Time for a fais do-do!

In Recipies on June 21, 2011 at 11:48 am

The last few weeks of Iowa weather put me in the mood for Cajun!

Oh sure, the temperatures have been much cooler than on the bayou.  But with regular dewpoints over 74-degrees and daily rainfalls measured in multiple inches, America’s Ukraine magically morphed into the Gulf Coast.  For added reality, for those of us who disdain air conditioning as a sign of personal weakness, putting on one’s clothes in the morning is a lot like putting on someone else’s sweat suit after their workout.

For the record, Cajun (and much of Creole cooking) is one of the Phyne Dyner’s favorite American cuisines.  Cajun food sets off fireworks in my mouth.

There are just so many flavors going on at once!  And, of course, Cajun cuisine can be hot.  Unless a few forkfuls set my scalp to itching, the dish is under-seasoned with heat.

Now, I have to admit that Cajun cuisine presents a bit of a dilemma for me.

A prized cookbook in my library.

We do not bring shellfish, pork, or other such into our home.  This is not to say we have not eaten these things.  Therefore, it is academically honest to say we are Jews who do not keep kosher.

In fact, any Jew who willingly eats (or often drinks) anything in a non-kosher restaurant has to also admit they do not keep kosher…no matter how rigorously they inspect home groceries for the all-important hechsher (a little emblem attesting – a-hem – that the contents are “kosher”).

Eating in a non-kosher restaurant and saying you “keep kosher” is like having adulterous sex and claiming it was not adultery…because a condom was used.

Cajun cookery is a favorite of Jews of the region as well.  It is a little known fact that antebellum New Orleans was a larger center of Jewish life than New York or even today’s Jewish-American Jerusalem…Boca Raton.

Anyway, the best Cajun cuisine is found in that wonderful crescent along America’s northern and western Gulf Coast.  Consequently, it is no surprise that Jews in the area adapted many Cajun recipes to fit in with whatever kosher laws they felt were demanded by their Invisible Sky Friend.  The basis of the recipes was maintained, but the non-kosher ingredients (or practices) were omitted.

The basis for many Cajun dishes is the roux.

 A roux consists of fat or oil in which flour is fried.  The longer a roux fries, the more intense its flavor.  A lightly fried roux is pale golden and has a very delicate flavor that goes well with mild ingredients.  A roux that is fried to dark brown has a strong, nutty flavor that stands up well to more robust ingredients.  My favorite is somewhere in between.

Making a decent roux is a lot of the challenge to making great Cajun food.  The roux must be cooked to the proper depth of color/flavor and the quantity must be correct the first time around.  Unless you are very experienced with Cajun cuisine, it is always best to err on the side of making too much roux and then use the amount you need for your dish.

Too much roux will result in a pasty dish and too little will not thicken the dish sufficiently or add the desired roux-like flavor.

Cajun food also depends on a lot of chopped or minced things.  Consequently, one does not “whip up” Cajun food on short notice.

Okay.  So what is a harried, hurried member of the Phyne Dyning crowd to do when they want a decent jambalaya or gumbo?

Two box brands come to mind.

Cajun Magic is a box brand sold in Texas and Louisiana.  Because it is not sold in Yankeeland, my friends in Texas keep us supplied.  You still add your own meat or fish (or seafood if there are no Invisible Sky Friend Ordinances prohibiting you from using it).  Sometimes, cans of the dreaded cream of mushroom soup are added to the mix.

A word of warning about Cajun Magic:  It makes a butt-load of food.  The packages warn:  Serves 12-18 people, or two hungry Cajuns.  No kidding!  Consider cutting the package recipe by half (or even to a quarter) unless you have invited the entire Thibedeaux clan to a fais do-do in your back yard.

Zatarain’s offers up a decent box-brand that makes far less food.  I prefer this brand because of it.  The Zatarain’s brand also lends itself to the concept of adding your own stuff…especially their gumbo mix which I am featuring today.

Not everything out of a box is bad.

The Zatarain’s New Orleans Style Gumbo Mix with Rice contains a bit of rice (obviously) some of the herbs and spices (barely), and a dehydrated roux.  Making it according to the package instructions yields a fairly decent gumbo with only a very faint hint of that “dehydrated food taste”.

Obviously, any Phyne Dyner would want to improve on it.  At the same time, I wanted to keep the convenience and ease of preparation aspects for home chefs who do not want to invest “from scratch time” into preparing something that came mostly out of a box.  At the same time, I wanted it to be good.

Seriously, this stuff is GOOD!  I sometimes add frozen okra slices for authenticity.  But, many people object to the “snotty” texture of cooked okra so I am omitting it here.  The result is a gumbo you would be willing to pay ten or twelve dollars per large bowl in some pretentious Yankee restaurant, seven or eight dollars in a Cajun-themed chain joint, or two or three dollars in a bayou dive.

Best of all, you can have a pretty authentic tasting gumbo in about thirty minutes.

One ingredient you will need is the Phyne Dyner’s version of a Cajun rub.  I do not recall where I got this recipe, it is scrawled on the back of an Augmentin chewables pad.  It is more than a “rub”.  I have used it to blacken fish or chicken and as a general Cajun-style seasoning.  (NOTE:  Do not prepare blackened anything in the house.  When blackening is properly done, it generates huge volumes of smoke!  You have been warned.)

For the “rub”:

In a clean, glass jar mix:

1 tsp onion powder

1 tsp dried thyme

1 tsp ground white pepper

1 tsp ground black pepper

½ tsp garlic powder

½ tsp celery seed

½ tsp dried oregano

½ tsp cayenne pepper

¼ to ½ tsp salt (optional)

I frequently blend these ingredients using a mortar and pestle before putting them into my jar.  Store in a cool, dark place.

My version also calls for dehydrated jalapeno pepper slices.  I make these up every summer and bag them for later use.  Dehydration really concentrates the pepper flavor without over-concentrating the pepper’s heat (they are still HOT).  I have also used dehydrated banana pepper slices.  The jalapeno version is outstanding.  You can use finely minced (unseeded) jalapenos…but it is not as intensely flavorful.

Here is how to make the very best Zatarain’s gumbo:

1 box Zatarain’s Gumbo Mix with Rice

5 ½ C water

1 8oz can cooked chicken breast (or cook up your own if you have time)

8 oz cod loin cut into 1-inch pieces

1 TBS dehydrated jalapeno slices OR 2 finely minced fresh (with seeds)

1 bay leaf

1 tsp Phyne Dyner’s “Cajun Rub”

In a large, heavy saucepan add the water to the mix and add the bay leaf.  Bring to a boil.  Add raw fish and cook for 10 minutes.  Add the canned chicken with its liquid.  Add the Cajun rub and cook for 5 more minutes.  Reduce heat to simmer, cover, and cook for 10 more minutes (or until rice is tender).

Serve in bowls with crusty French bread, or over rice.


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