Chocolate and Marrow
Today we’re celebrating rich, decadent and indulgent food. On Chocolate and Marrow, Brooke uses local and seasonal ingredients to create dishes inspired by growing up in New Orleans and from her current life in Portland in the Pacific Northwest.
I’m so happy to have Brooke Conroy Bass of Chocolate and Marrow joining me on the show.
UPDATE! Since our chat, Brooke became a finalist in the 2015 Saveur Blog Awards for Best New Voice for Chocolate and Marrow.
On Starting Her Blog:
I was doing a lot of research and a lot of scientific analysis for my dissertation and it got a little bit too much. I just felt like there was this imbalance in my life. While I’m thinking about all of that, I went to Italy with my grandmother who loves to cook. And we did this amazing cooking, culinary experience. I just found myself being so happy. I’m just really in my element, and that’s really how I realized I need to incorporate food in a more creative way throughout my life, more than just cooking in the home.
That’s when I decided, you know what, I’m going to start a blog.
Finding the time for it is a totally different matter. It’s more of a weekend thing. I just spend my Saturdays always cooking and photographing and at night I’ll do the recipe development and research and things like that.
On Her Interest in Food:
I’ve loved cooking ever since I can remember.
I was probably five years old and I don’t even know how I could write at the time. But I remember standing by my grandmother’s side and she was saying, she’s cooking catfish, frying catfish. And I remember saying to her, “I really want to learn how to do that so I can go home and cook for my family.” I don’t know what I was thinking at the age of five, they probably wouldn’t let me turn on a burner at that age. And so she got me a crayon and a piece of loose leaf paper and was like, “Well, here, write down the recipe as I cook and that way you can have it for yourself.” So I did and we actually still have that piece of paper that I wrote it on, which is really fun to pull out and look at sometimes.
She is one of my food heroes for certain. I have a number of them but she’s certainly the one that I think piques my interest in cooking.
She worked on a television show in the 80s and 90s called Great Chefs and so she’s always loved food. Even today, when she’s in town visiting for Thanksgiving and we sat and chatted in my kitchen for about eight hours after Thanksgiving while I whipped up some gumbo and some French bread. It’s just one of those things that’s really, really fun to do together.
On the Food Culture in New Orleans:
The food culture in New Orleans is really synonymous with the party culture. We cook food that can feed 30 people and be a big part of a celebration and that’s how we do things down there.
It’s like you can’t have a party without tons of food and you can’t have tons of food without a party.
There’s also some pieces of New Orleans cuisine that are kind of staples in ways of cooking and ingredients that we always use. So yeah, that’s definitely how I think of it at least.
On Cajun Food:
Cajun food, I think like anywhere else around the world, we work with the ingredients that we have available to us and that’s when in forms, different cuisines. With Cajun cuisine, it’s really working with what’s available on the land which is there’s a lot of rice. We see a lot of rice and beans and things like that.
But also there’s this abundance of seafood, so things like oysters and crawfish and shrimp and catfish. That puts itself into a lot of good food that we prepare.
For me, Cajun cuisine, though, it’s like eating home. I mean, I probably cook at least one or two Cajun dishes just for dinner for my husband and I each week and it’s something that always makes me feel comfortable and at home in my kitchen. I just don’t even have to think about it. It just kind of happens.
People love their King cakes and their beignets and their po’ boys and things like that. But most people don’t know about our festival food. You know how most people like spring, summer, fall, and winter as their four seasons. Well, in New Orleans, we don’t have those seasons. We’ve got Mardi Gras, we’ve got festival season, crawfish season, and Saints season.
During festival season, everyone has probably heard about Jazz Fest. I think probably one of my favorite kind of off the map food is crawfish bread from Jazz Fest.
It’s this two kind of flat bread, sandwiched around this melty cheese with crawfish and olives and all these spices. It’s just one of these foods that I think if you’re able to go to New Orleans at the end of April or early May for Jazz Fest, you cannot miss the crawfish bread because it’s absolutely amazing!
On Key Elements in Cajun Cooking:
You know how the French have mirepoix, which is onions and carrots and celery. Well, in Cajun food, we have the holy trinity is what we call it. That is basically like a mirepoix but sub out the carrots and put in bell peppers.
That kind of gives it that spicy kick that New Orleans food is really well-known for. And I think also, New Orleans food is known for being fried. I won’t say fry anything but something in a nice cornmeal batter with just a little squeeze of lemon is probably a real classic New Orleans food.
I think that probably a really great dish to start with would be a gumbo. I know that sounds intimidating but it’s really basic. It just involves a roux and a stock and some kind of protein like chicken or turkey or seafood even, and then the holy trinity, sautéed with some spices and a bay leaf.
Then you throw it all together in a pot and just let it simmer and it’s pretty much heavenly. I think it’s a great way to start introducing yourself to Cajun techniques and also flavors.
On Some Good Resources for Learning About Cajun Food and Cooking:
One of my favorite cookbooks is actually called Cooking Up a Storm.
That is a book that came out after Hurricane Katrina because as you can probably imagine, when Hurricane Katrina hit, one of the things that people lost that they loved the most is their cookbooks. When people lost their homes, their cookbooks went with it. And so Cooking Up A Storm came out. It’s produced or created by two of the writers of The Times-Picayune which is the local newspaper there.
They actually found all these old recipes that have been published in The Times-Picayune and that readers were writing in and inquiring about, saying, “I lost my recipe books and I really want to get this recipe or that recipe.” So they published a collection of readers’ most requested recipes and I think that’s just a really great book for so many reasons.
As far as blogs, I actually just recently discovered a blog called the Acadiana Table and I have absolutely fallen in love. They have so many phenomenal Cajun recipes, just really authentic. I love the way that they do Cajun food.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
The only cooking show that I watch is actually Top Chef.
I was really stoked this year because there were two Portland chefs on it, so it’s really a fun season to watch.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
I’m a sucker for writing, good writing on blogs, and so my favorite would probably be Cynthia of Two Red Bowls, who has really short, fun, engaging posts.
Erica of Southern Souffle, who I think her words are just super soulful and inspiring and I just really connect with her over what she usually writes.
And then Beth of Local Milk, who is known for her photography but her writing is just as beautiful and eloquent, so I definitely recommend checking those bloggers out.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook that make you happy?
To be honest, I’m not a huge Facebook or Pinterest person, but I am addicted to Instagram.
Some people that make me happy, I would say Martine Cooks is the handle and she’s amazing. She lives in New Orleans, she’s a photographer, and just posts the most beautiful photos with inspiring captions of things like oysters and crawfish, which I can’t get enough of.
And then probably some of my local chefs like Ian Wilson of Fenrir, post just really beautiful food all the time that’s super artistic. And Ryan Roadhouse of Nodoguro who does these most amazing Japanese-inspired dishes and I love looking at the crazy ingredients he gets flown in.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
I don’t think I have a bunch of unusual things but I do love my cast iron skillets. I have way too many of them but they are like my little babies.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
I have to say clams. I used to hate them and then I met a friend who–actually we met on Instagram, which is a whole, different, long story. But I told her I hated clams and she convinced me to try making them with her and so I did and they were absolutely phenomenal, so now I’m addicted.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
I absolutely adore The Flavor Bible when I’m looking to create new recipes, I’m looking for inspiration on what pairs well with what. And then I think Sean Brock’s Heritage, I’m really crushing on hard right now.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
I can’t really think of a song or an album. I’m more of a Pandora person, so I have my Pandora stations.
I’d say my favorite ones are probably Louis Armstrong radio, which I use on mornings if I’m baking or something. Milky Chance, which I use to cook with during the week, just like on a random week night. And then Bob Marley is my go-to for the weekends. He just kind of gets me, you know, feel loose and inspired in the kitchen.
On Keeping Posted on Brooke: