When I was finalizing a move back to Louisiana from New York 15 years ago, I told friends that the house I had found was originally built as a camp. Initially, it didn’t occur to me that “camp” needed any explanation. Without thinking about it, I just assumed everyone knew what a camp is.
Well, Louisianians may know what a camp is, but not many New Yorkers. Consequently, I explained over and over that a camp is an informal place where people go to get away from the work-day world and city life, a comfortable retreat where activities often center around hunting, fishing, cooking and socializing. Drawing on a familiar analogy, I told them that a camp is something like a weekend house, a summer house or a country place – well-known terms in the Northeast.
Once I had conveyed the idea what my future home was like, there were other questions, as friends tried to understand this abrupt change from apartment life in midtown Manhattan to country living in south Louisiana. One of the big unknowns in their minds was whether this bayou house was accessible by road. Some of them pictured a cabin on stilts in the swamp which could only be reached by pirogue. At times I did nothing to relieve them of those notions and, on occasion, even embroidered my future life with tales of small boats and float planes.
As we know, Louisiana camps actually range from humble shacks to ostentatious waterfront mansions. In between, you’ll find modest and comfortable cottages, houseboats, barges, trailers, mobile homes and cabins. The most unusual camp I’ve seen is a converted oil-storage tank in the Atchafalaya Basin. That one, in fact is accessible only by boat.
Just as camp structures vary, so does the cooking that goes on in them. Meals can range from highly elaborate to simple and straightforward. Some “campers” take prepared foods, either store-bought or homemade, to lighten their cooking duties. But others revel in having uninterrupted time to spend hours preparing meals.
This time of year, as the heat breaks and hunters open their camps, appetites increase and hearty one-pot dishes are in great demand. Gumbos, jambalayas, étouffées and “rice and gravy dishes” simmer in black iron or Magnalite pots on camp stoves throughout the state.
One of those one-pot dishes is courtbouillon, a south Louisiana favorite which changes greatly from cook to cook. This version, from Dr. John L. Beyt III, a New Iberia dentist, is lighter than ones with a thick tomato gravy. Beyt spends as much time as possible, year-round, at his camp and farm on Bayou Teche near Parks, where cooking and eating are the main attractions. His courtbouillon is made with gaspergoo (“goo” in the local idiom), which is a freshwater drum. Beyt prefers this species for its intensity of flavor, but other firm-fleshed fish can be substituted if necessary.
The pork steaks sauce piquante recipe comes from Henry Mayer Jr., a Lafayette stockbroker. During duck season, he can often be found entertaining clients at his camp in Grand Chenier. Mayer, who as a child learned his way around the kitchen at his uncle’s camp in the Atchafalaya Basin, does much of the cooking at his own camp.
If the rice served with the one-pot meals doesn’t provide enough carbohydrates, the roast potato recipe is a simple, foolproof way to add some more.
The sweet potato pie omits the cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg that often render this dessert virtually indistinguishable from pumpkin pie. Instead, it is flavored simply with cane syrup, vanilla and lemon zest, which enhance, rather than obscure, the natural taste of sweet potatoes.
Dr. John Beyt’s Courtbouillon
1 (5-to-6 pound) gaspergoo, dressed, with
3 quarts water
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup flour
2 cups onions, chopped
1 cup bell pepper, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 10-ounce cans Ro-Tel tomatoes
Salt and cayenne pepper, to taste
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
4 hardboiled egg yolks, pushed though a
Remove the head from the fish and cut fish into slices about 3 inches wide. Place fish head and fish in a medium pot, cover with water, add salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour. Strain and reserve stock. Remove skin and bones from fish. Reserve fish.
In a large, heavy pot over medium heat, combine oil and flour and cook, stirring constantly, until roux is dark brown. Add onions, bell pepper, celery and tomatoes. Cook, stirring often, over medium-low heat until vegetables are very wilted, about 20 minutes.
Begin adding stock, 2 cups at a time, stirring between each addition, until the courtbouillon is soupy (8 to 10 cups stock total). Season with salt and cayenne and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the reserved gaspergoo and cook until the fish is heated through.
Serve the soup in deep bowls over steamed rice. Top each serving with a slice of lemon, and sprinkle with parsley and sieved egg yolks. Serves 8.
Henry Mayer’s Pork Steaks Sauce Piquante
8 boneless pork-loin steaks, 6 to 8
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
1 28-ounce can peeled whole tomatoes
2 15-ounce cans tomato sauce
2 10-ounce cans Ro-Tel tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 green bell peppers, seeded, deveined and
cut into strips
1/2 cup green onion tops, chopped
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
Season pork steaks with salt, cayenne and black pepper. In a large, heavy casserole, heat oil and brown the steaks over medium-high heat about 4 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
Lower heat to medium, add onions and cook about 5 minutes. Add peeled tomatoes, tomato sauce, Ro-Tel tomatoes and garlic and simmer, uncovered, for one hour.
Add pork steaks and bell peppers and simmer until tender, about 40 minutes. Garnish with onion tops and parsley. Serve with rice or pasta. Serves 8.
Roast Spiced Potatoes
8 medium potatoes
Vegetable cooking spray
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with vegetable cooking spray. Wash and scrub potatoes, but do not peel. Dry with paper towels. Cut each potato into quarters lengthwise. Blot cut sides with paper towels to dry, and place skin side down on baking sheet. Spray cut sides lightly with vegetable cooking spray and sprinkle liberally with Creole seasoning. Bake until browned and cooked through, about 30 minutes. Serves 8.
Sweet Potato Pie
2 cups baked, peeled and mashed
1/2 cup cane syrup
2 pinches salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup milk
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 9-inch unbaked pie shell
Lightly sweetened whipped cream
Place an inverted, heavy-duty baking sheet on a shelf in the lower third of the oven and preheat oven to 450 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, place mashed sweet potatoes, cane syrup, salt, vanilla, milk, eggs and lemon zest. Mix until thoroughly combined. Turn the mixture into the unbaked pie shell and smooth the surface with a rubber spatula. Place the pie on the inverted baking sheet and bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until the pie is set in the middle, about 40 minutes.
Serve with whipped cream. Serves 8.