I recently made a road trip from Cold Spring to south Louisiana. Driving south through the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains as spring made its way north — blooming forsythia, dogwoods and the deep green of the Blue Ridge Mountains — was both familiar and treat enough.
My destination was Thibodaux, a small university town in Acadiana, located on Bayou Lafourche about 40 miles from its headwaters at the Mississippi River in Donalsonville, where I was born. Bayou Lafourche meanders southeast for 105 miles through Assumption Parish and Napoleonville, where I grew up, onward through Thibodaux, where I briefly went to school, and onward through Acadiana swamps and wetlands to the Gulf of Mexico.
The area is, needless to say, familiar. For this trip, I rented a shotgun cottage in a residential neighborhood bordered by parks, churches and schools just a couple of blocks from my mother’s apartment.
As I walked my dog and traveling companion, Cleo, in the neighborhood, fractured flickers of stray Mardi Gras beads gleamed purple, green and gold from manicured lawns shadowed by majestic oaks covered in Spanish moss and resurrection fern.
The glint likewise colored the gravel and crushed oyster shells that edge sidewalks and gardens, reminding me how exotic it might seem to alien eyes. After dark, the nocturnal smells were just as familiar — and foreign: gardenias, night-blooming jasmine and random fragrances perfumed the cool breezes.
But I am a man on a mission: My mother, Elmire Marie Dizney (née LeBlanc), born on April 2, 1923, was celebrating a century on Earth, and I was here to entertain. A large part of that entertainment is food, and as this is South Louisiana, the food spread out over a few weeks of a rolling celebration would include the hyperlocal specialties: shrimp, oysters, soft- and hard-shell crabs, blood sausage, hogshead cheese and gumbos of all sorts. Crawfish were in season and available in many forms — bisque, stew, étouffée, crawfish boudin (!).
My mother was never much interested in cooking — that tendency I got from her mother, my grandmother Mimi (Elmire Marie LaFaye LeBlanc). But my mother does “like her groceries,” as they say here, and over the course of my visit we sampled pretty much all of the above.
But for the first intimate immediate family celebration with mom and my surviving brother, Sam, and sister, Adele, I did what I do. I cooked.
While this offering is honestly not Cajun (or even particularly French) in any way, it was embraced and consumed heartily by the celebrant, family and (Cajun) friends who were privy to the leftovers. I can’t be sure but I suspect it would even have gotten a nod of approval from my grandmother. I know the celebrant liked it.
Crab & Artichoke Frittata
Serves 4 to 6
1 small potato (Yukon Gold or red-skinned), peeled, cubed (about 1 cup)
10 large eggs
½ cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped fine
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, chopped fine
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons butter
2 medium leeks, white and lightest-green part, cleaned, quartered lengthwise and sliced (about 1/8 inch)
2 small cloves garlic, minced
6 ounces marinated artichoke hearts, drained well, roughly chopped
4 ounces baby spinach (about two handfuls), roughly chopped
1 to 1½ cup lump crabmeat
¼ to ½ cup parmesan, shredded
1. Boil potato cubes for 10 minutes in a small saucepan filled with enough salted water to cover. Drain well and reserve. In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, cream, basil, tarragon, chili flakes, lemon zest and about ½ teaspoon salt. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Heat a 10-inch (nonstick) ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add butter and heat for at least 1 minute. Add ½ of the leeks and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Add potatoes and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, followed by the artichokes and the remainder of the leeks. Cook to warm through, about 2 minutes. Add spinach and about ½ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until spinach is wilted, about 2 minutes.
3. Add crab to skillet, stir to combine. Pour egg mixture over all; allow this to sit for a minute. Using a spatula, gently scrape the eggs from the bottom and sides to incorporate the crab and vegetables, slowly allowing the mixture to cook without “scram-bling” the eggs. Continue until the mixture is just beginning to set, about 4 minutes.
4. Place skillet in heated oven and bake. At the 15-minute mark, remove from oven briefly to sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top, returning to oven to cook for another 5 minutes. (You may want to turn on the broiler for the last 3 to 5 minutes to color the top.) Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes. Slice into wedges; serve warm.