Sunday, January 3, 2010

How I Make Cajun

There's not too many things that make my mouth water like the spicy, rustic, bold flavors of real Louisiana cooking. I remember watching Justin Wilson's Louisiana Cooking show on public television when I was a kid, marveling at how this old country boy could throw together these amazing meals, all topped off by a little Beaujolais. He would say things in this Louisiana accent that was almost impossible to understand. I would marvel at his complete disregard for proper sentences, his butchering of the English language. The the ol' boy could cook. "Now what I got to did is take these heeah shrimps....put a little of that in theahh, and Whoooooohhhh....." Of course my mother would never dare try to cook dishes like these. Cayenne pepper might as well have been moon dust as to the likelihood of either being found in her kitchen.

Cajun cuisine, like any other regional fare, is based around what is available in the area, with an obvious emphasis towards seafood found around the gulf. This area has also given us the delight of Andouille sausage, a spicy treat that can stand alone or be incorporated into any of a thousand different dishes. Obviously chicken can easily be incorporated into good cajun items, as well. One of my favorite go-to Cajun meals that I have learned to make well is my riff on a Louisiana staple, Etouffee.

Not knowing much about the specifics of etouffee, all anyone really needs to know to make a good Cajun meal is just a couple of things. First: The Trinity. One of the building blocks of French cuisine is a mirepoix (carrot, onion, celery). Arcadiana cooking ot it's beginnings from French influences, and The Trinity is Cajun's mirepoix, consisting of onion, celery, and bell pepper. Whether it's gumbo, etouffee, or just about anything else, you'll recognize the Trinity is in there.

The second big thing for Cajun cooking: the roux. The base of etouffee starts here, with the combination of slow-cooking butter with flour, always stirring, never walking away from it, never letting it burn. I like to cook the roux till it's a rich chocolate color, even though I sacrifice the thickening power of a lesser-roasted roux. The magic that happens over this 20-minute process, the transformation of two ingredients into the backbone of the entire meal, this is the essence of the dish.

Once the roux is ready, I throw the Trinity into the pot, always stirring. After the vegetables have softened a little, usually around 5 minutes, then the garlic goes in (the real stuff, never from one of those me, it's worth it).

At this point I add a bottle of dark beer, whatever I have on hand, but it's important that it it is a darker beer, to stand up and add to the richness of flavor. I let it thicken up some more with lots of stirring.

Next I add a quart of chicken stock (more on making stock in a later post sometime). Also thrown in at this time are some Worchestershire sauce, hot sauce, and a couple teaspoons of brown sugar. Once it comes to a boil, the diced cooked chicken gets thrown in the pool. I reduce it down to a simmer.

After letting the pot simmer for about an hour or so uncovered (stirring about every 10 minutes) I add some andouille sausage (from Mullholland's Grocery in Malvern, IA, of course....amazing stuff!). You don't want all of the fat and flavors of the andoullie to leach out. You still want it to taste like the ingtredient it is, so hold off on putting it in until it still has about a half hour to simmer.

Once the etouffee gets to the thickness & consistency I'm looking for, it gets poured over a bed of white rice (made with more chicken stock...Why not flavor your rice a little?).

Especially during the Winter months, this dish is just as satisfying & warming to me as my favorite chili or soup recipe. It hits the spot every damn time. The beautiful thing about it is that you can riff on this endlessly, using ham, whole chicken, even pork or (Gasp!) SPAM.


Trevor said...

What is your flour to butter ratio for the roux? I made this dish yesterday and my roux was too thick (was fine later once all the liquid was added).

Dixon said...

Try 3/4 cup flour to 1 stick of butter.