Category Archives: Food

Gumbo

Gumbo is a good and hearty meal. Photo from http://www.myrecipes.com

Gumbo is a dish that many people know about, but few people know how to make well. It can take on many forms, but the basis of gumbo is always a good roux. If you read my last post and tried your hand at making roux, this post will show you how to use that roux to make a delicious gumbo.

Gumbo is defined by the ingredients that you choose to put in it. Your gumbo can be chicken and sausage, seafood (crabs, shrimp, oysters, or even shrimp and okra. There are a few other varieties, but the three that I mentioned are the most common at my house.

For this post I’ll focus on a chicken and sausage gumbo, it’s pretty straightforward to make, and the ingredients are easy to find at most grocery stores. This recipe is modified from Tony Chachere’s Cajun Country Cookbook to be closer to the way my family cooks it.

You’ll Need

  • A large stock/soup pot. 12 quarts will be plenty
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 green bell peppers, chopped
  • Cajun seasonings (Tony Chachere’s or Slap Ya’ Mama)
  • 1-2 cups of roux depending on how thick and dark you want your gumbo
  • 3 lbs smoked sausage, sliced
  • 1 4-6 lb hen, cut into pieces and seasoned with Cajun seasonings
  • 2 cups rice

Fill the pot a little less than half full with water, set to boil.  Add roux once the water starts boiling and stir to ensure that the roux mixes evenly. Add chopped onion and bell pepper and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Add chicken and sausage and cook on medium low heat for 2-3 hours until chicken is tender. Stir regularly so the chicken and vegetables don’t stick to the bottom. Be careful to not overcook the chicken because the meat will start falling off the bone.

Once the meat gets close to being done, cook 2 cups of rice. Skim any excess oil off the top of the gumbo before serving. When gumbo and rice are cooked, serve gumbo over rice and enjoy. I usually make a potato salad to go with the gumbo as well, and it helps if the gumbo is really spicy. Here’s how I make it:

  • 5 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 7 eggs
  • mayonaise
  • mustard, to taste
  • Cajun seasonings, to taste

Boil potatoes and eggs. Peel eggs and put boiled potatoes and eggs in a large bowl. Mash until you have a mixture of small pieces. Add mayonaise until the mixture is smooth. Add seasonings to taste. Enjoy!

This recipe can be cut in half if you want to make less, but it’s better to make a big gumbo because it takes so long to cook. Gumbo can be frozen and reheated later. I usually make a large gumbo, eat it for 3-4 days and then freeze the rest, that way I only have to cook my rice and I have a quick and easy hearty meal. Gumbo is always better the next day because all of the flavors have really sunk into the meat.

Sometimes the leftovers will be mostly the juice from the gumbo, but even that is worth freezing. When reheating the gumbo, bring it to a low boil and crack a few eggs in it. Don’t stir. The eggs will cook and help you stretch the gumbo. This tastes good in all gumbos, and it is actually one of my favorite parts about eating a gumbo.

Cooking a gumbo is more about taking an afternoon to just let it cook than about any fancy cooking technique. The main things to remember are:

  1. Make sure you’ve added enough roux so your gumbo isn’t too watery
  2. Make sure you have enough water so your gumbo isn’t a stew
  3. Stretch it as much as you can because it’s delicious

Beyond that, gumbo is done more by feel than by recipe, so use this as a guide and you’ll be able to learn the basics and then see what works. Bon appétit!


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How to Make a Roux

I wrote about how my grandmother’s mean chicken made its way to the gumbo pot in an earlier post, and this post will be about the key ingredient in Gumbo, the roux.

I believe that the most essential part of a good gumbo is a good roux. Pronounced roo, it is the basis for the gumbo’s flavor. If you can make a good roux, you can probably make a good gumbo. There are only two ingredients in roux, oil and flour.

To make a roux, take about equal parts oil and flour (I go a little bit heavier on the flour than the oil) and mix them together in a cast iron pot. I usually use about 1 cup of oil and 1 1/4  cups of flour. Make sure they’re mixed very well and then turn on the stove and stir the mixture with a wooden spoon as it cooks. Scrape the bottom of the pot to make sure that none of the roux sticks and burns. Do not stop stirring. You have to start over if you burn the roux.

The roux needs to cook to a nice dark brown color. Most of Cajun cooking is done by feel and not by recipe, and knowing the right color is something learned over time. Roux has a very distinct, smoky flavor, and the darker the roux, the bolder the flavor.

When the roux is nearing completion, pour it into a glass bowl so it will stop cooking until you’re ready to put it into the gumbo. The roux is by far the trickiest and most intensive part of making a gumbo. The rest is easy! Roux keeps well in the refrigerator, so you can always make it in advance and store it when you need it.

A good roux takes about half an hour to make. Photo from http://www.thekitchn.com

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Cafe’ Du Monde

Cafe’ Du Monde is a central fixture in New Orleans’ French Quarter

Cafe’ Du Monde, known for its beignets as well as its coffee and chicory, has been open since 1862 and closes only for Christmas Day and the occasional hurricane. Located in the French Quarter, it is an essential stop if you travel to Orleans.

The place is always bustling with people who are eager to taste beignets and coffee and chicory. My typical order at Cafe’ Du Monde is a cup of cafe au lait with a order of beignets.

Workers at Cafe’ Du Monde preparing orders of coffee and begniets

Cafe’ Du Monde serves coffee and chicory, which is a blend of regular coffee and ground up chicory leaves. Chicory was sometimes used as a coffee substitute in the old days when coffee was either really scarce or really expensive. Despite chicory’s humble past, Cafe’ Du Monde proudly serves coffee and chicory to this day.

I find that the chicory gives the coffee a hearty, earthy flavor that actually makes the coffee taste considerably stronger. This distinctive flavor provides a perfect foil for the sweet taste of the beignets, which are traditional French doughnuts topped with powdered sugar. They are thick, fluffy, delicate, and exceptionally delicious.

Cafe’ Du Monde serves delicious coffee and beignets

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Tabasco

Tabasco is made and bottled on Avery Island, LA Photo from biteofthebest.com

Tabasco is probably one of the furthest reaching pieces of culinary Louisiana. You can find Tabasco at nearly every grocery store, Chipotle, and even prepackaged military rations. Tabasco was first made in the 1860s and is now sold in more than 160 countries. And it’s all made on Avery Island in south Louisiana.

Avery Island is actually a large salt dome island in the Louisiana marshes. When Edmund McIlhenny decided to make his own pepper sauce, he used  peppers that he grew on Avery Island and salt from the island. The simple formula of red peppers, salt, and vinegar was such a hit that McIlhenny dropped his work as a banker and devoted his work to his pepper sauce.

The Tabasco website says that Tabasco is “a word of Mexican Indian origin believed to mean “place where the soil is humid” or “place of the coral or oyster shell.” It’s a fitting word, especially given how humid south Louisiana is.

Today Tabasco, comes in seven different varieties and is made in much of the same way that it was 140 years ago. Avery Island has a visitor center where you can observe how Tabasco is made and sample everything Tabasco related–even Tabasco flavored jelly beans! The island also has a 170 acre garden filled with exotic plants that visitors can explore. It’s a wonderful place to see a piece of Louisiana history.

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Crawfish Boil

Food is central in south Louisiana, and the crawfish boil is a good example of how food brings Cajun folks together. A crawfish boil is similar to what other folks in the south call a low country boil, but I’ve found that nothing else in the south tastes quite like a Louisiana crawfish boil.

A crawfish boil is a big ordeal that takes all afternoon to prepare and eat. The crawfish needs to be fresh, so they need to be bought the day of the boil. The main things you need for a crawfish boil are:

  • a large pot with a strainer basket between 65-80 quarts
  • a larger propane burner
  • a 140 quart ice chest
  • crawfish boil seasoning

The first thing we’ll do is set the water boiling and add the seasoning because it takes awhile to bring so much water to a boil. Crawfish boil seasoning contains salt, cayenne pepper, paprika and a few other spices. After that, we open up the crawfish sack and put all the crawfish in the ice chest. We then fill up the ice chest with water to clean the crawfish. This helps to clean the dirt off the crawfish, and it also helps to purge the crawfish’s system. After the water gets dirty, we dump it out and then refill the ice chest. Three rinses usually suffice.

Crawfish aren’t the only thing eaten at a crawfish boil. In addition to crawfish we also boil red potatoes, onions, corn on the cob and mini sausages. Those are boiled first as a precursor to the crawfish.

Once everything is boiled, we serve the crawfish on large plastic trays and then go at it. Everybody sits around a patio table for a few hours just peeling, eating and talking. We usually mix together a dipping sauce with mayo, ketchup, garlic and onion juice, and cayenne pepper for the crawfish. The sauce is always mixed to taste, and I’ve never used a recipe for it.

Crawfish boils bring everybody in the family together, and they are one of the things about south Louisiana that I love most. The closest thing that I’ve found to a crawfish boil in Georgia is a shrimp boil, but I definitely miss eating crawfish.

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Crawfishing, pt 2

There are two types of crawfishing, deep water and shallow water. Deep water crawfishing takes place in rivers, while shallow water crawfishing typically takes place in specially dug ponds. My uncle uses a specially fitted aluminum boat to catch crawfish. The wheel is run by hydraulics and pulls the boat forward.

The crawfish boat is specially suited to work in shallow water

Crawfish nets are usually out of rubber coated chicken wire. The net has a plastic top with a small lip that allows the fisherman to pull the net out of the water. Connected to the top is a wire cylnder that lead to the larger base of the net. The bottom of the net is made with three flues that allow the crawfish to go into, but not out of, the net. A metal rod runs from the plastic top to about six inches past the bottom of the net. The rod is there so the the net can be stuck into the ground and not fall over.

The crawfish net is specially suited for shallow water crawfish ponds

The nets are baited with a piece of fish, crawfish bait (large pellets that look like rabbit or chicken feed), and hard corn. The fish and bait attract the crawfish into the net, and the hard corn helps ensure that the crawfish will stay and eat for awhile. The nets are arranged in rows in the pond. To pull the nets, the crawfisheman will start with a net that is already baited and drive the boat over to the first net. He’ll then pull the first ne out of the water, stick the new net in it place, and dump the crawfish into a five gallon bucket. As he’s moving to the next net, he’ll re-bait the first net and just repeat the process as he goes along.

The sorting tray is used to take out old bait and to stuff the crawfish into sacks

Once he’s filled up a few buckets, he’ll pause to dump the crawfish into the boat’s sorting tray to pull out the old bait and fishbones, and to stuff the crawfish in to sacks. He will, of course, be thick rubber gloves to protect himself from the crawfish pinchers. A full crawfish sack can weigh up to 40 pounds and can cost $50, depending on the price per pound. The catch of the day can be sold to restaurants, processing plants, and to families wanting to have a crawfish boil. I’ll talk later about the crawfish boil and other ways that crawfish can be eaten in a later post!

A sack of crawfish can weigh up to 50 pounds

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Boudin and Cracklins

Boudin is an another essetial Cajun food group. Yes, it is that important. Pronounced boo-dahn, it is a fairly simple food with old origins that. Boudin essentially a mixture of pork meat, rice, onions, bell peppers and seasonings that are cooked together into what some people know as a rice dressing. After everything is cooked down, the mixture is put into thin casings and boiled. After that, it’s ready to eat.

NOLA Cuisine has a pretty good recipe for boudin. My only critique is that you should definitely put the mix into casings, otherwise you just have rice dressing. I’d also only put the meat through a grinder, not the whole mixture. Everything else sounds très bon!

Boudin makes a quick and tasty snack. Photo from Nola Cuisine

In the old days all the people of the town would get together for a boucherie, a butchering. They would slaughter a couple of pigs and work like a big family to clean the meat and cook. They would make boudin and use the pig intestines for the casing (synthetic casings are used today). They would also make cracklins, which are fried pork skins.

Today there are many boudin and cracklin shops all over south Louisiana. Some places are known to have much better boudin and cracklins than others, and some folks take their boudin quite seriously. Apparently, the issue of what town could be called “Boudin Capital of the World” became a cause of disagreement within the Louisiana House of Representatives.

If you’re ever in Louisiana, Don’s Specialty Meats in Carencro has what I consider to be some of the best boudin around. Some places put too much rice in their boudin because they’re trying to save money, but Don’s has a good mix of meat, rice, and spice. If there is one food from Louisiana that I miss when I’m in Georgia, it’s boudin.

Don’s in Carencro makes their boudin hot and fresh. Photo from thenewsstar.com

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