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NOLA Crawfish + 8 Chocolate Recipes

Why be an expert generalist

When I was starting my food writing career, I didn’t know if I had lasting power. I’d written one cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, and attracted attention from East Coast food media. I was a finalist for three prestigious cookbook awards and yet I hadn’t a clue how to forward my career. I’d become friendly with a powerful magazine editor who advised me to niche myself, to become a topic expert, the go-to person on something.

I knew more about East and Southeast Asia than the average bear, having been born in Vietnam and being a so-so speaker of Vietnamese and Mandarin. I also knew about the Asian Pacific American (APA) experience, having lived it and worked in APA student services at the University of Southern California. I believed in presenting cross-cultural experiences as a key to enriching lives. So I hustled and became an expert generalist (I just made up that term). My niche work in Asian food isn’t valuable unless I make it relevant to a broad audience.

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New Orleans French Quarter and crawfish

Surprisingly, over the past twenty years, I’ve been able to research and produce food stories that center people as well as their recipes. Last week, I found myself on a usually interesting assignment in New Orleans about Vietnamese foodways. It’s for a podcast project. I’ve reported for print but not for audio. It was hard but my co-producer and I met with many people who generously shared their personal stories of success and loss. There was a lot to process and I’ll share the results of our work sooner than later.


A Week of Crawfish

Many people go to New Orleans for Sazeracs (Arnaud’s has a great one) and gumbo and muffulettas. As for me, I ate a lot of crawfish.

Highlights included Cajun and Viet-Cajun crawfish at Cajun Seafood in Treme and TD Seafood Pho House on the West Bank. There was a super peppery crawfish pie (empanada) from Dong Phuong Bakery in New Orleans East, the historic hub for the Viet community of New Orleans.

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Dipping crawfish in spicy garlic butter sauce, crawfish pies, crawfish ettoufee, soft-shell crawfish sliders

Chef Anh Luu served me her sinful crawfish ettoufee nachos at Bywater Brewpub. Chef Melissa Martin offered soft-shell crawfish sliders at Mosquito Supper Club on Thursday night’s menu.

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Yes, I also ate king cake while in town. Mardi Gras season is king cake season. Viet-owned Hi-Do produces an excellent plain cinnamon one with the baby on the side because it’s a potential choking hazard. Watch the video at the top of this newsletter for how king cakes are made at Dong Phuong bakery, a Beard Foundation American Classic Award recipient. People have their favorite king cake sources and Dong Phuong is often at the top of people’s list.


Chocolate Challenge Assignment

Last year, my editor at Food & Wine magazine, invited me to write about chocolate. Me? I knew so little about it. My family treasured See’s candies, dividing each up into small portions so the seven of us could taste more of them in the box. We annually look forward to Costco selling Anton Berg liquor filled chocolates. We are not connoisseurs. We’re chocolate plebes. I was afraid of making mistakes but the magazine entrusted me to get the low down from experts and curate the recipes for the feature. My editor wanted me to stretch and flex some culinary muscle, sort to speak.

If you subscribe to Food & Wine, the chocolate story in out now in the February 2023 issue (the cover is a bowl of traditional Chinese medicine noodle soup). I’m really proud of the piece because it is informative and wonderfully designed. The opening page is a dark, luscious stunner, with special lettering by There is a Studio and beautiful photography by Christopher Testani. The magazine put a lot into the article, as much as I had.

The recipe collection includes savories and sweets. My editor prompted me with this: It’s February, it’s cold, we’re home and we want cozy, fun, relatively easy chocolatey foods to make.

The magazine took to my ideas, including Catalan-style shrimp in chocolate sauce — a dish that tells the story of how chocolate was brought from the Americas to Spain and the Spanish did wacky stuff with it. Then there’s a black (dark chocolate) and tan (caramelized white) chocolate-coated popcorn. For sweethearts, I developed a cocoa-spiced steak and red wine sauce (put two ribeyes together and you have a heart-shaped entree)!


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Chocolate shrimp, black and tan popcorn, chocolate steak!

A local bean-to-bar chocolate maker inspired me to create an indulgent hot chocolate with coconut milk — a tropical pairing that’s like drinking pot de creme. When I suggested a chocolate cherry bread, F&W’s Paige Grandjean stepped up with a cherry and chocolate focaccia with rosemary. She also developed a chocolate-hazelnut sandwich as a play on the French pain de quatre heures — an afternoon delight for children and adults alike.

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Ultimate hot chocolate, focaccia, chocolate sandwich

I hope you have a chance to make these recipes and read the story, too.

2 More Chocolate Recipes!

But wait, there’s more! If you’re looking for an easy chocolate cake, my favorite is a buttermilk ditty that I’ve loved for over twenty years. My reliable chocolate buttermilk cake recipe is on the blog. The chocolate-date sorbet recipe from last year is also remarkably good.

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My reliable chocolate cake recipe, a chocolate sorbet!

That’s all I have to report this week. More soon after I get out of my slight jet lag brain.

Pass the Fish Sauce
Pass the Fish Sauce
Andrea Nguyen