For New Orleans super chef John Besh, food and family have always been so intimately paired that it’s hard to imagine one without the other. And at this bountiful time of year on the Gulf Coast, with Thanksgiving gusts dropping leaves on the doorstep, Besh can’t help but count his blessings.
Born in Meridian, Mississippi, and raised in southern Louisiana, Besh has become one of the most ardent appreciators and promoters of the region’s culinary heritage. For the celebrated chef, cooking has revolved around his family life from the very beginning. “I grew up hunting and fishing and cooking, and I just really loved that culture. When I was about 9 years old, my father was hit by a drunk driver and paralyzed for life. I became the breakfast cook for the family.”
Now that Besh himself is the father of four hungry boys, he still finds that the real magic isn’t in the kitchen — it’s at the kitchen table. “The only way we can save our society is to slow down, take time, cook and eat together, ” Besh says. He’s been trying to get the message across for years: You don’t need to be a celebrity chef to make fulfilling, flavorful dishes for your family. “The way I cook now is, more or less, like an old Southern grandmother. Which is a good thing!” he laughs.
On a recent fall afternoon, Besh took to the kitchen of Liz and Guy Helmsing’s Spring Hill home to prepare a selection of dishes (and a classic drink) that never fail to rally his own family around the kitchen table. As he explains, this valuable time is something we owe to our families, our rich culture and the people whose lives revolve around our coast.
“This is the time of year when all these great Gulf tastes come together. We still have the shrimp and the crab, and the oysters are just coming back into season. It’s just a very bountiful time, and to think after the disastrous decade that we’ve had with the hurricane, the oil spill and all that’s ensued, it’s important to me that we still support those families who are making a living off of our coast and who help us maintain our culture. Without them, we have nothing.”
Oyster Gratin with Horseradish & Parmesan
“This is the perfect way to enjoy plump oysters at the table, cloaked in my go-to topping: a crispy mix of breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese and lots of olive oil. I usually make this gratin in a big ovenproof dish.”
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 cups milk
2 heaping tablespoons prepared horseradish
salt and pepper, to taste
3 dozen oysters, shucked, drained and patted dry
1/3 cup dried breadcrumbs
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and whip up a roux, whisking until it turns blond, for about 5 minutes.
2. Add the onions and garlic, lower the heat, and continue cooking and stirring until the onions are soft.
3. Slowly whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce the heat to low. Let the sauce simmer, stirring occasionally, until it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, for about 30 minutes.
4. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the horseradish, salt and pepper. Cover the saucepan with plastic wrap and let cool.
5. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Salt and pepper the oysters and place them in a baking dish in a single layer. Pour the cooled sauce evenly over the oysters.
6. In another bowl, mix the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, olive oil and pepper flakes until the oil moistens the breadcrumbs. Sprinkle over the oysters and sauce in the baking dish.
7. Bake 15 minutes or until topping turns golden brown. Serves 6 – 8.
Bowl courtesy of The Kiln Studio & Gallery, Fairhope
The Sazerac Cocktail
Impress dinner party guests with Besh's favorite sazerac recipe, the official cocktail of New Orleans.
2 ounces Rye Whiskey
1/2 ounce simple syrup (1:1)
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Absinthe or herbsaint
lemon twist, for garnish
1. Give a glass an absinthe or herbsaint rinse and set aside.
2. Stir the other ingredients in a mixing glass.
3. Strain into the chilled glass and garnish. Yields one cocktail.
Roasted Beet Salad
“I love to use beets in a range of colors to enliven this salad. I prefer small beets because they are so tender, but if you use larger ones, please lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees and let them roast longer — say, an hour. Peel, then cube and toss with the other ingredients.”
2 pounds small red and yellow beets
1/2 cup olive oil, divided salt, to taste
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar pepper, to taste
fresh greens, for garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
2. Rub the beets all over with half of the oil and then salt generously. Place on a baking sheet and roast until soft all the way through, about 25 minutes.
3. When the beets are cool enough to handle, peel and quarter them. Transfer to a bowl and toss with the remaining oil, the red onion, vinegar and sugar. Season with more salt and pepper, to taste.
4. Garnish with fresh greens. Serves 6.
Duck Camp Shrimp & Grits
“This is such a simple, iconic Gulf Coast partnership: wild shrimp served over excellent grits. The quality of the shrimp really matters here, because they’re not cooked long, just quickly sautéed in olive oil. After the shrimp are briefly cooked, they’re removed from the skillet and returned just when the light sauce is ready to be ladled over the grits.”
2 tablespoons olive oil
30 jumbo wild American shrimp, peeled and deveined
salt, to taste
1 cup sliced andouille or other smoked pork sausage
1 pound fresh pork sausage, casings removed
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
4 cups Shrimp Stock (see below)
2 cups diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 green onions, chopped
Baked Cheesy Grits (see below)
1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
2. Season the shrimp with salt and sauté until they start to brown but are not cooked all the way through. Remove the shrimp and set aside.
3. In the same pan, sauté the smoked sausage, crumbled pork sausage, onion, garlic and thyme until they become aromatic, about 5 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a simmer.
4. Reduce the sauce until it is nice and thick, about 3 – 5 minutes. Return the shrimp to the skillet and cook another 5 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and lemon juice.
5. Serve the shrimp in a big tureen topped with the green onions, with the grits on the side. Serves 6.
Baked Cheesy Grits
1 tablespoon salt
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup stone ground grits
1 cup grated provolone or mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup cream cheese
pinch red pepper flakes
1. Bring 1 quart of water, salt and butter to a boil in a large saucepan, then slowly whisk in the grits. Lower the heat and cook, stirring often, until the grits become soft and creamy, about 20 minutes. 2. Remove from the heat and fold in the cheeses, pepper flakes and more salt. Serve right from the pan, or transfer to a skillet and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Serves 6.
1 pound shrimp heads and shells
2 carrots, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1. Put shrimp heads and shells in a stockpot. Add carrots, celery, garlic and bay leaves.
2. Pour enough cool water to cover the contents of the pot by a few inches and bring to a boil.
3. Let simmer for about 2 hours before straining.
All recipes from “Besh Big Easy: 101 Home Cooked Recipes”
by John Besh/Andrews McMeel Publishing.
TEXT BY Breck Pappas • PHOTOS BY Elizabeth Gelineau