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CREOLE CUISINE COOKING INFORMATION

Some Key Ingredients for Louisiana Cuisine

Both the rich, complex Creole cuisine of New Orleans and the homey, country-style Cajun cuisine of Acadiana (French Louisiana) rely heavily on many ingredients that are made and grown locally.  Substitutions can be made for some, but if you're going for anything like the real thing, try to get authentic ingredients. But first, as my grandmother says . . . "First ya make a roux."

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Roux
Just as it is in classical French cuisine, roux is a mixture of flour and fat, usually butter or oil. The proportion is roughly 1:1, but I tend to use slightly more flour than oil; maybe 1.5 cups of flour to 1 cup of oil. It is the basis for many Louisiana dishes, particularly gumbo, but also etouffees, sauce piquantes, and more.

There are three basic types of roux: light (or what the Cajuns call "blond"), medium (or "peanut butter" colored), and dark. There is white roux also, which is cooked for just a minute to get the flour taste out, but this is rarely used in Louisiana cooking. For gumbos, for instance, Creole cooks tend to prefer a blond or medium roux, where Cajun cooks tend to prefer a very dark roux, which is wonderfully smoky tasting. (There are, of course, exceptions to this.)

Roux is used to thicken gumbos, sauces, étouffées or stews, and in the case of a darker roux to flavor the dish as well. Dark roux has more flavor, a wonderful roasted nutty flavor, but tends to have less thickening power.

Preparation of a roux is dependent on cooking time; the longer you cook, the darker the roux. A blond roux will only take four or five minutes; a dark roux up to 20 or 25 minutes at high heat, or up to an hour at low heat. Roux must be stirred constantly to avoid burning. Constantly means not stopping to answer the phone, let the cat in, or flip the LP record over, and if you've got to go the bathroom ... hold it in or hand off your whisk or roux paddle to someone else. If you see black specks in your roux, you've burned it; throw it out and start over.

When you're stirring your roux, be very careful not to splatter any on you. It's extremely hot, and it sticks. They don't call it Creole napalm for nothing ... I have a lovely burn scar on my forearm from last year's Christmas Eve gumbo, when I got sloppy with the stirring.

Certain dishes (like crawfish etouffee) would benefit from a butter-based roux, but if you're going to make a dark roux, this will take a long time. Butter roux must be cooked at low to low-medium heat, or the butter will scorch. Darker roux are better suited to being made with oil. If you know what you're doing, you can make an oil-based roux over medium-high to high heat, whisking like hell, and you'll have a beautiful near-milk-chocolate colored roux in about 20 minutes rather than an hour. Peanut oil works best for high-heat roux cooking.

I'm told that some home cooks are making roux in the microwave now. "No stirring!", they say. "It works!" Bah. Humbug. There's a certain satisfaction to stirring it by hand that I myself refuse to delegate to a microwave. Some things simply must be done by hand if you're serious about this.

Crawfish
A Louisiana delicacy.  Ecrevisse in French.  Some folks call 'em "mudbugs", hillbillies (Jed Clampett, for instance) call 'em "crawdads", tourists and Yankees call 'em "crayfish".  If you go to New Orleans and ask for "crayfish", you'll be asked, "Oh hey dawlin', where ya from?"  They are crawfish.  Crawfish have a marvelous, delicate flavor, and the crawfish fat adds a mind-bogglingly delicious enrichment to sauces and the like. There no substitute for crawfish; if you want to make crawfish etouffee and you substitute shrimp, you've made shrimp etouffee.

Louisiana does export some of its crawfish crop (but 90% of it, or about 10 million pounds per year, is consumed within the state), so some markets around the US do offer them. BEWARE! Crawfish do not keep well, and if they smell or taste the least bit "fishy", they're off.  Best bet is to have them shipped live (or the frozen tails) from a source in Louisiana.

Sausages and Seasoning Meats

Andouille
A spicy Louisiana smoked pork sausage. Not to be confused with the continental French "andouillette", which is a tripe sausage and is icky. Hot smoked sausage of any brand can be substituted, but good andouille is a joy.

Tasso
Tasso is a very highly seasoned lean pork butt, used as a seasoning meat. It has an intense, delicious flavor, and a little goes a long way.  I suppose you could substitute smoked ham, but you will not get remotely the same flavor.  You can obtain tasso from a few mail-order sources.

Seasonings and Condiments

Cane syrup
The clear or brown syrup made from sugar cane, and often used locally instead of maple syrup or those thin, nasty, artificially-flavored "pancake syrups".

Cayenne pepper
Fiery ground red pepper made from the cayenne chile. Powerful stuff, and used liberally in Louisiana cooking, especially in combination with white pepper and freshly ground black pepper.

Crab, shrimp and crawfish boil
Spices for boiling seafood.  They come either in a flow-through packet, in dry powdered form, or as a liquid concentrate, used to flavor the water in which seafood is boiled.  It's strong, pungent and spicy.  Zatarain's, Rex, Yogi and Tony Chachere's are the prevalent brands.  Zatarain's comes in the well-known "flow-through" packet; the others are granulated, which you can add to the water and/or sprinkle on the seafood itself after boiling.

Creole mustard
A thick, pungent, spicy, coarse local mustard used on po-boys as well as an ingredient in many dishes.  The mustard seeds are marinated before preparation.  Most common brands are Zatarain's and Horse Shoe.  If you can't find this where you live, substitute a coarse-grained, country-style Dijon mustard.

Filé powder
Filé powder is made from dried and ground sassafras leaf.  It is used as a seasoning and primarily thickening agent in gumbo, and has a wonderfully pungent and aromatic flavor.  Common local brands are Zatarain's, Rex or Yogi. There is no substitute.   Remember that file' should never be added to a pot of gumbo while it's cooking, but rather added at the end and to individual servings.  If cooked or reheated, it will turn stringy. Pronounced (FEE-lay).

Tabasco
The King of All Pepper Sauces. Available worldwide, and made in Avery Island, Louisiana by the McIlhenny family since the 1880s. Used as a table sauce and as a cooking ingredient. Other good pepper sauces that are not as distinctively flavored as and are mellower than Tabasco are Crystal and Louisiana Red Hot.  Sample and pick your favorite, remembering that there are
over 60 different brands of hot sauces made in Louisiana.

 

GUMBO DU MONDE RECIPE

This is Chuck Taggart's Gumbo Recipe which I've made - it takes time and effort, but it is delicious.  He shares his great sense of humor while explaining his recipe.

This is by no means a "definitive" gumbo recipe. There are an almost infinite number of ways of making gumbo, but this is the way I make it. I say with no trace of arrogance and with complete honesty that this may well be the best gumbo you've ever had.I call this my "everything" gumbo. It's a bit unusual in that the chicken stock is also infused with a seafood flavor from the shrimp shells and heads, and that it contains chicken, sausage and seafood. I believe this makes for a much richer and more complex set of flavors for the gumbo. Get this recipe while you can - if I ever end up serving this in a restaurant I'm not going to give my secrets away anymore . . .

Remember that you MUST go through the stock making process for this dish; plain water or a canned stock will simply not do. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this step. Yes, you'll see gumbo recipes that call for plain water, but I do not believe that it's worth it to make a gumbo this way. You simply cannot get the depth and multi-layered complexity of flavors without
starting with a homemade stock. Don't believe me? Listen to one of your fellow Gumbo Pages readers who wrote me and said,

"Just wanted to tell you that I used your Gumbo recipe, and went ahead, on your pleading, and spent a whole day making the stock. It's the best gumbo I have ever made." Bill D.

The stock can be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen.

For the Stock:

8 quarts cold water
8 -10 pounds chicken parts (backs, necks, etc.) and bones, or a whole chicken, cut up and oven-browned
Shrimp shells and heads, reserved from the 4 pounds of shrimp that have been
peeled for the final step of the gumbo (the heads are very important!)
8 ounces onions, chopped
4 ounces celery with tops, chopped
4 ounces carrots, chopped
2 heads garlic, cut in half horizontally

In a small cheesecloth bag or tea ball place:

1 tsp or so black peppercorns, cracked
A few parsley stems
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
1/2 tsp dried tarragon leaves
1/2 tsp dried oregano leaves
1/2 tsp dried basil leaves

(If at all possible, please try to get shrimp with the heads on. Shrimp heads impart a wonderful flavor to the stock, and it just ain't the same as a real New Orleans gumbo without them. Do whatever you have to do.) Remove the skin from the chicken and chop into 3 - 4 inch pieces, making sure to cut through and expose the bones. Brown the chicken parts and bones in a 350ºF oven for about 20 minutes. Put the chicken in the stockpot with the water and bring slowly to a simmer. Periodically skim off any scum that forms, and if you wish use a skimmer to skim off the fat. (This stock simmering process makes your house smell REALLY good!) Let this simmer for at least three, and preferably four hours. It is this long simmering process that extracts the maximum flavor from the chicken meat and bones, as well as the natural gelatin from the bones. When refrigerated, a good chicken stock will be clear and gelatinous.

Add the onion, garlic, carrots and celery. Place the peppercorns, parsley sprigs and dried herbs into a 4-inch square piece of cheesecloth (making a sachet d'epices) and tie it into a little sack; add the sack to the stock (you can tie the sack closed with some twine and tie the long end of the twine to the handle of the pot; this makes the bag easier to retrieve.) Simmer for one more hour, then add the shrimp shells and heads. Simmer an additional 30 minutes.

Remember that during the simmering process, it's best not to stir the stock. The end result will be much clearer if it is not agitated while simmering.

Strain thoroughly; the best way to do this is to ladle the stock out and pour it through a strainer which has been lined with a couple of layers of damp cheesecloth.  If you're using the stock immediately, skim off as much fat as you can with a fat skimmer or a piece of paper towel, otherwise cool the stock right away by placing the container into an ice-water-filled sink, stirring to bring the hot liquid from the center to the sides of the container. Don't just put hot stock in the refrigerator; it won't cool enough to prevent possible multiplication of harmful bacteria. To defat the stock easily, refrigerate so that the fat solidifies on the surface, then skim off.

Makes about 5 quarts of stock.

(Except for the shrimp shells, this is an excellent general-purpose chicken stock. The shells are added at the last minute for the additional seafood flavor for that I like especially for this dish; for general use, though, it's best to make separate chicken or fish stocks. The stock will keep for a few days in the refrigerator or 6 months in the freezer.)

For the Roux:

1 - 1/4 cups flour
1 cup oil

Blend thoroughly in a thick skillet and cook over medium-high to high heat, stirring constantly. Be very careful not to burn it! If you see black specks in the roux, you've screwed it up.  Dump it out and start over.  Keep cooking and stirring until the roux gets darker and darker.  It's best to use a very heavy pot or skillet for roux-making, especially cast iron. With a good cast iron Dutch oven or skillet, you can get a beautiful dark roux in only about 20 minutes.

New Orleans people tend to like a blond or peanut butter colored roux, so feel free to make it that way if you like. Cajuns tend to like it dark, and so do I - if you feel comfortable that you won't burn the roux, cook it until it's a dark, reddish-brown, almost but not quite as dark as milk chocolate. The roux, when finished, almost smells like roasted coffee . . . yum!

If you prefer a blond or medium roux, cut down on the amount of roux you use; dark roux does not have as much thickening effect since the starch is so thoroughly cooked.

You should turn the fire down or off as the roux nears the right color, because the heat from the pan will continue cooking it.  You can also add your onions, bell peppers and celery to the roux as it's near the end of cooking to arrest the cooking process and to soften the vegetables.  Keep stirring until the roux is relatively cool.  Add the roux to the stock.

They don't call roux "Cajun napalm" for nothing.   Don't let any splatter on you.

If you don't have a heavy enough pan, or if you're nervous about cooking roux at high heat, remember that a dark Cajun-style roux will take about an hour of constant stirring at low heat, so if you're pressed for time, a nice blond Creole-style roux will still do nicely, and will take about half the time.  Also remember that the roux can be prepared in advance, and refrigerated or frozen.  With a little practice, you'll get good at it.

For the Rest:

1 chicken or guinea hen, without giblets, cut up
1 pound smoked sausage and/or fresh Creole hot sausage, browned
4 pounds shrimp
6 blue crabs, cleaned, broken in half and claws pulled off
3 pounds okra, sliced
2 onions, chopped
1 bunch green onions with tops, chopped
2 bell peppers, chopped
5 ribs celery, chopped
several cloves garlic, minced
3 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
Creole seasoning to taste, or black, white and cayenne peppers, to taste
Salt to taste
Few dashes Tabasco, or to taste.
Steaming hot Louisiana long-grain rice

Sprinkle the chicken pieces with Creole seasoning and brown in the oven. Slice the sausage and brown, pouring off all the fat (especially if you're using fresh Creole hot sausage).  Sauté the onions, green onions, bell pepper and celery if you haven't already added them to the roux, and add to the stock. Add the chicken and sausage(s). Add the bay leaves and Creole seasoning (or ground peppers) to taste and stir. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce to a simmer; let simmer for about 45 minutes. Keep tasting and adjusting seasonings as needed.

Add the okra and cook another 30 minutes or so.  Make sure that the "ropiness" or "stringiness" from the okra is gone, add the parsley, crab halves and claws. Cook for another 15 minutes, then add the shrimp. Give it another 6 - 8 minutes or so, until the shrimp are just done, turning pink. Be very careful not to overcook the shrimp; adding the shrimp should be the very last step.

If there is any fat on the surface of the gumbo, try to skim off as much of it as possible.

Serve generous amounts in bowls over hot rice, claws, shells, bones and all. Remember that the rice goes in the bowl first, and it is not an optional step, despite the trend among some New Orleans restaurants to serve a riceless gumbo.

You may, if you like, sprinkle some gumbo file' in your individual serving; just remember not to put it in the pot and cook it with the gumbo; it doesn't work, and will make the gumbo stringy.

I labored for years refining this recipe. If you make this gumbo and serve it to your guests without crediting me and singing my name . . . Okay, just kidding . . . all I want is for you to enjoy it! 

This article was contributed by Shirley Cline.

Shirley was a great inspiration when I first started working on the idea of creating a recipe and cooking web site. Not only did she encourage me but she also supplied a great many recipes and other pieces which are featured throughout the site. Her great achievement was to teach me to cook risotto over the internet!

Although I never had the chance to meet Shirley, or even talk to her, I regarded her as a good friend. It was with great sadness that I learnt that she passed away in Autumn 2004 and that there would be no more emails. I think she will be sadly missed by a lot of people like me to whom she gave such pleasure with the sharing or her recipes. The pleasure my children have had from her recipe for Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar and Mint - not to mention the fights for seconds - has been a joy to behold.