Sunday, September 15, 2013

Basics of Cajun Cooking

If you have a family no doubt by now you've learned to cook a lot when you do cook, but leftovers can get stale and boring really fast. In the summertime, there is no better use for leftovers than cajun cooking. At least, if you're cooking seasonally there isn't.
All of those great summer staples, peppers, tomatoes, corn, are perfect for throwing into a pot and making gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee (also known as smothering), and po boys.  Most of these, all you need to do is make a roux (instructions below), add just about anything cooked or uncooked that you already have, add some seasongings and rice, and voila! brand new meal. My record so far for making leftovers last is one week by having a roast with a salsa like topping, then turning it into jambalaya, and finally adding broth and more rice to create a gumbo.

The differences between Cajun and Creole cooking can be a bit confusing, especially since each means something completely different depending on which region you are in. So let me just give you the historical basics...

Cajun food comes originally from France. The Acadians were a group of French immigrants who landed in the Nova Scotia area. They spoke with an odd almost English accent to their French and did things like pronounce j as "dj." Therefore they called themselves Acadjians, which after they traveled further south and started a community around the Louisiana area, had been shortened to simply cajuns or acajuns.

Canadian acadian french. Weird.

Cajun french is pretty odd too.

Cajuns form of cooking uses many french techniques with the local food found in the Louisiana area. This is how you get roux bases for gumbos and stews, as well as many other french styled foods, like croquettes, and the adoption of celery, onion, and bell pepper and as their mire piox (a traditional French base of onion, garlic, and celery.) They also like bouillon, and boudin, as well as many others french favorites.
Mostly their food is fresh game or seafood served over rice with cayenne pepper and/or black pepper, sometimes file as well, and lightly cooked veggies on the side or combine in the dish.

Although many of the ingredients and techniques in creole food is the same as cajun, creole is a much broader term. Creole is the French word for "native," although it doesn't mean native like Native American, but rather to refer to a European descendent who was born in the United States. There is a Spanish equivalent, Criollo, and Portugese, Crioulo. "Creoles" are found all up and down the Americas, and so Creole food represents this combination of cultures. You can commonly think of Creole food as a cajun base with more  Spanish, African, Portugese, and Mexican influences.
Because Creole were often better off than Acadians, their pocketbooks had a wider range for more kinds, and better kinds of food.
For instance, a cajun roux is typically made with lard, while a Creole roux is more likely to contain olive oil.
Because of this, creole food is a bit more refined, with ingredients like sugar, cream, European herbs and garlic, and quality meats and seafood, rather than the shellfish and game that is common with cajun food. This is where those wonderful roasted pecans originated from.

However, the most basic ingredient in Cajun or Creole cooking is the roux. Here's how to make it:

First you're going to need some fat or oil. Really you can use about anything, but the most common is either butter or olive oil. Here's my one stick of butter, equivalent to 1/2 cup oil.

When the butter is nice and hot and melted, turn the heat to medium, and add 1/4 cup flour 1tablespoon at a time. You really have to add it slowly and whisk it fast, or else it will create small cooked flour balls.

The exact measurements for the butter and flour really vary. I prefer a thicker sauce, but others like it to be thinner. A good rule of thumb is when you can stir and see the bottom of the pan but the sauce quickly fills it in, it's thick enough.

Keep the heat on medium and cook until it begins to change color. You really need to keep an eye on it, and continuously stir or it'll burn. Remember, it will continue cooking once the heat is off, so take it off as soon as you think its done.
Again, there's lots of variation about what color the roux should be when it's done. A standard roux is usually described as a peanut butter color when it's done.

All three colors of roux shown here are correct. A blonde, medium, and dark roux. But when you see a recipe say "roux," go for the medium color.

After the roux is done, add onions, garlic, and celery (or celery flakes). I bougght some sausage, grabbed tomatoes from the garden, and chopped up leftover fajitas to add to this gumbo. Finally, add salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, and file (if you have it). Simmer for an hour or so. Add rice before serving. Yummy!

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