Friday, June 13, 2014

Louisiana Lunch: Big Food on the Bayou

With one major American cuisine under my belt (in more than one sense), and having been to a few other countries since, I thought it about time to return to the States and have a go at another one for my party of seven guests. The logical remaining choice was the cuisine of Louisiana -- a fairly mature culinary tradition fusing those of the French, West Africans, and several others over the years.

Based on a "holy trinity"of bell peppers, onions and celery (the Louisiana version of mirepoix), it offers scrumptious options for fans of rice and seafood, and makes good use of local (to Southern America) ingredients. The cuisine is popular well outside Louisiana in America, and really should be more popular globally, since it includes a spice component that can be easily adjusted to local levels of tolerance.

As a welcome drink, I prepared the Ramos fizz, a New Orleans cocktail consisting of (per person) a shot of gin and the white of an egg, mixed with a tablespoon each of lemon juice, lime juice, sugar syrup and cream, shaken with a dash of orange flower water and some ice, and added to soda water.

For the soup course, I chose the crab and corn bisque (would have made a crawfish bisque if I could find some good crawfish). True to its French roots, the first ingredient was a blonde roux prepared by whisking 3 tbsp flour into 45g melted butter, cooking and whisking for a further 8 minutes. I then finely chopped and cooked a large onion, 2 cloves of garlic, and a large celery stalk in a tablespoon of vegetable oil for about 2 minutes, adding some Cajun seasoning, then a cup of chicken broth, 1.5 cups of corn kernels and 2 bay leaves.

After bringing this to a simmer, I poured in 475ml milk, 475ml heavy cream, and a teaspoon of liquid shrimp seasoning, and let it simmer for about 10 minutes before throughly blending in the roux, adding a pound of crabmeat, a quarter cup of chopped green onions, and a half teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce. 10 more minutes of simmering, and a I seasoned it with salt and pepper to serve.

It probably should not have been quite as thick, but it still went down a treat.

Thanks to the Hank Williams song and/or its covers, many of us have heard of "file gumbo". Believed to originate in the culinary traditions of West Africa, and with a little French influence, gumbo is centered on okra, which gives it the texture those familiar with Arab bamiya or Indian bhindi fry will recognize. As I already had a meat-heavy dish lined up, I decided to go for the vegetarian Lenten version called gumbo z'herbes, which (in this case) used mushrooms in the place of meat. I also had no access to file, so I had to make do with thyme as a substitute.

I first sauteed a finely chopped clove of garlic, onion, and green bell pepper in a tablespoon of oil, until tender, then stirring in stir in 225g thawed, frozen, and halved mini-okra, 225g thick-sliced mushrooms, a 400g can of diced tomatoes with the liquid, a 225g can of tomato paste, a teaspoon of thyme, 3 bay leaves, and a dash of salt and pepper. I stirred and cooked this about 45 minutes, before adding a dark blonde roux made with 2 tbsp each of oil and flour, cooking until it thickened.

I served it garnished with a little chopped parsley. It's great with rice, and very filling.

Shrimp etouffee is another popular New Orleans treat. I first sauteed the holy trinity -- a cup each of chopped onion, chopped green bell pepper, and celery stalk -- with half a cup of chopped green onion and 6 minced cloves of garlic in 90g of butter, until tender.

I then stirred in half a cup of chopped parsley, 5 tbsp tomato paste, 1 can of condensed cream of chicken soup, 700g of medium-sized cleaned shrimp, a dash of salt, and a teaspoon each of hot pepper sauce and ground cayenne pepper, cooking and turning for about 15 minutes.

This dish has a lovely spicy bite that complemented the milder gumbo nicely.

Rather than serving plain rice with the gumbo and etouffee, I just went ahead and made a jambalaya to serve as our starch. Also made famous by Hank Williams, this one was based on a recipe closer to Cajun style.

I sauteed pieces of 4 chicken breasts and about 350g of german sausage in oil, until lightly cooked, then stirring in 2 diced onions, 2 diced green bell pepper and 1 cup diced celery with 3 tbsp chopped garlic. Seasoning with half a teaspoon cayenne pepper, a teaspoon of onion powder, and some salt and ground black pepper, I let the pot's contents cook until the vegetables were tender. I then added 3 cups of soaked white rice, 6 cups of chicken stock, and 6 bay leaves, bringing to a boil so I could simmer it covered for about 20 minutes. Before serving, I stirred in 3 tsp Worcestershire sauce and 2 tsp hot pepper sauce.

Jambalaya is heavy, and like paella or biryani, can be a meal by itself. The meats were suitably tender, and the rice, having taken in the meats' flavors, also served as a tasty accompaniment for the gumbo and etouffee.

For dessert, it was Bananas Foster, an old New Orleans favorite. The only thing I had to cook for this was the sauce, made by stirring 290g dark brown sugar, 100ml rum, 3 tsp vanilla extract, and 1 tsp ground cinnamon into 110g melted butter in a hot skillet. When it started bubbling, I added half a cup of chopped walnuts and 6 bananas that had been split and sliced thickly, letting it cook for about 5 minutes before serving it hot over a good vanilla ice cream.

Simple, quick, and gloriously delicious.

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