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Cooking Up a Storm

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Cooking Up a Storm

As part of Legacy.com's ongoing Recipe Vault series, food bloggers and network stars share how recipes connect us to those we’ve lost.

Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans Aug. 29, 2005. Within 48 hours, 80 percent of the city was under water. More than 1,400 people in the city and the surrounding areas died. Hundreds of thousands of others lost their homes and most of their possessions. Those losses included family recipes and favorites clipped from the local newspaper, The Times-Picayune.

As residents struggled to rebuild, they sought comfort in familiar foods. That's how Times-Picayune Food Editor Judy Walker (pictured at left) and well-known cookbook writer Marcelle Bienvenu came to edit Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found From The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.

With the storm's 10th anniversary approaching and a reissue of the book forthcoming, Legacy.com talked to Walker about the healing powers of food.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

"The Times-Picayune went back to publishing the Food section in October. A couple people suggested (a book); then one lady wrote me this letter on lined tablet paper. She said in Hurricane Katrina, she and her husband lost their house, lost their business, lost their cars – and then she broke both of her legs. She also lost all her recipes, and she was thinking that I should put all the Times-Picayune recipes into a cookbook. I freaked out. I thought, 'This lady has lost so much, and this is what she's thinking about?'"

Why do you think recipes were even an issue?

"It was close to winter holidays and it's a fact that people make stuff for holidays but need the recipe as they only make it once a year. That was one prompt: 'Thanksgiving's coming up and I want to make X, but I got the recipe out of The Times-Picayune and the flood washed it away.' These were recipes they had made over and over again. This was part of their heritage."

Why is food so integral to that heritage?

"One of the first stories I did was about bookstores reporting that cookbooks were the first things people were buying. They were replacing their cookbooks. … There are hundreds and hundreds of New Orleans cookbooks, but the reason there are hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks is because there's a real tradition here in South Louisiana, Cajun and Creole both. People have grown up perpetuating these things. That doesn't exist in other parts of the country and, where it did exist, it's been wiped out. You don't have to cook for yourself anymore … but here, people were still making the dishes they remember their grandmothers making.

"If the big one, the big earthquake, finally hit San Francisco, God forbid, would they need a recipe project to bring their recipes back? Probably not."

I've read that of all of the states, Louisiana is the one that retains the highest population of residents who are born there. So I guess people were hanging with the same crowds, doing the same things.

"Exactly. And their families. Someone told me, 'You either got water, or you got family.' If you didn't have water, then everybody in your family who did was going to be at your house."

You put out the call via your column, "Exchange Alley," asking readers to let you know what they needed. You could look it up and, if it wasn't in the archives anymore, other readers could help out. Can you talk about the response?

"I realized later this was a way to help. Everybody wanted to do something after the storm. Imagine you're 78 years old. You're housebound; you don't have the energy to go out and help rebuild houses. You don't have the money to donate to anybody. But you could go through your recipes and help somebody else. It was a way for anybody to participate."

Two of Walker's favorite recipes from the book are easy-to-make appetizers: Blue Cheese Puffs and Monica's Goat Cheese Appetizer. Here are those recipes:

Blue Cheese Puffs

These light treats are a variation of gougeres, a savory cream puff. This recipe makes about two dozen, but they're so popular that many people double it.

Butter for greasing, plus 4 tablespoons

3/4 cup water

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1/4 pound blue cheese, crumbled

Preheat the oven to 400 F and butter two baking sheets.

In a heavy saucepan, bring the 4 tablespoons of butter and water to a boil over high heat.

Remove the pan from heat. Add the flour to the butter and water, and beat with a wooden spoon until the mixture leaves the sides of the pan and forms a smooth ball.

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until smooth with each addition. Stir in the blue cheese. Let the batter sit for 15 minutes.

Drop the batter by rounded spoonfuls, 2 inches apart, onto the prepared baking sheets. Bake until golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monica's Goat Cheese Appetizer

This recipe comes from New Orleanian Monica Davidson, who learned it from her Chilean mother. The dish encourages community, as eaters gather around the platter and serve themselves with individual spreaders. Davidson is also the namesake of Crawfish Monica, a popular dish created by her husband and offered for sale during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

2 (8-ounce) packages goat cheese

1 red bell pepper, cut into thin, 1-inch-long strips

6 to 12 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup olive oil

Sliced French bread for serving

Spread out the goat cheese evenly in a long, shallow ceramic platter. Cover with the red bell pepper strips and then sprinkle with the minced garlic.

Warm the olive oil in a saucepan just until it begins to smoke. Pour the hot oil evenly over the garlic, red bell pepper and goat cheese. The oil will take away the raw taste of the garlic. Serve with the bread.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."