Cajun Christmas

Yes, gazing at the photo that accompanies this column makes me nostalgic – especially at a season of year given over to exactly such emotions. And that’s why we’re offering our first annual Cajun Family Christmas cooking class on Thursday Dec. 14.

Being only human, the first thing I notice in the photo is the absence of gray hair. But my heart quickly moves on to people I knew and loved in those days (the early 1990s, I think) who are no longer with us, the glorious flavors now harder to get away from my native Louisiana – and even to the fact that the setting of this picture no longer exists, thanks to one or more hurricanes. Teaching a Cajun Family Christmas is the best way I know to bring it all back, and I hope you will join us.

Cajuns, of course, are the French-speaking 18th-century transplants to south (and especially southwest) Louisiana from Acadia, what we know today as Nova Scotia. Though they have in the past half-century become more and more part of the distinct city of New Orleans, accurately described as Creole not Cajun, this unique culture spent much of its history living on its own. As such, it was able, behind the Lost World barrier of physical remoteness and ethnic self-devotion, to remain remarkable true to its traditions.

French? Mais oui, cher, though speaking a dialect (or some argue separate language) based on an ancient version of the mother tongue. Catholic? Yes, with reverence. And Cajun? – 101 percent.

My goal with the class menu, and naturally with my anecdotes and instruction that evening, is to see Christmas through the eyes of a Cajun family sharing some of its most beloved foods. We’ll welcome you with Southern Comfort Eggnog, then progress at (I hope) the perfect pace through Crabmeat-Stuffed Mushrooms, Crawfish Rotini, Mandarin Orange Green Salad, Chicken & Andouille Gumbo, and Pecan Cranberry Bread Pudding. And yes, you will learn how to make a roux.

You can book this class via our website www.jelly.com. I hope to see your smiling faces.

CHICKEN & ANDOUILLE GUMBO

This is a rather old fashioned way to handle the chicken and stock for this gumbo. You can speed up the whole process, as I sometimes do, by using the meat from one of those roasted chickens from the supermarket – and store-bought chicken broth.   

1 whole chicken, 4-5 pounds
3 yellow onions
3 stalks celery
1-2 pounds andouille or other smoked sausage, sliced
2 green bell peppers
1 pound fresh (or frozen) okra
2 cups Fischer & Wieser Salsa a la Charra (controversial, see Note below)
Creole seasoning to taste
Black pepper
Garlic powder
Onion powder
Powdered caldo de pollo, optional
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup vegetable oil
Tabasco or other brand hot pepper sauce
Steamed white rice
Chopped green onions 

To make the stock (while cleverly cooking the chicken), cut up the whole chicken and set in a large stockpot, filling with water. Sacrifice 1 onion and 1 stalk celery, chopping and adding to the water – along with scraps from all other vegetables cut up a bit later. Season with Creole seasoning and bring almost to a boil, reduce heat. Simmer for about 1 hour, until the chicken is cooked. Remove chicken and let cool enough to handle. 

While stock is being made, heat some oil in a large (preferably cast iron) pot, kettle or Dutch oven. Brown the sausage pieces until starting to get crisp on outside, then chop and add: 2 remaining onions, 2 remaining stalks celery, 2 bell peppers. Stir until the onion starts to caramelize – don’t be afraid of golden brown, for here lies flavor. Stir in cut-up okra and cook until the “strings” of sticky stuff begin to cook out – don’t be afraid of sticky stuff, for here lies thickening (not to mention the West African name for okra that gives us “gumbo.”) 

Add the salsa, or other chopped or puree tomato – Ro-Tel  is great for this too. Season the thick, vegetal mixture with Creole seasoning and all other spices. Strain the stock into the gumbo pot. Taste and add caldo de pollo powder (chicken bouillon) for a more intense chicken flavor. Debone the chicken and add the meat in bite-sized chunks. In a separate pan or skillet, thoroughly combine the flour and oil until smooth, cooking over medium-heat until this roux turns dark brown. And no, don’t be afraid of heat – just, as the old saying goes, watch that basket! To help smoothly incorporate the roux into the gumbo, carefully pour a cup of the gumbo into the roux in the skillet – DO be afraid of a steam burn to your hands. Get in, and get out fast. Stir the roux, applying more gumbo until it’s a kind of delicious-smelling sludge. This is perfect to add to gumbo. 

Add roux and let gumbo simmer another hour or so, so all the ingredients can learn to get along. Season again as needed. Add pepper sauce as desired. When ready to serve, ladle gumbo over steamed white rice in large bowls, topping with chopped green onions. Serves, well, 6-30, depending. 

Note:  In southwest Louisiana, the heart of Cajun Country, putting any kind of tomato in gumbo is heresy. In New Orleans, the heart of Creole country, putting tomato in gumbo is almost mandatory. I love the burnt sienna color and the extra layer of complex sweetness the tomato in the salsa brings.

Written by: John DeMers

John DeMers, the author of 56 published books, is director of culinary hospitality at Fischer & Wieser Specialty Foods and host instructor at the new Culinary Adventure Cooking School in Fredericksburg. Please email your restaurant and winery news – menu changes, new chefs, special dinners, etc., to john.demers@jelly.com.


BUY & TRY AT HOME

salsa a la charra

 

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