Cooking with Cajuns
The first thing you learn from a Cajun cook - and I'm not sure there is a Cajun who doesn't cook - is that there is a starting point for many of the stew-like, saucy dishes such as gumbo and etouffe' that is reverently referred to as the holy trinity. Many Cajuns are of the Catholic persuasion and love a good joke, so I suppose it was natural that the trio of onions, peppers and celery became known as a trinity, holy or otherwise.
The next thing you must learn is how to make a roux. Granted, there is bottled roux and roux mixes, but there's nothing as satisfying as making your own roux from scratch, as they say. The only thing really difficult about making a roux is the amount of time you must spend near it, contemplating it's color and aroma, all while stirring it slowly and religiously. It's not something you do halfheartedly.
After that, whatever you decide to throw together - crawfish tails, pieces of alligator tail, shrimp, okra, fish, crab, tomatoes, more peppers, more onions, garlic and other seasonings - is going to go with some fluffy, white rice and be eaten with gusto and appreciation. Some dishes are ladled over rice, some have rice placed atop it. Whatever way it is served, it's Cajun and it's delicious. And you can learn to make it at home.
I first learned how to serve and eat gumbo, etouffe' and fried boudain balls when I started working at a Cajun restaurant. I had been to New Orleans once but I didn't order gumbo or any of those other things. I ate poor boys, fried shrimp and turtle soup, as I recall. The family-owned and operated eatery was quaint and rustic. The owners were a musical family who offered live performances every Friday night at their place, either on the front porch or indoors at a small stage when the weather wouldn't cooperate. I was fortunate to have been invited to work for them as a dishwasher first, then a waitress, because the tips were great. People came from across the Atlantic to eat there, as I soon discovered. Famous musicians would also stop in on occasion for a bite to eat and, sometimes, to pick a little.
All the staff, once the rush was over, sat down together to have supper. Red beans and rice, crawfish etouffe, and shrimp and okra gumbo were the favorites, if there was any left. It was all just plain good! The owners ate with the rest of us, many of whom were kin to them, but those of us that weren't kin were treated as though we were, and that was really special.
The owners had two sons that played guitar, fiddle, and mandolin and could belt out a tune as fine as anyone in country music (okay, maybe not anyone). The owner played fiddle like he'd been playing it all his life, and he pretty much had been. He was past retirement age and could make that thing sing! His wife played guitar and sang. The music part of the evening was always a good time, and most of the time, I could sneak out for 5 or 10 minutes to watch and listen. It was one of the best jobs I ever had and certainly the most fun.
So, how hard is it to make a delicious pot of gumbo? Not very hard at all. Shrimp and okra gumbo is traditionally made without a roux, but it's a good thing to know how to do and I like it made with a roux. The thing about gumbo is that once you have the base made (sauteed veg., roux and liquid) you can add any number of ingredients: sausage, smoked meats, 'gator, chicken, turtle, fish, whatever you want. As long as you have rice on hand, you're good to go.
A pictorial tutorial of the making of shrimp and okra gumbo (non-traditional)
There are no wrong gumbos but the roux can be
If you like fish and smoked turkey gumbo, make it that way. If you like chicken and smoked sausage gumbo, make it that way. But, if you make the roux too dark, it can have a burnt, bitter taste, and that's not good. Whether you make the roux in a saucepan, pot, dutch oven, or use a cast iron frying pan, you want to end up with a mixture of flour and fat that is the consistency of thick gravy. The amount you need depends on how large a pot of gumbo you're making, but - rule of thumb - use 1/2 to 3/4 cup for 4 quarts of gumbo. The color of the roux is up to you, too. Most times a milk chocolate color is as light as you want to go, and a dark chocolate is too dark and too close to burning it. Go for something between the two and you're fine.
- 1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 green pepper, halved, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 1/2 cup oil
- 1/2 cup all purpose flour
- 4 qts of stock, can add plain water if you need more
- 1 bunch green onion tops, chopped
- spices, garlic, thyme, parsley, salt, lemon pepper, black pepper, red pepper flakes
- 1 small can diced tomatoes, or can of Rotelle
- 1 -2 cups okra, sliced, fresh or frozen