In a Cajun Kitchen: Authentic Cajun Recipes and Stories from a Family Farm on the Bayouby Terri Pischoff Wuerthner
When most people think of Cajun cooking, they think of blackened redfish or, maybe, gumbo. When Terri Pischoff Wuerthner thinks of Cajun cooking, she thinks about Great-Grandfather Theodore's picnics on Lake Carenton, children gathering crawfish fresh from the bayou for supper, and Grandma Olympe's fricassee of beef, because Terri Pischoff Wuerthner is descended… See more details below
When most people think of Cajun cooking, they think of blackened redfish or, maybe, gumbo. When Terri Pischoff Wuerthner thinks of Cajun cooking, she thinks about Great-Grandfather Theodore's picnics on Lake Carenton, children gathering crawfish fresh from the bayou for supper, and Grandma Olympe's fricassee of beef, because Terri Pischoff Wuerthner is descended from an old Cajun family. Through a seamless blend of storytelling and recipes to live by, Wuerthner's In a Cajun Kitchen will remind people of the true flavors of Cajun cooking.
When her ancestors settled in Louisiana around 1760, her family grew into a memorable clan that understood the pleasures of the table and the bounty of the Louisiana forests, fields, and waters. Wuerthner spices her gumbo with memories of Cajun community dances, wild-duck hunts, and parties at the family farm. From the Civil War to today, Wuerthner brings her California-born Cajun family together to cook and share jambalaya, crawfish étoufée, shrimp boil, and more, while they cook, laugh, eat, and carry on the legacy of Louis Noel Labauve, one of the first French settlers in Acadia in the 1600s.
Along with the memories, In a Cajun Kitchen presents readers with a treasure trove of authentic Cajun recipes: roasted pork mufaletta sandwiches, creamy crab casserole, breakfast cornbread with sausage and apples, gumbo, shrimp fritters, black-eyed pea and andouille bake, coconut pralines, pecan pie, and much more. In a Cajun Kitchen is a great work of culinary history, destined to be an American cookbook classic that home cooks will cherish.
“Terri Pischoff Wuerther’s In a Cajun Kitchen is the real thing---true Cajun cooking. This is an incredible experience spending time with an old Cajun family. You will treasure the stories and love the recipes!” Shirley O. Corriher, author of CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed
“In a Cajun Kitchen rings with the authenticity of food and memory shared across time and place and is destined to become a classic food memoir. Terri Pischoff Wuerthner brings us into her family’s Cajun kitchen not only with love, but with a keen cook’s eye for the details that make old family recipes work in the modern kitchen. I cooked grits for the first time following Terri’s recipe for Cheesy Grits and they are now a stand-by in my kitchen. She is a cook you can trust and a storyteller you can revel in.” Georgeanne Brennan, Author of The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence
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Read an Excerpt
In a Cajun Kitchen
Roux, page 14
Everyday Seasoning Salt, page 16
Rice, page 17
Seasoning Blend for Beef and Game, page 18
Seasoning Blend for Pork and Lamb, page 19
Seasoning Blend for Poultry, page 20
Seasoning Blend for Seafood, page 21
Spicy Seasoning Salt, page 22
A Love Affair with Food
Cajun Country is the southwest section of Louisiana, unique unto itself. The northern part of the state is considered to belong to the large region considered the American South and has much in common with the adjacent states of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas. Southwest Louisiana, on the other hand, is not thought of as being part of "the South," but geographically below it.
Acadiana, a combination of the words Acadia and Louisiana, is an area comprising twenty-two parishes (counties) in Southwest Louisiana. This area is predominately populated by Cajun people who are, technically, descendents of the Acadians expelled from Acadia, now known as Nova Scotia, in 1755. While their new home in Acadiana was familiar in terms of being an agrarian setting already populated by Catholic, French-speaking people, the Cajuns had to adjust to the unknown terrain of swamps, bayous, and prairies that presented exotic forms of meat, game, fish, produce, and grains.
The Cajuns applied their French cooking techniques to these new ingredients, with a result that is recognized and respected as one of the great regional cuisines of America, as well as one of the world's most unique cuisines. There are versions of Cajun dishes on restaurant menus across the country, from upscale to hip and trendy to fast-food establishments. Unfortunately, many of these restaurants misrepresent Cajun food by using their standard menu items and carelessly overspicing them, making the food unbearably hot, then calling it "Cajun." Cajun food and culture has little to do with the mass media hype of the past twenty years that presents Cajun cookery as fiery hot, and Cajun people as hot-pepper-eating, beer-swilling caricatures of themselves. Pepper and spices are merely one element of Cajun cookery, and not the most important one at that.
Cajuns in Southwest Louisiana have steadfastly adhered to the preservation of their habits, traditions, and beliefs in terms of lifestyle, language, and cooking. They became noticed by society during the oil boom, which brought many outlanders (non-Cajuns) into the area. These new residents began to discover the food-oriented, talented Cajun cooks whose lives and socializing revolve, to a large extent, around the preparation, sharing, and enjoyment of food. The word began to spread.
Cajun vs. Creole
Although Cajuns are descendents of French Acadians who were expelled from Acadia in1755, many people were brought directly from France to South Louisiana when the Spanish were trying to populate the area. My seventh great-grandfather, Louis Noël Labauve, was one of the first settlers in Acadia, yet another branch of the Labauve family came directly from France and settled in the prairie area of South Louisiana. Many Acadiana residents whose ancestors were not from Acadia consider themselves to be Cajuns because they have lived in Cajun Country and followed a Cajun lifestyle for generations.
Whether technically Cajun or not, Cajun homes and kitchens are always open--open and ready to stretch the jambalaya by adding more rice, sausage or, perhaps, leftover meat from the previous night. It would be unfathomable for me not to offer food, or at least a beverage and snack, to anyone visiting our home. Southern hospitality is a way of life, not just an expression. My Cajun father carried this further than my mother would have liked, inviting anyone and everyone who stopped by our house from late afternoon on to have dinner with us. He greeted the men picking up the weekly garbage with a cup of coffee, and several of our friends in high school knew that the best time to come over was about six P.M. One of my brother's friends had dinner with us almost every Friday night all through high school, after realizing that if Grandpa Pischoff wasn't cooking Cajun food that night, Mom would be frying shrimp or catfish. This hospitality is typical of Cajun people.
The Cajun method of cooking had European origins, but had to be tailored to the foods in Louisiana. Like their Acadian ancestors, these French folks starting a new life accepted the challenge of the natural and abundant food resources available in their new homeland. The Cajun love of food and instinct for preparing it superbly gave birth to a new cuisine from the bounty of the water (crawfish, shrimp, crab, turtle, frog, catfish, trout, flounder, and alligator); sky (duck, pigeon, dove, grouse, turkey, and quail); land (beef, pork, possum, rabbit, raccoon, squirrel, and deer); and earth (okra, green onions, sweet bell peppers, greens, berries, beans, pumpkin, squash, watermelon, cherries, peaches, Muscadine grapes, pecans, rice, sweet potatoes, and corn).
Cajun food is the robust food of country people, not developed by chefs but by talented cooks who took the time to work out recipes that adapted their knowledge of cooking to the local ingredients. The food is always well seasoned and sometimes, but not necessarily, spicy. It is simple food, usually with roux as the base for savory dishes, and without the refinement of delicate butter or cream-enriched sauces.
The majority of Cajun dishes are one-pot meals, cooked for a long time until rich, thick gravies are naturally formed by the merging of the vegetables with the juices in the dish. While this merging of ingredients imparts a wonderful flavor and texture, the original reason for the slow cooking is that the housewife had to put dinner on to cook and leave it unsupervised while she was attending to the children, garden, livestock, weaving, soap making, and her many other duties.
What Is Cajun Cooking?
Cajun cooking has flavors that are intense but not necessarily hot. It uses ingredients that are readily available to most people (although substitutions may be necessary in the case of game and some shellfish).
A simplified description of any Cajun dish based on roux is to make the roux, add the holy trinity and cook for a few minutes, add the main ingredients and seasonings and cook for a few minutes, then add the liquid and cook for a long time over low heat. For a seafood dish, the fish is added at the end of the cooking process so it is not overcooked.
The holy trinity of Cajun cooking (the combination of onion, celery, and bell pepper) will be found in almost all savory Cajun dishes, sometimes accompanied by fresh garlic or garlic powder, and often finished with sliced green onions and chopped fresh parsley sprinkled on top of the dish just before serving.
Gumbo usually starts with a roux, and since the African word for gumbo is okra, it generally contains okra (though some Cajuns will argue this point). We always had filé powder at the table when we were having gumbo; as heat will make the filé stringy, it is added to individual servings just before eating. Roux, okra, and filé are all thickeners as well as flavoring elements.
Traditional, long-cooked Cajun dishes cannot be found on the grocer's shelf and are not usually seen on restaurant menus outside of Louisiana. Some Cajuns insist that the only real Cajun cooking is found in a Cajun home.
Garlic powder and onion powder are used in batters and on the outside of foods to be fried, as fresh chopped onions or garlic would burn at the high temperature needed for frying.
Stocks are dark and highly flavored.
Meats are seasoned before cooking.
In the past, flour was used mainly for roux and for occasional desserts or French bread, as wheat doesn't grow well in South Louisiana and wheat flour was therefore imported. Corn was the main grain for bread and cereal and is used in many delicious, inventive ways, including Lemon Cornmeal Pie, both savory and sweet Hush Puppies, Bacon Cornmeal Cakes, Coush-Coush, Breakfast Cornbread with Sausage and Apples, and Cornbread-Andouille Dressing. All these recipes are in this book.
Francis Bodin, a lifelong neighbor of our Louisiana family and of Home Place, told me that hot pepper sauce is an important seasoning in that area of South Louisiana, and each family has their own secret recipe, which they don't usually share. He did reveal that his family makes their hot pepper sauce with vinegar, salt, and chiles; the chiles could be just one type, or several chiles mixed together. This is actually a homemade version of the Tabasco sauce that has been made on Avery Island by the McIlhenny family since 1868.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts aren't ordinarily used in traditional Cajun cooking, as dark meat and meat on the bones are more flavorful. Stews and soups are almost always cooked with a cut-up chicken, leaving the bones in and skin on. My dad did sometimes cook with boneless, skinless chicken breasts. A few persnickety kids (not me!) didn't like the skin and bones floating in their gumbo orstew, so dad would make two batches of whatever dish he was preparing: one for the fussy kids using the white meat, and one with the legs, thighs, and wings for the "real Cajun gumbo or stew." What Cajuns want from their food is flavor, and if that means loose skin and bones in a soup or stew, it isn't even an issue--flavor won't be sacrificed for convenience or aesthetics.
Green onions and parsley are usually sprinkled on, or stirred into, savory dishes just before serving. We have always used curly parsley, although flat-leaf parsley is currently in favor, as some people feel it has more flavor. I don't agree. To me, curly parsley has more flavor and a better texture than the flat-leaf (Italian) variety. I don't remember my grandparents or Dad ever using flat-leaf parsley.
Cajuns don't worry if the sauce slathered on food is messy, or if the crab in the soup is unshelled. They have no problem with removing shells from prawns or crawfish at the table, or eating fried chicken with their fingers. Food is meant to be savored, and if the best way to enjoy something is to cook it in the shell or on the bone, then bring it to the table that way and use your fingers to eat it.
Cajuns are very thrifty people. Leftover bread becomes bread pudding or dressing; extra rice is used with gumbo or jambalaya, or made into rice pudding; vegetable scraps and poultry, meat, or fish carcasses give flavor to stock; and fat from pork, chicken, and duck is rendered and saved to be used in a variety of ways. Even leftover coffee is used in gravy, barbecue sauce, or bread. (See Sources, page 267, for how to order Crazy Charley's Barbecue Sauce--the best I've ever tasted, a century-old recipe developed so the leftover coffee wouldn't be thrown out.)
Shortcuts are rare in traditional Cajun cookery, since long cooking gives the dishes their characteristic flavor. Meats and vegetables are usually cooked until the vegetables begin to break down and form their own thick base. A light roux takes at least ten minutes, and a dark roux takes at least thirty minutes, and up to an hour, depending on the thickness of the pan used and the heat under it--rushing it simply will not give the same result.
A Cajun meal usually has a main dish, rice (or cornbread), and whatever vegetable is in season.
As the recipes in this book are authentic, lard and salt pork are sometimes used. The reader may substitute oil, and the recipe will still work and be delicious, though not quite the same. Some people who are watching their diets feel it's better to have a small portion of the "real thing" rather than compromise the recipe. A small portion of something wonderful may be more satisfying than a large portion of a reduced fat or reduced sugar version of the same dish.
There are three types of Cajun cooking as I see it: traditional (as in this book); shortcut Cajun cooking that came about when prepared foods such as canned soups and sauces and roux in a jar became readily available; and contemporary celebrity chef recipes that are creative and wonderful butare not necessarily the traditional recipes that are presented here.
The Cajuns are adaptive people who were spread out in different terrains from the beginning of their settling in Louisiana. Some lived near the Gulf and had access to a large assortment of fish, while others lived in the prairie areas and relied more on chicken, pork, beef, and wild animals such as squirrel, rabbit, and duck. So even among Cajun people, the dishes varied according to what was available. The people on the prairies had cattle, and were able to get milk and cream, and thus butter, while other areas didn't have an environment that was conducive to raising cattle, and milk wasn't used in their cookery. The Cajuns who had cows would enjoy cream and butter but did not necessarily extend the use of milk into making cheese, sour cream, or other dairy products. Milk wasn't incorporated into soups, chowders, or sauces, and a glass of milk was not a common drink. Dad always enjoyed a glass of buttermilk but continued to be disappointed that the commercially produced buttermilk didn't compare to the liquid that was left after he used to churn the butter.
In Cajun cooking, most dishes that are not desserts or baked items have two distinct elements: 1) you make a roux, and 2) you add the holy trinity of celery, onion, and bell pepper (and sometimes garlic). It is important in this style of preparing food that the flavor of the main ingredient predominate. No single seasoning should stand out, but all elements should enhance the dish as a whole. While chiles are sometimes used, they are intended to bring out the goodness of the other ingredients, never to overpower a dish with heat.
The belief that Cajun food is always hot is unfortunate, as it deters many people from enjoying one of the world's most flavorful cuisines. A recipe cannot become Cajun by being sprinkled with peppery spices, or with mild spices, or "Cajun blend" spices, for that matter.
Traditional Cajun cooking uses ground red cayenne, black and white pepper, and chiles as its main sources of heat, with hot pepper sauce added when vinegar is a desired element. We always had black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, and Tabasco sauce on the table and at the stove. They were the source of spiciness.
Another misconception is that blackened food is Cajun food. The high-heat frying of food that is coated with spices, when properly cooked, produces a wonderful tender interior with a beautiful dark, crispy crust. However, it is not a traditional Cajun dish.This process requires specific techniques that are often not adhered to by chefs in restaurants, who are harried or untrained in blackening food. This results in an overcooked or even burnt product that, like the overspicing, gives Cajun food a bad name.
Cajuns season their savory dishes more with vegetables than with herbs and spices, almost always using the holy trinity. Green bell pepper, celery, parsley, green onions, onions, and garlic are found in most savory dishes, along with salt and pepper, cayenne pepper, and perhaps thyme and bay leaves. Cajuns love to stuff vegetables and other foods--roasts with seasoned slivers of garlic;stuffed eggplant, bell peppers, mirliton, and tomatoes; stuffed crabs; even crawfish-stuffed crawfish heads.
Cajuns used to rely on the environment for their food the way people now rely on their local market for food. Yet, even with reliance on markets in this busy and changing culture, Cajun people are still very much connected to the land. Hunting and fishing were, and still are, an important part of Cajun culture and life, and most Cajun men regularly hunt for wild game and poultry, and fish for freshwater fish as well as gathering their own crawfish, crabs, and shrimp. Early in the twentieth century, my Cajun relatives in Louisiana sometimes purchased canned tomato juice, wheat flour, lard, coffee beans, and dried shrimp from the store, and occasionally, canned cherries, evaporated milk, cocoa powder, and flavored gelatin for special desserts. I don't see evidence of any other purchased items from the recipes that have been handed down to me; everything else they grew, raised, gathered, or hunted.
What's in a Cajun Pantry?
The Cajun pantry contains surprisingly few things that are not found in everyone's pantry. I realized this several years ago when I was at a writers' colony that is equipped with a kitchen, so that food writers can test the recipes that are an integral part of their work. I was preparing to test several recipes and began to make out my shopping list:
Salt, black pepper, oil, lard, rice, and flour were in the cupboard, and it quickly became apparent that the remainder of what I needed consisted of a large amount of only a few items:
Onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic, green onions, parsley, bay leaves, thyme, stock, cayenne pepper, chicken for Chicken Fricassee.
Green onions, parsley, thyme, bay leaves stock, white pepper, crawfish, for Crawfish Stew.
Onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic, green onions, parsley, stock, thyme, tomato paste, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, ham, for Ham and Shrimp Jambalaya.
Garlic, bay leaves, thyme, black pepper, turnips, duck for Braised Duck.
Andouille Sausage: A flavorful dried, smoked pork sausage used more as a flavoring ingredient (in gumbo, jambalaya, etc.) than by itself, although sliced andouille makes a good appetizer or snack. Substitute any spicy smoked sausage (see Sources, page 267). Can keep in freezer.
Beans: dried red beans and white beans are staples in a Cajun kitchen, along with a few cans of beans for emergencies. We also always have black-eyed peas.
Cane syrup is a dark, flavorful syrup made from sugarcane by Steen's, in Abbeville, Louisiana--sugarcane country. You can order Steen's syrup (see Sources, page267), but for something similar in a pinch, you may substitute 3 parts dark corn syrup to 1 part molasses.
Cornmeal is dried, ground corn that is available in white or yellow cornmeal, which are interchangeable, the only differences being the color and the fact that yellow cornmeal has a bit more flavor.
Dried shrimp are very much a part of our family cooking. Great-Uncle Adolphe ran a country store that always had a huge barrel full of large dried shrimp, so it figured in many of our dishes. (See Sources, page 267, for ordering from the same company my great-uncle ordered from in the 1930s, Blum & Bergeron.)
Corn oil for frying and roux (vegetable or peanut oil may also be used).
Butter, vegetable shortening, or lard for baked goods and desserts.
For those of you who scoff at using lard, please note that per tablespoon lard has less saturated fat than butter (5 g in lard; 7 g in butter); less cholesterol than butter (10 mg in lard; 30 mg in butter); less sodium than butter (0 mg in lard; 90 mg in butter). To present the whole picture, 1 tablespoon of lard has 20 more calories than butter and 2 grams more total fat--but lard is lower in saturated fat, which is the type of fat to avoid. Additionally, lard offers more flavor when frying, and fabulous texture in baked goods.
Flour: All-purpose white flour is the only type needed.
Grits are made from ground hominy, which is corn that has been dried, and from which the hull and germ have been removed, either mechanically or by soaking in lime or lye. The difference between cornmeal and grits is that cornmeal is finely ground and grits are coarsely ground. Instant grits are very finely ground and not recommended; quick grits are more coarsely ground than instant and are the only type available in many markets. With apologies to my southern cousins who prefer slow-cooking grits, the quick varieties are used in the dishes in this book to make the ingredients accessible to all readers. Old-fashioned grits and stone-ground grits are for the grits connoisseur. They take up to an hour to cook, as the germ of the corn has not been removed; they have more flavor and texture.
Herbs and spices, dried: basil, bay leaves, black pepper, celery seed, crushed red pepper, cumin, dried mustard, filé powder, garlic powder, onion powder, marjoram, oregano, paprika, poultry seasoning, cayenne (red) pepper, rosemary, salt, thyme, white pepper. (By using cumin, dried mustard, marjoram, poultry seasoning, and rosemary you can make all the seasoning blends at the end of this chapter, saving the cost of purchasing expensive seasoning blends at the market.)
Hot sauce: We've always used McIlhenny Tabasco sauce. Grandpa Pischoff used to go duck hunting with E. A. "Ned" McIlhenny (the great-uncle of Paul Macllhenny, the president and CEO of McIhenny Company). Perhaps that was why only McIlhenny Tabasco sauce made its way to our table, but I don't think Grandpa even knew there was another brand.
Mustard: Use a stone-ground mustard, Cajun or Creole preferred. Creole mustard has whole seeds that are marinated in wine before the mustard is made.
Oysters in a jar are acceptable substitutes when fresh, unshelled oysters aren't available. They are sold in the fresh seafood section of the market. Check the date, as oysters should be as fresh as possible. Small oysters are much preferred to medium or large oysters for cooking, as they don't have to be cut up. Your seafood vendor should be able to order fresh oysters in a jar, if they don't carry them.
Produce: In addition to produce items already mentioned, okra and corn freeze reasonably well, so when they are out of season, keep a supply in the freezer. Whole okra is better after freezing than sliced okra, and corn both on and off the cob is good to have around in case you get the urge for a crawfish or shrimp boil with corn on the cob.
Rice: Some Cajuns like long-grain rice, as the grains stay a bit more separate, but many use medium-grain rice. Short-grain rice is preferred by some for jambalaya as the grains are stickier, but I think short-grain rice makes a heavy jambalaya. Whichever you choose, keep lots of it on hand if you plan to cook Cajun--most Cajuns eat rice at least once a day.
Seafood boil for crab, shrimp, or crawfish comes packaged and is sold in the spice section of the market. You may also use the recipe for Shrimp Boil in this book (see page 130) and save money by making your own simple blend.
Shellfish: I beg the indulgence of those people residing in South Louisiana or on the Pacific, Atlantic, or Gulf coasts who are fortunate enough to have easy access to shellfish. I know y'all would never use frozen crab, shrimp, or crawfish, but many people around the country don't have access to your wonderful fresh seafood. So I offer the possibility of keeping frozen crabmeat, crawfish tail meat, and shrimp on hand (not the very small shrimp, though, as they always seem freezer burned). The key is to buy from a reputable source that carefully ships the shellfish--whether fresh or frozen--packed with ice (see Sources, page 267).
Crab: There are sources for crabmeat that is canned almost immediately after it is caught and, while it is not as good as fresh, it is very good quality. It's usually sold in 1-pound cans and has a refrigerator shelf life of several months. Blue crabs are the specialty of Louisiana and may be ordered.
Crawfish: Crawfish tail meat is packed in 1-pound bags for the freezer and includes the "butter" or fat that is an important part of the flavor. Whole crawfish, either live or frozen, are also available. I suggest avoiding crawfish from Asia, as the flavor is not the same as that from our own crawfish state, Louisiana.
Shrimp: Shrimp is readily available without special ordering from Louisiana. Shrimp is sold by the number per pound: 40/50 per pound; 21/30 per pound; 16/20 per pound, and so on. Prawn is a Yankee word and not used in Louisiana, where there are small shrimp, medium shrimp, and large shrimp.
Smoked ham is used as a flavoring ingredient as well as a supplemental ingredient in dishes such as jambalaya. It keeps a long time in the refrigerator, and you can keep it in the freezer if necessary, but the texture will suffer.
Stock (broth): If you don't make your own stocks (stock is sold as "broth" in the market), purchase good-quality canned or paste broth to have on hand. If you can't find low-sodium broth, use caution in adding salt to the dish until you taste it, as purchased broth can be very salty.
Tasso: Intensely flavored smoked pork (or sometimes beef), used as a seasoning. There is no close substitute, but smoked ham and increased seasonings in a recipe may be used for a similar result. Can keep in freezer.
Tomato paste: A concentrate used for thickening and flavoring.
Tomatoes: One of the few canned staples used in Cajun cooking. Out of season tomatoes don't have much flavor, so if you don't can your own tomatoes, a good-quality canned variety is preferable to the out-of-season "fresh" tomatoes sold in the market.
Basics of Everyday Cajun Cooking
I could tell you how to make roux in a couple of sentences, or I could write a book about it. I'll try to stay somewhere in between, but first some facts.
Roux is such an important element of Cajun cooking that when anyone asks a Cajun for a nondessert recipe it almost always begins with, "first you make a roux."
In brief, roux is a blend of fat and flour, cooked over low heat until it gets to a degree of brown (from blond to peanut butter to chocolate). The darker the roux, the more intense the flavor, the longer it takes to cook, and the less thickening power it has. Since a dark roux has less thickening power than a light or medium roux, if both a thick gravy and a dark roux are desired, start with 4 parts flour to 3 parts oil.
Traditionally, lard was used to make roux for two reasons: first, nothing is wasted in a Cajun kitchen, and lard was considered a perfectly good food that was left after a pig was prepared for the winter meals. Why discard one fat and use another? Second,lard adds a wonderful flavor to both savory and sweet foods. (See page 9 for the nutritional comparison of lard and butter. Lard is lower in both saturated fat and cholesterol.)
The majority of people seem to use half fat (whether oil or lard) and half flour. My family uses more flour in most recipes, because we like thicker gravies (sauces are French; gravies are Cajun). Butter is not used for roux, as it would burn during the long time it takes to brown the flour to a dark color. Butter and flour are the base of French sauces, while oil (or lard) and flour are the base of Cajun gravies.
Fat drippings (from roasted meat and poultry and from frying bacon) were strained and saved in a covered can in a cool place or in the refrigerator. This was considered a food, and one that lent a particular character to whatever dishes were made from it including roux, sauces, and almost any savory dish that needed fat for cooking and flavor. Each Cajun woman's cooking was distinctive in relation to the type of fats she used and saved, which is the core of what gave a unique flavor to her recipes.
Since roux takes from 20 minutes to 1 hour to cook, stirring constantly, many people make up a large batch of roux and keep it in the refrigerator or freezer. If you make roux ahead, these are the proportions you will end up with:
3 cups oil + 3 cups flour = 32/3 cups roux 1 cup oil + 1 cup flour = 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons roux
If a recipe calls for a roux made with 1/2 cup oil and 1/2 cup flour, use 1/2 cup of prepared roux (stir before using), or the amount of flour called for in the recipe.
When asked how long it takes to make a roux, a Cajun has one of two answers: as long as it takes to drink a six-pack of beer, or, as long as it takes to brew and drink a pot of coffee. While these answers are humorous, they are not helpful. Cooks vary greatly in their estimate of how long to cook a roux, but my guideline is:
There are variables such as how hot your pan is when you start, and the heat throughout the cooking process. The cooking heat in turn depends not just on the numbered setting of the dial, but the accuracy of the burner and the thickness of your pan. I suggest using a cast iron skillet, or your heaviest skillet, and timing how long it takes you to make a light, medium, and dark roux, then use that same pan each time, thereby knowing in future just how long it will take you to make a roux in your pan and on your stovetop.
The majority of savory dishes start with a roux: gumbos, fricassees, stews, courtbouillon, and sauce piquante. Vegetables can besautéed in roux (to bring out the flavor and add thickness), before being added to a soup or stew. Only an étouffée is cooked without a roux, although as in all Cajun dishes, some people will disagree about étouffée and say they use a roux when making it. By definition, étouffée is made without a roux and the food is "smothered in its own juices."
This recipe for roux gives tips on what to look for as the roux progresses through the cooking stages. Refer to this, if desired, when making the roux within individual recipes. Heating the pan for 2 minutes, then heating the oil for 2 minutes, is key to the roux darkening in the prescribed amount of time. Note: If you are not using a heavy skillet or Dutch oven, you may need to start the roux over medium-low heat. Makes about 1 cup roux
¾ cup corn oil or lard 1 cup all-purpose flour
Heat a heavy Dutch oven or large skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Add the oil and heat for 2 minutes. Add the flour all at once and whisk or stir constantly to combine the oil and flour. When combined, reduce heat to low and stir or whisk constantly until roux is desired color:
When the roux reaches the desired color, immediately transfer to a large plastic or glass (not steel) bowl to stop the cooking process, stirring until the roux cools down. Be very careful as the roux is very, very hot.
LAGNIAPPE Here is what to look for when cooking the roux:
After a few minutes the roux may become foamy, and stay that way for several minutes. After about 10 minutes the roux will become darker and have a nutlike fragrance. After about 20 minutes, watch extra carefully, as the roux begins to cook faster and can burn at this point; adjust the heat lower if necessary.
Roux cannot be rushed. Turning the heat higher than suggested above will just burn the roux, and you will have dark brown specks of burned roux that will make it scorched and inedible.
In spite of all the above information, making roux is not really difficult if you are armed with the facts. The main thing to remember is to keep the heat low and stir constantly.
The darker the roux the more flavor, but the less thickening power.
I like to use a metal spatula to stir the roux, as it covers so much more surface on the bottom of the pan than a spoon.
These are not really a part of traditional Cajun cooking, as specific spices and herbs are added to each individual recipe while that particular dish is being prepared and cooked.Yet, commercial blends of spices and/or herbs have become popular in the past few decades and can be convenient. There are times when I'm grilling a piece of fish, frying a pork or lamb chop, roasting some beef, barbecuing a chicken, or preparing a salad or vegetables when I want to grab an all-in-one seasoning, either bland or spicy, rather than pulling half a dozen jars out of the spice rack.
So I developed two seasoning salts (mild and spicy), and four seasoning blends containing herbs and spices to complement poultry, seafood, beef and game, and pork and lamb. The recipes are easily made for a fraction of the cost of purchasing similar seasoning salts and seasoning blends at the market.
Be sure to purchase herbs and spices in small quantities so they are replenished periodically, as they lose their flavor after a few months. If you only have an old jar of an herb you need to use, then use a bit extra to compensate for lost flavor. Rub dried herbs between your fingertips, or briefly crush with a mortar and pestle, to release more flavor.
Everyday Seasoning Salt
When I realized that so many of our family recipes called for the ingredients in the list below, I decided to make up this seasoning salt so I didn't have to get out all five of the spices when I was in the middle of cooking. It's good sprinkled on salads, vegetables, or almost any savory dish. I think of it as "fast food" seasoning, because it's the only spice I need when I'm in a hurry. Any herbs may be added to a dish along with the seasoning salt. Do be aware that it is a salt, with seasoning, so don't overdo or you will oversalt your dish. Makes about 21/2 cups
11/2 cups salt 1/2 cup onion powder 1/3 cup garlic powder 2 tablespoons white pepper 1 tablespoon celery seed
Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container in a cool dark place for up to 6 months.
LAGNIAPPE This is an everyday seasoning that goes with almost everything savory--no spices or herbs to slant it toward one type of food or another. I use this so often I make it up in large batches. It's important to store seasoning salts and spice blends in an airtight container, as moisture can make them harden into a clump. If this happens the mixture is still good, you just have to scrape or grate it to break it up. As with all the seasoning and spice blends in this book, you may reduce the amount of pepper if you prefer a milder flavor.
There are many different ways that Cajuns, and non-Cajuns for that matter, cook rice, and most of those methods are more complicated than necessary, in my opinion. Various procedures involve having the water up to the first joint of your index finger (but what if a person has very long fingernails?); boiling rice and water and getting them to the same level (the timing of this will vary, however, depending on whether the saucepan is small and high, or flat and round); and the ultimate time-wasting method to this cook, who doesn't take any unnecessary steps in the kitchen, is to partly cook the rice, remove it from the pan, then transfer it to a strainer over a pot of boiling water to steam until it is done.
My tried and true way of cooking rice seems to turn out just right every time, and it is the easiest method possible. My grandfather taught me to cook it this way, so I don't claim any credit for its success, but try it for yourself.
Grandpa made rice almost every day of his life, and always made it according to this method. He liked long-grain rice, as the grains stayed more separate, but many Cajuns like medium-grain rice; both cook in the same amount of time.
Makes about 3 cups
1 cup rice 1¾ cups water ¼ teaspoon salt
Place the rice, water, and salt in a medium saucepan, stir, and put a tight-fitting lid on the pan.
Place over high heat and bring to a boil (when it comes to a boil, you will see steam begin to escape, and the lid will rattle a bit--don't lift the lid). Immediately turn the heat down to the lowest setting, and set the timer for 15 minutes. Do not remove the lid from the pan at any point.
After 15 minutes, remove the rice from the heat, remove the lid, and gently stir. If it's still a bit too moist put it back on the heat, covered, for another 2 minutes. Rice will stay warm in the covered pan, off the hot burner, for about 20 minutes.
LAGNIAPPE Brown and wild rice take longer than 15 to 17 minutes to cook; check package directions for time, and cook as above for the suggested length of cooking time and water for each particular variety.
Seasoning Blend for Beef and Game
Beef wasn't eaten as much on our farm at Home Place as chicken, fish, and game were, though they did have cattle grazing in the orchard. My ancestors consumed beef often enough that there were several beef recipes passed down to me. The most frequent game seems to have been venison, and mallard and teal ducks. Mallards are larger and fattier than teals, but both are very flavorful. Turtle, frog, squirrel, and rabbit are also frequently found on the Cajun dinner table, but I didn't inherit any recipes for these foods. The bold spices in this blend, such as dry mustard and filé powder, stand up to the strong flavors of beef and game. Makes about 11/2 cups
3 tablespoons salt 2 tablespoons white pepper 2 tablespoons dry mustard 2 tablespoons onion powder 11/2 tablespoons garlic powder 1 tablespoon black pepper 1 tablespoon paprika 1 tablespoon dried oregano 2 teaspoons dried basil 11/2 teaspoons filé powder 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container in a cool dark place for up to 6 months.
LAGNIAPPE Although mallard ducks are now farm raised in some areas, they are very expensive at the supermarket--at least at my markets. If you don't have a hunter in your family, try an Asian market for ducks, as they are a common food in Asian cooking and so are priced much more reasonably than ducks sold elsewhere. As with all the seasoning and spice blends in this book, you may reduce the amount of pepper if you prefer a milder flavor.
Seasoning Blend for Pork and Lamb
Lamb is a young sheep that is less than a year old. At this age it is tender and mild in flavor, as opposed to mutton, which is older and can be tough and strong in flavor. My Irish mother served lamb at least once a week, but Dad didn't like to eat it unless it was loaded with slivers of garlic and rubbed with the following seasonings. Makes about 1 cup
6 tablespoons onion powder 2 tablespoons black pepper 2 tablespoons celery seed 2 tablespoons dried thyme 2 tablespoons salt 1 tablespoon garlic powder 1 tablespoon dried rosemary 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Combine all the ingredients and store in an airtight container in a cool dark place for up to 6 months.
LAGNIAPPE This makes a great dry rub on the outside of a roast. If you use this mainly for lamb, you might want to substitute 2 tablespoons dried mint for the dried thyme. Mint is one of the few herbs that comes very close to the flavor of the fresh version, once it is added to a dish and reconstituted. As with all the seasoning and spice blends in this book, you may reduce the amount of pepper if you prefer a milder flavor.
Seasoning Blend for Poultry
Chicken and turkey were the primary forms of poultry enjoyed at Home Place, other than ducks, for which I suggest the beef and game seasoning blend. When roasting a chicken or turkey, we always put some of this seasoning inside the bird and between the skin and the breast meat, as well as liberally coating the outside of the bird with the blend. It gives a wonderful color to the skin, in addition to the flavor it imparts to the flesh. Makes about 11/3 cups
1/2 cup salt 1/3 cup paprika ¼ cup onion powder 2 tablespoons garlic powder 2 tablespoons dried marjoram 2 tablespoons dried basil 2 teaspoons poultry seasoning 1 teaspoon black pepper 1 teaspoon white pepper 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Combine all the ingredients and store in an airtight container in a cool dark place for up to 6 months.
LAGNIAPPE You can adjust the seasoning blend according to the other dishes you usually serve with poultry: for example, if oregano and rosemary are the herbs most often used in your side dishes, you may substitute them for the marjoram and basil. Other seasonings may be used along with the spice blends: if lemon or orange are components in the rest of the meal, add some lemon or orange zest to the seasoning blend, and place lemon or orange slices in the cavity of the bird. As with all the seasoning and spice blends in this book, you may reduce the amount of pepper if you prefer a milder flavor.
Seasoning Blend for Seafood
A light dusting with this seasoning blend and a quick sauté in a frying pan is all you need for a fast and delicious fish dinner. Grandpa Pischoff would sometimes add these same spices to flour (although he didn't make up a seasoning blend ahead of time) , then dip the fish in the seasoned flour before frying. For a quick dip or sauce, add a bit of this blend to mayonnaise, melted butter, or olive oil. Makes about 1 cup
1/2 cup garlic powder ¼ cup salt 2 tablespoons black pepper 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper 2 teaspoons white pepper 2 teaspoons dried marjoram 2 teaspoons dried thyme 2 teaspoons dry mustard
Combine all the ingredients and store in an airtight container in a cool dark place for up to 6 months.
LAGNIAPPE This seasoning blend may be sprinkled on fish before cooking but should not sit for more than 20 minutes for delicate fillets or 40 minutes for thick, firm fish, as the spices will overpower the flavor of the fish if left on too long. Whether with a dry rub like this one, or a liquid marinade, fish should be kept covered and under refrigeration while marinating. As with all the seasoning and spice blends in this book, you may reduce the amount of pepper if you prefer a milder flavor.
Spicy Seasoning Salt
Salt and black, white, and cayenne pepper were used in abundance by Grandpa Pischoff whenever his daughter-in-law wasn't in the kitchen. She did not like food that was very spicy, and believed that Grandpa shouldn't have salt or lots of pepper (perhaps she was right--he died when he was ninety-three years of age; maybe it was the salt and spices that did him in). Makes about 11/2 cups
1 cup salt 3 tablespoons garlic powder 3 tablespoons paprika 2 tablespoons onion powder 11/2 tablespoons dried basil 11/2 tablespoons dried oregano 2 teaspoons black pepper 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1 teaspoon white pepper 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container in a cool dark place for up to 6 months.
LAGNIAPPE This seasoning salt gives a real kick to anything it touches. If you don't like spicy food use it sparingly, though using just a bit of it will add a wonderful flavor without adding too much heat. Do be aware that it is a salt, with seasoning--so don't overdo or you will oversalt your dish. As with all the seasoning and spice blends in this book, you may reduce the amount of pepper if you prefer a milder flavor.
IN A CAJUN KITCHEN. Copyright © 2006 by Terri Pischoff Wuerthner. Foreword copyright © 2006 by Dr. I. Bruce Turner. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Meet the Author
Terri Pischoff Wuerthner, a tenth-generation Acadian, is an award-winning culinary writer whose work has appeared in Bon Appetit, Better Homes&Gardens, Cooking Light, Mademoiselle, Sunset Magazine, The Herb Companion, The Washington Post, San Francisco Examiner, Press Democrat, Gastronomica, and Snail. The coauthor of Food for Life: The Cancer Prevention Cookbook, and Everyday Favorites of Sonoma County, Wuerthner lives in northern California, where she teaches Cajun and southern cooking.
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