Like just about every "foodie" who loves New Orleans, I've been watching this great city claw back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina with a heart full of emotion, and I cheered the recent news that the iconic Cafe du Monde is back in business on Jackson Square.
Without getting bogged down in such cultural matters as a definitive explanation of the difference between Louisiana's French- and African-accented Creole (city) and Cajun (country) cuisine, let's keep things simple today. This invention features a pair of fine thick pork chops in an off-the-cuff rendition that pays homage to the Creole-Cajun tradition without making any real claim to native-born authenticity.
What makes a dish Cajun (like Paul Prudhomme's) or Creole (like Galatoire's)? A few signature ingredients and preparations evoke a sense of Louisiana heritage in a dish. Incorporate one or several of the following in your recipe, and you've given it an instant taste of Creole.
"The Holy Trinity" No, not that one. The holy trinity of Creole cookery is a mix of chopped onions, celery and green peppers, browned together to build an aromatic flavor base. Virtually every Cajun or Creole dish except maybe bread pudding starts with some combination of these three building blocks.
Piquant spice During the heyday of Cajun cookery that attended Paul Prudhomme's rise to national prominence during the 1980s, Louisiana cooking gained a reputation as fiery and hot; and this generalization is not entirely undeserved. Creole is milder, though, and great Cajun - like that of Prudhomme and his extended family - isn't just about the painful pleasure of an endorphin rush but about complex, aromatic heat. Done right, Louisiana flavors play an orchestral symphony on your taste buds, not just a one-note rap ballad. Black, white and red peppers, Louisiana hot sauce, dry mustard, garlic and more come together in varied proportions to stoke up the heat.
Roux Pronounced "roo" in Louisiana French, this is the Acadian cousin to the classic "mother sauce" base of haute cuisine: Flour whisked into searing-hot oil, then stirred and cooked in a red-hot black-iron skillet until it darkens through bronze to red to dark brown, making an intensely flavorful thickener for gumbo and other Cajun goodies.
Okra This torpedo-shaped vegetable, a gift from Africa, may put off the uninitiated because it's slimy if you don't cook it right (May 2, 2002 FoodLetter), but it's delicious if you do. It, too, is a natural thickener for gumbo, soups and stews, as is the more obscure filé, powdered sassafrass leaves used to both thicken and add a haunting herbal scent to your Cajun dinner. (I've got a little jar of Zattarain's filé around here that's been in the pantry since 1994. I wonder how long it keeps.)
I kept things simple in this Cajun-style dish, which took advantage of a couple of inch-thick, natural pork chops, the holy trinity ingredients and a mix of piquant spices from the pantry, tossed together (in a black-iron skillet, of course), to make a dish that may or may not be absolutely authentic but certainly sends a tip of the cap from the Ohio Valley south to our friends in the hurricane-ravaged Mississippi Delta.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
1/2 sweet onion
1. Chop the onion, bell pepper and celery and mince the garlic. This should yield about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of chopped vegetables in all.
2. Mix the salt, black and white pepper, cayenne and dry mustard powder in a small bowl and set this spice mix aside with the bay leaf.
3. Sprinkle the pork chops with a little salt, black pepper and cayenne. Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy skillet until it sizzles, then brown the chops, 2 or 3 minutes on each side. Take out the chops and hold them on a warm plate.
4. Put the chopped vegetables in the remaining fat in the hot skillet, stirring them frequently. When they start to cook, add the spice mix and bay leaf and continue stirring until they start to brown.
5. Put the pork chops and any accumulated juices back in the skillet and pour in only as much of the chicken broth as you need to come about halfway up their sides. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to very low, cover tightly, and simmer, turning the chops once or twice, for about 30 minutes. Check occasionally and add a little more broth if needed.
6. When the pork chops are done, check for seasoning, adding a little more salt and Louisiana hot sauce to taste. (If your guests are timid or if you're serving the dish with a fine wine that would be spoiled by excessive heat, skip the hot sauce or pass it on the side for those who must.) Serve with plenty of steaming white rice, French bread and a salad, and laissez les bon temps rouler!
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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2005
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