My purchasing habits when it comes to cookbooks are, I suppose by now, no big secret. As is usually the case with addicts, I have an ample and well-worn list of rationalizations I frequently invoke to justify my ever-more destructive behavior. Sure they’re expensive, but by not stopping at Starbucks for a quadruple venti latte every morning I save so much money! Sure I already have ten books on the same topic, but this one definitely contains a crucial piece of gastronomic wisdom none of the others do! The issue of physical space, however, is a little harder to rationalize. Of course I can convince myself that a house overflowing with books is cozy instead of cluttered, but when Manuel nearly kills us both by disrupting the equilibrium of the stack of cookbooks which live on the shelf above our bed because there is nowhere else to put them, even I realize some boundaries need to be drawn. At least this is the only way I can possibly explain the madness that momentarily possessed me as I promised my traumatized husband that effective immediately, I will only buy books that I REALLY TRULY NEED. "And when this last shelf on the bookcase we bought last spring is full," I foolishly said, "I won’t buy any more until we move into a bigger apartment." Which shouldn’t be that long, right? Gulp.
So with this is mind, imagine my dilemma when an email from a major publisher arrived in my inbox one morning asking if I would be interested in receiving a promotional copy of Terri Pischoff Wuerthner’s new book, In a Cajun Kitchen. A quick glance at the publicity materials revealed that this is a glossy, stylish hardback focusing on the secrets of Cajun home cooking, painstakingly researched and brought to life with exquisite photography by the award-winning Maren Caruso. So far so good, I thought, but do I really need this book? I certainly couldn’t let myself forget that I already own multiple books on Cajun cooking and this coupled with the fact of Wuerthner being an unknown name to me – not to mention the alarmingly large percentage of my remaining bookshelf space I would be relinquishing – certainly gave me pause for reflection. But after deliberating long and hard – for at least ten seconds, I would say – I fired back an email with an enthusiastic YES!!! I mean really, bookshelf-space, promises or not, you don’t think I’m going to turn down a free cookbook, and particularly one about Cajun cooking, do you??
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I’m quite a Cajun-food groupie. During nearly four years of residence in New Orleans I tasted a lot of it and learned quite a bit about it, but the truth of the matter is I’ve actually cooked very little of it myself. For those who are not that familiar with Cajun food, this book – part memoir, part historical record and part cookbook, should serve as an excellent introduction. Wuerthner (who grew up in San Francisco herself, but comes from a long-established family from Ashton, Louisiana) explains how true Cajun food (not to be confused with Creole, which is specific to New Orleans) is the French-based cuisine brought to Southwest Louisiana by the Acadians, French settlers kicked out of Nova Scotia in the eighteenth century. They brought their old-world style of cooking with them to this new subtropical environment, adapting it to the local flora and fauna while creating new versions of French favorites (like bisques and fricassees), as well as inventing plenty of new ones, many of which (like gumbo and jambalaya) were influenced by the cuisine of the African slaves on their farms and plantations. There were noticeable absences in ingredients in their new home, however, which led to a fundamentally different character for the new cuisine; dairy and wheat, for example, did not thrive in the Louisiana climate, and as a result vegetable oil and lard are more widely used than butter and cream, while corn and rice take the spotlight away from bread as the primary starches. The other defining characteristic of Cajun food, as Wuerthner points out, is the time it takes to cook it. This is not an à la minute cuisine, but instead one that gains its character from long, slow cooking times, which not only made the most of the ingredients available but freed up the Cajun housewife for her myriad of other duties (such as child-rearing – those Cajun families were huge!). What never changed as the cuisine adapted was the pleasure people took in it – Cajuns are known as some of the most passionate eaters and generous hosts in the world, and the heartiness and robust flavors that are the hallmarks of Cajun cuisine certainly reflect this.
The recipes in this book represent Wuerthner’s attempt to collect and archive her family’s recipes. Some of them she learned to cook from her family in California, while others she learned about while researching her family’s history in Louisiana. While no means an encyclopedic treatment of Cajun foods, there are recipes for just about everything well-known in the Cajun repertoire, as well as many less-traditional family favorites. The usual suspects are all there – jambalaya, ettouffe, gumbo, beignets, hush puppies and bread pudding, for example, often in multiple variations – along with plenty of less-usual ones: crispy cayenne french toast, baked tomato casserole, and spicy syrup cake. What I love about all the recipes in this book is how Wuerthner has personalized them with stories and anecdotes – each section begins with a lengthy reminiscence about her extended family and their relationship with food, and each recipe is preceded by a small note indicating the history or importance of that particular dish to this family. For me, at least, it inspired great confidence in the recipes, both for their authenticity and reliability, as nearly every one has been passed down through several generations before appearing in this book. Above all, though, what struck me as I scrutinized potential recipes to try, was how approachable and uncomplicated they are; this is home cooking at its best, a cuisine based on thrift, imagination, and plenty of good taste.
Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
A gumbo is a long-simmered stew usually containing some kind of meat, sausage, and/or fish (though vegetarian versions do exist), and very frequently calling for both okra and filé powder (powdered sassafras leaves), which act as flavors and thickeners. In addition, one thing gumbo always includes is a roux – a long-cooked mixture of flour and oil – that adds thickness and a deep, nutty flavor to much Cajun food. Upon this first layer of flavor are layered a myriad of tastes and textures which are
slowly simmered together to make a rich, thick, mildly spicy dish.
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (she admits that bone-in, skin-on dark meat chicken pieces, such as legs, thighs and wings are more traditional as well as flavorful in Cajun cooking, so that’s what I used – a much better idea, in my opinion)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup corn oil
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 1/2 cups chopped celery
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
2 quarts warm chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, or to taste
1 pound andouille sausage, sliced 1 inch thick (or other spicy smoked sausage, such as Kielbasa, though my advice is to add the following if you don’t use andouille: another 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder, and 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)
1 1/2 pounds fresh okra or 20 ounces frozen okra, defrosted, sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons filé powder (I left this out, as I couldn’t find any locally)
chopped fresh parsley, to garnish
cooked rice, to serve
Season the chicken cubes (or pieces) with the salt, paprika and cayenne pepper; set aside. Heat the oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the flour and cook for 25-30 minutes, stirring constantly, until the flour has turned a medium-brown, like peanut butter. Add the onions, celery, and bell pepper and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the seasoned chicken and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly (and reducing the heat, if necessary, to prevent burning).
Add the stock and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add the hot sauce and sausage; reduce the heat to low and cover the pot. Simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Add the okra and simmer for 30 more minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the filé powder just before dishing it up. Serve in soup bowls with a mound of rice in the center of each portion.
These deceptively homely – but extremely delicious – treats have a reputation for their difficulty, something I understood all too well in the process of making them. The first problem is achieving the correct temperature so that the finished pralines will spread around the nuts like molten lava and cool to an opaque firmness that crumbles softly under the teeth. A candy thermometer, needless to say, is quite essential here. The second hurdle, which is even greater in my opinion, is getting all the pralines made before the mixture cools to an unworkable grainy sludge, which it does faster than you can imagine, especially if you’re not a praline-forming pro yet. I found a way around this by returning the mixture to the heat, along with a spoonful or so of water, and remelting it for a minute or so until it was the correct temperature again. It was quite a production, though, and out of an entire batch, I got maybe half a dozen really perfect pralines. The others were certainly tasty, but would probably not win the approval of a true connoisseur. In any case, even the rejects are delicious chopped up and sprinkled over ice cream.
2 tablespoons softened butter plus 1 tablespoon butter
4 cups brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups pecan halves (8 oz) (I toasted them lightly before using – about 8 minutes at 350F)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Cover two baking sheets with parchment paper or waxed paper. Use the 2 tablespoons butter to coat the paper, the interior of the medium saucepan to be used, and two cereal spoons (which hold about 1/2 tablespoon in volume). Combine the remaining ingredients, except the pecans and vanilla, in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon. Continue to cook, stirring often, to 236F on a candy thermometer – just under the soft-ball stage (about 6 minutes).
Remove from the heat, immediately add the pecans and vanilla, and stir vigorously until the mixture loses some of its gloss, about 3 minutes (I found it took much less than this). Working fast, drop half-tablespoons onto the prepared paper using the two buttered spoons. Allow to cool before storing in an airtight container, at room temperature, with the pieces separated by waxed paper.
Simply wonderful. The gumbo came together almost effortlessly, and although it was quite a bit lighter in color than other gumbos I’ve had due to a shorter cooking time for the roux, the flavor was still hearty and robust. I’m not a huge okra fan (particularly in soupy-type preparations, where it has a tendency to get quite slimy), but here it adds a delicious silkiness and bite, and the sausage (I used Kielbasa) anchors everything with a wonderfully savory, smoky depth. With a scoop of rice it was an easy, filling one-bowl meal. The pralines were a bit trickier, but certainly tasted as good as any I had in New Orleans – I’m tempted to make another batch just so I can make my own pecan-praline ice cream. If these two recipes are representative, which I certainly have reason to assume they are, I have no qualms about highly recommending this gem of a book, which is both an excellent introduction to Cajun food and a heartwarming read all in one.
And free cookbook or not, it’s definitely deserving of a place on my bookshelf.