Cajun magic

November 21st, 2010

Yesterday I went shopping at Healthy Living, our local (Burlington, Vermont) version of the alternative supermarket where you can buy local, grass fed beef and locally raised, free range chicken, and most of the produce section is organic, and the food bar sells stuff made with tempeh.  I’ve never liked tempeh.  But this time I was attracted by a bin labeled chicken and andouille gumbo.  Looked good, smelled great.  I got a bowl, and after waiting in line an inordinately long time behind a young couple who couldn’t decide between one panini and another – why, I ask parenthetically, can’t people make up their minds what to order BEFORE arriving at the register? – the aroma of my soi disant Cajun soup had me practically drooling.

Then I sat down and ingested a great big spoonful and it was the same old story.  Before I went to New Orleans this fall, I had tasted various dishes denominated “Cajun” or “Creole” here in the Northeast, and had not been impressed.  Lots of pepper, lots of bite and heat, and not much else going on.  This was no different.  It had a good, thick feel in the mouth, and the spices were all appropriately spicy, and the chunks of chicken and sausage were in generous supply and cooked to just the right degree of juicy tenderness, but, well, it was all hat, as they used to say about George W. Bush.  The spiciness was way out of balance with what was being spiced.  By contrast, the body of the soup tasted thin and wimpy.  And I thought, yeah, this is what I thought Cajun food was like, until I visited New Orleans.

Folks, it’s not enough just to deploy a lot of black and white and cayenne pepper and some cumin and thyme and a mirepoix.  I’m no expert on Cajun cooking, but I’ve eaten at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and Mother’s and few other places, and I’m here to tell you that it’s about more than just getting the seasoning right.  Having purchased a copy of Paul Prudhomme’s seminal cookbook and pretty well duplicated at home the jambalaya that was such a revelation to me in the French Quarter, I can also testify from personal experience that yes, you can do this here in the land of maple syrup and poutine.  The thing is, the seasoning has to be in balance with the food that is being seasoned.  The underlying flavors have to be rich and deep and clear and vibrant.  You can’t just mix up a batch of chicken and sausage soup and throw in Cajun Season Mix #1.  You’ve got to do things to concentrate those base flavors, or what you get is out of kilter, exciting and insipid, penetrating and uninteresting all at once, like bad sex.

Prudhomme’s cookbook teaches various simple techniques for cranking the flavors up enough notches to support the seasoning, for example involving the use of high heat and reduction.  I’m sure there are others.  When you get these heightened sensations all dancing together, then the various kinds of fire and coloration added by the Cajun spicing create magic.  That’s what I’ve been missing in all the “Cajun” and “Creole” food I’ve eaten in the Northeast, and what I had to go to New Orleans to find.

This entry was posted on Sunday, November 21st, 2010 at 9:57 pm and is filed under Food. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Cajun magic”

  1. Upton O. Goode Says:

    When the hell is the next book coming out? And, what will you call it?

  2. Seth Steinzor Says:

    Probably two years or so. I’m around Canto XIX of the first draft, and there are XXXIII cantos. I do one every four to six weeks, on the average. it probably would go faster if I didn’t also have to earn a living by other means – are you listening, MacArthur Fellowships people? The working title is “Goldfish Rising.”

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