Food Trends

Consumer Interest Rises in Cajun Cuisine

Jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé gumbo… there's something to whet everyone's appetite in Cajun country.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

There’s something to whet everyone’s appetite in exotic New Orleans. Jambalaya, crawfish étouffée and savory filé gumbos, heaping po’ boy sandwiches, a muffuletta from Central Grocery, red beans and rice, fried catfish or ‘gator, just-shucked shrimp, savory andouille sausage, sweet pralines — all Crescent City classics. Of course, they all are best focused on either crack-of-dawn or late-night visits to Café Du Monde, hunched over steaming chicory café with a plateful of beignets, those delectable square doughnuts, covered with powdered sugar that ends up dusting your face and lap.

Serious food aficionados flock to the Big Easy to sample classic Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s, where it was created in 1899 in honor of John D. Rockefeller, one of the richest men in the world at that time. Other delicacies include: Pompano en papillote - fish in a parchment bag cooked in a special wine sauce at Arnaud’s; Eggs Benedict with the perfect hollandaise sauce or Bananas Foster, two trademark creations of Brennan’s; Turtle Soup Au Sherry at Commander’s Palace; Côtes D'Agneau Grillées, served with Sauce Choron at Louis XVI Restaurant; the trademark Trout Marguery, a rolled fillet of poached trout paired with shrimp, mushrooms and hollandaise sauce or Galatoire's fresh pompano topped with sautéed crabmeat. For more modern eaters there’s a "blackened" dish at Alex Patout’s Restaurant, but it isn’t fish. Look for blackened brie in a crisp salad of fresh greens with blueberry vinaigrette.

Pork chops pop when seasoned and blackened by Chef Paul Prudhomme.

True Louisiana food lovers make the pilgrimage for blackened Louisiana drumfish at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, founded by Cajun chef and icon Paul Prudhomme. He took the culinary community by storm with his blackened redfish recipes and made Cajun/Creole cuisine the hottest dining trend of the 1980s. Customers begged him for the secret seasonings so often he eventually founded Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Seasoning Blends to accommodate them.

With the perfect name for a New Orleans chef, Susan Spicer (her brother Tom was a professional herb and spice grower), of Bayona restaurant, is still turning heads with her creative offerings, such as cashew butter, pepper jelly & duck sandwiches. Chef Greg Sonnier serves cracker-crusted rabbit wrapped in basil with shrimp at Gabrielle Restaurant, while sausages, patés and smoked salmon are all prepared in-house at Chef René Bajeux’s René Bistrot. Restaurant August's Chef John Besh serves up his signature dishes, the “BLT,” which consists of buster crabs, lettuce and tomatoes on lost bread (Cajun-style French toast) and Tongue in Cheek, combining fois gras and veal cheeks.

We speak of political dynasties, but New Orleans has a gastronomic dynasty — the Brennan family — with restaurants such as Bacco, Brennan's, Commander's Palace, Mr. B's Bistro and Palace Café. These were training grounds for many of the most illustrious chefs, including celebrity Chef Emeril Lagasse. Lagasse is responsible for enthusing millions of Americans to rediscover and appreciate Louisiana cuisine.

Of Portuguese and French Canadian heritage, Lagasse grew up in Fall River, Mass., moved to New Orleans to work at the legendary Commander’s Palace, fell in love with the city, and never left. Describing his cooking as “New” New Orleans cuisine, or “real New Orleans cooking with a flair,” Lagasse went on to open Emeril’s, Nola and Emeril’s Delmonico, drawing large crowds looking for daring and creative Creole/New American cooking.

Creoles Set the Table

Fusion – both cultural and in its cooking styles – was inevitable as Louisiana sits in the Southeastern U.S. on the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River, easily accessible by ship from anywhere in the world.

Originally home to native Americans, a flurry of immigrants arrived in Louisiana in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. “Creole” originally referred to descendents of the French from France, French Canada, or the French colonies of the Caribbean. These brought classical French cooking techniques.

French-speaking Acadians arrived from modern-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in the 1750s. Driven out of Canada when the British took control of the Canadian territories from the French, 18,000 to 20,000 families migrated to the 22-parish area of Louisiana known as Acadiana. They managed to survive with the help of the Choctaw Indians, who taught them how to forage for food in a new climate, and African Americans, who taught them to cook with indigenous ingredients.

Slavery was introduced during the earliest days of the colony. “They brought their culinary traditions and used locally grown ingredients such as Native American corn and file (ground sassafras leaves) with okra, kidney beans and black-eyed peas from Africa, and cayenne chilies from the Caribbean to create their famous gumbos,” according to Louisiana authority and writer, Gene Bourg. “Jambalaya, another hallmark regional dish, may have West African roots; it may also have been inspired by Spain’s paella, which likely arrived during Spanish rule in Louisiana [1762 to 1803].”

Spaniards from Spain, the Canary Islands, and the Spanish colonies of the New World contributed indigenous spices and rice-based meals. African immigrants (voluntary and involuntary) added their ingredients and techniques to form the heart of Creole. Later, Germans added sausage-making expertise and Italians their pasta, eggplant and artichoke dishes.

Many households consisted of up to a dozen people, so rice became the easiest, cheapest and tastiest way to stretch what little meat, game or other protein they had and provided the fuel that early Cajun settlers needed for survival. Foraging Cajuns became known for eating all manner of exotica — a reputation that still lingers. An old joke claims that in a Cajun zoo, cage labels list the animals by popular name, scientific name, habitat and a recipe.

Eventually, “Acadian” was transformed to “Cajun,” and the people settled primarily in south and southwest Louisiana and in Natchitoches in northwest Louisiana.

In 1803, the U.S. purchased the Louisiana Territory from France and large numbers of Anglo-Saxon/Scots-Irish settlers from eastern and southern states made their way to the region. The majority made their home in northern, western and southeastern sections of the state, bringing their southern cuisine, including cornbread, biscuits, chicken and dumplings, greens, blackberries and mayhaws, which taste like sour apples.

Creole or Cajun?

The cultural and linguistic differences between French-speaking south Louisiana and English-speaking Anglo-Saxon north Louisiana — noticeable even today — are reflected in the cooking, both in tastes and methods of preparation.

It’s the Creole and Cajun cooking of the southern section of the state for which Louisiana is so famous. But, what’s the difference? These two very similar cooking styles evolved in New Orleans and south Louisiana, and are a combination of the cooking styles of all the different groups who have lived in south Louisiana.

Creole cuisine still carries the reputation of being more refined and fancy, with elegant sauces and use of more expensive ingredients including butter, cream and typically more tomatoes than Cajun cooking. Creole includes the African and Caribbean heritage that eventually became mingled with the French and Spanish through sharing cooking techniques and ingredients.

Many of the staples in Creole cooking came by way of the slave trade. “The slaves didn’t come from the same place; they didn’t speak the same language,” explains culinary historian Jessica B. Harris. “They are juxtaposed within this New World and in the end a new cuisine is created. We call it Creole and it was one of the world’s original fusion foods.”

Cajuns don't spare the spice when they cook and they don't skimp when it comes to using locally made Tabasco.

Techniques and cooking methods form a link from African to Creole cuisine, for example, use of a mortar and pestle for pounding dry peppers, seeds, nuts, fruits and vegetables. This technique of making a paste to add to sauces is probably the origin of the Creole roux, the base for all gravies and sauces.

Cajuns add the spice. As a robust, country cuisine, Cajun uses pepper more liberally. The cornerstone is "the Holy trinity" of finely diced onion, celery and bell pepper. Similar to the use of the mire poix (finely diced onion, celery, and carrot) in traditional French cooking, flavors are layered and concentrated and usually cooked in one pot.

Inexpensive and readily available ingredients and seasonings (parsley, garlic, bay leaf, scallions, paprika and cayenne pepper — the dried and powdered form or as one of the locally made pepper sauces, such as Tabasco) are often served over plain white rice.

As any Creole grandmother will tell you, you can't cook Louisiana-style without a great roux: flour cooked in a skillet with fat or oil. (See “Firs’ Ya Make Da Roux,” below.) Roux can range in color from white to brown to black, depending on how long it's cooked, and the darker the color, the deeper the flavor. Creole gumbos favor the more delicate light roux, and cooks not only brown the flour, they also brown the onion, garlic and other vegetables seasonings for the gravy.

Cajun restaurateur and raconteur Dickie Breaux says roux serves as a flavor extender, not as a thickener. “Okra is the true Cajun thickener, but the secret of a great roux is a seasoned black iron pot that has been cooked in for 101 years," says Breaux, adding, “More Louisiana divorces are held up over who gets the roux pot than any other known reason.”

Mumbo Gumbo

High on the list of favorites of Cajun cooking is gumbo. Its primary ingredient, okra, is used as a thickening agent. In fact, the name gumbo is derived from the word for okra in several African languages.

Okra and filé (sassafras powder) are rarely used in the same batch of gumbo; some people say that using both will make the gumbo too thick, and others even say that the two flavors cancel each other out. If using okra, it should be cooked long enough that it loses the slimy texture it develops several minutes into cooking. Filé powder, on the other hand, should not be added until the very end of cooking; boiling filé causes the whole pot of gumbo to become stringy and gummy. Some people wait even longer and stir a pinch or two of filé into each bowl of gumbo before serving.

“One thing I recognized early on was that gumbo is never just gumbo,” contributes Lagasse. “Although there are certain constants — gumbo is always a soup or stew eaten over cooked white rice — other points are highly variable. There are thin gumbos and thick gumbos, gumbos thickened with okra, gumbos thickened with roux, sometimes with both, and then there are gumbos thickened with filé powder. The main ingredients might be chicken, any type of meat or game, smoked or spicy sausage, seafood, or any combination of these ingredients. There is even a ‘green’ gumbo, sometimes called ‘gumbo z’herbes,’ that traditionally contains no meat or seafood whatsoever, only green leafy vegetables.”

Jammin’ with Jambalaya

Jambalaya refers to a variety of rice-based dishes common in both Cajun and Creole cooking. They contain rice in stock, with green peppers, onions, celery and hot peppers. Anything else is optional. Standard additions are smoked Andouille sausage, chicken, seafood (especially shrimp or crawfish) onions, bell peppers, celery and tomato. Creole-style jambalayas use a red stock while Cajun-style jambalayas generally contain brown stock.

Crawfish, also called crayfish, crawdads, hillbillies or mudbugs, are no more fish than a catfish is a cat, and only Yankees and tourists call them crawfish. If you ask for crawfish in a New Orleans restaurant, they'll automatically ask, "Where are you from?"

Crawfish are freshwater crustaceans closely related to the lobster and a great favorite in Louisiana, often called the "crayfish capital of the world." Crayfish, found in gumbo and étouffée, are prepared like lobster and, like lobster, turn bright red when cooked. They're usually eaten with the fingers, and the sweet, succulent meat must be picked or sucked out of the tiny shells. Its flavor is delicate and its fat enriches sauces.

Anything blackened, fried and smothered in sauce, plus combinations of food you would never dream of eating at the same time, is the essence of Cajun/Creole cuisine.

Just as jazz, characterized by syncopated rhythmic patterns and untamed improvisation, originated in New Orleans in 1900, the city’s food is an improvisation, a potpourri of flavors and aromas from a multitude of cultures joined together to bring pleasure to the palate. So, enjoy each bite — slowly — and, as Louisianans say, “Laissez les bons temps roulez (let the good times roll).”

Firs’ Ya’ Make da Roux

True Cajun cooks use equal parts flour and oil (or pork fat), stirred and cooked to a dark brown. Preparation of a dark roux for gumbo and étoufée is probably the most complicated procedure in Cajun cuisine, involving slowly cooking fat and flour, constantly stirring for about 15-45 minutes (depending on the desired color) until the mixture has darkened and develops a nutty flavor.

There are three basic types of roux, with some variations, usually expressed in terms of color. Generally, blond or light roux for gumbo in Creole cooking takes five minutes to prepare; medium or peanut butter colored roux for gumbo in Creole cooking takes 10 minutes; and dark roux with a smoky, roasted hazelnut flavor, typical of Cajun cooking, takes 25 minutes or up to an hour over low heat. It has less thickening power but adds more flavor. The principle is simple: The more you cook a roux, the darker it gets.

Roux has to be stirred constantly with a whisk or paddle. If little black specks appear, your roux is burnt and you have to start over. Stir carefully, however, because roux isn't called "Creole napalm" for nothing. The smallest spatter of hot roux burns your skin.




BRINGING LOUISIANA'S RICHES TO THE HOME TABLE

A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

To get that authentic Louisiana taste in any food, Tabasco is king. Made on Avery Island in Louisiana by the McIlhenny family since 1868, it is used as a table sauce and as a flavoring in cooking. Tabasco brand pepper sauce (www.tabasco.com) is made with only three ingredients: fully aged red peppers, high-grain vinegar and a small amount of salt mined right on Avery Island. The pepper mash is allowed to ferment and age for up to three years in white oak barrels, much like wine, and a member of the McIlhenny family inspects every batch for color and aroma before final production. Tabasco’s Scoville Unit rating is 2,500 – 5,000, which means it's hot. (The Scoville unit is a measure of capsaicin, the chemical in hot peppers responsible for their heat.)

Jazz Up Dinner Tonight

Gretna, La.-based Zatarain’s (www.zatarain.com) is the nation’s leading maker of New Orleans-style food. It has a large variety of seafood boils, breadings, condiments and sauces, pasta dinner mixes, ready-to-serve mixes, rice dinner mixes, seasoning and spices, side dishes, stuffing mixes and even root beer extract.

In the Bag

Cajun Chef John Folse (www.jfolse.com), Gonzalez, La., provides a variety of Cajun and Creole seasonal seafood, meats, cheese, seasonings and mixes, old world bread and desserts and soups and entrees — including crawfish étouffées — packaged in sealed plastic boiling bags.

Creole Caché

Opelousas, La.-based Tony Chachere's Creole Foods (www.tonychachere.com) began in 1972 as a retirement hobby for South Louisiana Chef Tony Chachere. Still family owned and operated, it has become one of the largest brands in Creole foods. Chachere semi-retired from the operations of his food company at age 76, in 1981, and continued to perfect his recipes and develop new food products, which include seasoning blends, boxed dinner mixes, gravy mixes, fry batters and marinades. A glowing climax to his career in the culinary arts came in March 1995 when his colleagues in the American Culinary Federation honored him as the first inductee in the Louisiana Chefs Hall of Fame. He died one week later at 89.

Ragin’ Cajun

Chef Emeril Lagasse sells a variety of his Essence spices and rubs, specialty sauces, salad dressings, pasta sauces, bastings, marinades, salsas, coffee and mustards at www.emerils.com and at selected retailers. Recently he began selling wild-caught frozen fresh shrimp.

Makin’ Magic

Accommodating his many customers and fans, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s (www.chefpaul.com) Magic Seasoning Blends, New Orleans, provides seasoning blends, salts, marinades, pepper sauce, rice mixes, red beans & rice, Louisiana rice, dried chilies, desserts, coffee, smoked meats and sauce concentrates to both processors and consumers.




LEXICON OF LOUISIANA CULINARY TERMS

Andouille (ahn-DOO-wee) — Lean Cajun pork sausage with a spicy smoked flavor.

Beignet (bain-YAY) — A square French doughnut, deep-fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Bisque (bisk) — Thick, cream- or milk-based shellfish soup, usually made with crawfish, shrimp or oysters.

Boudin (BOO-dan) — A Cajun favorite made by cooking ground pork rice and seasonings and stuffing the mixture into a casing. It is then cut like sausage and eaten.

Bouilli (boo-YEE) — French for “boiled,” is a stew made from boiled meats. Spelled with an “e” at the end (bouillie) it means boiled-milk custard.

Bourre (boo-ray) — French for “stuffed,” is the name of a Cajun card game, which requires the loser of a hand to stuff the pot with chips.

Couche-couche (koosh-koosh) — Popular breakfast food, made by frying cornmeal and topping it with milk and/or cane syrup.

Dirty Rice – A typical Cajun dish of very spicy rice with finely ground meats.

Etouffee (AY-too-FAY) — Gravy made by smothering seasoned vegetables. It is the ultimate Cajun dish, usually made with seafood in a smothered vegetable sauce.

Filé (FEE-lay) — Spice made from powdered sassafras leaves and used as a garnish for gumbo.

Fricassee (FREE-ke-SAY) — Stew made by browning, then removing meat from the pan, making a roux with the pan drippings, and then returning meat to simmer in the thick gravy.

Grillades (GREE-yahdz) — Diced beef round, veal or pork marinated for several days in vinegar. Yields a rust-colored gravy (sauce rouillee) when cooked. Traditionally served for brunch with grits.

Gumbo (GUM-boh) — Roux-based soup of poultry, sausage, or seafood, served over rice.

Jambalaya (jum-buh-LIE-yuh) — Main dish, similar to paella, usually made from rice and a combination of meats.

Lagniappe (lon-YOP) — "Something extra," an unexpected treat or favor.

Maque Chou (mock-shoo) — Dish made by scraping young corn off the cob and smothering the kernels in tomatoes, onion and spices.

Mirliton (mer-lee-tawn) — Vegetable pear, or chayote.

Pain Perdu (PAHN pear-DOO) — "lost bread," French toast

Po’boy — Sandwich made of meats stuffed in a length of French bread.

Roux (roo) — base for gumbo or stews made of flour browned in oil.

Sauce Piquante (SAWS-pee-KAWNT) — "spicy sauce"

Tasso (TAH-soh) — Strips of spiced pork or beef, which are smoked like jerky and used to flavor many dishes; a sort of Cajun pepperoni.

Source: Tony Chachere’s Creole Foods



Free Subscriptions

Food Processing Digital Edition

Access the entire print issue on-line and be notified each month via e-mail when your new issue is ready for you. Subscribe Today.

foodprocessing.com E-Newsletters

Receive updates on news, products and trends that are critical to the food and beverage industry. Subscribe Today.