Not-So-Fat Tuesday

A Delicious Down-Home Meal, Cajun Style
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A Delicious Down-Home Meal, Cajun Style.

In my grandmother’s kitchen in Slidell, La., you could always find a simmering pot of greens on the stove—collards, mustard or turnip—and corn bread cooking in a cast-iron skillet. This dark-crusted wonder was used to sop up the liquid from the greens. Cajun food was woven into my everyday life. My Aunt Myrtle took rightful pride in her Crawfish Etouffé, and our neighbor Mrs. Packard made stuffed crabs that were the highlight of Wednesday night church suppers. Good Cajun food even crept into school lunches, where the New Orleans tradition of serving red beans and rice on Monday was faithfully observed. And everywhere there was rice: rice and gravy, rice and beans, rice with gumbo, rice in jambalaya.

For several years now, I haven’t eaten ham, sausage, oysters, crabs, shrimp and many of the other ingredients strongly identified with Cajun cooking. But for me, it’s not just the ingredients that define the cuisine—it’s the flavor, spirit and essence of this cooking, all of which are inextricably tied to my memories.

One of the reasons the food of New Orleans tastes so good is the seasoning. But there’s a misconception that all Cajun food is hot. “Heat” is just one of the elements used in seasoning the food, but not the most important one. In fact, if the heat isn’t balanced with the other flavors, it dominates the dish and makes it less interesting.

When I prepare Cajun food, I combine many spices into a seasoning mix. This blend includes ground peppers— white, black and cayenne—and ground cumin, chili powder, dried thyme and dried sage. When all of these spices are balanced and assimilated into a dish, they create a flavor that is rich, full, satisfying and unique. During the years, my culinary vocabulary has changed, but as you’ll see from the following recipes, I’m still speaking Cajun.