Sunday, September 13, 2009

It's All About the Roux!

Cajun, Creole and Louisiana French Cooking

I can credit my ex-husband for an introduction to Cajun, Creole and Louisiana French cooking. And once again, it all came down to a great cookbook.

I got the cookbook The New Orleans Cookbook by Rima and Richard Collin in the early 80’s as a birthday gift from him. I never quite understood the passion for Cajun food until I started making it. Having mastered all 278 recipes in this book with the exception of Squirrel Sauce Piquante, I can attest to the fact that every recipe is FANTASTIC – not just good but fantastic. How often does it happen that every recipe in the cookbook is great? This was a first for me and it has not happened since.

Cajun cook and humorist Justin Wilson first appeared on local TV in 1971 and would soon become the face of Cajun cuisine with his cooking shows, late-night TV appearances, and cookbooks. By 1982, I was watching Justin Wilson’s Louisiana Cooking show. Did any of you watch him? It was hysterical. I think it was one-of-a-kind on television at the time. I can remember watching him add a "cup" of wine to his recipe and almost emptying half of the bottle. The series was taped at Wilson's camp in southern Louisiana on the banks of the Tickfaw River. The emphasis was on Cajun cuisine with such specialties as gizzard gumbo, deep fried turkey, and crawfish jambalaya demonstrated together with Wilson's hilarious tales in his Cajun lingo. He was also a part of the huge influence that made me an excellent Cajun cook. I still laugh whenever I think about him.

In Louisiana cooking, locally available ingredients predominate and preparation is easy. Creole food blends French, Spanish, Canarian, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Deep Southern American, Indian, and African influences. Generally speaking, the French influence in Cajun cuisine is descended from French provincial cuisines of the peasantry, while Creole cuisine evolved in the homes of well-to-do aristocrats.

In Cajun and Creole cuisine, the roux has been raised to a new status never before qualified in other forms of cooking. Allowing for the variations in cooking time and fats or oils, the number of different roux possibilities are endless. The ratio is roughly 1:1, but I tend to use slightly more flour, more like 1-1/4 cups of flour to 1 cup of oil.

There are three basic types of roux: light ("blond"), medium ("peanut butter" colored), and dark. If you want to master great Louisiana cooking, you have to know how to make a roux. It’s what gives Louisiana food it’s really great flavor. I thought that I could take a shortcut but soon learned that there is no way of getting out of being strapped to the stove for an hour. Preparation of a roux is dependent on cooking time. A blond roux will take five minutes; a dark roux up to 20 or 25 minutes at high heat, or an hour at low heat. Roux must be stirred constantly to avoid burning. Continuously means not stopping to answer your cell phone and if you've got to go the bathroom, hold it or give your whisk to someone else. If you see black specks in your roux, you've burned it; throw it out and start over. Peanut oil works best for high-heat roux cooking.

Shrimp Creole and other fond memories

I have a great affection for one recipe in my cookbook and that is Shrimp Creole. I cooked it for 75 people when I worked for William’s Companies in Tulsa. It was a retirement party for a co-worker. He was the barge traffic manager and one of the barge companies, who happened to be headquartered in New Orleans, offered to provide all of the shrimp. Having lived in Tulsa for a number of years, it had been awhile since I had seen really great shrimp. Little did I know that Louisiana Gulf shrimp, fresh from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, was absolutely the very best shrimp that you can get.

The Shrimp Creole was a gigantic hit and also taught me that there was no difference between cooking for 6 people or cooking for 75…you just have to chop up more to throw into the pot, simple as that! Once it is in the pot, your work is done. Just put it on simmer and enjoy the time with your company.

Hurricane Katrina altered New Orleans forever but it did not change the soul or the culinary elements that makes New Orleans what it is – a leading city for culinary excellence. I have been to New Orleans both pre and post Katrina and it continues to remain a food mecca and it’s restaurants help catalyze New Orleans return.

Great New Orlean’s Restaurants

One of my favorite restaurants in New Orleans is Galatoire’s at 209 Bourbon Street. On its website, it says that it is a “fourth generation of family ownership and serves authentic French Creole cuisine at a level that raises consistency to an art form. Even after 100 years, ageless New Orleans favorites grace her menu just as they did in 1905”. I can confirm that it has simply some of the best cooking New Orleans has to offer. I find myself eating there many times when I am in the city.

Take a class at the New Orleans Cooking School, 524 St. Louis Street. Kevin Belton, after a long and checkered football career with the NFL, is the star chef. This larger than life chef, with no formal training taught us the finer points of Jambalaya, Shrimp Creole, Gumbo, Bread Pudding (it is to die for) and pralines. It runs a half a day and includes lunch. I thought I knew it all but learned that I was making my roux for gumbo way too light – peanut butter instead of dark. Again, this is the benefit of a cooking class. It teaches you all the tricks and shortcuts.

New Orleans – Chicago Style

One of my favorite Cajun restaurants in Chicago is Heaven on Seven. Jimmy Bannos, a third-generation restaurateur, worked with famous New Orleans chefs, such as Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul’s, Frank Brigtsen and Emeril Lagasse. Heaven on Seven restaurants have been one of the most popular destinations in Chicago for 29 years. Jimmy marries Latin, South American, Asian and Western European methods with New Orleans techniques and ingredients. Although I never enjoyed living in the South, I have always craved Jalapeno Corn Bread Muffins and Heaven on Seven makes some of the best along with their gumbo. For under $10.00 you can get a good fix of both. They also have a location at 600 N. Michigan Ave. I prefer the ambiance of the original kitchen.

Another great Cajun place is the Dixie Kitchen Evanston at 825 Church Street. From a cup of Jambalaya, Eggs Sardou, or a Shrimp Po' Boy, the food remains some of the excellent Cajun food in Chicago.

I am sure there are more Cajun restaurants in Chicago but I am stuck on these two and when I don’t cook at home, they are the two I go to on a regular basis. I believe that when you find great food, stick with it!

Cajun cooking at home:

My favorite dishes to cook at home are torn out of my cookbook and placed in the front flap. Not sure why I did that because I never have before. I think I saw someone do it in New Orleans and decided it must be the Cajun way.

The recipes that are at the front of my cookbook are: Shrimp Sauce Piquante (Shrimp Creole), Navy (White) Bean Soup and Chicken and Sausage File Gumbo. In addition, my recipes from the New Orleans Cooking School for Jambalaya and Bread Pudding also have a place of honor at the front of my book.

In my Gumbo, I use Creole smoked sausage, ham and chicken. I cut the calories by not eating the skin on the chicken and often using turkey sausage. When I get sick of eating healthy all the time, I am all for the Andouille. The vegetables in my gumbo include green pepper, scallions, parsley, garlic and onion. I put a lot of fresh spices in including pepper, cayenne, thyme, bay leave and file powder. I almost never vary from these ingredients because the gumbo always turns out incredible.

For great Shrimp Creole, I use the largest and freshest shrimp I can find. If you are going to go to the trouble of making this recipe, don’t skimp on the shrimp. The Italian tomatoes and a long list of fresh spices makes this recipe an all time favorite…not to mention the red wine and peanut butter color roux that flavors this dish. This remains my all time favorite recipe in this cookbook.

Onion, celery and green pepper – the holy trinity of Jambalaya. Someone at work made Jambalaya once and it tasted nothing like this recipe. The New Orleans Cooking School’s recipe is simply the freshest and best recipe that I have run across. This brings me to another conviction. If you have a great recipe and follow it, you will cook an excellent meal. After cooking awhile, you will learn to look at a recipe and know if it is exciting or just OK. Like anything, it takes a lot of practice and if you like to eat, even better!

To me, there is nothing better than bread pudding to close out a great Cajun meal. With day old bread, milk, sugar, butter and eggs, you can put in a variation of extras and top a whiskey or Carmel sauce and have a magnificent dessert. I love it because it is easy. It is definitely my comfort food on a cold, winter night in Chicago.

As they say in New Orleans - "Lache pas la patate" which means don’t drop the potato or don’t let go of what you got!

Stay Warm and Bon Appetite!