Day 386: Cookin’ Up A Mess O’ Yum

originally published January 20, 2013

If my beloved reading audience will allow, I would like to shill for a minute. While we here at 1000 Words Labs earn enough from our side income as puppeteer-superheroes to make sponsorship unnecessary, we nevertheless believe in paying tribute to those wondrous businesses who fuel our survival throughout these 1000 days. They aren’t ‘sponsors’ per se; we’d rather not sneeze ads all over our articles and risk offending our readers’ sensibilities. But while these companies in no way officially endorse the intermingling of consonants and vowels on this site, they are worthy of a mention, simply for their commitment to being awesome.

Naturally the first unofficial sponsor was a brewery, because only a moderate state of drunkenness can make an endeavor such as writing a million words for no money seem logical. Rogue Ales fit the bill, since they are the only company brave enough to brew a beer using bacon. But eventually my heart steered me a little closer to home, to the finest legal intoxicant to call Alberta home, the sweet, sweet nectar of Big Rock beer. My stomach has become somewhat jealous of the attention my liver receives on this site (and my taste buds are always happy to be whores for my art), so I feel a food tribute is in order. Since I spend almost all my restaurant money at Da-De-O’s New Orleans-style diner here in town, and since the hands of Wiki-fate were gracious enough to serve me a mess o’ Cajun Cuisine, today my stomach gets top billing.

I should point out that I spent one of my formative years toiling in the kitchen of another, now defunct local Cajun place. I suppose it’s in my blood, despite the fact I’ve never set foot in the state of Louisiana. I’ve always been a New Orleans Saints fan and wanted my own airboat too. Go figure.

At the heart of Cajun cuisine is, of course, the Cajun food most fun to yell across a room: jambalaya. A Caribbean relative of the Spanish paella, jambalaya can be broken down into four parts: the stock and rice, the meat (usually chicken and sausage, but seafood can make a stroll down this street also), the veggies, and the hot sauce that makes white guys everywhere whoop and grin like they think they’re Harry Connick Jr. or something.

Creole jambalaya, surging through the kitchens of New Orleans, is made with tomatoes. Cajun jambalaya, which gets more common as you head north, forsakes this ingredient.

The dish’s name may have several origins. The most logical origin is the Provençal word ‘jambala’, meaning a “mashup of stuff”. Some say it comes from the French word for ham (jambon) and the West African word for rice (ya). So, Jamb A-La Ya. Clever, except that ham has never been a big jambalaya ingredient, and no one has ever found a West African language that calls rice ‘ya’. Good story though.

If Jambalaya is the heart of Cajun cuisine, then the Holy Trinity is the blood that shimmies through it. This expression dates back more than 30 years, and it refers to the three ingredients that fuel Cajun cooking: green peppers, onions and celery. Some prefer them in equal portions, some lean a little heavier on the onions. You can’t make jambalaya without the Trinity. And you sure as hell can’t make a gumbo.

Gumbo is what happens to soup when it heads down to New Orleans for a weekend of debauchery and becomes a man. When jambalaya walks into a room and gets seduced by a fingery mallow plant called okra and a handful of her exotic spice friends, it turns into gumbo. It’s a soup, yes, but a soup that shares the jambalayan soul: seafood, chicken, sausage, and that Holy Trinity of veggies all play a supporting role, but it’s the okra, the spices and the stock that land above the marquee.

There are a lot of personalities in the gumbo drawer. Meat and seafood are not to be mixed in the same gumbo, though the meat variety can feature duck, squirrel or rabbit. Gumbo z’herbes is a meatless variety, cooked up for Louisiana Catholics during Lent. I’m not a big fan of vegetarian options, but with a splash of the right hot sauce, it’d still be a gumbo.

The gumbo origin story is as murky as a bayou swamp. It might have come over from Africa, or it might be the hairy-knuckled cousin of the French bouillabaisse soup. Choctaw Indians also have a legitimate claim for having culled this little slice of culinary magic. But with as many gumbo recipes as there are gumbo cooks, we’ll probably never know its real history.

The art of blackening is a wasted effort if you don’t have the right spices. At the restaurant where I used to work, the head chef never shared his recipe with me. I think he wanted to present an aura of mystery, though it’s entirely possible he was simply being a dick. Traditional blackening spice incorporates thyme, oregano, chili pepper, peppercorns, salt, garlic powder and onion powder, and if it’s made just right, it’ll bring a glow of perspiration to your forehead before the second bite has danced down your throat.

Paul Prudhomme, the native Louisianan celebrity chef who helped make Cajun cooking a worldwide phenomenon, popularized the notion of blackening redfish, better known by its official name (and by fans of Stephen King’s The Shining), Red Drum. More common in Cajun kitchens you’ll find blackening spice coating shrimp, chicken, steak and catfish. The process is as simple as dipping the meat in melted butter, coating it with your bitches’ brew of spices, searing it in a hot cast iron skillet until the butter and spices turn brown, then sinking your teeth into the joy you have wrought unto the world.

For dessert my Da-De-O experience usually ends with a key lime pie, simply because their recipe is so good, I would need to join a support group were I ever to quit cold turkey. But the true jewel of the Cajun tradition is the mighty beignet.

Actually, this is a French delicacy if we want to get nit-picky. But if you’ve ever seen footage of these drool-inducing lumps – and literally, ‘beignet’ is French for ‘lump – with their snowbank of powdered sugar launching avalanches down the shirts of Bourbon Street patrons, then you know this belongs in the Cajun pantheon. It’s the same fluffy dough that caresses an éclair, cuddles a cruller and puffs up a cream puff, known among dessert-Jedis as choux pastry.

You can dress up a beignet with fruit or chocolate, but you’ve got to save these for the end of your Cajun journey. Nothing is going to top the flavor of the beignet.

And so, if you find yourself trudging through the Hoth-esque tundra of south-side Edmonton, and you’re looking for something to add a little purpose and flavor to your Arctic experience, you’d be cheating yourself if you don’t try Da-De-O. And if you’re nowhere near this frozen wasteland, first – congratulations. You might get to experience spring in March, while we’re still shoveling ourselves out of our driveways. But somewhere near you there must be a Cajun restaurant. Take your tongue out for a treat. I’m betting it’s earned it.

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