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« Banh Mi for Beginners | Main | A Book, a List and a Lot to Read »
Thursday
Sep142006

Book Spotlight: In a Cajun Kitchen

 239282947_87d717372f.jpg
Chicken and Sausage Gumbo 

 

My purchasing habits when it comes to cookbooks are, I suppose by now, no big secret. As is usually the case with addicts, I have an ample and well-worn list of rationalizations I frequently invoke to justify my ever-more destructive behavior. Sure they're expensive, but by not stopping at Starbucks for a quadruple venti latte every morning I save so much money! Sure I already have ten books on the same topic, but this one definitely contains a crucial piece of gastronomic wisdom none of the others do! The issue of physical space, however, is a little harder to rationalize. Of course I can convince myself that a house overflowing with books is cozy instead of cluttered, but when Manuel nearly kills us both by disrupting the equilibrium of the stack of cookbooks which live on the shelf above our bed because there is nowhere else to put them, even I realize some boundaries need to be drawn. At least this is the only way I can possibly explain the madness that momentarily possessed me as I promised my traumatized husband that effective immediately, I will only buy books that I REALLY TRULY NEED. "And when this last shelf on the bookcase we bought last spring is full," I foolishly said, "I won't buy any more until we move into a bigger apartment." Which shouldn't be that long, right? Gulp.

So with this is mind, imagine my dilemma when an email from a major publisher arrived in my inbox one morning asking if I would be interested in receiving a promotional copy of Terri Pischoff Wuerthner's new book, In a Cajun Kitchen. A quick glance at the publicity materials revealed that this is a glossy, stylish hardback focusing on the secrets of Cajun home cooking, painstakingly researched and brought to life with exquisite photography by the award-winning Maren Caruso. So far so good, I thought, but do I really need this book? I certainly couldn't let myself forget that I already own multiple books on Cajun cooking and this coupled with the fact of Wuerthner being an unknown name to me - not to mention the alarmingly large percentage of my remaining bookshelf space I would be relinquishing - certainly gave me pause for reflection. But after deliberating long and hard - for at least ten seconds, I would say - I fired back an email with an enthusiastic YES!!! I mean really, bookshelf-space, promises or not, you don't think I'm going to turn down a free cookbook, and particularly one about Cajun cooking, do you??

243885876_dd286ca362.jpg 

 
The Book
In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit I'm quite a Cajun-food groupie. During nearly four years of residence in New Orleans I tasted a lot of it and learned quite a bit about it, but the truth of the matter is I've actually cooked very little of it myself. For those who are not that familiar with Cajun food, this book - part memoir, part historical record and part cookbook, should serve as an excellent introduction. Wuerthner (who grew up in San Francisco herself, but comes from a long-established family from Ashton, Louisiana) explains how true Cajun food (not to be confused with Creole, which is specific to New Orleans) is the French-based cuisine brought to Southwest Louisiana by the Acadians, French settlers kicked out of Nova Scotia in the eighteenth century. They brought their old-world style of cooking with them to this new subtropical environment, adapting it to the local flora and fauna while creating new versions of French favorites (like bisques and fricassees), as well as inventing plenty of new ones, many of which (like gumbo and jambalaya) were influenced by the cuisine of the African slaves on their farms and plantations. There were noticeable absences in ingredients in their new home, however, which led to a fundamentally different character for the new cuisine; dairy and wheat, for example, did not thrive in the Louisiana climate, and as a result vegetable oil and lard are more widely used than butter and cream, while corn and rice take the spotlight away from bread as the primary starches. The other defining characteristic of Cajun food, as Wuerthner points out, is the time it takes to cook it. This is not an à la minute cuisine, but instead one that gains its character from long, slow cooking times, which not only made the most of the ingredients available but freed up the Cajun housewife for her myriad of other duties (such as child-rearing - those Cajun families were huge!). What never changed as the cuisine adapted was the pleasure people took in it - Cajuns are known as some of the most passionate eaters and generous hosts in the world, and the heartiness and robust flavors that are the hallmarks of Cajun cuisine certainly reflect this.

The Recipes
The recipes in this book represent Wuerthner's attempt to collect and archive her family's recipes. Some of them she learned to cook from her family in California, while others she learned about while researching her family's history in Louisiana. While no means an encyclopedic treatment of Cajun foods, there are recipes for just about everything well-known in the Cajun repertoire, as well as many less-traditional family favorites. The usual suspects are all there - jambalaya, ettouffe, gumbo, beignets, hush puppies and bread pudding, for example, often in multiple variations - along with plenty of less-usual ones: crispy cayenne french toast, baked tomato casserole, and spicy syrup cake. What I love about all the recipes in this book is how Wuerthner has personalized them with stories and anecdotes - each section begins with a lengthy reminiscence about her extended family and their relationship with food, and each recipe is preceded by a small note indicating the history or importance of that particular dish to this family. For me, at least, it inspired great confidence in the recipes, both for their authenticity and reliability, as nearly every one has been passed down through several generations before appearing in this book. Above all, though, what struck me as I scrutinized potential recipes to try, was how approachable and uncomplicated they are; this is home cooking at its best, a cuisine based on thrift, imagination, and plenty of good taste.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

A gumbo is a long-simmered stew usually containing some kind of meat, sausage, and/or fish (though vegetarian versions do exist), and very frequently calling for both okra and filé powder (powdered sassafras leaves), which act as flavors and thickeners. In addition, one thing gumbo always includes is a roux - a long-cooked mixture of flour and oil - that adds thickness and a deep, nutty flavor to much Cajun food. Upon this first layer of flavor are layered a myriad of tastes and textures which are slowly simmered together to make a rich, thick, mildly spicy dish.

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (she admits that bone-in, skin-on dark meat chicken pieces, such as legs, thighs and wings are more traditional as well as flavorful in Cajun cooking, so that's what I used - a much better idea, in my opinion)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup corn oil
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 1/2 cups chopped celery
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
2 quarts warm chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, or to taste
1 pound andouille sausage, sliced 1 inch thick (or other spicy smoked sausage, such as Kielbasa, though my advice is to add the following if you don't use andouille: another 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder, and 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)
1 1/2 pounds fresh okra or 20 ounces frozen okra, defrosted, sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons filé powder (I left this out, as I couldn't find any locally)
chopped fresh parsley, to garnish
cooked rice, to serve


Season the chicken cubes (or pieces) with the salt, paprika and cayenne pepper; set aside. Heat the oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the flour and cook for 25-30 minutes, stirring constantly, until the flour has turned a medium-brown, like peanut butter. Add the onions, celery, and bell pepper and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the seasoned chicken and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly (and reducing the heat, if necessary, to prevent burning).

Add the stock and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add the hot sauce and sausage; reduce the heat to low and cover the pot. Simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Add the okra and simmer for 30 more minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the filé powder just before dishing it up. Serve in soup bowls with a mound of rice in the center of each portion.

 

 240662715_75b5f12985.jpg
Pecan Pralines

Pecan Pralines

These deceptively homely - but extremely delicious - treats have a reputation for their difficulty, something I understood all too well in the process of making them. The first problem is achieving the correct temperature so that the finished pralines will spread around the nuts like molten lava and cool to an opaque firmness that crumbles softly under the teeth. A candy thermometer, needless to say, is quite essential here. The second hurdle, which is even greater in my opinion, is getting all the pralines made before the mixture cools to an unworkable grainy sludge, which it does faster than you can imagine, especially if you're not a praline-forming pro yet. I found a way around this by returning the mixture to the heat, along with a spoonful or so of water, and remelting it for a minute or so until it was the correct temperature again. It was quite a production, though, and out of an entire batch, I got maybe half a dozen really perfect pralines. The others were certainly tasty, but would probably not win the approval of a true connoisseur. In any case, even the rejects are delicious chopped up and sprinkled over ice cream.

2 tablespoons softened butter plus 1 tablespoon butter
4 cups brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups pecan halves (8 oz) (I toasted them lightly before using - about 8 minutes at 350F)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract


Cover two baking sheets with parchment paper or waxed paper. Use the 2 tablespoons butter to coat the paper, the interior of the medium saucepan to be used, and two cereal spoons (which hold about 1/2 tablespoon in volume). Combine the remaining ingredients, except the pecans and vanilla, in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon. Continue to cook, stirring often, to 236F on a candy thermometer - just under the soft-ball stage (about 6 minutes).

Remove from the heat, immediately add the pecans and vanilla, and stir vigorously until the mixture loses some of its gloss, about 3 minutes (I found it took much less than this). Working fast, drop half-tablespoons onto the prepared paper using the two buttered spoons. Allow to cool before storing in an airtight container, at room temperature, with the pieces separated by waxed paper. 

 

The Verdict

Simply wonderful. The gumbo came together almost effortlessly, and although it was quite a bit lighter in color than other gumbos I've had due to a shorter cooking time for the roux, the flavor was still hearty and robust. I'm not a huge okra fan (particularly in soupy-type preparations, where it has a tendency to get quite slimy), but here it adds a delicious silkiness and bite, and the sausage (I used Kielbasa) anchors everything with a wonderfully savory, smoky depth. With a scoop of rice it was an easy, filling one-bowl meal. The pralines were a bit trickier, but certainly tasted as good as any I had in New Orleans - I'm tempted to make another batch just so I can make my own pecan-praline ice cream. If these two recipes are representative, which I certainly have reason to assume they are, I have no qualms about highly recommending this gem of a book, which is both an excellent introduction to Cajun food and a heartwarming read all in one.

And free cookbook or not, it's definitely deserving of a place on my bookshelf. 

 

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Reader Comments (30)

I wouldn't be able to turn down a cookbook with Maren's photos, either. Her work on Boulevard and the W-S Mexican cookbook is some of my favorite food photography of all time. Your gumbo pic is lovely -- the okra is downright asian in its simple beauty.
September 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnita
I don't think I could turn down a cookbook either, you gumbo looks great and have recently come to love okra! Also love your pecan pralines.
September 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterKat
Very interesting info about the cookbook.....good choice on the gumbo......beautiful!
September 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJann Mumford
I just came home from an an evening watching multiple episodes of "The Wire" with some friends. While I was there, I spotted a cookbook of Cajun and Creole recipes, sitting on their coffee table, and badgered them into letting me borrow it. I thought I'd just have a little look around here before going to sleep- and saw these recipes-for two of my very favorite things. There must be something cajun in the air.

It all looks delicious-I've never tried making pralines myself-yours look just like the originals to me.
September 16, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlindy
Melissa,
I made gumbo just the other night: <a href="http://seriouslygood.kdweeks.com/2006/09/gumbo.html">chicken, shrimp, and andouille</a>. Good stuff!

And after reading your review, it sounds like I need a another cookbook.
September 16, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterkevin
As long as you keep buying such beautiful books and preparing such incredible dishes, I will not complain about the fact that you are using all the excuses that I normally use to jusftify my horrible cookbook habit.

:o)
September 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne
I think anyone would forgive you in view of the beautiful dish which you made. Whenever P. complains, I always remind him of how lucky he is to eat so well. It ends the conversation and I know I can buy more. Your photo is beautiful!
September 17, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterbea at La tartine gourmande
Everything looks great here, especially the gumbo recipe, which I plan on trying. Thank you!

Paz
September 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPaz
That is one gorgeous gumbo! And the pralines. Ooh baby.
September 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterKarina
I can almost taste it! I'm a big fan of Cajun food and have done a similar gumbo before. But this one looks and sounds better. Will have to try it.
September 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterChristine
Given the shrinking space on your bookshelves it is actually MORE important that you keep the supply of free cookbooks coming. After all, once space runs out your only source of new cookbooks will be the free ones. (Your commitment was to stop buying them, it said nothing about free ones. 8-)
September 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRH
god knows i love me some gumbo! i've tried several recipes but i think the best one i've tried is on allrecipes.com and it's called zydeco stomp gumbo!

also, you can buy file powder off of http://www.seasonedpioneers.co.uk !

great as always, melissa. what kind of camera do you use for your shots?
September 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteramanda
This is a refreshing site afte seeing Rachael Ray on television, her books in groceries over here in the U.S., in libraries and God knows where else. I dig this!
September 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMICHAEL MANNING
The gumbo looks delicious, Great pictures Melissa. Makes me want to stir up a gumbo for dinner!
September 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermandira
Melissa,
I have been following your blog from some time and I love your style.
Do you mind if I link you to mine? Check it out and let me know.
Simonetta
September 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSimonetta Taccuso
Beautiful. Those are the most perfectly okra I think I've ever seen.
September 20, 2006 | Unregistered Commentertokyoastrogirl
Wow, great idea to add a shelf above the bed for the cookbooks! And I was so proud that my stack-on-the-floor had reached [bedside] table level!

The gumbo photo is great, gives the sense of simplicity in prep and ease of eating...
September 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJanelle
You can't cheat the roux on gumbo, but my Cajun friend from Opelousas (who's repertoire of gumbos rivals the ones served at Prejeans) taught me a trick for etouffe he learned from his mama: dump 1/2 a can of cream of mushroom soup into your pot instead of making a roux. While it's not pure, there is no taste difference.
September 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterHomesick Texan
hi melissa, fantastic post! - and there you've gone and uncovered yet another hole in my bookcase ;) i've tried making pralines before and know how tricky they are to get right despite their seemingly simple appearance - so i'm totally awed here. just thinking about that addictive sugary crumble is making me weak in the knees...
September 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJ
I´ve been saying no more cookbooks for so long, and with so little success, it´s a joke. Who cares, there are worse addictions, I´m sure!
September 21, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlobstersquad
The gumbo looks and sounds so good. The picture with the okra, so beautiful. Can't wait to try out the recipe. Thanks.
September 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterChocoholic
Looks so good. I so love your writing style. Easy on my eyes.
September 23, 2006 | Unregistered Commentercoffeepot
Yeah, I promised myself no more cookbooks, spend 40 quid this afternoon. Gumbo!
September 23, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMonkey Gland
Now that's a long post!

The gumbo looks absolutely delicious though.
September 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterScott at Real Epicurean
Thanks, everyone!

Kevin - How's that for coincidence? As Lindy said, there must be something cajun in the air...

Ivonne - Don't worry, all addicts use the same set of excuses. Perhaps we should embark on a 12-step program together? On second thought, let's wait until my bookshelf is full...

Bea - Thanks! You know, I use that argument too, but the problem is that Manuel remembers the days before I had many cookbooks, and he doesn't remember eating too shabbily back then. And the other things is that he knows I've never cooked out of most of them!

RH - Doh! Of course you're right. Here I was thinking I had to cease and desist all cookbook procurement, but in fact it seems I've unwittingly left an emormous (and very convenient) loophole. I wonder if giving someone else the money to buy them for me would count? ;)

Amanda - Thanks! That looks like an excellent link. My credit card is already quaking in fear! p.s. I'm currently using a canon 5d.

Simonetta - Thanks very much and of course I'd be honored. You have a lovely site!

Homesick Texan - I'll certainly keep that in mind when I get around to tackling etouffee. Unfortunately etouffee to me is all about crawfish, and unfortunately the little buggers are in slightly short supply around here.

Ximena - You bet there are. At least, that's what I tell myself too...
September 28, 2006 | Registered Commentermelissa
no no no, never shall I translate this post to my companion. Why should I? He already knows quite well the noise a stack of cookbooks produce when colapsing and I know yes I know I really truly NEED all of them.
Thanks,Melissa. Kat
September 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterScribacchini
My hubby has learned to just keep quiet whenever a new cookbook arrives, he does get the benefit of good meals a lot :) .

I just made chicken andouille sausage this weekend. I use the recipe from "The Gumbo Shop" . I like your idea of seasoning the chicken pieces first which I thought my recipe was lacking in that department. I also did note that I like the kielbasa more than andouille. I think our ingredients are almost the same except mine has diced tomatoes and I did not season the chicken first. Anyway, if interested here is the link to my gumbo making :

http://kitchenmusings.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/10/a_hearty_gumbo.html

October 11, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterVeron
I can see how someone can develop an addiction to good food which is not as bad as an addiction to crystal meth for example. Moderation in everything is the key element...even if the food looks good and smell delicious :)
October 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPablo
Melissa, what a stunning post and the gumbo. Oh, my! I want to try this so much. I need to find those sausages you mentioned.

I love that okra is in it! Love okra.

Gorgeous photos as usual.
November 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMae

Anything with okra hits my list. Love the look of the pralines as well.

July 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFran

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