Ashton puts decadent N.O. touch on breakfast

Patrick Ashton wields a sauté pan with the assured touch of an expert chef. Early in the morning, before most people are awake, he’s busy in the kitchen preparing meals that can only be described as decadent.

He and his wife, Karma, own Ashton’s Bed and Breakfast on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans. One of their main objectives is to put smiles on the faces of guests as they head out to explore Louisiana attractions.

While some visitors prefer a light meal, most still want to experience the “real” taste of New Orleans beginning first thing in the day.

“My wife’s parents, Hiram and Claudine Mechling, acquired the house in 1989,” said Ashton. “We bought it from them in 1998.”

His day job was as a computer networking specialist for an architectural firm. After Sept. 11, 2001, occurred, he became a full-time B&B owner.

Since Karma Ashton, an experienced RN, works as nurse coordinator at Tulane Medical School’s Student Health Center, Patrick Ashton handles the B&B’s daily routine and serves as chief cook.

As a result, he has developed a talent for producing creative and memorable meals. His cooking skill comes from practice and love of New Orleans’ food culture.

Born in New Orleans, Ashton was the youngest of six children. Neither of his parents were native New Orleanians, and meals at home were simple. It wasn’t until he was older and started eating at local restaurants that he learned that in New Orleans there was a whole culture around food.

“I attribute my fascination with cooking to the local TV scene,” he said. “There was a show called the ‘Great Chefs of New Orleans.’ The show was the first time that television went into a restaurant and showed how a restaurant chef worked. Seeing how a chef did his job in a restaurant fascinated me, and it spawned my interest.”

Ashton said breakfast is overlooked as an important meal in much of the country, but not in New Orleans. He readily admits that some dishes he cooks are versions of popular meals people like when dining in local restaurants. Like most good cooks, he enjoys taking a familiar dish and adding his own special twist. He likes to use locally produced ingredients and products whenever possible. He said they lend a definite touch of Southern authenticity to meals.

Ashton prepares several versions of poached egg dishes. One of his favorite recipes is Creole eggs and grits. He places the poached eggs in flaky puff-pastry shells and tops each shell with Creole sauce made with his own seasoning blend. They are served with stone- ground grits topped with parsley and green onion.

Guests praise his sweet potato French toast with pecan honey butter. A luscious sweet potato filling, made with cream cheese, cane syrup, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg, is sandwiched between bread slices. The bread is grilled until browned, then topped with pecan honey butter.

The discovery of one unique culinary treat came as a surprise. One day, while getting over congestion, Ashton was preparing sauce for his bananas Foster waffles. He took some antihistamine and wasn’t feeling up to par, so he quickly grabbed a jar of cinnamon to add to the sauce.

“I was surprised when the guests said the sauce was really unusual and had some ‘zing’ to the taste; they liked it. So, I went back to the kitchen and found I had picked up a jar of cayenne pepper, adding it by accident,” he said.

After some experimentation, he decided to use locally distilled Old New Orleans Cajun Spice rum in the sauce.

“The spice in the rum has some pepper in it, and it gives a special flavor to the sauce,” he said.

Watching Ashton flambé the bananas Foster is major entertainment in itself. Once the rum is added to the sautéed bananas, he carefully tips the pan toward the gas flame to ignite the rum.

To get an additional dramatic flame, he adds a dash of cinnamon at the last second.

“There’s a reason for doing a flambé,” Ashton said. “First, it burns off more alcohol. Second, it adds extra heat, and it caramelizes the sugar more evenly. There’s purpose for the flambé; it’s not just for show.”

Ashton garnishes his plates with fresh fruit in season and adds several slices of applewood smoked bacon.

“I like my bacon crisp, but not too crispy,” he said. “When I’m cooking for 16 people, I bake my bacon in the oven. I place it on parchment paper and bake it at a low temperature. You always know when it’s ready. You can smell it.”

“I always ask people if they have any special dietary needs,” Ashton said. “We have a lot of requests for low carb, low fat, gluten free, vegetarian and even totally vegan, which is a challenge.”

For one guest, he created a vegan poached egg dish.

“I made the egg white from silken tofu and the yoke with vegenaise, vinegar and turmeric to make it yellow,” he explained. “I always like to serve (the special request guests) something that looks like what all the others are getting,” he said. “It’s the fun part of being creative.”