Monday, July 19, 2010

What Do Cajuns Stock in Their Pantry?

Back in the '80's when Louisiana Cuisine became en vogue, many of the ingredients I considered to be "everyday"  could not be eaily found in grocery stores outside of Southeast Louisiana.

Few people understood our culinary lingo such as tasso, boudin,andouille, file' (pronouced fee-lay) powder, cayenne, hot sauce, cane syrup, or crawfish.  Most of these ingredients are easily found in most grocery stores and believe me, living in "Bug Tussle, TN", even I can find can get my grubby little fingeres on file' powder.  If you can't find them in your local grocery, you can find them online.

Come to think of it, most of the ingredients used in Bayou Country are simple, basic ingredients that have been used for well over 100 years.  Seriously, a Louisiana cook keeps these ingredinets on hand at all times.  You never know when you will need to produce jambalaya or gumbo on the fly!

Ok, so I'm going to give you a peek inside of my Louisiana pantry even though it is located in East Tennessee.  I'm a Louisiana cook and I have to be prepared at all times!

First. there is all-purpose flour and Canola or vegetable oil. Flour and oil are the two ingredients used for making a roux.  The roux is the base or thickening agent of any good gravy and the base of some of the more well known Lousiaiana dishes such as bisques, gumbos, stews and gravies.

A roux is comprised of equal parts (usually) of flour and oil.  They are constantly stirred until the mixture is brown and has a nutlike aroma.

Many of you are familiar with "the trinity":  Onions,  bell peppers and celery. Additionally, green onions/scallions, garlic and flat-leaf parsley are also popular seasonings we liberally use in many of dishes. 

Staples in my spice cabinet are salt, cayenne pepper, black pepper, bay leaves, thyme, garlic powder, and file' powder. While there is a wealth of Louisiana, Cajun or Creole spice blends on the market, you can certainly mix up your own blend to suit your personal taste.

Tabasco is probably the best known hot sauce from Louisiana, but there are many other Louisiana-made hot sauces that are quite good. You may want to give them all a try to find one or two that you prefer. Most are made with cayenne peppers or a blend of cayenne and other peppers.

In recent years, there has been an introduction of flavored hot sauces. Tabasco, for example, has one flavored with garlic, and another called Tabasco Brand Green Pepper Sauce. Cajun Chef Products, Inc., based in St. Martinville, has been manufacturing a green hot sauce for years that is also exceptional. Other popular brands include Crystal Hot Sauce from Baumer Foods, Inc. and Louisiana Hot Sauce and Louisiana Gold Hot Sauce from Bruce Foods Corporation.

While pepper sauces are used in cooking, they are more commonly offered as a condiment for diners to season plates to personal taste.  Speaking of peppers, a teaspoon or two of the pickling liquid from pickled peppers can also give your scrambled eggs or vegetables a little pizzaz.

Rice is another South Louisiana must. My preference is extra long-grain, but there are some cooks who opt for medium or short-grain when making a jambalaya or boudin stuffing. Louisianians consume as much rice in one year (about 50 pounds per person) as other Americans eat in five.

Little Cajun babies cut their teeth on rice and gravy. I know many South Louisianians that would not consider letting a day go by without having something with rice: gumbo and rice, red beans and rice, jambalaya, rice cakes, rice salad, or rice pudding.  My husband fits well into this category.  Many of you know, I'm a pasta girl.

Whatever the choice, rice is steamed, not boiled. I usually cook my rice in a rice cooker.  For some reason I just can't get rice to come out right on the stove.  The method for cooking is supposed to be really simple. It's one to two ratio: one of rice to two of water. Put the rice in a heavy saucepan, sprinkle in some salt and a spoon or two of butter, olive oil or vegetable oil. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pot, and cook until all of the water is absorbed, about 20 to 30 minutes.

You will always find a package of smoked sausage or Polish Kielbasa in my freezer.  Sometimes, I splurge and order tasso or andouille online and you will find that in my freezer.  The sausage is used to flavor everything from gumbos and jambalayas to smothered beans. If you can't put your hands on the real stuff, Polish Kielbasa or smoked sausage work just as good as the real stuff.

Tasso, once made from the trimmings of the hog at a boucherie (a group of families butchering a hog and all taking part in processing the meat), has always been used to flavor vegetables, stews, sauces and gumbos. These days, tasso is made from pork shoulder, heavily seasoned and smoked for an intense flavor.

When it comes to cane syrup, the best is Steen's 100% Pure Cane Syrup made in Abbeville. The dark, thick syrup is liberally poured on biscuits, cornbread, and pain perdu, otherwise known as lost bread or French toast. It is also the main ingredient in two Cajun desserts, gateau de sirop (syrup cake) and les oreilles de cochon, fried pastries.

Crawfish, crayfish, crawdads, mudbugs have become very popular.  Even here in Knoxville, many a UT tailgater can be caught boiling these delectable crustaceans that resemble miniature lobsters.  In the Spring, especially on the weekends the air is filled with the wonderful aroma of crawfish boiling in huge pots over butane burners in backyards, grocery stores and seafood shops all through southern Louisiana. The peeled crawfish tails are used to make etouffee, bisque and are simply scrumptious all by themselves.

Creole mustard is a pungent prepared mustard made from spicy brown mustard seeds. The seeds are steeped in distilled white vinegar, then coarsely ground and let to marinate for up to twelve hours before packing. It's great for spreading on po-boy sandwiches or to spice up a remoulade sauce.

File powder is ground sassafras leaves, used to flavor and thicken gumbo. We only add file' powder after the gumbo is finished cooking and usually on a bowl by bowl basis.  It should not be added when the gumo is cooking.

Okra reached America with the slaves and was known as its original name in Tshi: gombo. Okra is used primarily as a thickener in gumbos but also is served fried as a vegetable, or pickled and used in salads or to garnish a martini.

When boiling seafood (shrimp, crabs, or crawfish), the locals often use what is known as "seafood boil." The mixture is a combination of dry herbs and spices wrapped in netting or cheesecloth. Also popular is a concentrated liquid seafood boil from Zatarain's. Zatarain's produced a foolproof powdered seafood boil which is primarily used by locals.  No matter what the cooking shows tell you, people from Louisiana do not used Old Bay, ever!

Now I bet if you go check your pantry, you'll find out your at least half Cajun...go look, really, see, I told you.

Cajun-ally yours,


lailani said...

This was fun! I love cajun food - wish I were born cajun! lol! Have no idea how authentic the recipe, but made gumbo saturday, ate it yesterday and today too!

Chris said...

One of my favorite parts of Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt when he shows how the guy in Baton Rogue makes file' by hand in the traditional method. It was the first time I really knew what the stuff was, although okra is my preferred thickener.

Great post, Katherine! Very entertaining and educational read.

steph said...

Cajun food is great! I need to stock my pantry with some of your suggestions.

Donna-FFW said...

What a wonderful tutorial, I love all the info. I will have to stock up on some of these goodies, esp the file powder. GREAT thoughts!

Marguerite said...

Great post! Yep, your pantry looks just like mine! Except I use medium grain rice. lol And yay for Steen's! You know that I grew up in Abbeville! Cheers, cher!

John Roberts said...

A good primer on how to stock a Cajun pantry! When we moved to the mountains of NC, I was surprised how many of these "necessities" are available in local grocery stores. And thanks to the internet, the rest can be delivered to my front door!

gigi said...

I read this last night but was to tired to comment :)

I'm back this morning to tell you that you really taught me a few things and that I always go with Zatarain's!!! So at least I do something right.

JodieMo said...

I love looking through other people's pantrys. I bet I would have a field day in yours. Thanks for the peek!

Cheryl said...

That was cool, I have the exact same Gumbo File! Be sure and drop by and enter my contest for a SPAM trivet!

Joanne said...

I definitely have half of these things...but I wouldn't even know where to begin to find tasso or file. I need to head to my local spice market. Do some "research"

The Japanese Redneck said...

We just finished up a big ol pot of Gumbo last week.

Great post!

Claudia said...

What a grand, informative, fun post! Yes, you will find Cajun pantry items in my Italian MN kitchen. I love gumbo and bisques. Years ago, when I visited New Orleans, I cam home with all food items!

Cathy said...

Great post, Katherine. I've wondered about some of the ingredients in Southern cooking and have looked for them in local markets without much success. Thanks for the look into your pantry.

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Oh Katherine, I loved my 4 years living in New Orleans.... One has to live there for awhile to LOVE the 'flavor' of that area... We LOVED every second of it --from all of the great cajun foods to Mardi Gras to the World's Fair (which was there when we lived there).... It was such a fabulous experience..

Thanks for helping me bring back the memories.

buffalodick said...

Crawdads are hard to come by here-everything else can be found. Good primer, today!

The Diva on a Diet said...

What a fun and yummy post, Katherine! You sure have a tasty pantry! So funny the way trends move and to think about how most of this stuff is so widely available now.

I think I need to get my hands on some file powder!

The Diva on a Diet said...

What a fun and yummy post, Katherine! You sure have a tasty pantry! So funny the way trends move and to think about how most of this stuff is so widely available now.

I think I need to get my hands on some file powder!

meleah rebeccah said...

I love LOVE cajun food. And you gave me an excellent cooking lesson!

Kathy said...

Thanks for this post! I've wondered about some things!!! My aunt has a flower shop on the far East side of Houston and on Thursdays it's a real treat to go over there because The Boudin Man comes and sets up camp for the day! My favorite thing to order is the Boudin Ball - topped with cheese and green onions!!! OMGoodness, it's to die for!!! Hey, it's Thursday -- I think I'll give her a call!!! :O)

Lynda said...

This was an interesting and fun post Katherine! Some of these staples I've never had, like crayfish, but I love rice and have to have okra every so often. I made red beans and rice a few times this year too. I'm trying to expand my culenary horizens. :)

SusanD said...

I'm def adding a couple of your suggestions to my pantry. And, the next time in STL @ Soulard, I'm getting some andouille. Thanks so much for sharing. Blessings, SusanD

Cinnamon-Girl said...

That's for this glimpse into your pantry Katherine! I learned so much...