Friday, October 30, 2009

Cajun without a cookbook

Growing up with a Cajun mother, you'd think I would have been eating gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée and blackened steak every night. But no. My mother was a wonderful cook, but my Polish father, with one exception, pretty much called the dinner shots. That one exception was steak night; my mother insisted that we have rice, not potatoes, when she cooked steak, and the au jus flavored the white long-grain rice.

So it wasn't until I latched onto a copy of Paul Prudhomme's "Louisiana Kitchen" that I began eating Cajun food regularly at home. Oh, it was great; finally I didn't have to wait to go to Polly's or some other little greasy spoon near Elton (my mother's hometown) to get my Cajun food fix.

But any cookbook should be a road map, not commandments chiseled in stone. Take my jambalaya last night. Prudhomme has a ham and sausage jambalaya, a rabbit (or chicken) jambalaya, a chicken and tasso jambalaya. They are all pretty good, but most of them call for some tomato sauce or canned tomatoes. That just exposes Prudhomme's New Orleans training; most Cajuns do not cook with tomatoes, most Creoles do.

Tasso isn't expensive in Louisiana; but in many other places, it's rare and dear. And that defeats the purpose of Cajun cooking: making what's available taste wonderful. Tasso, for those of you who aren't familiar with Louisiana ingredients, is a smoky seasoning meat not unlike ham.

What is available here in Virginia is ham chips. They are fairly smoky, very salty, and work well as seasoning. I also had a pack of chicken thighs from the last time I cut up a trio of chickens. Voilà! I could work with that.

Lori K's jambalaya with chicken thighs and Virginia ham chips


Seasoning mix
3 California bay leaves, broken in half
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground sassafras leaves (filé)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
10 ounces Virginia ham chips
6 chicken thighs (bone in)
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 cup finely diced celery
1 cup chopped bell peppers
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 cups uncooked long-grain or basmati rice
4 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon liquid smoke


Combine seasoning mix ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

In a large cast iron skillet, heat the oil until it begins to smoke; add chicken breasts and cook until browned on both sides. Turn down the heat a little and remove chicken pieces to a large ovenproof casserole. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Cook the ham until it sizzles and add the vegetables and seasoning mix, stir well and continue cooking until browned, about 10 minutes. Add the rice and cook another 5 minutes, scraping and stirring the mixture. Put the broth in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Put all the contents of the pan into the casserole with the chicken. Add the broth, and put in the oven. Cook for 45 minutes to an hour, until all the liquid is absorbed. Remove bay leaves and serve immediately.

No comments:

Post a Comment