Like so many locals, Gabrielle Champagne lost all her cookbooks – and the even more valuable notes scribbled in the margins – to the muck and waters of Hurricane Katrina.
A post-storm determination to regain what was lost, coupled with the need to come up with a creative school fund-raiser, led Champagne and her fellow St. Pius X Mothers’ Club members to publish 2007’s “Family Favorites,” a collection of 181 recipes from the parish and school family. The 85-page volume is the fourth cookbook produced by St. Pius X, an anchor in New Orleans’ Lake Vista neighborhood since 1953.
“We had done the candy; we had done the wrapping paper. We just wanted to do something different to raise money for the school,” said Champagne, who brought the idea to the Mothers’ Club after receiving literature from cookbook publisher Morris Press.
Soliciting recipes from “anyone affiliated with St. Pius,” the project took just four months to complete, despite a few hiccups. Initially, some parishioners assumed they had to turn in elaborate, gourmet recipes.
“Like most parents, you get home at 5, get the kids started on their homework, and then you cook,” Champagne said. “I told people, ‘Just give me easy recipes. Things that are quick, because a lot of people need those recipes, too.’”
Among the meatless highlights are Dana Bagwill’s Broccoli and Carrot Casserole, whose richness comes courtesy of sour cream, cream of mushroom soup and cheddar cheese.
“It reminds me of the casseroles that you make at holiday time – it’s a special dish that you don’t necessarily make every day,” Champagne said. “It’s like a green bean casserole, but it’s got carrots and broccoli instead of the green beans. You really could use any combination of vegetables.”
Champagne submitted one of her own crowd-pleasers: an entrée in which crisped leaves of iceberg lettuce are filled with ground turkey and vegetables sautéed in fresh garlic, ginger, teriyaki, peanut butter, sesame oil, rice vinegar and hoisin sauce. She said shrimp easily can be substituted for the turkey during Lent.
“It makes a lot,” she said. “And you’re using lettuce as the wrapping instead of bread or a tortilla.”
On the dessert front, Melanie Hebert’s ultramoist Blueberry Pound Cake draws universal raves, Champagne said.
“It never stays in the house for long,” she said. “It’s just really good, and you can really taste the blueberries.”
A graduate of St. Frances Cabrini Elementary, St. Mary’s Dominican High and LSU, Champagne said the kitchen was the bustling hub of family life while growing up as one of eight children in the city’s Lake Terrace neighborhood.
“We never went out to eat – every meal was at home,” she said. “My mom was a pretty good cook, but I liked to bake and my mom didn’t like to, so she would let me. I loved holiday time because she would pull out the old, holiday recipes – the rum balls and the cookies you’d cut out and ice.”
Champagne’s father dabbled in every culinary fad that came his way, including making his own pasta.
“He had the food dehydrator, where he would put in fruit and beef to make dried fruit and jerky,” she chuckled. “He went through a crepes kick, too.”
During Lent, Champagne, the mother of three, turns to boiled or barbequed shrimp and steps up her year-round practice of oven-roasting raw vegetables tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper.
“They have so much more flavor than when you cook them in the microwave,” she said. “I want to eat healthier, and I feel that if I’m doing it for my kids while they’re growing up, then maybe it will become ‘normal’ for them.”
She notes that the cookbook’s Crisp Baked Eggplant, submitted by Merle Cabibi, meets both Lenten and health guidelines, despite having mayonnaise as an ingredient.
“It only calls for a half-cup of mayonnaise, so you don’t use a lot,” she said, explaining that the mayonnaise serves as “glue” when the slices of eggplant are dredged in the bread crumb batter.
“The eggplant is not fried. It’s baked, so you’re not using all that oil,” she said. “(The mayonnaise) keeps the inside of the eggplant moist.”
To order “Family Favorites,” call Jolie Bourgeois at 282-2811. Supplies are limited. The cookbook, which costs $15, is available for pick-up in the school office, 6600 Spanish Fort Blvd.