Just the mention of Cajun food conjures taste memories of gumbo, etouffée and dirty rice. It’s comfort food at its most basic, thanks to the Louisiana bayous’ bounty of the freshest seafood, from oysters to alligator, as well as its liberal use of heady spices and fresh vegetables.
Any number of chefs have put their spin on these favorites in what likely amounts to a full shelf of cookbooks. But there always seems to be room for one more. Such is the case with “Real Cajun” (Clarkson Potter, $35) from James Beard award winner Donald Link, owner of both Herbsaint and Cochon in New Orleans.
This cookbook, written with Austin’s Paula Disbrowe, covers many of the basics you expect, from crab cakes to old-school jambalaya. But don’t dismiss this book lightly, especially if you love this type of food.
That’s because Link’s approach is simple and straightforward, which helps demystify some of the more complex cooking concepts. Ever had trouble making a roux? My first Cajun cookbook couldn’t explain it properly, and I ruined several dishes as a result.
Link actually makes you want to stand at a stove and stir up a roux for as long as it takes. Why? “The process of making a roux can be hypnotic,” he writes. “It takes about an hour, and you can’t stop stirring or walk away from it. Watching the oil and flour mixture slowly change color and begin to take on its unique aroma gives you plenty of time to be alone with your thoughts. Once the roux has reached its proper color, the chopped vegetables are added, which creates a near volcanic reaction of bubbling, steaming and sizzling. The roux at this point is around 400 degrees and the addition of cold vegetables causes an explosion of flavors and smells.”
He also has some tasty surprises in store, many of which involve bacon as much as boudin. Fried Oyster and Bacon Sandwich, anyone? How about Aunt Cynthia’s Tomato and Bacon Pie? (The recipe for that keeper is below.) Link even offers a recipe for a do-it-yourself Homemade Bacon.
He sometimes messes with tradition, which is all for the better in my book. His Green Bean Casserole is made with fresh ingredients, including a creamy filling so rich (butter, cream and cheese!) that you’ll never reach for a can of cream of mushroom soup again. He dresses up his coleslaw with fresh mint. He drizzles an entire stick of melted butter over the fruit in his apple pie, which he serves with buttermilk ice cream.
He also shares his story in a series of essays that offer a connection to bayou country that extends beyond the food. There’s a magical fishing trip with his “Grandad Adams” and thoughts about the uniquely Southern way funerals are held.
But it is his memories of Hurricane Katrina that linger as long as the memories of Grilled Oysters with Garlic-Chile Butter. It “changed just about everything,” he writes. “Amanda and I lost our house and all of our possessions in the storm and we had to relocate. Herbsaint was closed for several weeks, and Cochon’s opening was delayed for several months. The storm was a painful reminder that nothing can be taken for granted.”
Katrina also brought him back to his roots in the kitchen and in his restaurant work. “For the first time, I was spending all day in the kitchen, cooking for my extended family just as my grandparents used to do,” he writes. “Watching me make the gumbo, my sister said how much I looked like Grandad Adams (talking to myself and all), and I relished the comparison. I know that the food of my region at the new restaurant was simply the right thing to do.”
That means boudin balls, crawfish pies and rabbit stew as well as such favorite desserts as peanut butter fudge and Granny’s German Chocolate Cake and apple pie with buttermilk ice cream. All winners, when you look at the recipes.
Aunt Cynthia’s Tomato and Bacon Pie (aka Cajun Pizza)
12 ounces sliced bacon
2 ripe medium tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 (9-inch) prebaked pie crust (recipe follows)
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
1/2 small onion, thinly sliced
5 ounces Cheddar or pepper Jack cheese, grated
For the crust: Using a fork or your fingers, cut the butter, lard and salt into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse pebbles. Make a well in the middle of the mixture and add water. Knead for about 30 seconds until dough comes together. Roll the dough out on a floured surface until it’s 1/4-inch thick and shape into a rustic freeform cirle or gently drape it into a buttered pie pan and trim as necessary. Refrigerate the crust until needed.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Using a fork, prick the bottom of the pie crust in several places and bake for 25 minutes or until slightly browned.
For the topping: Cook the bacon in a skillet until crisp and set aside to cool on paper towels or a brown paper bag. (Twelve ounces is probably a little more than you will need, but somehow a few extra pieces always get eaten.)
[amazon-product]0307395812[/amazon-product]Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Place a layer of tomato slices on the bottom of the pre-baked crust and season lightly with salt and pepper. Top with a layer of onion slices and cheese. Repeat this process two more times.
Crumble the bacon over the top layer of onion and cheese and bake for about 25 minutes, until the cheese has melted and the tomatoes have released some of their moisture. Place the pie on a wire rack and allow it to cool completely.
Serves 6-8 people.
From “Real Cajun” by Donald Link with Paula Disbrowe