This past weekend I traveled to New Orleans to do a guest chef dinner and book signing at Amici Ristoranti with my friends the Rizzutos.
I never turn down a chance to visit New Orleans, without a doubt my favorite restaurant city in America.
I was very fortunate to cook with one of the most professional team of chefs I have been involved with the past 30 years and not only did we have a great time, we prepared one of the best dinners out of my cookbook.
Now I’m not going to lie, it is not easy going into another restaurant and train cooks in just one day to prep and serve my cuisine. Some of my recipes are very basic and authentic, but I do have some secrets and ways of cooking that are not very easy when on the road.
When I left Kansas City, I figured it would be just another dog and pony show — I would prepare and serve the recipes and sign my cookbooks, visit Bourbon Street and of course dine at some of the old-school restaurants and some of the hot new places that have opened up on Magazine and Freret Street.
Little did I know that I would meet someone who had actually heard of me and remembered my Nonna’s famous recipe that she would prepare for our father when he was quite young and then for our whole family when we were all younger.
Many people do not know, but my Nana came from Shreveport, Louisiana. Papa Leonardo met her there when he arrived from Sicily and less than a year later were married and moved to Kansas City.
Nana learned to cook from her mama, my great-grandmother and of course she had that great southern flair, even with Italian recipes. To this day, I still remember all of the dishes that I grew up on eating at her home, but the most memorable dish was her Zeppoles.
These little, fried doughnut-like pastries, still bring back wonderful memories of sitting on the counter at her home and watching her put just a few ingredients into a bowl, mixing and voilà, within minutes, I was enjoying the sweetest dessert in the world! Yes, this was “Culinary Heaven” to a little boy.
Now, back to my story in New Orleans. I was in the kitchen cooking and talking with Amici’s Chef, Frankie Timphony. We were discussing our families, and little did we know how far back our families went and the close relationship in Louisiana. He told me he remembered as a child enjoying Zeppoles from a recipe that my grandmother gave to his family.
I about fell to the floor when I heard this. Now I must tell you, it was about 5 p.m. on the night of our event and we were only two hours away from serving one of my biggest book signing dinners of all. I looked at Frankie and I said, “Frankie why don’t we make some Zeppoles.” He laughed at me and said, “Jasper, are you crazy? You already have three desserts at the end of this dinner. There’s no way we can fit another one into the menu.”
Of course, I would not accept no for an answer and as I was walking around the kitchen I knew Frankie had just had a delivery come in of some fresh lobster tails. Within seconds, the old creative light bulb went off and I thought to myself, hmmm … Lobster Zeppoles … I’ve never seen this done before. Why couldn’t I incorporate lobster meat into the Zeppoles and serve as a sweet and savory appetizer? A new culinary creation? Could this be the next Lobster Cappuccino?
I went back into my prep area of the kitchen at Amici and begin working on a recipe. I knew my grandmothers’ recipe for Zeppoles by heart, so I made that and added some cooked lobster meat to the middle. It still needed something. So, I added some chopped green onions and sea salt. Wow, even raw, it tasted fantastic. I fired up the deep fryer and started chopping spoonfuls of my newest creation into the hot oil. Within seconds they started to puff up. In less than three minutes they were golden brown and ready to eat.
I then looked around the kitchen and was trying to think of some kind of sauce to serve with them, and noticed the chef had just made a Creole mustard sauce for a shrimp dish he was serving as an appetizer. I put some of that sauce into a mixing bowl and added a little cayenne pepper and dipped the “Lobster Zeppole” into the sauce — Wow. That’s all I could say.
My friends came back into the kitchen before the dinner service and I had them taste my newest creation. They went absolutely crazy. Within minutes I had one of their assistant chefs help me prepare a batch for our dinner service.
The first guests began to arrive at 6:45 p.m. and I sent my latest creation the “Lobster Zeppoles” out on silver platters with the Creole sauce. The bartender came up with a special cocktail that he served along with their little appetizer and the crowd went wild. I walked into the room after the introduction to describe the menu for the evening and I must say never have I received so much applause.
I remember the first time I was asked to cook at the James Beard House in New York City. My father told me I needed to come up with a creation and a special dish that will have the crowd eating out my hands. I did it with “Lobster Cappuccino” and now in New Orleans, I did it with “Lobster Zeppoles.”
What great memories of my Nana and her Zeppoles were with me throughout the evening. Salute Nana, Salute New Orleans, Salute Frankie Timphony for bringing back a great memory and for helping me develop a wonderful new recipe.
1 cup of water
1 cup of flour
1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
1 tablespoon of vegetable shortening
8 ounces of chopped cooked lobster meat
1 green onion minced
Cajun spice to taste
Corn oil for deep frying
Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Remove pan from heat and add flour, baking powder, salt, and shortening. Beat well with fork. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add lobster and green onions. Adjust with Cajun spice. Mix.
Heat oil to 350 degrees in deep fryer, using a candy thermometer for best results. Spoon 1 tablespoon of batter into hot oil and fry until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
Serve with Creole Mustard Sauce.
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.