With their distinctive combinations of specialty ingredients, French-inspired cooking techniques and sassy seasonings, Cajun and Creole cuisine have earned their place on dining-room menus far beyond their original bayou boundaries.
Although Paul Prudhomme died in 2015, the craze for blackened redfish and other Cajun specialties that he started when he opened his K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1979, and then fueled further with the publication of his best-selling cookbook five years later, still lives on and shows no signs of subsiding.
Club and resort chefs from throughout the country have continued to refine their Cajun-flavored culinary skills to satisfy members’ and guests’ demand for the distinctive cuisine. Here are three examples—from where it all began to a far-removed location—of chefs who are putting their own touches on traditional favorites to keep Cajun specialties front-of-mind as popular menu favorites.
Whenever Stewart Redhead, Executive Chef of New Orleans (La.) Country Club, is near the town of Scott, La., he stops into some local shops to stock up on boudin, a Cajun specialty sausage made with pork or seafood, rice, onions, green peppers and seasonings.
|Summing It Up
• The craze for Cajun and Creole cuisine has spread and taken hold throughout the country and shows no sign of subsiding.
• The cuisine’s emphasis on one-pot cooking is kitchen-friendly, especially in club settings.
• Know your “holy trinity” of Cajun and Creole cooking (diced onion, green pepper and celery) and how to use it effectively.
Redhead has three favorite boudin makers in Scott, each of which uses a different recipe. And he is just as particular about the andouille sausage and tasso (often referred to as a ham, but actually made from cured pork shoulder) that he puts in his recipes.
The gumbo that Redhead serves at New Orleans CC illustrates why he takes such care in selecting its ingredients. It takes three days to develop its deep, rich flavors. The first day, he makes the stock and a roux; the second day, he strains the stock and cooks the stew-like soup for four to seven hours. Finally, he lets the gumbo cool and rest, for serving on the third day.
That kind of attention to detail is what satisfies club members’ cravings for authentic Cajun and Creole flavors that are routinely featured on New Orleans CC’s menus. Redhead, in fact, notes that he had to beg his mother for years to pass on her recipe for sauce piquant, a dark, roux-based recipe that is like gumbo, but thicker and more gravy-like, and can be served over any kind of seafood or meat.
Redhead features plenty of fresh seafood on his dining-room menu, using whatever is in season, whether it is speckled trout or redfish (drum), shrimp, crawfish or softshell crabs. “Blackening” with cayenne, paprika and black pepper and cooking in a sizzling cast-iron pan is an easy way to give fresh fish a kick of Cajun, he says.
Is it Cajun, or Creole?
The name Cajun was derived from the description “les Acadians,” given to the immigrants from Acadia or French Canada who settled in the bayou areas of southern Louisiana in the mid-to-late 18th century. Cajun cuisine is the hearty, rustic, country-style fare developed by their descendants.
Creole, from the Spanish “criollo,” meaning “native to a place,” originally described the descendents of upper-class European settlers in French colonial Louisiana, and later also included native-born slaves of African descent and free people of color. Settling in cities such as New Orleans, the Creoles had access to a wider array of ingredients than the Cajuns, as well as influences from a melting-pot population, including French, Italian, Spanish, African, German, Caribbean, Native American and Portuguese.
Both cuisines rely heavily on flour- and fat-based roux to add flavor and texture to their dishes. Cajun roux is traditionally made with oil or lard, while Creole roux is made with butter. The darker the roux, the more depth of flavor in the finished dish.
Many Cajun and Creole recipes also begin with a combination of diced onion, bell pepper and celery, known locally as “the holy trinity.” While some dishes can have a high heat factor, liberal use of seasonings such as cayenne and black peppers are often used to elevate flavor, without making the finished dish too hot.
And, although some Cajun recipes call for tomato, it is used more often in Creole dishes.
In the spring, Redhead plans to add crawfish boils as a Friday night feature at New Orleans CC. Cooked in a sauce spiked with Zatarain’s spice powder (available in most grocery stores), coriander, bay leaves, garlic, onion, celery and lemon, the dish also contains new potatoes, fresh corn, andouille and sometimes mushrooms.
Every season, Redhead puts a different spin on the Cajun classic, shrimp and grits, which is always a popular item in New Orleans CC’s dining room and for special events. This spring, for example, he plans to include tasso and a finish of melted sugar-cane butter.
Redhead’s take on another Cajun staple, grillades, is another member favorite, particularly for banquets and Sunday brunch. Traditionally, grillades are made from pork scraps pounded out to tenderize, dusted in flour, then pan-fried. For his version, he substitutes top sirloin of beef and serves the grillades over grits.
Beyond the Bayou
You can take the chef out of the bayou, but you can’t take the bayou out of the chef. Gregg Collier, Executive Chef of Steelwood Country Club in Loxley, Ala., cooked in some of the top kitchens in New Orleans for 20 years, and he has brought those flavors to Steelwood with Cajun- and Creole-themed special-event dinners and Sunday buffets.
“Cajun cooking is often one-pot cooking, such as jambalaya [a stew of seafood, chicken, andouille and rice], and that works very well in the club setting,” Collier notes.
For couchon de lait (suckling pig), a popular choice for weddings and special events, Collier uses what he calls a “Cajun microwave”—actually a barrel over coals. The pig slowly cooks for 10 hours and a dark roux-and-trinity-based sauce is made from the drippings.
|Sourcing Authentic Flavors
New Orleans (La.) Country Club’s Executive Chef, Stewart Redhead, is lucky enough to be in the heart of Cajun and Creole country, with ingredients integral to the cuisines’ authenticity nearby. But, he says, chefs anywhere in the country can get the ingredients they need to recreate the region’s true flavors, by ordering from some of Redhead’s favorite Louisiana-based purveyors.
For boudin of all types, even some smoked varieties, Redhead recommends Billy’s Boudin & Cracklins (www.billysboudin.com), Don’s Specialty Meats (www.donsspecialtymeats.com) and The Best Stop Supermarket (www.beststopinscott.com). For tasso and andouille, Poche’s Market (www.pochesmarket.com) is his choice.
Gregg Collier, Executive Chef of Steelwood Country Club in Loxley, Ala., orders his boudin and andouille from Comeaux’s in Lafayette, La. (www.comeaux.com). and sources much of his seafood from the New Orleans Fish House (www.neworleansfishhouse.com).
Tom Freimuth, Executive Chef of the Ocean Trail restaurant at Scottsdale, Ariz.’s Talking Stick Resort, gets real Cajun and Creole flavors by using Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Seasoning Blends, which are available at many grocery stores, or online at www.chefpaul.com.
In his kitchen, Collier sears a bone-in pork shoulder and cooks it slowly for seven hours. He serves the pulled pork over cheddar and jalapeno biscuits with a poached egg and Hollandaise sauce for brunch, or puts it into his jambalaya.
Many Steelwood members select Collier’s pork grillades and grits for their banquet menus. The grillades are smothered in a sauce piquant made with a dark roux and tomato.
Using the right roux is key to getting the result you want from your Cajun and Creole dishes, Collier explains. A dark and heavy roux, for example, can overpower the seafood in a gumbo.
“A good seafood gumbo should smell like the sea,” he says. “A sauce made with a darker roux has a richer aroma and intense flavor that would be good in a gumbo ya ya [chicken and andouille gumbo].”
Cajun and Creole cooking can also fit with more healthful menus, as Collier demonstrates with his take on a vegetable, herb and broth-based seafood court-bouillon (or coubillon, as it is called in Louisiana dialect). He makes the dish with catfish, crabmeat or shrimp, and serves it over rice or pasta, accompanied by crusty bread for sopping up the broth.
While the menu at Steelwood changes weekly, it usually includes at least some representation of Collier’s Louisiana roots. One recent hit was blackened redfish with crawfish mashed potatoes and maque choux—corn smothered with trinity, garlic and fresh herbs.
Not Lost in the Desert
Although Scottsdale, Ariz., is a long way from the Louisiana bayou, guests at Talking Stick Resort can get a real Cajun/Creole experience at the property’s Ocean Trail restaurant. Executive Chef Tom Freimuth developed a love of Cajun and Creole cuisines while visiting New Orleans and dining in restaurants helmed by legendary chefs like Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse.
From that experience, Freimuth knows to serve plenty of crusty bread for dipping with his Cajun shrimp boil, which is flavored with white-wine reduction, fresh lemon juice, fresh garlic and a lot of diced onion, green pepper and celery. Fresh corn is also cooked in the broth.
“Gumbo, either chicken or seafood, is huge at our club,” Freimuth says. “We serve it with a scoop of white rice or Cajun traditional ‘dirty’ rice, made with ground beef and chicken liver.”
Cajun seafood pan roast, a rich soup/stew made with crab, shrimp, crawfish and/or oysters, gets a Creole twist at Talking Stick with the addition of tomato and Freimuth’s special technique of deglazing the pan with brandy. By adding more tomato to make the red sauce a little deeper, he turns the mixture into a Creole étouffée.
Guests at Ocean Trail are asked to choose the level of spiciness they prefer, on a scale of one to ten. “After level eight on the scale, we tell guests they are on their own,” Freimuth quips. “We’ve had regular guests start at level three and work their way up to ten.”