Updated: Jan 11, 2021
This holiday season I’m leaning on a pearl of wisdom from my Maw Maw Louella- keep it simple, sweetie (or sometimes more appropriately, keep it simple, stupid!). Maw Maw makes the same two dishes every Christmas- her half cheese, half butter, half jumbo lump crabmeat au gratin and a dark, heady crawfish bisque with stuffed heads. I doubt either of those dishes ring as particularly Christmas-y to most, but for my Daddy’s family those belly filling, nap inducing, hug-in-a-Tupperware-sent-home meals are the embodiment of the season.
My Maw Maw loves her ever-growing family dearly and would much rather spend her holidays at the dinner table with us instead of tied down in the kitchen. No matter how early the Christmas Mass you went to, no matter what time you arrive unannounced at my grandparent’s house, she’s already got everything ready for you. All you have to do is help yourself. And as much as you may not want to, pace yourself. She’s going to make you have a second, or third, or fourth helping throughout the day. Stretchy pants are advised.
These crab and parmesan tartelettes are a small ode to my Maw Maw’s Sicilian-Cajun cooking style, where it really doesn’t matter what the rules of cooking are. This cuisine was shaped by the food habits of Southern Italians dropped in the middle of the isolating bayous of South Louisiana. Spurred by the corruption and danger of Italian Unification and wooed by the promise of jobs as farmers or plantation hands in the bayous or at the docks in New Orleans, many Southern Italians felt hopeful that the French and Spanish who so greatly influenced them would be welcoming. And welcoming they were indeed. From 1880-1920, Louisiana recruited nearly twice as many Italians as Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi combined.
Many of these immigrants would initially take the place of the African slave trade. They were advertised to plantation owners as “hard-working, thrifty, and content with few comforts”, and for the most part that was true. The unanticipated but formative character trait the Bureau of Immigration didn’t account for was the Southern Italian’s drive to own his own land. They may have entered their American Dream working for a plantation owner, but many found themselves leaving the plantations in search for better and cheaper land in the state or were drawn to numerous jobs at the docks or railroads in cosmopolitan New Orleans.
This fierce sense of ownership, as most things in Louisiana, can be felt in Creole- or Cajun-Italian cooking. Coming to the “new Mediterranean” as it was advertised meant most of their old-world gardens flourished in the rich bayou soil. Friendships and new family ties would incorporate German, French, and African ingredients and techniques into a Southern Italian mama’s repertoire. Calabrian chili was replaced with cayenne. Potatoes and grits, long before rice, became just as common as pastas. And whatever it was that your mama made that day, it was plentiful. “Truck farmers” could grow enough food for their large Catholic families and “truck in” the rest to sell at the French Market in New Orleans, filling their stalls with citrus, figs, and other produce. Dock hands and street peddlers like Sam Zemurray hustled their way up the ladder to eventually take over the fruit import business that would account for 94.4% of New Orleans’ import business.
So how do you know you’re eating Creole- or Cajun-Italian food? For one, shellfish and butter are like new love, hot and melty and messy. Produce and plenty of herbs also dominate the plate, showing off daddy’s farming skills and mama’s kitchen mastery. Pasta? Maybe, but maybe you’ll also be given your own loaf of French bread to sop up the ocean of buttery, shrimpy goodness on the plate. Pepper, red or black, and citrus hit the top of your mouth and add the high notes to this symphonic cuisine.
So who cares that Louisiana-Italian cooking mixes shellfish and dairy way too much? So what if there’s rice under my red gravy (a.k.a ragout with a roux) instead of pasta? Maw Maw made it, there’s enough to feed an army, and we all knew to wear our stretchy pants. Look at us keeping it simple.
Happy eating, y’all.
Crab and Parmesan Mini Pies
1 brick cream cheese, softened
¼ cup (or more) heavy cream
2 T Dijon mustard
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 t garlic powder
1/4 – 1/2 t cayenne
1 t pepper
8 oz. Lump crab meat or crab claw meat, picked through for shells
3 green onions, chopped, greens and whites separated
6 T finely grated parmesan
30 tartlets or 20 mini puff pastry shells
Chopped parsley, hot sauce, and lemon wedges for serving
1. Set oven to 400°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together first seven ingredients until smooth. Add additional heavy cream to loosen the mixture if it’s too thick.
3. Use a large spoon or spatula to gently fold in the crab, parmesan, onion whites, and half the onion greens (reserve the rest for garnish).
4. If using tartlets: add a rounded tablespoon to each tartlet. Arrange on baking sheet and drizzle lightly with olive oil.
5. If using puff pastry shells: fill each shell , leaving the top half inch empty. Arrange on baking sheet and drizzle lightly with olive oil.
6. Bake for 10-20 minutes, or until bubbling and lightly browned on top.