Commentary: Cajun food and all that jazz
February 6, 2014
Arcadia was mapped by Verranzanno in the 16th century to include most of the northeastern seaboard of this continent above Virginia.
In ongoing battles over Acadian territories, (the ‘r’ got dropped) between the French and the British, the rough trappers and frontiersmen of French origin were eventually deported from Acadia. Over time the name Acadians morphed into Cajuns.
Many Cajuns ended up in New Orleans, a city held by the French, then the Spanish and then the French again before being sold to the Americans in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
New Orleans’ stature as the largest city and most important port in the south until well after the Civil War added to its cultural and global importance. But it was its vibrant ethnic diversity that branded it as the most unique city in America.
Cajuns are one significant ethnic influence among many in New Orleans. Others include Native Americans, Creoles (whites of French and Spanish descent born in New Orleans), French, Spanish, Germans, Irish, Africans and Caribbean islanders.
The Choctaw and other local peoples shared their reverence for, and knowledge of, their strangely beautiful and fruitful lowland world.
It was filled with shadowy dangers and exotic delights that only they knew intimately.
The Europeans brought their traditional culinary influences. The Africans brought their spices and haunting rhythms.
Long before the Civil War, New Orleans had more free blacks than any city in the new world.
This confluence of cultures led New Orleans to become the birthplace of jazz and of a particular cuisine that stands out due to its diversity and its uniqueness.
Gumbo, with chicken, seafood, andouille sausage, okra and peppers, is one of the region’s most famous dishes and a great example of that diversity at work in the kitchen.
Okra is thought to have come from West Africa, peppers from the Americas. Sausage making was a part of most European traditions, but the German sausage makers in New Orleans truly flourished.
We will serve gumbo and other New Orleans classic dishes at Old 5Mile House this month.
For those who would like to give Gumbo a whirl in their own kitchen, see the recipe below.
New Orleans’ food is an expression of the city’s diversity, the wonderful abundance of seafood, local produce, wild game and that “Big Easy” way of living life to the fullest.
Laissez les bon temps roulez! Let the good times roll!
Gumbo Maison Cinque
5 large boneless skinless chicken breasts cut into 2-inch cubes, or one cut up chicken
Salt and pepper
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 pound andouille, cut into 1/4-inch slices
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 large onion, chopped
4 green onions chopped coarsely (for gumbo)
2 green onions chopped finely (for garnish)
8 cloves garlic minced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 stalks celery chopped
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 bunch flat leaf parsley, stems and leaves, coarsely chopped, plus chopped leaves for garnish
1 Qt chicken stock
4 cups crushed tomatoes with juice
2 cups okra sliced into ¼-inch rings, frozen is OK
16-20 medium, raw, shelled and de-veined shrimp
¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
1/8 tsp salt
¼ cup bourbon
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
Toss shrimp in glass bowl with red pepper flakes, 1/8 tsp salt and 3 Tablespoons of oil. Cover with plastic wrap and hold in refrigerator till later.
Season the chicken with salt and pepper.
Heat oil to medium high in a wide, heavy bottomed stockpot till a piece of chicken sizzles nicely.
Cook the chicken until browned on both sides and remove to a bowl for later. Do not overcrowd the pot.
Lower heat to medium low. Sprinkle the flour over the oil, stirring constantly, until peanut butter brown, about 10 minutes.
Add the onion, green onion, garlic, green pepper and celery and cook for 10 minutes. Stir often.
Add Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Cook, while stirring frequently for 10 minutes.
Add stock slowly while whisking constantly. Cook 30 minutes. Add more stock or water if necessary.
Add the chicken and sausage, simmer for 30 – 45 minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer for 30 minutes more. Add okra, green onion and parsley and simmer another 10 minutes. Taste for salt and adjust as necessary. Heat a large heavy bottom frying pan on high heat till very hot.
Drop all shrimp quickly into pan and immediately spread them out in a single layer with tongs. Don’t breathe in the smoke of the red pepper flakes!
Sear shrimp on first side till browned a bit on edges – about 40 seconds to one minute. Working quickly, flip them all to the second side with a spatula or tongs. Sear second side for 30 – 40 seconds until opaque pink. Pull from heat.
Let pan cool for a minute. Carefully pour bourbon on shrimp, ignite the bourbon with a long handled lighter and flambé them holding them away from you.
Serve gumbo in bowls, place 4 shrimp tails up on top at the center of each and sprinkle the gumbo with chopped parsley and chopped green onions. Serve with a cold beer or a dry Zinfandel.
Robert Smith is the chef owner of the Old 5Mile House where they serve roadhouse food from around the world.