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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Cajun Chronicles of California: South meets West

Cajun Chronicles of California: South meets West Gumbo and other tales.

I am a Louisiana girl. There I actually said it and admitted to it. Once a year around Mardis Gras, I am willing to do that. I knew I needed to live in trendy and liberal California by the time I was 12, or about the time the Catholic Church got tired of my questions and excommunicated me. But no matter. You can take the girl out of the south, but you can’t take the south out of the girl. I am proud of my southern cooking, and I am proud to know Cajun folk who have taught me a thing or two about the value of a well-seasoned black iron skillet and the patience it takes to make a heavenly brown roux. Besides, you have to understand that Louisiana and SOUTH Louisiana are really two different states, almost two different countries.

Every year around this time, I celebrate Mardis Gras, my birthday and my husband’s birthday with a huge authentic gumbo fest. I make seafood file gumbo, which is vegetarian based, and chicken andouille sausage bacon gumbo for the carnivores. This has become a tradition over the past 12 years or so, and at some point in January people are harass me for a definitive date so they can calendar it, punch it into the blackberry, Iphone it, put it in Outlook, write it on a post-it, tattoo it on their hand or do whatever they need to do to stay organized and not miss a great party.

Not only is this a traditional Cajun food fest, it is a White Elephant gift exchange just for fun. This allows people to clear out the flotsam and jetsam of Christmas crap their clueless friends and relatives have dumped on them during Christmas 2009. Or it allows them the excuse to go out and purchase something off the wall, totally filthy or bizarre. But I digress.

I want to discuss the value of South Louisiana church lady cookbooks. In 2002, I asked my friend N. to write down her family recipes as a wedding present for me. She came up with two small town church lady-published cookbooks as well as a handful of hand-written recipes picked from her 90-year-old grandmother’s gray curly head.

In the St Peter’s Altar Society Cookbook, Every other contributing cook has one of her family names and there is so much inter-marriage and so many related cousins it makes my head spin. I spent some quality time jotting family anecdotes by several of the recipes.

N. is easily related to 2/3 of the entrants by blood or marriage, or by incident. Everyone in Bordelonville is way less than 6 degrees of separation from each other.

Three recipes for both banana and bread pudding, three for pralines, two recipes for Te Gateau cookies. These ladies are competitive. Where else will one find Okra roll ups and red cinnamon cucumber pickle rings?

I noticed the Church lady committee members got more than one recipe each in the book. Closer to God than thee and perhaps sleeping with the publisher! Mon Dieu!

I expected to find good wholesome ingredients in those church recipes and was amazed to see…..PET milk and Velveeta cheese food as a primary ingredient for many sauces! Holy Merlitons! My heart hurts just thinking about it, both emotionally and physically. “One can of PET milk, melt in 1 pound of Velveeta in cut into cubes and stir until smooth…..” Oh my. I know it would taste great but give me Chez Paul’s cream sauce with butter if I am going to have a coronary. Tony Chachere’s Cajun seasoning is a mainstay too, and original Tobasco sauce. None of this green tomatillo or Chipotle flavor crap. Give me that original pepper taste from New Iberia, Please.

Glorified potatoes! (AKA get into heaven with a covered dish)

Add the ½ pound of Velveeta, ½ cup margarine, real bacon bits, ½ cup sour cream, chives, dash of Tobasco and Tony Chachere’s and Sacre Bleu! It sho be hard to get up them stairs.

(Thank you Dardene and just kidding. You know we’ll eat them up and love them.)

Glorified Gumbo

N’s parents favor a dark brown watery roux with sausage and chicken, poured over a liberal bowl of rice. I always liked the taste of their kitchen. My dad still makes “Hamburgers ala Stanley” with Tony Chachere’s and soy sauce. That is a burger that bites back.

In spite of me attempting to get adopted into the Cajun kitchen down the street, my mom has always used the Better Homes and Gardens recipe for Creole gumbo, which is a tomato –based variety. My mom and I both make thick stewy gumbos rather than the watery brothy kind favored in the deep south. A thick stew doesn’t always set well in hot weather.

I diverge from the BHG recipe, but still make my chicken gumbo tomato-based with andouille sausage. Being the health conscious person I am, I have seriously cut down on the grease and I often just bait the pot with one or two andouilles and fry up diced turkey kielbasa or chicken sausage to add some meat impact to the sauce.

Andouille is such a distinct hot flavor, one can have just a little and it informs any other lower fat sausage you choose to use.

I do fry a pound of bacon and use the grease to fry everything – just because bacon is righteous. It doesn’t take all that much bacon grease to make a gumbo savory.

Even when I am making my “vegetarian” seafood gumbo, I sometimes still fry the vegetables in a pan that has recently known bacon. Trust me, they are better for it, both the vegetarians and the vegetables, whether they realize it or not.

The triumphant trio: celery, red/yellow bells, onions – all get fried in a black seasoned iron skillet informed with bacon.

I don’t like green bell peppers and I think they overpower the gumbo and make it bitter, so I eschew them. I feel the same way about oregano, which is a common spice in Cajun mixes, and I don’t like Bay leaf either. I feel like all these spices can get out of hand and hide the simple taste of all the other fresh ingredients.

I do use some of my Cajun seasoning while softening these veggies. I avoid traditional Tony Chachere’s because I don’t want that much salt, but I occasionally will use salt-free Tony’s. I am a big fan of Andy Roo’s salt free stuff, which I originally bought in the street Market in New Orleans. Back in the day (10 years ago? 18?) you could get it in an unmarked plastic bag but it kicked ass all the same. Now you can buy it online. no doubt.

I have also been making my own Cajun spice for a number of years. When I am feeling generous, I package it up in little bottles and give it as gifts to my party guests. I call it “Hoochie Cootchie Hot stuff” or “Hootch” for short. I sprinkle this over the veggies, and onto any sausage I might be frying up, then I’ll fry my raw chicken pieces in that pan with the bacon fat, sausage grease and veggies. I could give you the spice recipe but then I’d have to kill you.

I like a mix of thighs and breasts, but if you are feeling guilty, skinless chopped breast meat is the healthiest choice. Once I have fried up a couple pounds of bacon, I’m less conservative about fat and throw caution to the wind. After all in parts of the south, a third ass cheek is actually a prized possession. I crumble a little of that bacon into the soup too after the fact. Bacon is righteous!

I add cans of tomato sauce, paste and chopped fresh or canned tomatoes depending on my mood and supplies. If I am using fresh chopped tomato, I sauté the tomato in my ever-ready bacon pan. Do you see a theme forming here? Bacon bacon bacon!

I like to make my own chicken broth too, which entails taking the bones, skin, any leftovers and fat from any chicken dinner and boiling hell out of it, cooling it, skimming off the solids and freezing it. I usually always have some in my freezer, and I thaw it near the stove to add as liquid after I have browned my chicken, sausage and such. It is super easy to make and tastes about 100 percent better than the old stuff that comes in a can or box. Try it and your soups will thank you.

I dump all of these goodies into a large gumbo pot (Mine is 16 quarts large) and let it simmer while I make my roux. I will usually throw in my okra at that point too. I like fresh okra when I can get it, but I am not averse to frozen sliced okra. It tastes fine and adds the right amount of slime to make the “gum” in gumbo actualize. Okra makes some folks’ hands itch when processed fresh. Wear gloves or deal with it.

The roux is the piece de resistance of the soup. Seasoned flour, whisked into cold water, slowly poured into hot grease and stirred furiously to keep it smooth, then cooked to whatever shade of brown tickles your fancy. I find my roux takes 15-20 minutes to make. My dad has always had the impression that one cooks a roux lovingly all day long. Utter nonsense that, but it is a romantic thought.

I like a mahogany roux but others prefer a more savory burnt flavor and go for walnut hue. Once the roux is the right color and consistency, I pour it into the huge pot, let the whole soup simmer for 20 or 30 minutes or so, cool it overnight and serve it the next day. This allows the flavors to marry instead of just having a one-night stand.

I do the same steps for a seafood gumbo, except I will thicken the broth with cans of white crabmeat and I will boil in white fish fillets to make a fish based broth. I won’t add the fresh seafood until the next day 30 minutes before I am about the serve the dish, so all fresh fish, crab ,shrimp, and squid go in at the last minute to keep all the little sea creatures from turning into rubber bands. If you like living dangerously, throw in some fresh oysters too, especially if it is the right time of year and you trust your source. I eschew the tomato and use file spice instead in seafood gumbo.

This is finely ground sassafras leaves and it has an earthy flavor that marries well with the seafood and turns the soup gray green. Zatarain’s is a fine brand for this and for some other Cajun spices, like crab boil.

Serve over rice and experience a little piece of southern heaven!

Now, I have quite a collection of hot sauces that have come my way over the years. I have the whole collection of Tobascos : traditional pepper, Chipotle (which I hate) the garlic tobasco I am most partial to and the mild green tomatillo type sauce. I also have habanero tobasco for the more daring, and some hotter than the hinges of hell scotch bonnet and piquin stuff called “Submission”, given to me as a joke. Word to the wise: Don’t even touch that stuff! Not only can it burn skin I had to suck an ice cube for 30 minutes to get the pain out of my mouth and it wasted a heavenly dish of soup. I can take stuff plenty hot, but that is ridiculous.

If your mouth heat receptors are that fired up, you aren’t really going to enjoy that sneaky bacon flavor so carefully crafted into the gumbo. Plus if you get macho and eat too much hot sauce, you will feel like you have been smoking menthol cigarettes with your nether parts the next day. I know of what I speak. I’ll write about trying to get on the “Wall of Flame” at the Prince of Wales Pub someday, but that is still a tender subject.

Laissez Les bon Temps Roulez!


  1. Excellent write up and pictures. My mouth is watering in rememberance and it is only 9am. Little by little, my nerve endings are learning to appreciate spicy foods (or die trying). There is much good food in the bay area but I'm not sure who could duplicate this meal. And yes, please write about our Sprint team building event at the Prince of Wales!

  2. The California is a lovely place for food lovers. The cooking style is so different and spicy. The South American states have an amazing taste and flavor of food.