I'm sure if you've read any of my books, there's usually a reference to food of some sort, and if you're really lucky, I reference a dish I grew up eating. In "Killing Me Softly", Bree remembers her mother teaching her how to make a roux and how patience in life is akin to making a gumbo. It's really cute and I love their mother-daughter relationship.
Gemma, our kickass heroine from Pandora Ops, says she falls in love with a dish called a Sauce Piquant when a fellow Pandoran operative from Opelousas makes some for her. The encounter opens the door for Gemma to find a father figure when she lost hers and make a lasting connection to grow as a demon hunter.
In my cookaholic Cajun family, we believed that food was a great unifier. Hell, everyone's gotta eat, and breaking bread with people, making delicious good with heart can really bring people together and create bonds. In fact, just preparing the dishes together created bonds between us that lasted lifetimes. Many conversations that resonate with me till this very day often were in the backdrop of me helping my mom cook, or shave corn for maque choux, or help dad and my cousins cook cracklin after our family's spring boucherie. Or prepare pork backbone stew--the coveted hot meal we all get to enjoy together after a long day of hog butchering and meat packaging.
Unlike many Cajun fams, we don't have a family cookbook, which is part intentional and part just the nature of our cooking prowess. One, we don't measure anything. Cooking is flexible, so we just work intuitively, so that's hard to write down. Two, honestly, some recipes are a family secret and kinda our own trademark style. You don't just give away your branding like that. However, I think I could shake a few rules and share a few dishes. Besides, I can't cook for all of you, so you may as well learn to do this yourself.
“Couche” is derived from “Coucher” or bed ( Remember the Lady Marmalade song – “Vouslez Vous Coucher…blah blah blah by Patti LaBelle?) Yep, she's asking if you'd like to go to bed with her. Of course, I didn't know that as a kid singing that around my Cajun grandparents, but don't worry---a smack to the mouth informed me that's not for kids to say.
Anyways, it is a Cajun comfort food that my father grew up on and used to treat us too when we were kids. Peep the traditional recipe that I have below, it’s so doggone good and is just right for going to bed on. I’m lazy, so I normally don’t make this version often. But…I still like to make the johnnycake and add half-n-half while its still warm with cane syrup But if you want the full feel of the delicious treat my Dad and his brothers got to enjoy at night, here it is:
2 cups yellow cornmeal 2 tsp sugar (optional) 1 tsp salt 1 1/2 cup water 1 tsp baking powder 5 – 6 tbsp oil (canola preferred)
First, mix together all your dry ingredients. Stir in the water gradually and mix well. It tends to look mushy and the cornmeal will stick together being reduced to half its’ size. Put five of the six tablespoons of cooking oil into your best iron skillet and heat the skillet to hot.
Pour your whole mixture into the oil, stirring almost immediately after pouring. Watch for splashback! Then add the last tablespoon of oil. Lower flame to medium and let it cook away. Keep stirring about every two to three minutes, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pot each time. Also, crush any clumps that may form. Cook approximately 20 to 25 minutes until the mixture is dry, light and fluffy. Think of this as a cereal, where you can add cream, half-n-half, or milk with. I’d drizzle it with cane syrup or maple syrup if you have it. Bon Appetite!
Chicken Sauce Piquant
Yields approx. 4-8 servings
This is a very safe and “city-friendly” dish. I originally make this with turtle as the main protein, but…yeah, most folks out here don’t like the thought of eating turtle. So, I’ve made a very nice variation with the mighty cluck of protein…Chicken. Enjoy!
4 lbs. of chicken breast, cut
1 cup of sliced andouille sausage
8 oz. of tomato sauce
2 tbsp. of tomato paste
1 1/4 cup of chopped yellow onions, bell peppers, celery and green onions
1/4 cup of chopped jalapeno peppers or red peppers
1 tsp of minced garlic
2 tbsp of olive oil
1 tsp of cayenne pepper spice
2 tbsp of flour or cornstarch (to thicken)
salt and black pepper to taste
2 1/4 cups of water or chicken broth
Cut your chicken breasts up to about 1 1/2″ to 2″ pieces. Season with spices of your choice, garlic powder, sage or Tony Chacherie’s season-all if you want an easy way out
Heat your pot for 40-50 seconds empty on medium heat. Add the oil, chicken, sausage and chopped seasonings (and peppers) to saute. Stir until your chicken is slightly browned. Add your water or broth. Bring to a boil. Stir in the tomato sauce and paste. Add your spices and season to taste. Lower heat to simmer. In a bowl or cup, dilute your thickening agent into an easy paste-like consistency. Stir in your thickening agent evenly into the sauce and continue to simmer for 20-30 minutes covered.
This dish is served over rice.
Friendly Note: Sauce Piquant should be reasonably spicy, so do it to your taste. It shouldn’t be bland, but it also shouldn’t be 5-alarm. No one likes a dish they have to hyperventilate over.
Hell, everyone's gotta eat, and breaking bread with people, making delicious good with heart can really bring people together and create bonds.
Keep in an airtight container for when you need to make a gumbo superfast!
2 cups of All-purpose flour or cornstarch ( Yep, that’s it!)
1 cup of All-purpose flour or 1/2 cup of cornstarch
1 1/4 cup of peanut or olive oil
The best roux in my opinion, is a dry one. That way, it’s okay if you make too much. Make as much as you want. I don’t recommend seasoning, only because seasonings hold their own oil and if you put too much, the seasoning will blacken and threaten to burn your roux. Keep it plain jane.
With your very best coated skillet, add the flour or cornstarch to the skillet . Turn the heat on medium. Here’s the key to the roux: PATIENCE! I know it sounds silly, but trust me, you don’t wanna rush roux. Of the years I’ve spent making wet and dry roux, I’ve learned one inalienable truth, when you’re standing over it nursing it, browning takes forever, but as soon as you turn your back…It’ll BURN! Honest to goodness! So, just stand there and constantly stir your flour or roux until it turns into a “coffee with cream” color. Remember, the color you have with your finished dry roux will be 2 shades darker after you add it to liquid, so if your roux is already a coffee ground color, expect your gumbo or sauces to be quite dark. Once all of your flour is a nice even color, remove it from the heat immediately and shake it into a bowl to cool; if not, the residual heat will continue to brown it.
Just lock in a container or use some now and save some for another time! The roux should have a lovely coffee or nutty smell to it once done.
Wet Roux Method:
The wet roux is better used for making quick gumbos and sauces when time is limited and you only need some at the time. I really don’t recommend saving wet roux, since it separates and can go bad if not properly preserved. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, that’s just my two-cents on safety right there.
The rule for the wet roux is 1 part dry ingredient to about 2 parts oil since flour and cornstarch absorbs the oil quickly. If you find your roux to be a little dry after adding the dry ingredients with the oil, go ahead and conservatively add more oil until when you stir it, it’s nice and saucy. Keep your skillet on medium heat and REALLY watch it and constantly stir it. Wet roux has an easier chance of burning since you’re working with oil this time. You can choose to add some herbs and spices to wet roux since the oil with be infused with it, but don’t overdo it. Remember, this roux will be diluted when added to your dish so the seasoning strength won’t be the same. Keep stirring until your roux is the color you prefer. Immediately take it off the heat, and better yet, remove from skillet entirely to keep it from overcooking.
When adding a wet roux to liquid, it’s best to add it a little at a time, constantly stirring so the roux can homogenize and thicken your sauce. If you do happen to add too much, just add some more water or broth to your dish.
If you decide to jar the remaining bit, lock it tight and use within 2 weeks. Freezing it would be best.
So that tip on Roux was a great segue into making the Southern staple: Gumbo. What is Gumbo? Think of it as a soup with lots of body! We’re talking a rich roux that has primo protein swimming in it. It’s supposed to be hearty and full of flavor. Depending on how much you bulk it up, it can be suitable as a main course (though most restaurants like to serve it as a “soup” or appetizer. I’m gonna give you a simple recipe to make your own gumbo, but first lets lay down the basic foundation of it:
Your gumbo should be medium to dark brown with veggies and/or various meats added. You should adjust the “heat” of the gumbo to your liking (remember, gumbo doesn’t have to be 3-alarm! In fact, it shouldn’t!) You serve it with rice…. …also a small side of potato salad compliments real good too!
Also, I’ve eaten at different places and met different folks who added things to gumbo that… well just shouldn’t be added to anything IMHO. Do not add:
Franks/wieners (This is NOT an adequate substitute for sausage!)
Stew Veggies (I’ve met unfortunate individuals who tried to create gumbo with the following items and was put off why their “Gumbo” tasted like their Mama’s stew) :
Ground Beef (Seriously? My mind was boggled on this one)
What you can add that still sets the expectation of gumbo:
Crab (When I want to level up my gumbo, I'll add lump crab meat)
Deer (vension) Sausage
Fish (Catfish, flounder, etc) – Fish doesn’t work well in gumbo as it'll cook apart. HOWEVER, there’s a Lenten dish our family makes that DOES make a stew with fish. One day, I'll share my Fish Courtbouillion recipe whenever I have time to write it down.
So , now we got that out of the way, here it is:
Basic Chicken & Sausage Gumbo
1 cup of your roux (wet or dry)
1 pkg of ground shrimp powder
1 tbsp. of chopped or minced garlic
1- 1/4 lbs of washed, cubed chicken breast
1 – 1/2 lbs of sliced andouille sausage (Andouille can be hard to find in Austin, but I fell in love with Sprout’s when I found out they make it FRESH! You can also find it packaged at Central Market.)
Rice (for serving later)
Long grain rice
Wow. Ingredients pretty simple huh? Told you I’d make it very basic. Once you get this down, we can upgrade to a seafood gumbo.
You will need a stock pot. Add a little bit of cooking oil (about 3 tbsps) to the pot over a medium heat. Add your sausage and trinity to sauté for about 5 minutes. This gets that flavor going and infused with the oil. Next, lightly season your chicken and add that to the pot. Be sure to stir it well and sear the chicken as best you can. The beauty about using chicken breast is that the white meat is more coarse and harder to break down than dark meat. This allows you to simmer the gumbo longer and not worry about the chicken turning to mush in your pot!
Give that a nice turn or two then add hot water gently to the pot. You want to definitely cover all the meat and perhaps two cups extra to allow evaporation during cooking. Add your garlic now, then turn the heat to medium-high to boil. When you bring it to a boil, now’s the time to lower your heat and add your roux. Be careful when adding this as you can ruin the gumbo right. at. this. step…
DON'T add the mixture flat out into the pot! Not unless you want: burns from splash backs, and your gumbo full of clumps. You need to first make sure the boiling has quieted down then do this:
1. add your roux (wet or dry) to a bowl first.
2. take a cup of hot water and gently add to the roux, stirring vigorously.
3. when you have it even and stirred, then you can gently add it to the pot, stirring constantly to avoid clumping!
Once you have that even and see your gumbo turn a nice brown color, you can add more roux to thicken to your taste. You don’t want your gumbo too thick or it’ll be a gravy, or too thin or it’ll just look like broth.
Let this simmer for 45 minutes and voila, you have made your first gumbo! (Applause!) Now you can let it cool a bit and add some rice to a bowl, grab a ladle or tow full of warm Cajun goodness, huddle on the sofa and bon appetite!
Let me know how this works for you and if you have any questions!