Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook was a long time coming. There was the early challenge of winnowing down the daunting list of potential dishes that fall under its title. There was the laborious process of codifying recipes often held in the heads of a team of restaurant chefs. There was a triple-testing approach that called for each recipe to be prepared in both restaurant and home kitchens to ensure accuracy and utility. And Hurricane Katrina intervened as well, eventually drawing out the production time for the book to four years, says Ralph Brennan, the local restaurateur and primary author of the book.
In a way, this seafood cookbook has been in the making for more than 20 years. While the classics of French-Creole cookery are given their due, with straightforward renderings of dishes like trout amandine, oysters Rockefeller and shrimp Creole included, the majority of the recipes are for more contemporary Louisiana seafood preparations, unmistakably local dishes that have evolved in the past few decades.
No New Orleans cookbook would be complete without a gumbo recipe, and this one has four. But it also has Crawfish Boil Gazpacho, seared tuna gilded with avocado-horseradish sauce and mahi mahi with a crust of ground andouille. Such dishes were not impossible before the 1980s, but they were not happening in New Orleans. Today, they are exciting but not revolutionary dishes to find at any number of contemporary Creole restaurants or in the kitchen of an ambitious home cook.
Brennan is a businessman, not a chef. He has an accounting degree rather than a diploma from a culinary institute. He is not responsible for the sea change of the New Orleans palate represented in his new cookbook, nor does he claim to be. But, as a scion of the city's most important restaurant family, he certainly had a commanding view of the evolution as it was happening, and as manager of his family's most groundbreaking restaurant in the early 1980s, Mr. B's Bistro, he played an important role in helping the movement along. The diverse styles represented by the restaurant company he built for himself in the intervening years clearly show the lessons learned. All of that is written between the lines of his cookbook, which isn't the product of any one restaurant or chef but a collaboration of many kitchens, traditions and interpretations — all united by a focus on New Orleans seafood.
"We didn't want to do a restaurant cookbook," Brennan says. "We wanted something broader, more comprehensive. We wanted something that would be timeless and not tied to one restaurant. Each restaurant has its own distinct style, but this book is more indicative of what's going on all over New Orleans today."
Some of what is going on in local kitchens — and much of what is found in Brennan's cookbook — can be linked to Louisiana's ban on the commercial harvest of redfish enacted in 1988 in response to dwindling stocks. Blackened redfish, introduced to the world by chef Paul Prudhomme, became such a sensation that the future of the species was in doubt. At the time of the ban, Brennan was general manager of Mr. B's, where grilled redfish accounted for 50 percent of entrée sales.
"All of a sudden, we're out of fish," Brennan says. "So we started talking with customers, asking them what they caught when they went fishing and ate at home. We discovered it wasn't just redfish, and we started bringing in other species for the restaurant. I wasn't sure if people would accept them, but they did, and that opened so many different opportunities for us."
Haley Bittermann, executive chef for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group and a contributor to the new cookbook, says a key to winning customers' gradual acceptance of dishes outside the Creole canon back then was keeping the focus on familiar Louisiana seafood.
"That was the safe zone," Bittermann says. "From there, you could add other ingredients and techniques, other influences, but people could still relate to the local seafood."
The legacy of those first cautious overtures can be seen in Brennan's cookbook in such dishes as crawfish spring rolls, "barbecue oysters" — a local, seafood rendition of Buffalo-style chicken wings — or cannelloni stuffed with crabmeat.
Brennan's New Orleans restaurants include the Italian-Creole bistro Bacco, the playfully contemporary Creole restaurant Red Fish Grill and the more urbane Ralph's on the Park. He also operates Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen in Disneyland. Over the past four years, chefs from all four restaurants contributed to the book, as did Charlee Williamson, executive vice president of Brennan's restaurant group; Gene Bourg, a local food writer and former Times-Picayune restaurant critic; and Paulette Rittenburg, a recipe tester. Local photographer and author Kerri McCaffety handled art.
This large, 170-recipe book is as functional as it is beautiful. Right up front is a "Seafood Cook's Manual," a comprehensive, 24-page guide with cooking tips, advice on buying, handling and prepping seafood, suggestions for suitable replacements for regional fish and even sourcing for the more exotic ingredients called for in the book.
"So many people are afraid to do seafood at home and the fear starts before they even buy it at the store," says Williamson. "What we tried to do here is demystify it a bit."
The book should put to rest the notion that the term "New Orleans seafood" essentially means fried seafood. Very few of the recipes in the book call for a dunk in boiling oil and, while most are not exactly light, the preparations and sauces reveal the great adaptability of the region's raw materials.
"New Orleans food has always evolved, but that has accelerated in recent years and it's going to continue to grow," Brennan says.
Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook is not a restaurateur's memoir or a food-themed narrative. Brennan does share a few memories from his New Orleans upbringing in his introduction, but the book gets right into the recipes and stays focused on ingredients and technique. Still, reading through it and cooking from its pages, it's easy to see why the region's seafood and culinary heritage is such an alluring subject, why we are so compelled to talk about it and share personal stories that are often intimately tied up with this food. There are tales in Brennan's book waiting to be told on your stove and with your family.
Brennan will sign copies of Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook at the Garden District Book Shop (The Rink, 2727 Prytania St., 895-2266) from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on May 8 and at Barnes & Noble (3721 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie, 455-4929) from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on May 10. For updates, visit www.ralphbrennancookbook.com.