Being a Louisiana native turned international plant-based eater, things get a little interesting when I go home for a visit. Of course there are a lot of questions to be fielded, explaining how red beans and rice can be made without sausage or how greens can be cooked without bacon fat. Generally, my family and friends and I all have a collective laugh at how both my diet has changed and how much they miss the mark with what I can and can’t eat.
Real love as I have with them can overlook any dietary fault, which I now clearly have—jokingly— so the real challenge then becomes finding something good to eat, something that makes me feel at home but doesn’t neglect my new moral compass. It’s no secret that Louisiana is legendary for its cuisine just as said cuisine is legendarily spicy and wrought with seafood and sausage.
But there are cracks in the culinary armor, places where plant-based eaters can find solace as well as something great to eat. Nothing says downhome, Louisiana cooking like doing it from scratch at home where food comes slowly and makes for a great excuse to party.
Biscuits and Gravy, A Side of Grits
For all the emphasis on meat and seafood, a throwback breakfast in Louisiana mostly consists of a ridiculous abundance of starches, beginning with biscuits. To put it bluntly, next to a fluffy, freshly baked biscuit, toast seems like a ridiculous choice. And as long as there’s a biscuit on the plate, it seems tragic not to slice it open and smother it in a little peppery, white gravy, a sauce typically laden with either crumbled sausage or bacon bits, a squirt or two of Tabasco for fun. Then, while an acquired regional taste, “a Southern thing,” who wants to go through the effort and miss out on a side of grits. Warning should now ensue: This is a gut-buster.
A Sandwich to Tide Ya Over
Muffalettas are the classic New Orleans sandwiches. Named after a round sesame seed encrusted bread that Italian immigrants brought to New Orleans, muffalettas are traditionally stacked with loads of cured Italian cold cuts, like salami, and cheese; however, the signature of the sandwich is an olive spread, without which the soul of the thing would be lost. So, great substitutes for those fatty sandwich meats would be thinly sliced Portobello mushroom, eggplant and/or dehydrated tomatoes, a smear or two of homemade vegan cream cheese. That’ll really be something to chew on.
To make a good olive spread, combine chopped up black and green olives, some capers, a couple of cloves of garlic, some diced peppers and celery, then add olive oil, oregano, and red pepper flakes to taste. Then, use it recklessly.
Etouffee & Gumbo, Ya’ll
Nothing says southern Louisiana quite the same as a rich, thick sauce or soup over rice, and if there were two dishes that get it done across the state and city of New Orleans, they would have to be etouffee and gumbo. These are dishes that explain traditional Louisiana cooking, stretching out flavors, utilizing locally harvested resources for everything they are worth and filling up the stomach with a bed of rice. While meat and/or seafood are typically involved in this game, for the resourceful plant-based eater, it’s possible to play with substitutes and plant-based versions.
Afternoon Crawfish Boil, Hold the Crawfish
Come springtime, crawfish season starts hauntingly in tune with lent, and so backyards soon fill with the trademark hiss of propane burners and the wafting smell of super-seasoned boils bubbling in mutantly large pots. Picnic tables are covered with newspaper, and whole families—friends included— sit down for ridiculously large and messy feasts. Quietly, people swoon over the corn and potatoes. I know it’s true., I once was a crawfish eater, too—the corn and potatoes rock. For a plant-based “crawfish” boil, use the same aromatically spicy seasoning, but fill the pot with corn, potatoes, garlic, onions, mushrooms, and artichokes.
Something Sweet Before the Day is Done
A sweet tooth ain’t nothing to miss in Louisiana either, and there are some classic specialties attributed to the state, including the ever-beloved bananas foster. But, if anything says New Orleans better than bananas foster, its turning said dessert into a boozy version that comes in a shot glass: Bananas Foster Shooters. Otherwise, pecan pie (check this out), for those of us who had grandmother’s with pecan trees in the backyard, feel comfortably like home, sickly sweet, and great with a dollop of whipped coconut cream. Or, if it is the Mardi Gras season, some king cake always brings the joy.
For those who may be feeling homesick for old Louisiana, or looking for a distant experience of the Big Easy, throw on some tunes, a little jazz or Dr. John, set the burners going, and get into the slow groove. Likely, it’s hot as hell down there, so some flip-flops and a daiquiri (or cold beer) might not be a bad idea for starters.