August 14, 2010 § 3 Comments
I’ve talked before about authentic Cajun cooking. Cajun cuisine is home cooking. Trying to “gourmet-ize” Cajun cooking would be like turning meatloaf and mashed potatoes into fine dining. It can certainly be done, but it loses a lot of its charm.
One important aspect of Cajun cuisine is its reliance on what is on hand. If you have fresh oysters in the fridge and a few ducks in the freezer, you’d think of cooking up an oyster and wild duck gumbo. A pound of Louisiana crawfish will get you an étoufée, or a crawfish stew. A couple of crabs and a stew or gumbo may be in order.
Rummaging around in the refrigerator after work yesterday I found some nice, mild pork and beef smoked sausage, shrimp and all the makings for a delicious jambalaya.
Jambalaya is a rice dish and one of the few true Cajun dishes that combine a roux and tomatoes. Where I come from, jambalaya is comfort food par excellence. Jambalaya includes almost any seafood or meat or bird you like, in any combination, cooked in a liquid with rice. The result is a mouth-watering amalgam of flavors and textures that will entice you to have several servings, unless you’re being polite.
Another thing you need to know about Cajun cooking is that the ingredients, quantities and seasonings are all approximate. My jambalaya calls for a small roux, and I know how much oil and flour will do the job to my satisfaction without measuring. Same with the amount of onions, bell pepper and celery, salt, pepper, and shrimp and sausage. I like my jambalaya on the tomato-y side, some do not. According to your taste, you may like more celery and shrimp and less sausage, or more oil and less flour in your roux, or you may even prefer to make your jambalaya without a roux. It’s all in what you like.
One thing I recommend: use medium-grain or even short-grain rice. Long-grain rice does not absorb the liquids or release its glutens as it cooks like medium- or short-grain rices do, and the result is entirely different. Medium- or short-grain produces an almost risotto-type result that is juicy, creamy and much more satisfying than its drier long-grain counterpart.
My jambalaya calls for a roux, but some people prefer it roux-less. If you choose to cook it without a roux, simply cook down the vegetables in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil before adding the other makings. I like roux in jambalaya because it thickens it and makes it less soupy. For the roux, use good quality vegetable oil that can stand up to high heat; butter or olive oil will burn before you get to the final result. Cook on medium-high to high heat, stirring constantly. Once the roux starts to bubble even slightly, do NOT stop stirring. Be careful not to splash while you stir. We call roux “Cajun napalm” for a good reason, and it’s not a term of endearment; it’s a description of its ability to burn the daylights out of you if it splashes on you. My grandmother taught me to use a wooden spatula to stir. It moves more roux at a time and makes your job easier. The roux for this recipe is a golden roux, more or less the color of a paper bag. It will impart some flavor, but its main function is to thicken the dish. Caution: If you see black specks in the roux, or it smokes and smells strong, you’ve burned it and will need to dump it out (safely) and start over.
So we begin with a roux …
The flavors blend into a satisfyingly delicious melange that you will find comforting, particularly on a stormy night like we had in Meridian last night.
Now try it for yourself. My advice is to start with a recipe and over time to refine it to your own taste. You may prefer it without the sausage, or even without the shrimp, with chicken instead, or some other combination thereof.
Here’s a recipe to use for a starting point, but remember that everything is subject to adjustment and change to suit your taste and preferences. Enjoy:
3 tbsp. flour
1 ½ cups chopped onions
½ cup chopped bell pepper
1 cup chopped celery
1 clove garlic
Salt to taste
black and red pepper to taste
2 ½ cups chicken stock
1 pound raw peeled shrimp
½ pound mild smoked sausage, chopped into 1/4″ slices
1 can whole tomatoes
1 can tomato sauce
2 cups raw, medium-grain rice
Make a golden brown roux with flour and oil. Add onions, peppers, celery and garlic, and let cook until transparent, stirring often. Add tomatoes and tomato sauce and cook until oil rises to the surface. Stir in raw rice, raw shrimp, and 2 ½ cups chicken stock.
Cook, covered, over low heat until rice is tender. Add more oil and water if mixture appears to be too dry. Garnish with onion tops. Serve hot.
CREDIT: Lisa took all the photos here, along with a few “In your face” photos I refused to include. Here’s the credit she insisted on, plus “Happy Thirty-Ninth Anniversary 8-14-10.”