Saturday, February 25, 2012

Boiled Rice

Lena’s boiled rice recipe is fantasticyou’ve got to try this rice!  It is simple and creates a perfect non-sticky, non-starchy rice to serve with gumbo, red beans or any other slow cooked stew:

1 cup rice
4 cups water
1 tablespoon salt

            Wash rice and rub well between hands.  Drop into salted boiling water and boil rapidly, uncovered, for fifteen or twenty minutes until kernels are cook through.  Put rice in a colander and pour boiling water over it to remove loose starch and separate grains.  Drain well and place in slow oven with the door open until grains are thoroughly separated and dry, or about twenty minutes.

After washing the rice, I brought salted water to a rolling boil and added the rice, cooking for 15 minutes.  I drained the rice in a colander, and then poured 7 cups of boiled water over the colander, rinsing thoroughly.  Then I spread the rice on a large cookie sheet, and placed in a 250° oven with the door open for about 10 minutes.

Why is Lena's rice so life changing?  It all lies in the science of allowing the rice kernels to separate.  The conventional way of cooking rice with a 1 cup rice to 2 cups water ratio and a process of slow simmering produces a sticky, pasty rice.  Lena's rice is so much better because her process effectively removes excess starch, creating a fluffy, non-sticky rice.  Lena's rice even re-heats better!  To say the least, the extra steps of rinsing the rice in hot water and placing in a "slow oven" for 10 minutes are well worth it!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gumbo File

As I have mentioned before, Lena operated several eateries in New Orleans throughout her career.  She opened her own restaurant, Lena Richard's Gumbo House on February 19, 1949.  A newspaper advertisement for the grand opening of the Gumbo House captured readers’ attention and tempted their appetites by naming “gumbo file as the house specialty."  

Image courtesy of the Newcomb Archives, Tulane University

The restaurant was located at 1936 Louisiana Avenue, and was very much a family operated business.  Lena's son-in-law, Leroy Rhodes managed the restaurant, her husband, Percival ensured the property was in top shape, and her daughter, Marie managed the finances.  Even during Jim Crow, this restaurant served both black and white clientele, capturing the customer loyalty of a variety of New Orleans residents with Lena’s famous dishes.

Image courtesy of

The restaurant was an important community space.  Often, members of the Holy Ghost Parish would attend dinner at the Gumbo House after Sunday mass.  Some parishioners stayed for long, casual dinners, enjoying great food and conversation into the early morning hours.

Last week, my mother was in town visiting me for my birthday.  She and I were both eager to try Lena’s “Gumbo File” recipe.  We decided to have a few friends over for a casual gumbo tasting on Saturday night.  Lena’s gumbo was a huge success, and we all opted for second helpings!

Here is Lena’s recipe for gumbo file:

1 cup chopped chicken meat
2 ½ quarts chicken stock
½ dozen crabs
1 pound lake shrimp
½ pound or 1 slice raw ham
1 bay leaf
3 teaspoons filé
1 medium sized onion
1 clove of garlic
3 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons cooking oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Fry ham and shrimp in cooking oil until ham is a golden brown.  Remove ham and shrimp from fat.  Make a roux with flour and fat, add onions and cook until a golden brown.  Add crabs, chicken, ham and shrimp, stock and all seasonings except salt and pepper.  Cook over a slow fire until liquid has reduced to about 1½ quarts.  Season with salt and pepper and, just before serving, stir in file.  It is customary to serve Gumbo File with rice.

My mother went hunting for ingredients at our local grocery store.  While shopping, she ran into a charismatic New Orleans chef who was currently working at the meat department in our local grocery store, while his wife attended graduate school at Duke University.  He and my mother swiftly fell into conversation about Lena Richard and this food blog.  He was happy to help my mother make a fair decision on what cut of meat Lena was referring to when she stated “1 slice of raw ham.”  He believed that Lena was likely cooking with fresh ham shanksa fatty piece of meat with a large bone running through its middle.

Living in Durham has its perks, but access to fresh crab out of season is not one of them, so we opted to use lobster in this gumbo instead of crab.

We heated 4 tablespoons of canola oil over medium heat, adding 3 fresh ham slices and 1 pound of unpeeled shrimp to our large stockpot.  

We cooked the shanks until they were golden brown on both sides, and the thick ring of fat began to turn translucent.  Then we removed the ham and shrimp, setting them aside for later.  The shrimp had absorbed much of the oil we began cooking with, so we added 2 more tablespoons of oil to the pan and 3 tablespoons of flour to create our roux, stirring constantly as the flour toasted turning from a cream to a light toasted caramel color.

We added the diced onion, continually stirring until the onion browned.  

Then we added the chopped chicken, halved lobsters, shrimp, ham shanks, diced clove of garlic and 2 ½ quarts of chicken stock.  We brought the stock to a boil and then reduced heat to medium low, keeping a steady simmer for 1.5 hours.  Then we removed the seafood and meat, setting aside, and brought the stock to a rolling boil for 20 minutes so that it would reduce to 1½ quarts.  We pulled the meat from the ham shank, discarding the bone and fat.  We added the seafood and ham shank meat back into the stock, reduced the heat, added salt and pepper to taste and served over long grain white rice.  

We allowed our guests to add their own file to their gumbo to taste.  We also encouraged them to eat the gumbo "with their hands," allowing them to peel their own shrimp and lobster.

The gumbo stock, which was a beautiful golden color, was rich with flavor.  The fat from the fresh ham shanks and the subtle seafood flavor brought by the unpeeled shrimp and halved lobsters created a well-balanced gumbo stock.  My mother and I were shocked at the tenderness of the shrimp and lobster, even after they had cooked for 1.5 hours.  I can see why this dish was the house specialty at Lena’s restaurant, attracting gumbo enthusiasts from across the Crescent City!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Stuffed Baked Tomatoes

As  I was preparing Lena’s recipe for “Creole Cooked Red Beans,” I could not help but glance to a recipe on the opposite page, “Stuffed Baked Tomatoes.”  I have a soft spot for heirloom tomatoes.  Above all, I love their sweet, earthy smell and their jewel tone colors.  They are a best-of-both-worlds ingredient because they have dynamic flavor and visual appeal.  I was in luck!  My local grocery store had a beautiful selection of heirlooms when I was shopping last week.  I could not pass up the opportunity to try this dish, which reads in Lena’s cookbook as follows:

6 medium sized tomatoes
½ cup soft bread crumbs
1 tablespoon chopped onion
2 tablespoons finely chopped celery
½ cup cooked and chopped meat or shrimp
2 tablespoons melted butter or substitute
Salt and pepper to taste

            Wash but do not peel the tomatoes.  Cut slice from stem end of each tomato and scoop out centers.  Mix centers with other ingredients.  Sprinkle inner sides of tomatoes with salt and fill with the mixture.  Top with dried crumbs and dot with butter.  Place in a shallow greased pan and bake in a moderate oven 350°, from twenty to twenty-five minutes.

I started off this recipe by peeling the shrimp and sautéing them in 2 teaspoons of olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper for 3 minutes on each side.  I finished the shrimp with 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, gently swirling the sauté pan so that the juices coated all of the shrimp. 

I placed the shrimp immediately onto a dish and set aside while I prepared the vegetables.  Using a sharp chef’s knife, I sliced off the top of the stem end of each tomato and used a teaspoon to scoop out the centers into a bowl.  

After finely dicing the onion and celery, I added them to the bowl of tomato centers.  The heirloom tomatoes were quite juicy, so I drained the vegetable mixture and set the juices aside (which I later added to a bean dish I was making for dinner).  I used a fresh French roll for my breadcrumbs, and simply tore the roll into pieces and crumbled to a fine consistency.  To the strained vegetables I added 2 tablespoons of melted butter, most of the breadcrumbs and the shrimp (which I had sliced into small pieces), folding the mixture together.  Then I added a dash of salt and pepper to the inside of each hollowed tomato and stuffed with filling, topping each tomato with the remainder of the dry breadcrumbs and a small pat of butter.  

I baked the tomatoes in a large skillet in the oven for 45 minutes, moving the skillet to the top rack of the oven for the last 20 minutes so that the breadcrumbs browned and the tomato skins puckered slightly at the edges.

The tomatoes were wonderful!  The cooking process slowly unveiled the natural sweetness of the heirlooms, caramelizing the sugars slightly.  The shrimp filling was simply delicious, and quite moist.  Overall, this is a solid, balanced dish.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Creole Cooked Red Beans

Listed under the “Vegetables” chapter, “Creole Cooked Red Beans” was the first recipe I experimented with in Lena’s cookbook.  By happenstance, I cooked this dish on Monday, a traditional day to cook red beans and rice.  I took this as a very good omen as I set off on my culinary expedition, hoping to unearth a deeper connection to Lena.  I carefully read through her recipe several times, imagining the process step by step.  All the while, my heart began to ache as my mind was inundated with memories of the vibrant culinary culture of New Orleans.  I had not realized how much I missed the Big Easy.

Lena’s red beans recipe is simple.  But within these few short sentences is the key to a rich, creamy and flavorful dish.

The recipe reads as follows:

2 cups Red Beans
1 large onion
½ pound pickled meat or ham shank
3 pods garlic
1 green pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 bay leaf
3 tablespoons shortening
2 ½ quarts of water
Salt and pepper to taste

            Soak beans over night.  Cook with seasonings, meat and shortening until creamy, except parsley.  Just before ready to serve add parsley and salt and pepper to taste.

So how did I interpret Lena’s recipe?  I soaked my beans over night (simple enough). The next day, I drained the beans and set them aside while I roughly diced 1 large white onion, 1 green pepper, and finely diced 3 cloves of garlic.  

I heated 3 tablespoons of butter on medium high heat in a large soup pot, adding the garlic, onion and pepper and sautéing for 5 minutes.  I added the ham shank to the pot of vegetables and cooked for 5 more minutes on medium high heat, stirring the vegetables occasionally.  

Then I added the red beans, bay leaf and 8 cups of water (saving the other 2 cups of water for later), and brought the beans to a boil.  

I reduced the beans to a simmer and cooked them covered for 1 ½ hours, stirring every 30 minutes.  Then I uncovered the beans, added 2 more cups of water, increased the heat to bring the beans to a steady simmer and cooked uncovered for 3 more hours until the liquid reduced by ⅓, stirring occasionally.  

Because I was pressed for time (red beans and rice can be an all-day long affair), I chose to mash some of the beans up against the side of the pot to quicken the thickening process.  I added salt and pepper to taste.  Red beans is typically served with long grain white rice.  I opted to serve this dish over short grain brown rice with chopped English parsley as a garnish.  What can I say?  I was feeling innovative and a little rebellious.

To put it simply, this dish is addicting.  I found myself going back for seconds, while looking forward to having it again for lunch the next day.  Like my mother, I am a firm believer that slow cooked foods get better the next day (when the flavors have time to fuse together even more deeply).  I highly recommend that you try Lena’s “Creole Cooked Red Beans.”  You will find yourself heading back to the kitchen for a hearty second helping!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Long before the days of food-centric television channels devoted exclusively to preparing food in the home, many amateur cooks pored through the pages of their favorite cookbooks, experimented with new recipes and hoped for success.  Others relied on family and community networks to garner tried and true recipes and foolproof cooking techniques.  Radio broadcast cooking programs provided a new medium for exchange in the 1920s and 1930s.  Even then, listeners could only use their imaginations to envision the dishes that they were hearing about and follow along as best they could.  It was not until the 1940s, when cooking programs transitioned to television, that food lovers could actually watch recipes being created in front of their eyes.

By the spring of 1950, WDSU television cameras had been steadily broadcasting footage of Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book throughout the Crescent City.  According to advertisements in The Times-Picayune, the cooking show aired twice weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:00, featuring Lena and her assistant, Marie Matthews.  During the program, Lena guided television audiences through her cookbook, New Orleans Cook Book, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1940.

The Times-Picayune August 8, 1950
The Times-Picayune August 24, 1950

Lena, who was African American, was also an acclaimed chef.  Too often in the mid-twentieth century, the identities of the top chefs of New Orleans’ world-renowned restaurants remained anonymous.  They were the creative genius hidden behind the swinging doors of their kitchens.  Often, those men and women were African Americans.  Lena, therefore, was unusual: she was a black female chef who captured public attention.  While unusual, she was not alone.  In fact, Richard was at the forefront of increasingly popularized black cooking traditions.  Her cooking show appeared just one year after Frieda De Knight’s cookbook, A Date With A Dish (1948), later renamed The Ebony Cookbook (1962), and was soon followed by Mary Land’s Louisiana Cookery (1954).  Like Frieda and Mary, Lena played a principal role in the emerging black cooking scene in the late 1940s.

To my knowledge, the early television programs on WDSU were not recorded, so footage of Lena’s show likely does not exist.  However, one can imagine that she featured tantalizing recipes from her cookbook such as “Stuffed Pork Chops” and “Ham and Potato Croquettes."  This past summer, I had the privilege of speaking with some early pioneers of WDSU television who fondly remember tasting Lena’s cooking after her program aired.  I imagine that after a long day working at the studio, these flavorful dishes were a much needed respite in the fast-paced and experimental world of early television.

WDSU was the first television station in New Orleans, broadcasting live on December 18, 1948 from the Municipal Auditorium.  In 1948, many New Orleans residents had never seen a television set, but by the time Lena’s show was airing in 1950, an estimated 40,000 televisions were up and running in the city.  Although there is no footage of Lena’s cooking show, we still have her cookbook to explore and learn from.  The recipes contained in its pages are simple and effective, drawing upon the flavor of quality ingredients to produce rich and complex flavor.

Image courtesy of the Newcomb Archives, Tulane University

Over the following weeks, I am going to share my experiences cooking from Lena’s New Orleans Cook Book, which has recently been reprinted by Pelican Publishing Company. 

Although I love to cook, I do not claim to be an expert in the kitchen or a guru of New Orleans-style cooking.  In addition, I am not trying to recreate the exact conditions in which these dishes were made.  I will often resort to modern cooking conveniences such as electric stove tops, non-stick cooking spray for baking, and store bought chicken stock.  However, I do not wish to spoil the integrity of these recipes and intend to follow their instructions to the best of my ability.  All in all, I am simply seeking to better understand Lena and the individuals who cooked from her recipes or watched her on television in the 1940s and 1950s.

I am truly looking forward to this project, which will lead up to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum’s opening of the Lena Richard: Pioneer in Food TV exhibit on Saturday March 10, 2012.  Ready your sturdy soup pot, trusty wooden spoon and preferred cooking fat because we are going to start off with a classic New Orleans dish: red beans and rice!