Ursula LeCoeur

Field Trip: Turtle Soup

Ursula LeCoeur

Tasting turtle soup

It took a huge effort to leave the comfort of my space heater on a cold day and head to the French Market in the Quarter for a cooking demonstration. Only the promise of a taste of turtle soup spurred me on.

The festive Christmas decorations put me in a jubilant mood. As I raced through the stalls to the demo stage, I realized how much the French Market wares have changed in recent years. I eyed items I needed or wanted, especially as holiday gifts. But don’t worry. The beloved vendors of sunglasses, hot sauce, boas, and plastic alligators still abound. It’s just these days there are hand-crafted candles, crocheted hats, painted mirrors, and terracotta garden figurines all mixed in.

I love turtle soup, though I’ve never actually made it, so I hurriedly took a seat among the tables and chairs and took out my notebook and pencil. The crowd was a mix of doe-eyed tourists; anxious, novice cooks; the homeless, wandering and clueless. A mirror placed above the cooking station allowed us to view the chef’s actions. Upperline Restaurant Chef Dave Bridges was an agreeable fellow, charmingly harassed by the necessity of publicity.

Naturally he began with a roux, this one made with canola oil and flour. Fortunately, Chef Bridges provided a recipe, so I followed along as he added onion, celery, tomato paste, spices, chicken stock and turtle. Lemon juice and a cup of dry sherry with extra for individual bowls completed the dish.

He also shared a copy of Upperline’s Reveillon menu. A Reveillon is a traditional New Orleans repast dating back to the 19th century. The Creoles, all Roman Catholic, fasted all day on Christmas Eve, attended Midnight Mass and then celebrated the Reveillon—awakening—with with a huge feast in their homes that featured a vast array of food and wine and often lasted until dawn.

By the turn of the 20th century, the French tradition had largely gone the way of the horses, carriages and bustle dresses. In the 1990s, the tradition reawakened as New Orleans restaurants began serving a prix fixe Reveillon dinner during the month of December to attract tourists. Now more than four dozen of the city’s best offer Reveillon dinners and New Orleans has become a winter tourist destination among culinary adventurers.

Watching a master chef prepare a dish is an excellent chance to gather firsthand knowledge. Things I learned: Toast the dry spices—clove and allspice—before you add them to your dish. Turtle meat is expensive. Many restaurants skimp on it, substituting veal, alligator, beef, or some combination of these.

The line for samples was long. I felt weak, with the waiting. But this chef’s turtle soup with sherry was hot on my tongue, savory to my palate. It’s a recipe I’ll try in the New Year and post on this site.

Take advantage of three more cooking classes in December:

Wednesday, December 18, 2 p.m. Executive Chef Guy Reinbolt from Broussard’s will make Rabbit Rillettes with Marsala Fig Marmalade and Strawberry Balsamic Jam. Rillettes, similar to pate, is a delicious appetizer with toast or baguette.

Thursday, December 19, 2 p.m. Bourbon House Pastry Chef Sara Toth will whip up Louisiana Sweet Potato Spice Cake with Molten Eggnog Center and Bourbon Gelato. Remember, there are samples!

Friday, December 20, 2 p.m. Palace Café Sous Chef Jason Ameen will pair Grilled Gulf Fish with Panzanella, a favorite Italian salad.