Celebrating With Taste
Cajun and Creole food make for les bons temps
Food Styled By Betsy Nelson,
Styled by Lynn Ostrowski
(page 1 of 3)Think about Mardi Gras and pictures of colorful beads—lots of beads—hurricane cocktails, jazz music, and non-stop parties come to mind. But one of the most essential elements of any Mardi Gras celebration is the food. For chef Eric Austin, who learned to cook at his grandmother’s elbow in Mississippi and later as a chef in New Orleans, the holiday conjures up the tale of stone soup. Everyone contributes an ingredient to create a rich brew that couldn’t have been made without the individual offerings.
“It’s an all-feast day, a celebration of all of the cultures coming together in a single celebration. That’s really what Mardi Gras has come to signify to me,” says Austin, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who has cooked in restaurants throughout the South. Most recently he owned Big E’s Soul Food and Blues restaurant in Minneapolis, which he plans to revive this year.
In New Orleans and southern Louisiana, Cajun and Creole cuisine is a living example of stone soup. The cooking styles of the French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, African, and West Indian people who settled the area and of the native inhabitants have melded over hundreds of years to form a cuisine that is truly unique to America. From dishes like gumbo and dirty rice to crawfish étouffée, Cajun and Creole food is highly seasoned fare that makes the most of the fruits of the sea, of the bayou, and of local produce.
Cajun or Creole dishes generally start with the holy trinity: a blend of bell pepper, onion, and celery, and a thickening roux of flour and oil. Seafood, chicken, sausage, okra, and tomatoes make frequent appearances. Many recipes call for Creole or Cajun seasonings, which include salt and pepper, dried onion, paprika, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, chili powder, bay leaf, thyme, and oregano.
Though Cajun and Creole food comes from the same branch of a family tree, they do diverge. Creole food originated in New Orleans proper, where residents had access to fresh vegetables and herbs right from the port, as well as rice, cream, and butter. It is more refined and sophisticated. Cajun food developed in rural areas, where people either couldn’t afford or couldn’t access fresh or non-local ingredients. This rustic fare is generally spicier because of early lack of ice or refrigeration, influencing cooks to incorporate cayenne pepper and other spices to preserve their food.
Take two mainstay dishes of each cuisine: jambalaya and gumbo (see recipes). Both are one-pot dishes that start with a roux. Gumbo is the soupier, Cajun version, which has a tomato base and generally features crawfish or other fish and is flavored with filé, an earthy, licorice-toned spice derived from sassafras leaves. The Creoles make a risotto-like jambalaya that incorporates rice and a tomato base with the same types of ingredients as gumbo.
For his Mardi Gras celebrations, Austin fires up the cooking pots to make gumbo, jambalaya, and étouffée, a dish that’s similar to gumbo with meat or seafood served over rice and smothered with a roux-based sauce. He presents that trio alongside crawfish and/or oysters in some form, red beans and rice, and succotash (see recipes) or macque choux (a roasted corn dish with cream, white wine, and tomatoes). For dessert, bread pudding or anything with pecans is popular (see recipes).
John Sievers, executive chef of Dixie’s on Grand in St. Paul for the past 21 years, suggests celebrating Mardi Gras with a casual fish boil using crawfish if you can find them live in the Twin Cities or shrimp if you can’t. Cook either shellfish in a pot with corn and potatoes to add extra flavor, and serve it with crusty bread and red beans and rice. Blackened catfish or chicken, crawfish fritters, and Sievers’ own crawfish cole slaw are other favorites for celebrating Mardi Gras.
Whatever you prepare for Mardi Gras, remember that the cooking is part of the party. In the days leading up to the holiday, Austin prefers to be in the kitchen, getting the party going with food, drink, and a bunch of relatives and fellow cooks. “The fond memories I have of Mardi Gras are the anticipation of it all. Long before the actual party, the real party is starting in the back kitchen,” he recalls. “If I’m going to be up for the next 19 hours making jambalaya, there is some drinking involved, and some singing and some dancing.”
He adds: “Between all the big mamas and the cooks, those are the inside parties, and that’s where you want to be.”
Suzy Frisch is a Champlin writer.
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RecipesProvided by Eric “Big E” Austin
Crawfish Vol-au-ventVol-au-vent is a puff pastry shell that resembles a small pot (usually available in the grocery frozen-food section). Crawfish tail meat can also be found at most supermarkets or from a local fish monger. Or, you may substitute lump crabmeat.
Photo by Maki Strunc
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
⅓ c. vegetable oil
½ c. all-purpose flour
¼ c. minced onions
¼ c. celery, finely diced
¼ c. green bell pepper, finely diced
1 tsp. minced garlic
2 c. clam juice or fish stock
¼ c. heavy whipping cream
½ tsp. Creole seasoning (found in the spice aisle of most supermarkets)
1 to 1½ lbs. crawfish tail meat
kosher or sea salt to taste
white pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
¼ c. chopped green onions, green part only
red pepper sauce to taste
Bake the pastry shells as directed. Remove the caps and set aside.
Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the butter to melt. Whisk in the flour to create a blond-colored roux. Whisk constantly about 10 minutes until the roux is golden, thick, and paste-like. Add the onions, celery, bell pepper, and garlic. Whisk in the cream to make a béchamel sauce, then add the clam juice or stock. Simmer about 20 minutes, whisking occasionally, until the mixture thickens.
Season the crawfish tail meat with the Creole seasoning. Fold the meat into the cream sauce without breaking it up too much. (Most commercial crawfish meat has already been cooked. Simply add it to the thickened cream mixture to heat through.) Add salt and pepper to taste and add Worcestershire sauce. Simmer an additional two minutes until desired thickness is reached. Stir in green onions. Add pepper sauce. Spoon the crawfish mixture into the puff pastry shells and cap with the tops.