Flying into New Orleans on a Friday afternoon, what struck me from the window of the airplane was how pervasive and dramatic the serpentine waterways were. It was a landscape of water upon water, broken just barely by clumps of small brownish dots – the water-loving plants of the bayou. It was, of course, the fluid, overlapping topography of the Missisissippi river, the gulf coast, and the bayou. Louisiana, it seems, is defined by water.
And Louisiana has an unbelievably powerful sense of place. It was intense, triggering all the senses (the colors! the smell of the bayou and the river and the humid air, the foods, the music and the birdsong and the straggly kitties and everyone, everywhere saying hi), and it was present everywhere: in the gorgeous, slightly dilapidated, colorful shotgun houses that characterize the neighborhoods of New Orleans, in the cooking, in the regional accent, in the music. It’s a vibrant, wonderfully warm, amazing place, and I’ve never been anywhere like it.
Here’s my experience on Avery Island, the homeplace of the McIlhenny family and Tabasco sauce, mostly in photos:
Talking about the Tabasco mash in its early and later stages. We tasted the mash – the concentrated pepper and salt blend before vinegar is added. It’s as intense as you would imagine!
I am so inspired by the unique topography and color palette of the swampy bayous. It’s gorgeous, and rich, and fecund, and a little spooky. And yeah, there are totally critters hiding out in there.
Chef Brian Landry did an awesome demo on his Spanish and Creole-inspired cooking, before executing the MOST EPIC MEAL ever for us that evening.
Before our epic feast, I snuck out for a stroll along the empty roads of Avery Island. I wanted to get deep in that landscape and have a moment with the bayou. I made my way down a dusty dirt road to a small dock. Stepping onto the dock I heard a loud commotion – I had surprised a giant water snake who slithered in a hurry back into the murky creek! Yikes. Sometimes my curiosity gets the best of me.
Also, I am completely obsessed with Spanish moss. I learned that it’s an air plant – does that mean I can grow it at home? (Somebody send me some?)
The next day was equally epic. After an intense morning in the capsaicin-heavy air of the rooms where the mash is produced, we sped through the surrounding waterways to an old shack in the middle of nowhere.
We were greeted by these awesome guys, who were totally busting out the zydeco jams.
We went on an air boat ride through the marshy bayou. It was gorgeous and grey and empty out there – and the boat was so fast and loud and awesome. I felt like I had been on a roller coaster after. Look at our badass captain!
Then we feasted on the best crawfish boil ever, and some of us got down with the band. What an amazing trip. So much great food, an awesome group of bloggers, a really rare opportunity to understand the story of an impressive family-run business, and a whole heck of a lot of inspiration. I’m still processing it. I feel so lucky to have been invited to join!
CAJUN-SPICED SWEET POTATO BURGERS
Yield: 4 large or 6 medium patties
I knew that if I wanted to draw on the cornerstones of Cajun flavors for these guys that I had to step outside of my comfort zone a little bit. (Red bell peppers out of season, heaven forbid!) But the Cajun holy trinity – celery, bell pepper, and onion – felt like a necessary component to bring these to life. And it did. I very loosely adapted a basic Cajun seasoning to give these the big flavors that I was looking for, and rounded it out with Tabasco’s smoky Chipotle Pepper Sauce, because I love a smoky element with the flavors of sweet potato. I am so stoked on how they turned out. Since these patties are a little bit delicate, I don’t think they’d work too well on a grill, unfortunately. Get that skillet super hot to give them a nice, blackened crust. It’ll help them hold together. Smother them with all of your favorite condiments, squish em inside a bun, and have at it.
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for cooking
1/4 cup finely diced red bell pepper
1/4 cup finely diced celery
1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion
1.5 cups cooked and mashed sweet potato (from one large sweet potato)
1/2 cup cooked and cooled short grain brown rice
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon dried garlic
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 or 2 teaspoons Tabasco chipotle pepper sauce
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1 egg, whisked
Micro greens or lettuce
Condiments of choice
Warm a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the tablespoon of olive oil, along with the diced bell pepper, celery, and onion. Saute, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, mix together all ingredients except for the second teaspoon of Tabasco sauce, the cayenne pepper, the breadcrumbs and the egg. Taste the mix and add the second teaspoon of Tabasco and the cayenne pepper if you’re fond of a little spice. (This is why I add the egg last – I don’t mind a smidge of raw egg, but it’s great to be able to safely taste this and adjust the season to your preference.) Add the egg and the breadcrumbs and mix until just incorporated.
Shape into 4 large or 6 medium patties about 3/4 inch thick, place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and chill until firm, at least 1 hour.
Heat a large cast-iron or non-stick skillet over medium-high heat and let it sit for a few minutes to get nice and hot. Add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan.
Remove the patties from the fridge. Using a spatula, carefully place two at a time in the hot pan, reshaping a little if necessary. They’re delicate – be patient and forgiving with them, and know that they’ll still taste good! Cook, completely undisturbed, for about 5 minutes, until a nice, dark crust forms. Flip and repeat, again being careful not to disturb them, for another 4 to 5 minutes. Repeat with the remaining patties, adding more olive oil as needed.
While the patties cook, toast the buns.
To serve, place the patties on a bun with lots of mustard, mayo, ketchup, relish or whatever you prefer. Top with micro greens or lettuce and the bun. EAT and be happy.