The Ruby Slippers Cookbook:Life, Food, Family & Culture After Katrina, is a visual disaster of a book by contemporary publishing norms. Juicy, lacquered photos of impossibly perfect plates of unreal food are nowhere to be found, and in their stead are images of chaos and destruction interspersed with photos of real-life crawfish boils, shots of people smiling in the face of daunting odds, and vignettes showing signs of recovery from the hurricane damage that ravaged New Orleans two years ago next week. It’s a book that is both hard to look at and impossible not to — and it’s probably perfectly reflective of the storm and its aftermath.
It’s also a book I never would have picked up on my own. Self-published by author Amy Cyrex Sins, it doesn’t, on the surface, meet the criteria for inclusion in a cookbook collection (mine) of more than 300 tomes that begs to be edited, not augmented. The recipes run the gamut from the casual and carton-inspired (1 box red velvet cake mix, 1 container cream-cheese frosting, and 1 bag white-chocolate chips equals Red Velvet Bites) to haute, restaurant-supplied creations such as Flash-Fried Louisiana Soft Shell Crabs with Southern Comfort and Tasso Cream sauce. There are instructions such as “season chicken with Tony’s” that mean nothing to most of us outside New Orleans. And there’s way too much margarine and garlic powder for this food snob.
Yet Sins’s straightforward writing is compelling in its lack of pretense, she cops to cooking as a first line of defense in the wake of the tragedy, and her cast of characters — from home cooks to restaurant chefs — spins out recipes and reflections with equal ardor. “Food makes you feel good! And cooking is in my soul!” says Maria, who contributes a very simple sweet-potato salad recipe that can be summed up equally simply: take some sweet potatoes, bake until firm-soft, peel and dice, toss with cilantro (lots), olive oil, salt, pepper, cayenne, and cumin. As with many of the recipes, the seasoning is “to your personal taste.”
Snob that I am, I nevertheless love simple stuff such as cabbage, and Sins’s recipe for smothered cabbage is perfect for the peasant in me. (There’s a large part of peasant in me, truth be told.) It’s just onion (one, chopped), one head cabbage (sliced), ¼ lb. smoked ham (your preference, in big pieces), one “piece” smoked sausage (my H-E-B didn’t have anything like this, so half a dry Italian sausage was substituted, cubed), a little vinegar, a little salt, a little pepper. There are few instructions other than first browning the onion, then adding the rest of the ingredients. Cook, covered, until done, about 30 minutes. Great — and I suspect I might have liked the dish less with smoked sausage in addition to the smoked ham. It was just smoky enough for this palate.
Daddy’s Jambalaya comes from a recovered recipe thought lost, like Sins’s own collection savaged by the flood. It’s a basic version of the dish we most think of with shrimp, crawfish, and the like — often very orange, almost always very gummy. Not Daddy’s: his chicken version is pale, fluffy, and verging on under-seasoned for most of the uninitiated (which includes me). But Sins does say “Always over-salt this dish!,” an admonition that’s hard for me to follow. And then, I couldn’t find Kitchen Bouquet, a seasoning booster I dimly remember from my youth, at my H-E-B. So I substituted Tony’s. Turns out we do have that one, and it’s both cheap and punchy.
You might want to buy the book for a couple of reasons — part of the proceeds go to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, and then there’s this: “We are traveling the long road back. Care to join us?” What better way than with food. •
Check out Rubyslippersnola.com for ordering information.
Cut one chicken into pieces and brown (in small batches) in cooking oil; remove chicken from the oil and add one onion, chopped, and sauté until brown; add ¼ cup water to the onion and cook until gone; add another cup of water and bring to a boil with the chicken and a little Tony’s (more than you think); bring back to a boil and add 3 ½ cups water. Bring to a boil again and add two cups rice, salt, garlic powder (yes, garlic powder) and freshly ground pepper. Remember to over-salt — whatever your definition of that may be. Cover and cook at low heat for at least 25 minutes without peeking. If doing this again, I’d be tempted to add that other half of a sausage I didn’t use with the cabbage, but Daddy deserved his due on this first go-’round.
— Adapted from The Ruby Slippers Cookbook