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John Besh's 2009 cookbook, My New Orleans, was a deep dive into his hometown's rich food culture and history. It's a hefty work, weighing in at a whopping 384 pages and 200-plus nuanced, technique-driven recipes.
The chef's latest cookbook about the city where he now has 10 restaurants, Besh Big Easy ($25), focuses instead on the more comforting but still very NOLA-specific dishes he likes to cook at home.
"My New Orleans is a great book, but it was written at a time when I wanted to prove to the world that you could put 340 ingredients into a single dish," Besh says as he slices bananas for a boozy bananas Foster (see the recipe). "This new book is pared down to the simplicity my grandmother cooked with: There aren't highfalutin spices. It's really salt, pepper and a lot of love."
The book celebrates homey one-pot meals (yes, there are gumbos and jambalayas) and "the types of dishes I want my four boys raised on," as Besh puts it. "I didn't write this book as a chef; I wrote it as a boy who grew up on this food."
One of the dishes he grew up with is the always-showstopping bananas Foster, which Besh counts as the first dessert he made as a kid. "It was always a big deal that I could go into the kitchen and ignite the pan," he says with a smile. "We'd turn the lights down, so you could see the flames."
"You have to be confident that you're not going to burn the house down," Besh says. "But it's fun; it's part of the ceremony of the dish, so you should have some people over to see it."
And as simple as it is, bananas Foster is one of New Orleans's most beloved desserts, a nod to NOLA being a bustling port city that for centuries has brought in bananas and rum from the south.
"I love the fact that New Orleans has evolved but hasn't lost the soul of who it is," Besh says as he scoops vanilla ice cream (one of his nonnegotiables for the dessert) into serving bowls. "I think we have 50 percent more restaurants today than we had prior to the storm 10 years ago. There's more diversity of food offerings, but we still have those corner po'boy joints that make it special."
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