In an era where the life of a food trend is generally measured in months as we move hungrily from one with-it culinary category to the next, Cajun cuisine sometimes seems just so ... so ... Eighties!
But let's declare our independence from the trendy set and agree to eat what we like. After all, the spicy fare of Acadiana was delicious for generations before the likes of Paul Prudhomme and Justin Wilson made it famous, and it's not going anywhere even after its brief faddish period has faded.
I love the stuff, even if it took a bit of unanticipated diet and exercise to help me recover from the experience of gaining about 15 pounds while cooking my way through Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen. All that butter! All that oil! All that rice!
But taken in moderation, Cajun remains one of my favorite food niches. Although its roots grow in a completely different part of the world, I find in it some of the same tasty elements that appeal to me in Indian and Southeast Asian cookery: A respect for fresh, local ingredients used as bright, bold flavor elements in a cuisine that builds a layered complexity of contrasting yet compatible flavors; fiery spice is a signature taste, but it's about much more than mere macho how-much-heat-can-you-endure.
Gumbo, etouffée, red beans and rice ... I love it all. But when I'm in the mood to make something Cajun, more often than not I'll gravitate to jambalaya. Sort of like a pilaf, something like risotto, it's an as-you-like it blend of vegetables (the classic Cajun/Creole "holy trinity" of onions, celery and green peppers plus tomatoes), your choice of meat, poultry and seafood, and rice, with spices and cayenne kicked up to your liking.
Last year (July 17, 2003 Foodletter) I featured a simple ham and sausage jambalaya based on a Paul Prudhomme recipe. Recently I created a chicken-and-shrimp variation that I threw together without reference to a recipe, although it certainly traces much of its ancestry to Prudhomme's books, and the rest to my own happy memories of food travels through Acadiana, from Lafayette, La., around the watery arc of bayou towns from Breaux Bridge to New Iberia to Houma.
The ingredient list looks long, and the dish does take a bit of preparation time, but I've sorted it into stages to keep things simple; it's really a fairly easy process.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves four as a main dish or two with leftovers)
Six to eight chicken thighs
1. I like to keep things simple - and reduce fat - by poaching the chicken thighs (or other parts of your preference) without browning them first, gently cooking the chicken meat to tenderness while creating the broth that you'll use in the dish. Rinse the thighs and put them in a saucepan. Cover with the water, add half of the onion (no need to peel it), two of the garlic cloves, 1 stalk of the celery, the carrot, 1 teaspoon of the salt and the black peppercorns. Bring to a boil, then skim off any scum that rises to the top; reduce heat to a very gentle simmer and leave to cook uncovered for a half-hour while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
2. While the chicken is simmering, make a seasoning mix by blending the cayenne, oregano, thyme, cumin, dry mustard, black pepper, the bay leaf and the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt.
3. Chop the other half of the onion, the two remaining celery stalks and the green pepper; mince the remaining clove of garlic. Cook them in a large, heavy black-iron skillet or dutch oven with the olive oil until they're soft and starting to brown. Stir in the seasoning mix. Peel, seed and chop the tomato (or open the can), and add to the vegetables in the sautee pan. Leave on a gentle simmer while you attend to the chicken ...
4. Remove the simmering chicken from the heat and pour the broth into a large measuring cup through a large strainer lined with paper towels. If you're scrupulous about fat, you can skim most of it off as it rises to the top. Discard the flavoring ingredients (you can eat the vegetables, if you like, as a reward for the chef). Let the thighs cool a little, then tear the chicken meat into large bite-size shreds, discarding the skin, bones and gristly bits.
5. Add the chicken shreds to the simmering vegetables. Add the rice, then stir in 2 1/2 cups of the chicken broth, raising heat until it comes to a boil. Return heat to very low and allow to simmer, covered tightly, for about 15 minutes. Toward the end of that time, check periodically to make sure the rice isn't sticking to the bottom of the skillet, and add a little more broth if needed. When the rice is almost done, stir in the shrimp and continue cooking just until the rice is done and the shrimp are pink and cooked through. Check seasonings, adding a little more salt, pepper and cayenne if necessary; pass additional Louisiana hot sauce at the table.
MATCHING WINE: I'm not really crazy about wine with fiery fare, and if you travel in Cajun country, you'll most often find the food of the region served with ice-cold beer or sweet iced tea. If you insist on wine, I recommend slightly sweet, fruity options, from Riesling to gentler-styled Merlots, or modest bubblies like Spanish cava or the Italian Prosecco.
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Thursday, Nov. 18, 2004
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