Sunday, July 31, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Louisiana I - Gumbo-licious

Over the next few months, I will be exploring several states whose identities (not just food-wise but overall) are tied very closely to their cuisines: Louisiana, Maine, and of course my own home state of Maryland. In terms of Louisiana, chances are that Cajun and Creole cuisine are among the very first things that pop up in one's head.

Official Name: State of Louisiana (French: État de Louisiane; French Creole: Léta de la Lwizyàn - though Louisiana has no official language, French is important to the state's identity, and in 1812 Louisiana was the first state to join the Union whose majority did not speak English. For more on the linguistic history of Louisiana, see here)
State Nicknames: The Bayou State; The Pelican State; The Sugar State
Admission to the US: April 30, 1812 (#18)
Baton Rouge (2nd largest city)
Other Important Cities: New Orleans (largest); Shreveport (3rd largest): Metairie (4th largest)
South; Deep South; Gulf Coast; West South Central (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Gumbo; Cornbread & BBQ
Bordered by: Arkansas (north); Mississippi & the Mississippi River (east); the Gulf of Mexico (southeast and south); Texas (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: crawfish (crustacean); milk (drink); alligator (reptile)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: Cajun cuisine and dishes, especially gumbo, jambalaya, courtboullion (COO-bee-yon) and étouffée; pralines; crawfish, shrimp, crab, alligator, catfish; typical Southern foods in the northernmost part of the state.

Louisiana's cuisine is not difficult to pin down by any stretch of the imagination. For the most part, Louisiana's cuisine is Cajun and Creole cuisine. Note that the two are not the same, but most older Louisianans will debate for hours as to what the difference actually is. Even Tom Fitzsimmons, in a piece republished on the Tabasco Sauce website, tries to hash it out, only to arrive at the following conclusion:

[W]hat defines Creole and what defines Cajun? The answer is: nothing. And everything. I can tell you about a roux – a mixture of oil and flour that darkens and thickens gumbos--but that's in both. Salt and pepper and cream and butter and fat? More of all of them in both Creole and Cajun than in most other cooking styles, but now more than there used to be in both historically... There's been so much cross-fertilization of the styles over the decades that the merger has been consummated. I say, stop thinking about it. Just eat it. [Fitzsimmons 2003]
To maintain my sanity, I am just going to use the term "Cajun".

Southerners will happily embrace Cajun cooking, and it is one of many iconic strains of Southern cuisine - a complex quilt that stretches from Texas and the Southwest all the way to Virginia, (yes) Maryland and the Chesapeake. But Cajuns such as Terri Pischoff Wuerthner, chef and author of In a Cajun Kitchen, point out that the embrace only goes one way. Pischoff Wuerthner notes:
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. [Pischoff Wuerthner 2006: 3]
So what is the origin of Cajun cuisine? Pischoff Wuerthner further points out that Cajun comes from Acadian, the Catholic French people who fled Nova Scotia in the 1750's and headed waaaay south, to the other end of French North America. They had to adapt their French techniques to their new geography and ingredients, also getting ideas and help from the Choctaw people (filé, which is ground sassafras, was directly given by the Choctaw to the Cajuns). The result was the unique cuisine of much of Louisiana: Cajun cuisine [Pischoff Wuerthner 2006: 3].

I also wanted to find recipes that were indicative of northern Louisiana, whose cuisine is traditionally less Cajun and more Southern. I was hard-pressed to do so, specifically because the few recipes I could find from northern Louisiana were, more or less, Cajun recipes, likely having been embraced by non-Cajuns in the area. For this reason, and because the traditional food of the north is the Southern food that I have looked at and will look at elsewhere, I am holding off on Southern food for the Louisiana posts, and just focusing on Cajun country.

Perhaps the most iconic Cajun recipe of them all is gumbo. Most accounts say it comes from the Bantu word ki ngombo, which means "okra" (though Wikipedia also suggests the Choctaw word kombo, which means "filé"). Gumbo is a stew (or at least a very thick soup), thickened by any of three things: a French roux (at the beginning), okra (in the middle) or filé powder (at the end). Terri Pischoff Wuerthner provides several gumbo recipes, including a chicken-sausage gumbo that uses all three of these thickeners.

Recipe: Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo

A few things to note about gumbo, and many Cajun dishes for that matter:

1) Many Cajun recipes start with the phrase "First you make a roux" (that famous French fat and flour mixture). With this recipe, technically, it's the second thing you make.

2) This gumbo and many Cajun recipes feature the famous Holy Trinity of celery, onion and green bell pepper. I've never been much on green bell peppers, preferring the sweeter red ones myself. But I wanted to do this right, so the green ones it is.

To make this chicken & andouille sausage gumbo, one of many recipes that Pischoff Wuerthner culls from her family's own handwritten recipes and passed down over the generations - in this case from Pischoff Wuerthner's grandparents - you need the following (for exact amounts, please see Terri Pischoff Wuerthner's In a Cajun Kitchen, page 34 - also available as an eBook, for $15):

* flour and oil (for the roux)
* onions, celery and green bell pepper, all chopped (I had to halve her recipe, so I used a half of an onion, two celery stalks and most of one green bell pepper)
* chicken broth (I had none on hand, but I did have the foresight to save the broth from some collard greens I had slow cooked before, so I used that, and added enough water and chicken bouillon cubes to equal the quart of stock I needed)
* chicken (the author calls for breast meat, but I prefer - and used - dark meat for its flavor and its tendency to dry out less easily than the breast)
* andouille sausage (It's not as difficult to find this uniquely Cajun sausage in Maryland than I thought it would be, but note that even at $6 for a pound we probably aren't getting the absolute best stuff here)
* okra (frozen is fine, and so much easier to use than the slimier, pricklier fresh stuff - $1.50 for a one pound bag)
* salt, pepper, cayenne, paprika and parsley (had them all)
* Tabasco sauce (had it)
* filé powder (one small spice bottle will set you back only a few dollars)
* plain white rice (I had this in the fridge from another Cajun recipe, to be posted soon - you will cook this and spoon it into your gumbo)

Note that in this entire recipe there is not a single sprinkle of Cajun seasoning or anything with the word "Emeril" on the label. I am keeping with that trend, not because I have anything against the Zatarain's people (or even Emeril), but because you just don't need those things to make Cajun food. The spices you add end up doing that.

First, you hold off on the roux, and cut up the chicken as best you can - it's easier to cut up raw breast meat into cubes, but for thigh and leg meat you're going to have to just cut it up into little pieces.

Season it all with your dry spices - not the filé powder. You are going to save that for the very, very last step (Why? Adding filé before or during cooking will make the gumbo turn unpleasantly stringy, and who wants to eat stringy soup? Yeah, I didn't think so)

Now, you make that roux.

Er, not this Ru.*

Yes, this roux.

A roux is easy to make, but even easier to burn, so you must constantly watch over it. Just heat the oil or other fat (in this case, I used peanut oil) and add the flour, then constantly stir it over low medium heat. I mean it, too - this is not something you walk away from for even a minute. Thirty seconds here and stir, thirty seconds there and stir, for about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how much of a roux there will be and just how dark you need it. The above-pictured roux eventually got a little darker than this.

If you haven't chopped the vegetables and sausage yet, take the roux off the heat and do that now.

When ready, heat up the roux and add the onions, celery and bell pepper, stirring for a few minutes.

Next add your seasoned chicken and do the same.

After this you add your stock and boil.

And then add your sausage and Tabasco sauce.

Cover and cook over low heat for an hour, and then add your second thickening agent: the okra. Usually, okra is added to seafood gumbos, but the author's grandparents add it here, too. Cover again and cook for half an hour.

The gumbo is done, but before you serve it, take it off the heat and then add the filé powder. Put a mound of white rice into the center of each bowl of gumbo and serve.

How to describe this gumbo? It is my first, and it is a beautiful dish. It was quite the change from the Campbell's soup canned "gumbo" that is really more of a glorified vegetable soup with Cajun seasoning. As for the filé, it adds not only thickness but a nice flavor and smell. I didn't think to drink a bottle of sarsaparilla - also made with sassafras - with this, but before I run out I will have to do so.

For dessert, we will return to Terri Pischoff Wuerthner in a few posts. But first, a few more of the iconic entrées from Cajun country.

(Props to LA Weekly Blogs for the RuPaul photo)

Sources: "How to boil crawfish". Copyright 2005

Edge, John T. A Gracious Plenty: Recipes and Recollections from the American South. An Ellen Rolfes Book. For the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. G. P. Putnam's Sons: New York, 1999.

Fitzsimmons, Tom. "What's the difference between Cajun and Creole Cooking?" Published 2003 on the "Taste Tent" section of the Tabasco Sauce website. Copyright 2011 McIlhenny Company, all rights reserved.

Junior League of Baton Rouge, Inc. River Road Recipes: The Textbook of Louisiana Cuisine [Volume I]. The Junior League of Baton Rouge, Inc: Baton Rouge, 1959. 72nd printing, April 2000.

Pischoff Wuerthner, Terri. In a Cajun Kitchen: Authentic Cajun Recipes and Stories from a Family Farm on the Bayou. St. Martin's Press: New York, 2006.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Louisiana" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Louisiana".


theminx said...

Gumbo and file are both used as thickeners - if you use one, you really don't need the other. Besides, filé contains a carcinogen. :)

I prefer my gumbo to be dark dark brown and absolutely smooth apart from the texture of the meat. I don't like tasting the peppers and celery as separate components, which means the gumbo needs to cook for several hours. Neal would love the version you made, which I consider "soup." But gumbo is one of those things that doesn't really have one set recipe, so everyone can be happy.

John said...

I was amazed at the variety of gumbo recipes in the Cajun cookbooks I looked at. It was very difficult to just pin down one.