Cook Like a Cajun
ALLONS MANGER! (Let's eat!)
I come from a long line of good cooks and I take pride in producing tasty meals for my family. Our children have all moved out of the house, but most live nearby. It's not unusual to have a big family gathering in our home at least three Sundays out of the month, and sometimes a couple of nights during the week.
As I get older, I find I don't enjoy coming in from the office in the afternoons and having to throw a quick meal together. It's much more satisfying to spend all day preparing a big meal.
FIRST YOU MAKE A ROUX
Making a roux is the first step to several good Cajun recipes. You can cheat and go buy it from a jar if you live around Louisiana and Southeast Texas, but most places won't have access to canned or jarred roux. I made my own roux for years then went through a lazy period when I only bought it in a jar for about 10 years. One day I decided to make my own to keep from slapping on make-up to get to the grocery store. As a result, I realized I'd been cheating myself and my family out of the good stuff. Home made roux simply makes the meal better and it's so easy to make.
You start off with equal parts of any good vegetable oil and all purpose flour. Keep in mind that if you use a tablespoon of oil, use a heaping spoon of flour. Stir it up in a good quality heavy bottomed pot, stirring steadily over a medium-high heat until it browns. I like mine dark, the color of chocolate fudge. Depending on the amount you're making, it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour for this to happen. Now, I've found a much quicker way to do this without sacrificing the quality of the roux...I use the microwave. I pour the oil and flour in a microwave proof bowl and stir it up until it's well mixed. The mixture should be like a thick cake or brownie batter. I place it in the microwave on high for 2 minutes to start. Take it out and stir...put it back for another two minutes or so. Remove and stir. When it begins to brown, reduce the time to 1 minute between stirrings, then 30 second increments.
Of course, if you're making a large roux for a huge pot of gumbo as compared to a smaller amount, it may take a lot longer. Your roux will thicken and darken, looking like a bowl of chocolate fudge. If you find it too thin, you can add a little more flour at any time during the cooking process. Too thick...add a little oil. I'm not the type to measure things when I cook, so you'll have to bear with me when it comes to that. Roux is the base for many good Cajun recipes, so if you can perfect this first step, you'll be ahead of the game.
Here in Cajun country, we have what we call the Holy Trinity of seasoning vegetables. This consists of onions, celery, and bell pepper. Most Cajun cooks don't start without them. Some people like to buy these chopped and frozen, but I think fresh is best. I also use fresh parsley, onion tops, and garlic. Something else you'll need is file´(fee-lay), which is simply dried Sassafras leaves crushed to a fine powder...that's it! We find it in the seasoning sections of the grocery store. File´ (Fee-lay) thickens and adds a unique flavor to any gumbo. Some people add it individually to bowls, and some add it to the pot, as I do. Some people leave it out completely. It's a personal preference.
SPICE IT UP
I generally use salt and black or red pepper, with the addition of packaged spices that are available to us here in our area. We have several brands such as Tony Chachere's and Zatarain's Creole Seasonings, as well as Champagne's Cajun Seasoning, Slap Ya Mama Cajun Seasoning, a very good blend developed in Ville Platte, Louisiana. My personal favorite brand is Who's Ya Daddy? Cajun Seasoning. The owner is from nearby Lake Charles, Louisiana but it's packaged in Opelousas, La. It's the absolute perfect blend of spices to compliment all my meals...a great lower sodium substitution.
Well, there you have it...The basics for Cajun Cooking! Roux, the holy trinity of onions, celery and bell pepper, other fresh seasonings, file´, and spices. If you have these, you're off to a good start.
CAJUN VS. CREOLE
My personal pet peeve is to go to a restaurant where they serve up a gumbo with chunks of tomatoes in it. (Cringe!) Although Creole cooking uses alot of tomato based recipes (usually found east of Baton Rouge and in the New Orleans area) WE down here in south central and southwest Louisiana do not rely on it as heavily. Creole and Cajun cooking are two completely different animals.
Shrimp or Crawfish Fettucini
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup finely chopped celery
2 cloves garlic sliced thinly
1 cup sliced mushrooms (may use canned, but fresh is best)
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1/4 cup milk
1 pound of raw shrimp, peeled and deveined or 1 pound of cleaned crawfish tails
12 ounce bag of shredded cheese - divided (I use the 4 cheese Italian blend but you can also use cubed Velveeta or any cheese of your preference, but you'll need shredded cheese to top the casserole)
12 ounces of any type of pasta you want (I use fettucini or the narrow egg noodles)
1/2 stick butter
Instructions: Start noodles boiling according to package directions. Saute mushrooms, onions, garlic, and celery in butter on medium fire until vegetables are wilted. Add shrimp or crawfish and simmer until done, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Stir in the canned soup and milk, then add the cheese of your preference and stir until it is melted through. Taste the mixture at this point and add any seasonings of your choice. I usually use black pepper and a low salt seasoning. Pour in the cooked, drained noodles and stir through. Pour all into a casserole dish, sprinkle with remainder of shredded cheese. Bake uncovered in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.
Serve with: Fresh green salad and crispy cheese bread. (1 loaf of french bread, split in half, butter both sides, sprinkle with shredded cheese. Place on top rack of oven the last fifteen minutes the casserole is baking.)
Crawfish Etouffe´(Etufe...Eh too fay - A french word meaning smothered)
1 pound cleaned crawfish tails (shrimp may also be used if crawfish aren't in season)
1 cup EACH of finely chopped onions, celery, and bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped onion tops
1 clove garlic chopped or sliced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 heaping tsps. cornstarch
1/2 stick butter
Saute onions, celery, bell pepper, and garlic in butter on low heat until vegetables are cooked through and through. Add crawfish (or shrimp) and simmer until cooked. Add seasoning to taste...salt, pepper, Slap Ya Mama, Tony Chacere's, Season All, etc. (Your preference)
Hint: Sometimes I add a CAP full (NOT to be confused with a cup full) of liquid seafood boil seasoning in lieu of pepper. Hubby doesn't care for the taste but I love it. Once it's seasoned, dissolve corn starch in small amount of cold water and add it to the pot. This will slightly thicken the mixture without changing the flavor at all. If you want it thicker, add a little more.
Serve over a heaping spoonful of hot, cooked rice.
Accompany with vegetable of your choice. I usually serve it with green beans, salad, or cole slaw.
Hearty Vegetable Beef Soup
Does anyone really need a recipe for this? I don't think any two people make this the same and it's not classified as Cajun so much as good old 'Comfort Food' whether you live down south or up north.
Any type of lean beef...or pork...or chicken...cut up into small chunks. Brown in bottom of heavy pot. Add salt, seasoning to taste, chopped celery, onions, diced or stewed tomatoes, cubed potatoes (peeled or not - your preference), whole kernel corn, (canned or frozen), fresh sliced mushrooms, and cabbage. Add enough water to cover and simmer until beef is tenderized. This may take awhile, depending on the cut of beef. Some people like to add tomato sauce, but I'd prefer the stewed tomatoes. This is so yummy on a cold, wet winter day with crackers. You can also add some type of egg noodles or small shell macaroni to this during last thirty minutes of cooking. Throw in some alphabet pasta for the kiddos. You may even be able to sneak by a veggie or two if you do.
Quick and Easy Okra and Tomato (with Smothered Chicken)
Season any cut of chicken and brown the pieces in a heavy pot (is there any other kind?) ; )
When chicken is cooked, remove from pot. Add chopped okra (fresh or frozen), chopped onion, chopped bell pepper, one or two cans of Rotel tomatoes. and seasoning to taste. Cook down until onions are translucent. Add chicken back to pot and stir through. I cover it and simmer it on a low fire, but stir often so the okra doesn't stick. It will take another 10 minutes or so until flavor of chicken has mixed well with the okra. This is so quick and easy, especially if you have left over chicken like I did. I served it with black eyed peas and a link of fresh sausage (unsmoked) that I browned until cooked through.
I've cooked a vegetarian version of this recipe, using Imitation bacon bits instead of the chicken. I also add a little liquid smoke to boost the flavor.
Mardi Gras King Cake
If you live in Louisiana, you know about the custom of the King Cake. There are many different recipes out there and I'm sure if anyone wants to try their hand at it, you could find one easily enough online. As for myself, I find it way entirely too easy to go to the nearby Market Basket to pick up one with my favorite filling...strawberry and cream cheese. If you've never had one, picture a giant cinamon roll. Now imagine that it's also brimming with a yummy creamy filling and/or any kind of fruit, or any of dozens of combinations of fillings. Picture it covered with thick white icing, and drizzled with icing in the three colors of Mardi Gras...Purple, Gold, and Green.
Do you have a good mental image of that? Now...imagine yourself taking a bite and beginning to savor the delicious flavors, until your tongue wraps around the form of a tiny plastic baby. You take it out of your mouth and set it to the side, growling because you know the next round is on you. You see, traditionally, the one who finds the baby that's been hidden inside the cake has to buy the next king cake for the office, meeting, family gathering, etc.
King cakes are supposed to symbolize the Magi's search for the baby Jesus. This is a tradition that has been around other areas of the world and Louisiana, such as New Orleans, longer than my area of the state. Maybe it's because I grew up in a town too small for it's own bakery, but I didn't see the popularity of king cakes for Mardi Gras until the last 20 or 25 years. My husband grew up in a town about an hour from mine and he agrees with me. As the addition of larger grocery chains with bakeries, such as Market Baskets, the availability is more widespread. They usually sell anywhere between to $12.00 to $25.00, and more for gourmet cakes. These can usually be ordered from well known bakeries, such as world famous Gambino's in New Orleans.
Whenever it began, I'm glad it's here now. They are a delicious treat for the two months between Twelfth night (The twelfth night after Christmas) and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) which marks the last day before the beginning of Lent leading to Easter Sunday.
Can you see the head of the baby peeking out of the slice on the left?
I tried my hand at making my own king cakes on Superbowl Sunday. Not too bad!
Shrimp and Sausage gumbo (served with rice and a baked sweet potato)
Recipe to follow later.
Start by putting a pot of rice cooking. If I'm using fully smoked sausage, I put it in a pat and cover it with water. I'll boil it for thirty minutes or so to get the excess grease out of it, then remove it from pan and slice in small to medium pieces. While sausage is cooking, place the roux in the bottom of the pot with enough water to dissolve it on a low fire. For a small gumbo, I'd used about a cup of roux, for a larger, no less than two. (This is subjective, according to your preference for thick or thin gumbo.)
After roux is fully dissolved, add chopped onions, celery, bell pepper, and parsley. Add sausage and seasonings to taste. When veggies and sausage are fully cooked, add one to two pounds of peeled, de-veined, and fully cleaned shrimp. It won't take long for the shrimp to cook. This is the point where I like to do my own thing by cracking eggs into the simmering pot of gumbo. (Yes, eggs...don't knock it until you've tried it!) I'm inserting pictures here for your benefit.
Shrimp and Crab Stuffed Avocados
Went to Landry's Seafood east of Lafayette the other day and had to try the Crab Stuffed Avocado Appetizer. It's not always offered, think it's a chef specialty...but I lucked out that day. They had avocados. Loved it so much, I decided to try my hand at it. After hours of searching the internet, I finally gave up on finding a recipe and came up with my own, adding chopped up shrimp to the crab. Didn't write anything down, but they missed the mark anyway. Next time, I'll add more crab, less bread crumbs, more cheese, and make sure I buy the plain panko bread crumbs to roll them in before frying. The process is fairly simple.
Ingredients: crab meat (and shrimp, if you'd like), bread crumbs, shredded cheese of choice, an egg or two, chopped artichokes (don't know if Landry's used this or not), and seasonings (I used about a tablespoon of minced onion and Who's Your Daddy to season)
Mix until it's thick and pasty. Cut the avocado in half, removing seed and shell so that you have two halves. Fill the well where the seed was with the mixture. I completely covered the avocado on all sides until I had these oval shaped patties. I put them in the freezer for about 30 minutes, to make them easier to handle. Pass them through an egg wash (egg whisked with a little water) then pass in panko bread crumbs. Don't do like I did and buy the Panko crumbs for baking by mistake--it made it kind of tough. Fry in heated oil until golden brown.
Like I said, mine were a little dry, so I served them with sauce from a shrimp etouffe I'd made. Turned out to be just what it needed. If anybody finds an actual recipe out there, please let me know where to find it! Until then, when I perfect my own recipe, I'll post it.