Louisiana is a state in almost perpetual festival mode—as I type, we are in the midst of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (better known as Jazz Fest), which happens to have been the catalyst of my own move to the city. In 1991, after a day of festing and a long evening of club-going, I heard myself announce to no one in particular that I was coming back down in a month or two to cover the upcoming gubernatorial election. For a journalist, that election was especially entertaining (it was a showdown between the colorful former governor and future convict Edwin Edwards and David Duke, who had been a Grand Wizard in the KKK), but I didn’t actually have plans to write about it until that moment. I’m glad I did—the months I spent on the campaign trail made me realize I never wanted to leave my adopted city. The temporary apartment I took that year was the first in a long string of New Orleans abodes.
I followed the candidates to a lot of festivals that summer and in the first chapter of my new book, Julia Reed’s New Orleans: Food, Fun, and Field Trips for Letting the Good Times Roll, I feature a menu that is an homage to two of my favorites: the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival and the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. Since both the mudbugs and the berries are in season at the same time, planning a supper around them is especially easy. Among the appetizers I include are oysters on the half shell served with a traditional red cocktail sauce and a mignonette sauce made with the strawberry salsa that is an invention of my talented friend Ellen Stimson. I first tasted that unexpected but perfect mignonette in her Vermont kitchen where we also snacked on the yummy salsa that is its secret ingredient. The salsa’s so good I make it even when I don’t need it for the mignonette, and it’s so easy it only takes a few minutes to concoct.
Planning the décor for this dinner was as easy as putting together the menu (which also features a crawfish and andouille tart, crawfish étouffée, and a strawberry cobbler). For the table setting, I went with the red hues of the featured foods for the tablecloths and the centerpieces were strawberry plants in vintage terra cotta pots. The wine, naturally, was a rose.
Ellen’s Strawberry Salsa
Makes 5 cups
4 cups strawberries, washed and hulled
1 cucumber, seeds removed and roughly chopped
1 jalapeno, seeds and membrance removed (for more heat, include a few of the seeds)
½ teaspoon salt, or more to taste
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or more to taste
½ to ¾ cup brown sugar, depending on the sweetness of the strawberries
1 bunch chopped cilantro
Roughly chop 1 cup of the strawberries and set aside.
Place the remaining ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process until mostly smooth—you want a little texture. Stir in the chopped strawberries and taste for seasoning. Serve with tortilla chips.