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Smithy

So, what makes it 'Cajun'?

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First of all, I should explain that I've never been to Louisiana, so my idea of Louisiana food started with the "French Quarter" in Disneyland lo, these many decades ago, and has branched off into more variety since then. (How many fritters can one young woman eat? Lots at the time, as I recall, but no longer.) I've had some marvelous stuff made with Andouille sausage. Loved it. Didn't think much more about it.

A year or so ago an acquaintance from Louisiana sent my husband a "thank you" package that included several boxes of Zatarain's mixes. We loved them, especially the Red Beans and Rice mix, and were delighted to learn that they can be had here in northern Minnesota. It's easy, fast, and tasty, and has become a staple in our cupboard. However, we're starting to realize that it's also very salty. I bet there's something better.

I began trying recipes from Eula May's Cajun Kitchen. Nice stories. Recipes okay. Main flavor seems to be "hot". Surely there's more to it than that?

That leads to my question, offered here with some hesitation because y'all will KNOW I'm a total parvenue, but how else will I learn: what defines Cajun food? In particular, if you want a Cajun slant on something, what spices do you use? Is it really just hot sauce? I keep expecting more complexity. Certainly, good Andouille sausage implies more complexity. I keep thinking sweet and hot, or savory and hot, or...or what? Or is it not the spices, as such, but more the ambience and combinations?

Help me learn here, folks!


Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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a very initial answer to your question ...

the foods in Cajun and Creole cultures

Cajuns are known for their "joie de vivre" (joy of living), and to add excitement to their food they experiment with herbs, spices and ingredients to create some of the most flavorful dishes that people throughout North America now enjoy.
which is what makes food Cajun ... spent 4 years commuting to New Orleans when my daughter went to Tulane University, so I got some impressions along the way ...

in other words, Smithy, laissez les bontemps roulez! :wink:


Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"

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Think garlic, onions, and yes pepper, red and black . . and more. A basic play around with it formula:

Cajun seasoning:

mix: garlic powder/onion powder/paprika/black pepper/cayenne pepper and finely crushed or ground dried basil/thyme/bay leaf

salt to taste

Start with about 3 tbsps of each of the spices and garlic/onion powders. 1 tbsp of each of basil, thyme, bayleaf.

Add 3 Tbsp chili powder also if you wish (they have a lot of elements in common and chili powder also has a line of cumin in it -- so you might just want to add that, but easy on the cumin, maybe 1/2 tsp).

Throw it all except the salt in your spice mill or blender.

Add salt afterward, or reserve that to add during cooking.

And put the Tabasco sauce on the table so you can shake on your own!


Judith Love

North of the 30th parallel

One woman very courteously approached me in a grocery store, saying, "Excuse me, but I must ask why you've brought your dog into the store." I told her that Grace is a service dog.... "Excuse me, but you told me that your dog is allowed in the store because she's a service dog. Is she Army or Navy?" Terry Thistlewaite

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Don't forget the 'Trinity': green peppers, onion, and celery,started in your pan in the fat of your choice--just not too much green peppers, though, cuz most Cajun cooks consider too much'll take over the taste. :smile:


Edited by Mabelline (log)

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This reminds me of something I thought of yesterday while stuck having lunch at a Chili's. Here is an item from their menu:

CAJUN CHICKEN PASTA - $9.49

  Sliced Cajun chicken breast on penne pasta with creamy Alfredo sauce, seasoned tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and garlic toast

Other than some spices I suppose are sprinkled on the chicken breast prior to cooking, what the hell makes this "cajun"?

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This reminds me of something I thought of yesterday while stuck having lunch at a Chili's. Here is an item from their menu:
CAJUN CHICKEN PASTA - $9.49

  Sliced Cajun chicken breast on penne pasta with creamy Alfredo sauce, seasoned tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and garlic toast

Other than some spices I suppose are sprinkled on the chicken breast prior to cooking, what the hell makes this "cajun"?

Well, and that might be where I've been going wrong. I can sure let the good times roll while I'm eating something like that, but it hasn't seemed distinctive!


Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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Think garlic, onions, and yes pepper, red and black  . . and more. A basic play around with it formula:

Cajun seasoning:

mix: garlic powder/onion powder/paprika/black pepper/cayenne pepper and finely crushed or ground dried basil/thyme/bay leaf

salt to taste

Start with about 3 tbsps of each of the spices and garlic/onion powders. 1 tbsp of each of basil, thyme, bayleaf.

Add 3 Tbsp chili powder also if you wish (they have a lot of elements in common and chili powder also has a line of cumin in it -- so you might just want to add that, but easy on the cumin, maybe 1/2 tsp).

Throw it all except the salt in your spice mill or blender.

Add salt afterward, or reserve that to add during cooking.

And put the Tabasco sauce on the table so you can shake on your own!

Ah, now that sounds promising. I like the idea of having some of it set into its own dispenser, ready to hand.

Mabelline wrote: Posted Today, 07:20 AM

Don't forget the 'Trinity': green peppers, onion, and celery,started in your pan in the fat of your choice--just not too much green peppers, though, cuz most Cajun cooks consider too much'll take over the taste. 

Thanks for that, too. I have to say I'm not keen on green peppers most of the time; would I be thrown off the planet with red peppers instead? :biggrin:

Let the good times roll, indeed! Think I'm off to get fresh chili powder (my husband lets it sit around forever) and try something like this tonight! On some shrimp, perhaps?


Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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Although there's certain ingredients common to most cajun, makin' do with you've got (or prefer) is certainly part of it.

Roux. Bacon fat or sausage grease. Okra. Rotel. GOOD killer tomatoes. Greens.

Wait till Mayhaw Man joins in. He will take you by the hand and gently lead you to MARDI GRAS!!!

Ms. Rachel, most times I've seen Cajun-somethin' on a menu, I can tell by the price, but not much else. At least most places have given up on insipid versions of "Blackened" whatever.

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This reminds me of something I thought of yesterday while stuck having lunch at a Chili's. Here is an item from their menu:
CAJUN CHICKEN PASTA - $9.49

  Sliced Cajun chicken breast on penne pasta with creamy Alfredo sauce, seasoned tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and garlic toast

Other than some spices I suppose are sprinkled on the chicken breast prior to cooking, what the hell makes this "cajun"?

It's the same situation as "BBQ", Rachel. Pop culture has appropriated the term and bent it into shapes that are only shadows of what it really is.

BBQ now kind of means "grilled" and/or "coated in a sticky sauce" and/or "eating outdoors, beer in one hand, hot dog in the other".

Cajun now means "with some kind of vaguely pepper-based spicy taste associated with it". Maybe buried under Alfredo sauce. :raz:

Nevermind that the truth is far more interesting, Chili's needs desperately to make its food actually sound edible. :wacko:


Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Man, this can get very complex. Cajun, Creole, Creole Italian, ad infinitum.

In the purest sense, I believe, that Cajun food involves a couple of things almost always. Generally, outside of boiled seafood, the dishes are stews or soups of some sort. This is for two reasons, the first of which is that the vegetable ingredients are and were available virtually year round thanks to the warm weather here (we very rarely have a hard freeze) and some things, like bell peppers, onions, celery, tomatoes, peppers, etc. can be grown most of the year. These ingredients make a great base for damn near anything, but especially for seafood (added generally at the end of the dish) or tougher cuts of meat that benefit from long cooking times.

Dishes like ettoufee, gumbo, fricasee, creole, etc. are really what it is all about. Dishes that feed lots of people cheaply and well. You have to remember, that until the 1927 Flood, most of these people had never left their home to go much farther than Breaux Bridge, Morgan City, or Rayne (excepting WW1 when a disproportionate number of young men from South La. went "over there" precisely because of their abilities in the French Language). Lafayette was the big city to them, and until well into the mid twentieth century the majority of people there spoke French as a first, if not only, language (Jackie Kennedy gave a now famous speech, wholly in French, off the back of a rice wagon in Downtown Crowley in 1960. Who do you think carried Catholic, French Speaking South LA?). These were very poor people. They eked out livings out of the swamps, off the land, or by fishing or farming (very often, until the late fifties, this farming was on shares-they did not even own the land they worked). They had to eat cheaply, but on the other hand, there was no reason not to eat well. The land and the sea took care of the raw ingredients and the French (and no doubt African) heritage took care of the rest.

Of course, the lack of refrigeration over much of South La, until the REA showed up during the thirties and forties, caused a lot of other things. Sausage keeps well. So many kinds of Sausage were and have remained popular, although originally it probably had as much to do with preserving pork than with cultural influences. Many of the sausages that are popular here today are German in origin, but were adapted by the Cajuns (the area up the west side of the river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is known today as the German Coast and the andouille Capital of the World, La PLace, is smack dab in the middle of it. No coincidence).

I hope that this helps. There are obviously lots of exceptions with this little theory, but generally it is not far off of the mark. Also, I almost forgot, this kind of food is often served, and always has been, with beer and music. Two of the best spices around.

Edited to say that I, once again, failed to answer the question as I was busy giving a lecture about my green and pleasant land (Apologies to the other G and P Land).

Spices-

Well, much of the spice and depth of the food that is commonly served here comes from the ingredients as much as it does some demented bamming with Tony's or something. To be sure, pepper sauce of various kinds has long been used both as an ingredient and as a condiment (think preservation of peppers with no refrigeration again-EVERYTHING here rots and mildews at a speed that many of you in drier climes cannot possibly imagine-foods must be preserved in some way to keep them from doing these things), and our natural supply of salt is huge (Avery Island is, in fact, on top of one of the largest salt deposits in North America and the US Oil Reserves are, in large part, stored in old salt depositories all over South LA). You also will note that many kinds of peppers do well here, so they would be part of the spiciness as well. For the last hundred years or so, citified cajuns have also considered "Lea and Perrins" to be cajun guys (Lea and Peh-RAN :laugh: ) , the stuff is in hundreds of recipes.

Anyway, I digress again. But I do think that the spiciness is derived from what is cooked IN the dish (traditionally, anyway) as much as what is added to it.

I took a week long drive along the Oregon/ Washington Coast in the early nineties (Tillamook Bay is one of my favorite places on earth-Crabs and Cheese-hard to ask for more out of life). We sort of specialized in eating in small, lunchroom type places and it got to be huge joke that in almost every place we ate there was a line on the menu that said "We can 'Cajunize' any dish for a dollar". Can you say Tony Cachere's? Yikes.


Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Spices-

Well, much of the spice and depth of the food that is commonly served here comes from the ingredients as much as it does some demented bamming with Tony's or something. To be sure, pepper sauce of various kinds has long been used both as an ingredient and as a condiment (think preservation of peppers with no refrigeration again-EVERYTHING here rots and mildews at a speed that many of you in drier climbs cannot possibly imagine-foods must be preserved in some way to keep them from doing these things), and our natural supply of salt is huge (Avery Island is in fact, on top of one of the largest salt deposits in North America and the US Oil Reserves are, in large part, stored in old salt depositories all over South LA). You also will not that many kinds of peppers do well here, so they would be part of the spiciness as well.

So, Mayhaw Man, our honored resident expert, a question here, please. Do you have a suggestion or addition to the general base Cajun seasoning I posted?

 

A basic play around with it formula:

Cajun seasoning:

mix: garlic powder/onion powder/paprika/black pepper/cayenne pepper and finely crushed or ground dried basil/thyme/bay leaf

salt to taste

Start with about 3 tbsps of each of the spices and garlic/onion powders. 1 tbsp of each of basil, thyme, bayleaf.

(Add 3 Tbsp chili powder also if you wish -- they have a lot of elements in common and chili powder also has a line of cumin in it -- so you might just want to add that, but easy on the cumin, maybe 1/2 tsp).

Throw it all except the salt in your spice mill or blender.

Add salt afterward, or reserve that to add during cooking.

Of course, I don't always use my pre-mixed combo -- fresh is best -- but there are times the mix is useful and for dry rub (catfish/chicken, etc.,) it is very convenient.

I got this from cooking with LA/Lafayette native friend. Much prefer to mix my own, as she does, rather than use brand prepped seasonings -- as I definitely can adjust to suit the dish and my momentary herbal preference -- also usually for a higher ratio of the good red peppers, so productive in my garden :shock::biggrin:

And nothin' beats the homegrown Tabasco sauce for table condiment as desired-- either the red or vinegar sprinkle. :wink:


Judith Love

North of the 30th parallel

One woman very courteously approached me in a grocery store, saying, "Excuse me, but I must ask why you've brought your dog into the store." I told her that Grace is a service dog.... "Excuse me, but you told me that your dog is allowed in the store because she's a service dog. Is she Army or Navy?" Terry Thistlewaite

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I'm a Crystal man myself-but Tabasco has it's place, as well. And I have become very fond of the stuff from the nice folks at Panola, up in the Delta.

That spice mix looks fine. And dont get me wrong, I use stuff like that all of the time-I was only trying to define what the true historical base for the cuisine is and where it came from.


Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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As usual, I think Mayhaw Man represents my native state well. I grew up in Lafayette, my dad spoke only Cajun French until he started school, his parents were share-croppers in addition to trappers and other odd-job workers. So to me, in many ways, "Cajun" food is synonymous with "not much money in the pot".

The trinity (celery, onions, bell peppers) are always at the base. Usually a roux (brown flour and a fat - I use canola oil), maybe some tomatoes, okra, seafood, chicken, sausage, game. Usually lots of heat. Supper for us growing up often meant some sort of meat (pot roast chicken, smothered pork chops) and rice and gravy. In these low-carb-crazed days, I shudder at how much white rice I've consumed in my lifetime.

My grandmother also was famous for her crepes and coush-coush (a sort of cornbread, milk, and sugar mixture).

I think Marcel Bienvenu's Who's Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux? is a good survey of what Cajuns often eat throughout the year.

As usual, all this talk about LA food is making me homesick -- maybe more so since I'm considering a move back!


Bridget Avila

My Blog

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And PS, I NEVER buy anything an a restaurant that claims to be "Cajun". I am all too sure that I will be disappointed. Case in point -- an $18 plate of jambalaya. Sure, it might have a couple of bites of andouille, and a couple of shrimp, but, please, it's mostly about 5 cents worth of rice!


Edited by bavila (log)

Bridget Avila

My Blog

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I have to throw a couple of other things into Brooks' fine exposition. He touched on the environment as it relates to growing seasons and crop affinities, but left out the fact that, in hot, humid climates, spicy dishes are valued because they help cool you off. So it's not just that this is stuff that grows well here, it's that its use is particularly well suited to the comfort of the inhabitants. Therefore the food is unapologetically spicy.

But to get closer to Smithy's original question, no, that's not all there is. Though the food is often spicy (of course, you only have to look at traditional regional desserts to see that in some ways, more than heat, the cuisine is often about extremes -- sweet as well as hot), it uses a technique of layering flavors to increase the complexity of the experience. I'm not necessarily talking about a melange of different ingredients, but rather a way to use the same things two or three times in a dish: first caramelizing, then braising, then garnishing, for instance, to give you a rounded flavor that features an item (bell peppers, onions, shrimps, a number of spices including sugar, just to name a few) locked into several states in the same dish. I'm not sure there's another cuisine that does this, except maybe those of some Indian regions.

I'm not done, but I'll end with one more observation: Cajun and Creole are the descendants of a remarkable confluence of events and cultures. Although it's been narrow-mindedly sterotyped into a single spicy dimension, there is not another branch of cooking in North America that is so reflective of its geography, and at the same time inclusive of, and adapted to, new ingredients that transportation and agriculture have made available to it. So while its roots are peasant, it's moved uptown from the bayou without desecration (forget Chili's for a moment, and think of Lagasse, Spicer, Kearney and Brigtsen).

Oh! I confess, that despite doing a fair amount of Cajun and Creole cooking, I don't use a lot of pepper sauce. And in leafing through what I consider the bible of the cuisine, Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen, I'm not seeing a lot of mentions. Certainly it belongs on the table, but I see it as a condiment, not an ingredient. I think Chef Paul even points out somewhere that pepper sauce doesn't survive long cooking very well.


Dave Scantland
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dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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I'm not done, but I'll end with one more observation: Cajun and Creole are the descendants of a remarkable confluence of events and cultures. Although it's been narrow-mindedly sterotyped into a single spicy dimension, there is not another branch of cooking in North America that is so reflective of its geography, and at the same time inclusive of, and adapted to, new ingredients that transportation and agriculture have made available to it. So while its roots are peasant, it's moved uptown from the bayou without desecration (forget Chili's for a moment, and think of Lagasse, Spicer, Kearney and Brigtsen).

Man. I wish that I had said that. Wow! Dave wins! This needs to be pinned up there somewhere for all to read. Nicely said.

I retreat to my corner in shame to contemplate my ignorance.


Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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What makes it Cajun? If the recipe starts with, "First, you make a roux." That's Cajun.


"I like 'em french fried pertaters." (Billy Bob Thornton as Karl, in Sling Blade.)

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Wow! Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. You've managed to evoke a history and economy and their influence on a cuisine in a way that's never come clear to me before, in addition to answering my original question. And for anyone who wants to add something, I'm eager to read it!

In the meantime I have a follow-up question: I'd like to know more about this layering of flavors by treating the same ingredients in different ways! Do you have some recipes you can point to? Or should I go check out a copy of Prudhomme's book? That sounds really interesting!

Wish I could be more articulate about this, but I'm busy fending kittens off the keyboard.xxxxanyway, more responses welcome!

Nancy


Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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What makes it Cajun? If the recipe starts with, "First, you make a roux." That's Cajun.

That is precisely what frightened me off for years! Now I think I might be able to handle it - :laugh:


Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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Smithy, Mayhaw Man posted a thread a while ago with pictureshow of an excellent lesson in making up a dish with a roux. Made me want to chew on the keyboard. Maybe he'll help you with the title of that thread, as I've no memory to speak of for titles, but I sho' enuf can remember goodlooking food!

Another thing that you will find by delving into Luzianne is that as far as America goes, it's an old, and amalgamated cuisine. Think beignets, oysters Rockefeller, Sazerac cocktails, bitters as an ingredient--Peychaud's, but of course.

Cajun, Creole, Spanish, African, American Indian, Italian, Greek--they are eagerly consumed by everybody---LA always impressed me with how knowledgable the little kids are there with regards to their food preferrences.

You could read about the cuisine there forever! Enjoy! :rolleyes:


Edited by Mabelline (log)

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I'm a Crystal man myself-but Tabasco has it's place, as well. And I have become very fond of the stuff from the nice folks at Panola, up in the Delta.

That spice mix looks fine. And dont get me wrong, I use stuff like that all of the time-I was only trying to define what the true historical base for the cuisine is and where it came from.

Thanks, Mayhaw Man. Always open for suggestions from the experts. :biggrin:

I was not at all implying anything else! Your post was wonderful. A fine trip through the historical/current run of Cajun cuisine. :cool:

Crystal is good too, I like it, and have used it.

I grow my own Tabasco peppers, and there's just something about making my own sauces. Enjoy doing it and using it! :wub: Longest aging pulp I have now is three years old and man oh man! Aging Tabasco peppers is like fine wine -- the good get better! :shock::laugh:


Judith Love

North of the 30th parallel

One woman very courteously approached me in a grocery store, saying, "Excuse me, but I must ask why you've brought your dog into the store." I told her that Grace is a service dog.... "Excuse me, but you told me that your dog is allowed in the store because she's a service dog. Is she Army or Navy?" Terry Thistlewaite

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Panola, one of my trips, I am going to stop and see if they offer a tour. The plant is really out in the middle of no where, but that sauce is sure fine.


It is good to be a BBQ Judge.  And now it is even gooder to be a Steak Cookoff Association Judge.  Life just got even better.  Woo Hoo!!!

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Panola, one of my trips, I am going to stop and see if they offer a tour.  The plant is really out in the middle of no where, but that sauce is sure fine.

Hey Now! I grew up in that middle of nowhere.

Of course, I 'm not saying that you are wrong. It is also, in fact, one of the poorest Parishes (counties) in the US. The per capita income is like, a dollar.


Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Dave and Brooks hit it right.

I grew up in Golden Meadow in LaFourche Parish. Mom's family has been there for ever. Dad's family was there since the mid-30's.

The food was good and filling. Mostly what you could catch or hunt. Money was tight for most folks but we never knew it. The flavors were/are a complex blending of what you had on hand.

The food I grew up with was not that pepper hot although it was in there, especially in the seafood.

I still like the flavors of my home but I don’t cook real Cajun that often. (Hard to find the right stuff in the North Atlanta country side) I just cannot do it right for only the wife and I. It takes a BIG pot to get the flavors right the way I learned them. It also takes more time than I want to spend cooking most days.


Dwight

If at first you succeed, try not to act surprised.

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Smithy, here's a http://www.cooking.com/techniques/vidtech.asp?id=29 with a video for making roux. I had a little bit of technical glitch in viewing it, but there are also frame-by-frame still photos with directions. When I make gumbo, my roux is a little darker than what they show as a "brown roux".

Other roux tips:

-Play with the ratios of flour and fat. For soup/gumbo dishes you'll probably want more flour than fat (I use 2:1), but for something like an etoufee, a 1:1 ratio might work better for you.

-Also, you can make up a big batch of roux and store it in the fridge. I've also used store-bought roux, which was ok.

-Be very careful when you make roux as it gets VERY hot and can cause major burns.

-I've also had success making roux in the microwave in small batches. Combine fat and flour in a pyrex or corningware type container. Microwave on full power for about 1.5 minutes at a time, stirring in between. When roux starts to darken, shorten heating times to 20-30 seconds at a time. Stirring often will prevent a lump of coal/fire from forming in the center of your roux. :wink:

That's all I can think of for now.

Oh, and I also like the Junior League of Lafayette cookbooks, Talk About Good and Talk About Good II, both available on Amazon. In a way they remind of Neiman Marcus catalogs, (with which I play, how-much-does-that-cost?), except with them I play how-much-fat-is-in-that?


Bridget Avila

My Blog

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