In a Cajun Kitchen : Authentic Cajun Recipes and Stories from a Family Farm on the Bayou
When most people think of Cajun cooking, they think of blackened redfish or, maybe, gumbo. When Terri Pischoff Wuerthner thinks of Cajun cooking, she thinks about Great-Grandfather Theodore's picnics on Lake Carenton, children gathering crawfish fresh from the bayou for supper, and Grandma Olympe's fricassee of beef, because Terri Pischoff Wuerthner is descended from an old Cajun family. Through a seamless blend of storytelling and recipes to live by, Wuerthner'sIn a Cajun Kitchen will remind people of the true flavors of Cajun cooking.
When her ancestors settled in Louisiana around 1760, her family grew into a memorable clan that understood the pleasures of the table and the bounty of the Louisiana forests, fields, and waters. Wuerthner spices her gumbo with memories of Cajun community dances, wild-duck hunts, and parties at the family farm. From the Civil War to today, Wuerthner brings her California-born Cajun family together to cook and share jambalaya, crawfish ?touf?e, shrimp boil, and more, while they cook, laugh, eat, and carry on the legacy of Louis Noel Labauve, one of the first French settlers in Acadia in the 1600s.
Along with the memories, In a Cajun Kitchen presents readers with a treasure trove of authentic Cajun recipes: roasted pork mufaletta sandwiches, creamy crab casserole, breakfast cornbread with sausage and apples, gumbo, shrimp fritters, black-eyed pea and andouille bake, coconut pralines, pecan pie, and much more. In a Cajun Kitchen is a great work of culinary history, destined to be an American cookbook classic that home cooks will cherish
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St. Martin's Press
August 01, 2006
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Excerpt from In a Cajun Kitchen by Terri Pischoff Wuerthner
A Love Affair with Food
Cajun Country is the southwest section of Louisiana, unique unto itself. The northern part of the state is considered to belong to the large region considered the American South and has much in common with the adjacent states of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas. Southwest Louisiana, on the other hand, is not thought of as being part of "the South," but geographically below it.
Acadiana, a combination of the words Acadia and Louisiana, is an area comprising twenty-two parishes (counties) in Southwest Louisiana. This area is predominately populated by Cajun people who are, technically, descendents of the Acadians expelled from Acadia, now known as Nova Scotia, in 1755. While their new home in Acadiana was familiar in terms of being an agrarian setting already populated by Catholic, French-speaking people, the Cajuns had to adjust to the unknown terrain of swamps, bayous, and prairies that presented exotic forms of meat, game, fish, produce, and grains.
The Cajuns applied their French cooking techniques to these new ingredients, with a result that is recognized and respected as one of the great regional cuisines of America, as well as one of the world's most unique cuisines. There are versions of Cajun dishes on restaurant menus across the country, from upscale to hip and trendy to fast-food establishments. Unfortunately, many of these restaurants misrepresent Cajun food by using their standard menu items and carelessly overspicing them, making the food unbearably hot, then calling it "Cajun." Cajun food and culture has little to do with the mass media hype of the past twenty years that presents Cajun cookery as fiery hot, and Cajun people as hot-pepper-eating, beer-swilling caricatures of themselves. Pepper and spices are merely one element of Cajun cookery, and not the most important one at that.
Cajuns in Southwest Louisiana have steadfastly adhered to the preservation of their habits, traditions, and beliefs in terms of lifestyle, language, and cooking. They became noticed by society during the oil boom, which brought many outlanders (non-Cajuns) into the area. These new residents began to discover the food-oriented, talented Cajun cooks whose lives and socializing revolve, to a large extent, around the preparation, sharing, and enjoyment of food. The word began to spread.
Cajun vs. Creole
Although Cajuns are descendents of French Acadians who were expelled from Acadia in 1755, many people were brought directly from France to South Louisiana when the Spanish were trying to populate the area. My seventh great-grandfather, Louis No?l Labauve, was one of the first settlers in Acadia, yet another branch of the Labauve family came directly from France and settled in the prairie area of South Louisiana. Many Acadiana residents whose ancestors were not from Acadia consider themselves to be Cajuns because they have lived in Cajun Country and followed a Cajun lifestyle for generations.
Whether technically Cajun or not, Cajun homes and kitchens are always open--open and ready to stretch the jambalaya by adding more rice, sausage or, perhaps, leftover meat from the previous night. It would be unfathomable for me not to offer food, or at least a beverage and snack, to anyone visiting our home. Southern hospitality is a way of life, not just an expression. My Cajun father carried this further than my mother would have liked, inviting anyone and everyone who stopped by our house from late afternoon on to have dinner with us. He greeted the men picking up the weekly garbage with a cup of coffee, and several of our friends in high school knew that the best time to come over was about six p.m. One of my brother's friends had dinner with us almost every Friday night all through high school, after realizing that if Grandpa Pischoff wasn't cooking Cajun food that night, Mom would be frying shrimp or catfish. This hospitality is typical of Cajun people.
The Cajun method of cooking had European origins, but had to be tailored to the foods in Louisiana. Like their Acadian ancestors, these French folks starting a new life accepted the challenge of the natural and abundant food resources available in their new homeland. The Cajun love of food and instinct for preparing it superbly gave birth to a new cuisine from the bounty of the water (crawfish, shrimp, crab, turtle, frog, catfish, trout, flounder, and alligator); sky (duck, pigeon, dove, grouse, turkey, and quail); land (beef, pork, possum, rabbit, raccoon, squirrel, and deer); and earth (okra, green onions, sweet bell peppers, greens, berries, beans, pumpkin, squash, watermelon, cherries, peaches, Muscadine grapes, pecans, rice, sweet potatoes, and corn).
Cajun food is the robust food of country people, not developed by chefs but by talented cooks who took the time to work out recipes that adapted their knowledge of cooking to the local ingredients. The food is always well seasoned and sometimes, but not necessarily, spicy. It is simple food, usually with roux as the base for savory dishes, and without the refinement of delicate butter or cream-enriched sauces.
The majority of Cajun dishes are one-pot meals, cooked for a long time until rich, thick gravies are naturally formed by the merging of the vegetables with the juices in the dish. While this merging of ingredients imparts a wonderful flavor and texture, the original reason for the slow cooking is that the housewife had to put dinner on to cook and leave it unsupervised while she was attending to the children, garden, livestock, weaving, soap making, and her many other duties.
What Is Cajun Cooking?
Cajun cooking has flavors that are intense but not necessarily hot. It uses ingredients that are readily available to most people (although substitutions may be necessary in the case of game and some shellfish).
A simplified description of any Cajun dish based on roux is to make the roux, add the holy trinity and cook for a few minutes, add the main ingredients and seasonings and cook for a few minutes, then add the liquid and cook for a long time over low heat. For a seafood dish, the fish is added at the end of the cooking process so it is not overcooked.
The holy trinity of Cajun cooking (the combination of onion, celery, and bell pepper) will be found in almost all savory Cajun dishes, sometimes accompanied by fresh garlic or garlic powder, and often finished with sliced green onions and chopped fresh parsley sprinkled on top of the dish just before serving.
Gumbo usually starts with a roux, and since the African word for gumbo is okra, it generally contains okra (though some Cajuns will argue this point). We always had fil? powder at the table when we were having gumbo; as heat will make the fil? stringy, it is added to individual servings just before eating. Roux, okra, and fil? are all thickeners as well as flavoring elements.
Traditional, long-cooked Cajun dishes cannot be found on the grocer's shelf and are not usually seen on restaurant menus outside of Louisiana. Some Cajuns insist that the only real Cajun cooking is found in a Cajun home.
Garlic powder and onion powder are used in batters and on the outside of foods to be fried, as fresh chopped onions or garlic would burn at the high temperature needed for frying.
Stocks are dark and highly flavored.
Meats are seasoned before cooking.
In the past, flour was used mainly for roux and for occasional desserts or French bread, as wheat doesn't grow well in South Louisiana and wheat flour was therefore imported. Corn was the main grain for bread and cereal and is used in many delicious, inventive ways, including Lemon Cornmeal Pie, both savory and sweet Hush Puppies, Bacon Cornmeal Cakes, Coush-Coush, Breakfast Cornbread with Sausage and Apples, and Cornbread-Andouille Dressing. All these recipes are in this book.
Francis Bodin, a lifelong neighbor of our Louisiana family and of Home Place, told me that hot pepper sauce is an important seasoning in that area of South Louisiana, and each family has their own secret recipe, which they don't usually share. He did reveal that his family makes their hot pepper sauce with vinegar, salt, and chiles; the chiles could be just one type, or several chiles mixed together. This is actually a homemade version of the Tabasco sauce that has been made on Avery Island by the McIlhenny family since 1868.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts aren't ordinarily used in traditional Cajun cooking, as dark meat and meat on the bones are more flavorful. Stews and soups are almost always cooked with a cut-up chicken, leaving the bones in and skin on. My dad did sometimes cook with boneless, skinless chicken breasts. A few persnickety kids (not me!) didn't like the skin and bones floating in their gumbo or stew, so dad would make two batches of whatever dish he was preparing: one for the fussy kids using the white meat, and one with the legs, thighs, and wings for the "real Cajun gumbo or stew." What Cajuns want from their food is flavor, and if that means loose skin and bones in a soup or stew, it isn't even an issue--flavor won't be sacrificed for convenience or aesthetics.
Green onions and parsley are usually sprinkled on, or stirred into, savory dishes just before serving. We have always used curly parsley, although flat-leaf parsley is currently in favor, as some people feel it has more flavor. I don't agree. To me, curly parsley has more flavor and a better texture than the flat-leaf (Italian) variety. I don't remember my grandparents or Dad ever using flat-leaf parsley.
Cajuns don't worry if the sauce slathered on food is messy, or if the crab in the soup is unshelled. They have no problem with removing shells from prawns or crawfish at the table, or eating fried chicken with their fingers. Food is meant to be savored, and if the best way to enjoy something is to cook it in the shell or on the bone, then bring it to the table that way and use your fingers to eat it.
Cajuns are very thrifty people. Leftover bread becomes bread pudding or dressing; extra rice is used with gumbo or jambalaya, or made into rice pudding; vegetable scraps and poultry, meat, or fish carcasses give flavor to stock; and fat from pork, chicken, and duck is rendered and saved to be used in a variety of ways. Even leftover coffee is used in gravy, barbecue sauce, or bread. (See Sources, page 267, for how to order Crazy Charley's Barbecue Sauce--the best I've ever tasted, a century-old recipe developed so the leftover coffee wouldn't be thrown out.)
Shortcuts are rare in traditional Cajun cookery, since long cooking gives the dishes their characteristic flavor. Meats and vegetables are usually cooked until the vegetables begin to break down and form their own thick base. A light roux takes at least ten minutes, and a dark roux takes at least thirty minutes, and up to an hour, depending on the thickness of the pan used and the heat under it--rushing it simply will not give the same result.
A Cajun meal usually has a main dish, rice (or cornbread), and whatever vegetable is in season.
As the recipes in this book are authentic, lard and salt pork are sometimes used. The reader may substitute oil, and the recipe will still work and be delicious, though not quite the same. Some people who are watching their diets feel it's better to have a small portion of the "real thing" rather than compromise the recipe. A small portion of something wonderful may be more satisfying than a large portion of a reduced fat or reduced sugar version of the same dish.
There are three types of Cajun cooking as I see it: traditional (as in this book); shortcut Cajun cooking that came about when prepared foods such as canned soups and sauces and roux in a jar became readily available; and contemporary celebrity chef recipes that are creative and wonderful but are not necessarily the traditional recipes that are presented here.
The Cajuns are adaptive people who were spread out in different terrains from the beginning of their settling in Louisiana. Some lived near the Gulf and had access to a large assortment of fish, while others lived in the prairie areas and relied more on chicken, pork, beef, and wild animals such as squirrel, rabbit, and duck. So even among Cajun people, the dishes varied according to what was available. The people on the prairies had cattle, and were able to get milk and cream, and thus butter, while other areas didn't have an environment that was conducive to raising cattle, and milk wasn't used in their cookery. The Cajuns who had cows would enjoy cream and butter but did not necessarily extend the use of milk into making cheese, sour cream, or other dairy products. Milk wasn't incorporated into soups, chowders, or sauces, and a glass of milk was not a common drink. Dad always enjoyed a glass of buttermilk but continued to be disappointed that the commercially produced buttermilk didn't compare to the liquid that was left after he used to churn the butter.
In Cajun cooking, most dishes that are not desserts or baked items have two distinct elements: 1) you make a roux, and 2) you add the holy trinity of celery, onion, and bell pepper (and sometimes garlic). It is important in this style of preparing food that the flavor of the main ingredient predominate. No single seasoning should stand out, but all elements should enhance the dish as a whole. While chiles are sometimes used, they are intended to bring out the goodness of the other ingredients, never to overpower a dish with heat.
The belief that Cajun food is always hot is unfortunate, as it deters many people from enjoying one of the world's most flavorful cuisines. A recipe cannot become Cajun by being sprinkled with peppery spices, or with mild spices, or "Cajun blend" spices, for that matter.
Traditional Cajun cooking uses ground red cayenne, black and white pepper, and chiles as its main sources of heat, with hot pepper sauce added when vinegar is a desired element. We always had black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, and Tabasco sauce on the table and at the stove. They were the source of spiciness.
Another misconception is that blackened food is Cajun food. The high-heat frying of food that is coated with spices, when properly cooked, produces a wonderful tender interior with a beautiful dark, crispy crust. However, it is not a traditional Cajun dish. This process requires specific techniques that are often not adhered to by chefs in restaurants, who are harried or untrained in blackening food. This results in an overcooked or even burnt product that, like the overspicing, gives Cajun food a bad name.
Cajuns season their savory dishes more with vegetables than with herbs and spices, almost always using the holy trinity. Green bell pepper, celery, parsley, green onions, onions, and garlic are found in most savory dishes, along with salt and pepper, cayenne pepper, and perhaps thyme and bay leaves. Cajuns love to stuff vegetables and other foods--roasts with seasoned slivers of garlic; stuffed eggplant, bell peppers, mirliton, and tomatoes; stuffed crabs; even crawfish-stuffed crawfish heads.
Cajuns used to rely on the environment for their food the way people now rely on their local market for food. Yet, even with reliance on markets in this busy and changing culture, Cajun people are still very much connected to the land. Hunting and fishing were, and still are, an important part of Cajun culture and life, and most Cajun men regularly hunt for wild game and poultry, and fish for freshwater fish as well as gathering their own crawfish, crabs, and shrimp. Early in the twentieth century, my Cajun relatives in Louisiana sometimes purchased canned tomato juice, wheat flour, lard, coffee beans, and dried shrimp from the store, and occasionally, canned cherries, evaporated milk, cocoa powder, and flavored gelatin for special desserts. I don't see evidence of any other purchased items from the recipes that have been handed down to me; everything else they grew, raised, gathered, or hunted.