did the cooking had to stretch the contents of the pantry to feed everybody.
|Alice "Ma" Harper, positions a pan of cornbread as she prepares a lunch order at her East Side creole restaurant. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)|
So, by the time she was 12, Alice Martinez "Ma" Harper, the second-oldest child, was in the kitchen under her mother's strict supervision, learning how to cook in the Creole fashion. Although she had to keep the wood stove shined and the wooden floor scrubbed, Ma Harper settled easily into her role as the family's natural-born chef. Ma made the gumbo, the jambalaya, red beans and rice, the chicken-fried chicken and the bread pudding, and could always mix a few ingredients into a family meal.
Ma Harper didn't immediately enter the workforce as a chef. She spent 21 years working on F-16 fighter jets at Kelly Air Force Base, where her husband, Bill, was stationed. Back then, Ma says, she was "doing a lot of cooking for work," as her reputation for Creole cuisine grew by word of mouth.
| Ma Harper's Nawlins Creole Kitchen
1830 S. W.W. White
Price range $2-9.95
Credit cards accepted
Today, Ma Harper shares her recipes with the public in Ma Harper's Nawlins Creole Kitchen, now in its third location at Dellcrest Plaza, 1830 S. W.W. White Road. Ma Harper is still feeling the effects of relocating from East Commerce at Gevers, where many customers would roll out of downtown to enjoy a delicious bowl of gumbo at lunchtime, and she is weighing the consequences of changing business hours to adjust to the new neighborhood.
"This is not a dinner neighborhood," she tells her kitchen help and anyone else who might come by for lunch. "It was time to make the move. It was another level, up or down, and people are still hearing about it."
Fourteen years of trophies, punctuated with a dozen or so written accolades from local wordsmiths and out-of-town critics, line the walls of Ma Harper's Nawlins Creole Kitchen. She greets everybody who streams in for lunch and happily invites a visitor to view her kitchen. "One couple came in here from Schulenberg, they read about me in Texas Monthly. Have you ever heard of Texas Monthly?"
|(Clockwise from bottom) Fried basa fish, homemade cornbread, fried cauliflower, onion rings, and red beans and rice.|
According to a profile of Harper in Food Service News, the proprietor and "natural-born chef" has devised a way of making roux without any oil or fat. She puts a cup or so of flour into a cast-iron skillet and bakes it in the oven until it has a nutty (not burned) flavor. She then adds "Cajun" seasonings, such as thyme, bay leaf, salt, and pepper.
Louisiana chef John Folse's website says, "The Creoles were European-born aristocrats wooed by the Spanish to establish New Orleans in the 1690s. They brought wealth, education, chefs and cooks with them.
| Ma Harper's Low-fat Gumbo
1 lb. diced chicken breast
1 lb. diced turkey ham or turkey sausage
1/2 c chopped onion
1/2 chopped green bell pepper
5 cloves minced garlic
1 c brown flour
4 c chicken broth
Cooked white rice
Cajun seasoning, including thyme, bay leaf, salt, and pepper
Sauté chicken in 2 tablespoons of water. Sauté sausage and add onions, peppers and garlic. Simmer 10 minutes, add browned flour and cook longer. Add broth, seasoning, and meat. Simmer 45 minutes. Serve on rice.
Brown flour in a cast-iron skillet by baking the roux in the oven for 20 minutes at 300-350 degrees until the flour has a nutty flavor. Don't forget to stir it at the edges every few minutes.
"The influences of classical and regional French, Spanish, German, and Italian cooking are apparent in Creole cuisine, but its pot was stirred by the hands of settlers from the West Indies and Africa."
Creole is different from Cajun, although New Orleans is famous for both cooking styles.
Ma Harper's gumbo is a supreme example of Creole cuisine. She buys her sausage from D&D in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where one of her nieces picks up the frozen product and flies it to San Antonio. Other ingredients are found at H-E-B and an Asian fish market. Harper personally selects the groceries, as she is fastidious about keeping her dishes lean.
Even with a bellyful of Harper's exotic sausage and chicken-breast-laced gumbo, the temptation was great to sample a slice of peach cobbler. Even the most faithful of dieters, those who abstain from pies, cakes and other sweets, will be tempted by the cobbler, served hot with a cinnamon-spiced glaze. Warning: Blow on the pie to cool it down or add ice cream, or lunch will be a scalding memory.
San Antonio residents can consider themselves lucky as they sit down at Nawlins Creole Kitchen for a nice plate of fried pork chop, chicken-fried chicken or seafood, and a cold glass of swamp water. •
By Michael Cary