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Cajun and Creole Basics

Alligator ChefNew Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.Mark Twain.

Yeah, Ol’ Sam Clemens sure knew the Big Muddy. And all the good eating stops along it, I bet. I notice that he never said anything about food at any other port of call along the Mississippi. Coincidence? I think not. What this really means, of course, is that Cajun and Creole cooking have been appreciated as a fine American cuisine for at least 150 years.

According to the Creole and Cajun Recipe Page, there are four basic dishes you should know: Jambalaya, Gumbo, Shrimp Creole and Red Beans and Rice. I would add to this some Étouffée, Dirty Rice, Maque Choux, both Po-Boy and Muffaletta sandwiches, and Beignets. If you want a dessert, then Bananas Foster would be my choice.

Whether you cook Cajun (Louisiana country food) or Creole (fancier city food), you simply must understand the Holy Trinity of aromatics: green pepper, onion and celery. And if you can’t make a roux, and control it from light blonde to very brown, then you won’t make it cooking these dishes. Dispelling a couple of myths should be done here. First, some say “if it has tomatoes it’s Creole.” Not so; tomatoes appear in several great Cajun dishes. Also, if somebody takes you to a Cajun restaurant and you find “Blackened Moose” or blackened anything on the menu, then run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit; that place isn’t Cajun, it’s careless. Hiding burned food under excessive pepper may be very popular these days, but it’s not Cajun.

We’ve already seen a jambalaya that can be tailored to most any taste. Let’s take a look at a gumbo:

A gumbo isn’t really a gumbo unless it starts with a roux; I have that on good authority from my Cajun friends. (Previous Cajun friends, if they’re reading this site.) Okra is pretty much a staple too. Gumbo can be fairly quick and simple to make, or it can be tediously time-consuming. It’s my experience that how long it takes isn’t always in line with how good it tastes. More important is to use good, fresh ingredients, and whenever possible, to use home-made stock or broth. Of course, that’s where most of the “time consuming” can come in!

Gumbo can include almost any meat you’d like: Chicken, turkey, game hens or game fowl of most any kind; brisket, sausage, pork or alligator. Seafood gumbos are popular, of course! Adjust the cooking time downwards to prevent shrimp from being tough and to keep the fish from crumbling into mush. If you use a mixed seafood-with-other-meat gumbo, like sausage, then add the seafood late; usually in the last 10-15 minutes of cooking.

Zesty gumbo is easy to adjust as well. Increase (or add) cayenne or red pepper flakes for more heat; leave out for mild versions. However you choose to make it, be sure to make plenty; leftovers are great, but you’re more likely to have surprise guests about the time you get it all cooked. And don’t forget the rice…

Enjoy the (Basic Cajun & Creole) Heat!

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