“New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”
— Mark Twain, 1884
I’m eating better than I ever have with my personal lifestyle/eating coach/coordinator Amoret and sometimes my eldest daughter T doing the cooking.
T made me a memorable Moroccan Chicken with butternut squash over couscous (kind of like grits in consistency). Amoret has daily meals that include lots of chicken (to satisfy the meat eater in me) and plenty of tomatoes (she’s found a passata with negligible salt), with fresh vegetables. I’ve developed a fondness for fruit such as blueberries, peaches, nectarines, pears, melons.
But I can’t just lay back and let them feed me, much as I’d like. The time has come for me to fly alone. I feel the need to cook, to take
part the way I used to in the kitchen, because you don’t have to “talk” culinary expertise (unless you’re Nigella), you can exhibit it too. It’s the one
thing I feel I can do after the stroke despite a record of misjudging distances.
There’s one way I can get Amoret to agree – I’d make my world-famous Cajun chicken and sausage gumbo – her favourite. Amoret wasn’t too keen on me cutting vegetables and chicken and handling hot oil on my own, but the thought of a gumbo for dinner took hold and she relented (the way to a woman’s heart is also through her stomach).
I didn’t spend all my time in New Orleans working and drinking. There was subterranean magic (voodoo?) in the foods that made me want
to learn more about it, eat it, then actually create it.
Crawfish boiled and served on Times Picayune newspaper.
Oysters, fresh shucked.
Getting shrimp fresh off the boat in a variety of sizes.
Onion sacks full of crabs, boiled in a special mixture.
Lucky Dogs in the French Quarter (hey, that’s not Cajun cooking. Sorry).
I learned that my favourite author, Lafcadio Hearn, had written a cookbook La Cuisine Creole during his time in New Orleans. It even has the recipe for making your own yeast, and how to make a whitewash for the walls.
In other words, I was in a New Orleans cooking school, except I just didn’t know it. It just rubbed off on me and has been there ever
since. Later through the years, I gave some classes in Cajun cooking (complete with Cajun dialect jokes) in kitchen stores the result of the 80’s Cajun cooking craze, as well as to contribute to cooking shows on television.
Now gumbo and assorted Cajun dishes were for family only and one fabulous D-Day holiday in France for dinner with a French family.
Amoret watched as I put out the cutting board out and got my trusty chef knife (sharp!). Now there are two ways I could hurt myself: cutting
my fingers, or burned in hot oil, so I had to focus, and take each step slowly.
There are hundreds of ways to make gumbo, but with all of them you first start with a roux. Equal parts of flour and oil cooked together
to make a roux. My Cajun teachers tell me it has to be a dark roux and I’ve learned to make it in the microwave (Plain flour: ¾ cup- vegetable oil: ¾ cup – for 7:30 to 8 minutes) instead of stirring constantly over a fire for 45 minutes.
Then it was into the pot without burning myself.
For my chicken and sausage gumbo (the only kind that’s practical – you can make alligator gumbo), the chicken breasts have been cut into pieces and marinated in a dusting of Cajun spices (you’ve seen the bastardised versions in the supermarkets I have my own recipe which retails for £5.00, now on special offer to readers of this blog for only a comment), and I mix it in over a low to medium heat, coating the chicken roux everywhere. It’s great physical therapy; it beats doing reps on some machine.
Now the holy trinity of Cajun cooking: celery, green peppers and onions. If I were to use Jamie Oliver’s show-off chopping technique I might
lose a finger, so slowly goes the knife, each downward stroke methodical and deliberate and safe. It would be great to play the Cajun national anthem Jolie Blonde as background.
The trick is to “let the chicken give off its juices” as I learned it – so let it slowly cook over a low heat, covered, stirring occasionally until
a “gravy” is created.
Add two chicken stock cubes, slice a link of smoked sausage (unless you can get andouille), and a litre and a half of water (if you’re into Communist measurements) or 2 and a half pints of water (if you’re from the free world) and cook.
I generally leave it on all day, but simmer at least an hour. Controversially, as I found out, you may
add a couple bay leaves, although some say you will go to hell for this transgression.
Serve over rice (two measures water to one measure of rice; 20 minutes, low heat, covered).
Amoret was more than pleased she had a gumbo. More than that she was quietly pleased I could do a gumbo and clean up without hurting myself,
which means I could be trusted make another gumbo.
You don’t know the difference between Cajun and Creole?
Learn yourself right here.