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.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Save the Gulf oyster

Federal officials plan to ban sales of raw oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico unless the shellfish are treated to destroy potentially deadly bacteria, the Associated Press reports.
The Gulf region supplies about two-thirds of U.S. oysters.
About 15 people die each year in the United States from raw oysters infected with Vibrio vulnificus, which typically is found in warm coastal waters between April and October. Most of the deaths occur among people with weak immune systems caused by health problems like liver or kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, or AIDS.
"Seldom is the evidence on a food-safety problem and solution so unambiguous," Michael Taylor, a senior adviser at the Food and Drug Administration, told a shellfish conference in Manchester, N.H., earlier this month in announcing the policy change.
Some oyster sellers say the FDA rule smacks of government meddling. The sales ban would take effect in 2011 for oysters harvested in the Gulf during warm months.
The anti-bacterial process treats oysters with a method similar to pasteurization, using mild heat, freezing temperatures, high pressure and low-dose gamma radiation.
Treated oysters are "not as bright, the texture seems different," said Donald Link, head chef and owner of the Herbsaint Bar and Restaurant in New Orleans.
"This is an area the government shouldn't meddle in," Link said. "What's next? They're going to tell us we can't eat our beef rare?"
Until the 1960s, raw oysters were rarely eaten in the summertime. (The old adage was never eat oysters in the months without an R in them.) But changes in harvest patterns and advances in refrigeration and post-harvest treatment have made the industry a year-round business. About three-fifths of the Gulf's oysters are harvested during the warm months.
The FDA contends treating oysters would not affect the taste and would save lives. In 2003, California banned untreated Gulf Coast oysters and since then the number of deaths dropped to zero. By comparison, between 1991 and 2001, 40 people died in California from the infection.
The rule would not affect oysters harvested outside the Gulf. Oysters are harvested up and down the West and East coasts, but the bacteria is not found in such high concentrations there.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lemons, and their well-preserved punch

Preserved lemon is an easy condiment to make, and can a punch to usually bland dishes such as baked fish, chicken or veal. It makes mayonnaise taste yummier in a tuna fish sandwich, and can be used anywhere you need an essence of lemon and salt. Somehow, when the lemon sits in its brine, it becomes at once more lemony and less tangy, and you can eat the entire lemon, rind and all.

Your homemade version probably won't look as pretty as the tiny lemons in a jar from Morocco, but you won't be paying upwards of $8 for them, either.

Easy preserved lemon

You'll need:
1 half-pint jelly jar with good-fitting lid
2 lemons (no wider in the middle than the inside of the jar)
Kosher salt

Sterilize the jar with boiling water and cool. Slice one lemon thinly; throw away the ends. Put in a teaspoon of salt in the bottom of the jar. Put each slice in one at a time, sprinkling each with kosher salt, until the entire lemon is in the jar. Sprinkle a little extra salt on top. Juice the other lemon and pour the juice over the sliced lemon and salt. Put the lid on tightly and shake to mix well. Keep out on the counter for about a week, shaking and turning upside down at least once a day. Put the jar in the refrigerator and the slices will be ready to use in about two weeks. When you're down to the last couple of slices, it's time to make a new jar. The lemon will keep in the refrigerator for at least 6 months.

Here's a simple recipe from blogger Kerry Saretsky to get you started once your own preserved lemon has mellowed:

Parmesan, Preserved Lemon, and Thyme Wafers

Serve these on top of a salad of baby spinach dressed lightly with lemon juice, lemon zest, olive oil, salt and pepper. Lemon heaven.
- makes 9 wafers -
2 tablespoons finely chopped preserved lemon
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Place the finely chopped preserved lemon pieces in a mesh strainer, and rinse very well. Dry on paper towels, and pat very dry.
Mix together the dry lemon pieces, the Parmesan, and the chopped fresh thyme leaves. On a Silpat- or parchment-lined baking sheet, heap little tablespoon mounds of the cheese mixture, leaving room for them to spread as they melt, and bake in the oven for 4 or 5 minutes, until golden. Allow to cool completely on the baking sheet, then lift off with a spatula and allow to rest on paper towels until cooled and hardened. If you're ambitious, you can form them into tubes while they are still hot.