For the 3-day Memorial Day weekend, we went to New Orleans. The city is full of music, food, and celebrations. Above is one of the many wedding parties which we encountered in the French Quarter. Below is Eudora Evans singing at BMC on Frenchman Street.
At Kitchen Witch, which is a cookbook store located in the French Quarter, Philipe (the owner) recommended "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen" for Cajun and Creole cooking. I was even able to buy a signed copy from the shop. I love this cookbook! The dishes that I have made so far (shown below) have come out great. My favorite parts are the detailed instructions because they really help me to understand the techniques used in this type of cooking and the spice blends.
Even though the spice blends are made of very common kitchen spices (black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, oregano, dried basil, and garlic powder), somehow the blend that Paul Prudhomme suggests gives dishes that familiar but hard to describe Cajun type of spiciness. He usually combines all three types of peppers (black, white, and cayenne) because each type affects a different part of your tongue. He says that "one way I make food 'round' is to use red, white and black peppers in the same recipe, which you'll see I do frequently (as a matter of fact, not just frequently, but in nearly every recipe except desserts!). Different peppers excite taste buds in different parts of the mouth, and this makes you feel that you want another bite--that you just have to have another bite. The peppers also cleanse the palate and keep the food interesting by making it change with each bite. This keeps your taste buds happy!" It makes a different type spiciness than other cuisines get from these very same ingredients, since other cuisines usually don't use all of them together or use other ingredients such as whole chili peppers, which usually aren't used in Cajun cooking.
I also bought "American Cooking: Creole and Acadian" by Peter S. Feibleman from the Time-Life series "Foods of the World", which explains southern Louisiana cooking and lifestyles in the late 1960s (it was published in 1971). It is fun to image the grand Mardi Gras balls and formal dinners that occurred back then and also the lifestyles in the creole city and Cajun country and how those lifestyles shaped the dishes. I also love the pictures in the book; I thought the picture below was funny, since I own a very similar plate:
We stayed at one of the apartments located in the French Quarter owned by Inn the Quarter. It was a wonderful location to be in; it was so convenient. We enjoyed our stay and especially liked the nice garden courtyard of the "St Philip Suites".
At the end of the trip, we bought 21 pounds of cooked crawfish boil for 7 people. I suspect that if we had an entire day to hang around eating crawfish then we could have eaten a substantial amount. However, due to some poor planning, waking up late, and generally being slow in the morning, we had only 45 minutes to eat them before we had to go to the airport. So we brought back 15 pounds of cooked crawfish as carry on luggage back to San Francisco.
We ate 5 pounds as a cold crawfish boil back in San Francisco and then William and I shelled the remaining 10 pounds. It takes a while, but it goes faster if you do it assembly line style rather than fully cleaning each crawfish, one at a time. i.e. First pull off the heads from all the crawfish, then pick out the orange fat from the heads and then from the top of the tails, then discard all of the insides and lungs, then peel the tails, and then remove the intestines. Using a crab pick to break the tail shells (rather than using your fingers) is helpful to prevent your fingers from getting scratched.
I made crawfish stock from the shells. I also made Crawfish Etouffée, and then on the following night I made Crawfish Gumbo. We loved both dishes. Etouffée was my favorite since I love how the gravy stays piping hot since it retains heat and I loved the smokiness that the roux adds. William loved the gumbo since he liked the combination of crawfish and Andouille Smoked Sausage.
I served both dishes over "Basic Cooked Rice" made with converted rice. I don't normally like converted rice, but it goes so well with Cajun dishes that I like it here. I have tried to use basmati rice with gumbos before(e.g. in this Shrimp Gumbo). It tastes okay but it doesn't quite go with the dish--it makes the dish taste like it wasn't made by a local. I think it is important to use the variety rice that is used in the region the dish is from if you are trying to achieve an authentic taste. Converted rice is the right variety rice to use for these sorts of dishes.
Some general notes about cooking from "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen":
- Cajun Trinity: The onion, celery, and green bell pepper (aromatics sometimes referred to as the Cajun trinity) should be minced into very small pieces. The celery should be cut lengthwise into several thin strips before mincing it, so it is about the same size as the green pepper and onion.
- Spice Blends:
- Spiciness: If you want to decrease the spiciness of this dish, I think it is better to make the spice mix in the proportion specified and use less, than it is to decrease the spicy components because the mix of spices is perfectly balanced and decreasing just one element of the spice mix will throw that off (I agree with this reviewer on Amazon). The spiciness can be decreased, but the dishes need to be a little bit spicy, otherwise they will be lacking in taste. If you are serving them with rice, the starch will decrease the spiciness so you should spice the sauce or gumbo a bit spicier to account for this.
- Since William has a low spice tolerance, I decrease the spiciness for him. Since my cayenne pepper is very spicy, I tended to only add 1/2 tsp of the spice blends if it has lots of cayenne pepper and 1 tsp if it doesn't. Towards the end of cooking when the liquid had reduces to nearly its final consistency I'd taste and sometimes add just a tiny pinch more.
- Dried Herbs: Dried herbs incorporate better into the spice blend if you grind them with a mortar and pestle (so that they are similarly sized to the finely ground spices) before mixing them into the blend.
- Salt: The only ingredient that I omitted from the spice blends was salt, so that I could manage this myself. Generally I added 1/2 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt whenever the spice blend was added, and then I'd adjust the salt at near the end of cooking when the liquids were nearly reduced to their final volume.
- Roux: I preferred making roux the night before or ahead of time so that I wasn't rushed. See here for notes on how to make roux. Rather than adding the vegetables to the full amount of roux specified in the recipe, I preferred starting out with a much smaller amount (about 3 Tbsp of cooked roux). Once the stock was added, I added a bit more roux and let it boil to thicken (and make the raw flour taste disappear) until the mixture was the thickness I wanted. I liked this method of adding roux because it allowed me to adjust the thickness perfectly. You can either slowly the roux in small spoonfuls, stirring after each addition, to the stock or you can add the stock in spoonfuls to the roux, stirring after each addition.
Recipe: "Cajun Seafood Gumbo with Andouille Smoked Sausage" from "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen" by Paul Prudhomme
Status: Made twice.
There are three basic types of gumbo: ones that are thickened using roux (as this one is), ones that are thickened using okra, and ones that are thickened using filé. Normally filé and okra are never combined in the same gumbo, however this gumbo from Commander's Place breaks that rule. For the recipe see JSOnline.com.
Some notes I have from making this recipe are:
- The recipe says to use 1 lbs of andouille sausage; this is about 4 sausages. Since the andouille sausage is smoked, you don't need to cook it before cutting it into pieces--it will hold its shape. The sausages should be small enough for this dish to be eaten with a spoon. I cut my sausages into fourths lengthwise, and then cut slices on the diagonal.
- The first time I made this, I used crawfish instead of the shrimp, oysters, and crab. I didn't add its fat because I thought it was starting to have a fishy taste (crawfish fat goes bad and starts to have a fishy taste before the tails do). Since we ate the gumbo over several dinners, I didn't add the crawfish when I cooked the dish. Instead, when I was about to serve it, I warmed up however much gumbo I needed in a separate pot, brought it to a boil, added in some crawfish, and let it heat for just for a minute or so more (until the tails are warmed). It keeps the crawfish as minimally cooked as possible, which is good since the crawfish was already cooked from the seafood boil. Paul Prudhomme suggests this technique in the header comments in his recipe for "Seafood Filé Gumbo". The second time I made this, I used shrimp and oysters (plus oyster liquid).
- Since this is a roux-based gumbo and the etouffée is a gravy thickened by roux, they have similar flavors. So if you want to serve a gumbo with the etouffée, I would recommend choosing one of the other types of gumbo.
- The first time I made this, I started with 3 Tbsp of roux when I cooked the vegetables, and ended up adding only about 1 Tbsp more. Since 8 Tbsp of flour and 8 Tbsp oil makes about 11 Tbsp of roux, the second time I made this I substituted 3/4 cup flour and 3/4 cup oil in the recipe for approximately 3/4 cup of roux to the vegetables. Using approximately the same amount of roux or even a little more as the flour seems to be a good rule of thumb. I didn't have to add any additional roux to the gumbo.
- The second time I made this, I made only one change to the spice mix--I used 1/8 tsp cayenne since William is sensitive to heat. everything else was the same as in the recipe. I included the 2 tsp of salt (I used Diamond Crystal brand) in the spice mix, instead of salting separately--this turned out to be exactly the right amount of salt. The spicing was perfect.
Recipe: "Crawfish stock" via trial and error and suggestions from Philipe LaMancusa from Kitchen Witch cookbook store in New Orleans.
Rating: Good, though make sure to remove the insides from the crawfish and clean them well.
Status: Made three times.
It took us three rounds to peel 10 pounds of crawfish (I don't use the shells when people eat them as part of a crawfish boil, since people tend to suck on the shells to get the juices out), so I had lots of shells to practice with. We reserved the tail meat and orange crawfish fat for the dishes above.
- The first time I made stock, I used the shells, claws, legs, and all of the remaining insides (except for the intestines which I discarded). All of my cookbooks from New Orleans mentioned simmering stocks for hours regardless of whether they were meat based or seafood based (e.g. here is what Paul Prudhomme's book said). So I simmered mine for 4 hours, even though I normally cook seafood stock for only 15 minutes to one hour. Leaving the insides was a big mistake. When I strained the stock, it came out black with angry red oily spots, and it smelled funky. I had to throw it out. I've never had this problem from the stock I make from shrimp heads and shells; apparently crawfish eat stuff from the bottom of the bayous and so they are much dirtier than shrimp. Possibly the long simmering time made the problem worse.
- The next time I made stock, I carefully discarded all the insides, especially anything that was black colored, and the lungs. All that was left was the tail shell, the head shell, and claws, which I simmered for 30 minutes. However, since I didn't rinse the shells before making the stock, it had lots of flavor but it was slight cloudy and very spicy. The shells should always be rinsed when hot spices have been added to the crawfish boil, otherwise you may make your dishes too spicy.
- The third time, I cleaned the shells the same way, rinsed them, and simmered for 30 minutes. The stock was much clearer, but less flavorful so I reduced it for an hour after I strained out the stock ingredients.
Cover the shells with cold water and optionally add aromatics or leftover vegetable peelings**. Don't salt the stock, because the water will reduce and make the stock too salty. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and keep at a bare simmer for 30 minutes. Strain and discard solids. Let the stock sit on the counter top for at least 20 minutes or until the particles settle. Use a large soup spoon to spoon off the clear stock into a container, and discard the last little bit of stock full of sediment. If you like, you can concentrate the flavor by simmering the strained stock for an hour or more, until it reduces in volume. I generally leave my stock unsalted, and then salt my dishes to taste; since commercial stocks are usually salted, you may need slightly more salt than indicated in your recipes.
* You can also make lobster stock in the same way.
** Generally theses types of aromatics or vegetables are used for stocks: bay leaf, garlic, celery, carrots, and onion. Only use a few carrots, since too many of them will make the stock sweet. Celery has a strong flavor, so only a few stalks of celery should be used.