Friday, February 6, 2009

True Cajun - hold the tomatoes

As many of you know, my mom, rest her soul, was Cajun through and through. But when she was growing up in the early part of the 20th century, it wasn't anything to be proud of - in fact, she and her brother and sisters did all they could to speak without an accent and learn to cook American. She told me she was the first child in her family who went to school speaking English; she would talk to her parents in English and they would answer her in French. She didn't become truly bilingual until she moved back to Louisiana after my dad retired.

But there were ways to "cook French" in her culture, and one of tenets was that jambalaya, étouffée and gumbo never, EVER, had okra or tomatoes in them. I'm not sure why, but I think it had to do with the breakdown of vegetables during the long cooking times. Vegetables, including tomatoes and okra, were often served separately at dinner.

In recent years, Cajun food has taken on the trappings of many ethnic cuisines: specialized spices, hard-to-acquire meats and seafoods, and esoteric, complicated instructions. I'm here to say that only the spices are required, along with the "holy Trinity" of onion, bell pepper and celery. The cuisine was developed to feed large numbers of people with whatever was on hand. So go with what you have. Just don't add tomatoes.

Lori K's generic jambalaya
Serves 6

4 small bay leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon gumbo filé (ground sassafras leaves, optional)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons oil
1 cup of diced smoked sausage (andouille, kielbasa or similar) or smokey ham
1 cup raw chicken, pork or seafood
1 onion (about a cup)
1 cup finely diced celery
1 cup diced bell pepper
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups uncooked rice (long grain or converted)
4 cups chicken, seafood or vegetable stock

Thoroughly combine the spices (all the ingredients before the oil) in a small bowl and set aside.
Heat the oil in a cast-iron skillet over high heat and add the meats (if using seafood, add it with the rice). Cook for 5 minutes, then add the vegetables and the spice mix. Cook until everything is browned, about 10 minutes. Scrape the bottom of the pan well, and add the rice. Cook another 5 minutes, then add the broth. Bring to a boil, cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed. Stir well, remove the bay leaves, and serve. 

Photograph c. 1938 of a Cajun woman hulling rice in Crowley, LA

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