My first few weeks in New Orleans, when I knew no one local and had nothing I needed to do when summer classes ended for the day around lunch, have become kind of stupidly legendary in the annals of my anecdote-telling. Mostly I spent a lot of time in the French Quarter, because it was easy to get to without a car, and easy to find things to do. I got my first tattoo, the @#*! from Dr Blasphemy's costume in Brat Pack, at a joint on North Rampart Street. I found a severed finger in a puddle on Decatur, which years later inspired a short story. And I tried a lot of foods for the first time: gumbo, jambalaya, beignets and cafe au lait (I had had coffee with chicory before, in Colorado of all places), frozen daiquiris, alligator, boudin, cane syrup, pralines, popcorn dipped in hot sauce, red beans and rice.
And turtle soup.
I had turtle soup and a crabcake for my birthday in my third week in New Orleans, at a restaurant that isn't there anymore. The crabcake was fine. The turtle soup was amazing. It would be another couple years before I'd try it at Commander's Palace, but it didn't matter, I love it from anywhere.
Despite that, my first time trying to cook turtle, I didn't attempt turtle soup. Here's the thing: this was before Google. This was before Wikipedia. Before cooking blogs. Before eGullet. Looking back, in retrospect I realize the food-related online resources that did exist - rec.food.recipes, various online recipe collections - but the habit of looking everything up didn't start for me until the internet became as deep as it is.
So I had a bag of turtle meat from a fishmonger down the street from my apartment in Metairie, and no idea what to do with it, but my approach at that point was to figure that any time I had a weird ingredient, if I couldn't think of something else, I could always put it in chili.
I didn't know much about braising, unfortunately. I was a kid, I knew a little bit about a few things and not much of anything all told. The fact that I should braise the turtle meat and let it fall apart, rather than just chopping it up and adding it to beans and chile seasoning ... well, it just didn't occur to me.
I don't remember how that $20 turtle chili tasted. I'm sure it was pretty chewy.
My second time cooking turtle, I went back to the classics. I went back to turtle soup.
I was pretty confident because I've made mock turtle soup - which uses chicken thighs instead of turtle - plenty of times. Turtle soup is a complicated soup - a little like a roux-thickened vegetable beef soup with turtle instead of beef, but then you've got hard-boiled eggs, lemon juice, and sherry. The turtle itself is complicated - supposedly turtle consists of seven distinct kinds of meat.
It came out pretty great. And I did remember to braise: I decided the easiest way to go about this was to braise the semi-boneless turtle meat in a vegetable-beef stock, let it cool, pick the bones out, and pull the meat into chunks. I strained the stock - now a turtle-vegetable-beef stock - and then assembled the soup:
First you make a roux. That's a phrase that oughta be familiar to anyone. I won't get into all the nuances of roux-making, but you combine equal parts flour and fat (I used butter) in a pan and stir them, stir them, stir them, stir them, until the roux is quite dark. This takes a long time. You want it darker than peanut butter. You often want it as dark as chocolate, but that takes practice to do without burning. You definitely don't want it the color of butter and flour, is the thing. You're making dark toast.
I sauteed carrot, pepper, ramps, celery, and lovage with the roux, added strained tomato puree and stock, and cooked until everything looked right. Twenty minutes maybe. Added the turtle, added some chopped hard-boiled egg and a little lemon juice, and kaboom. Turtle soup. (You add a spoonful of sherry to each bowl when you serve it.)