I’m originally from the Highlands of Scotland, my husband is from the swamps of Louisiana, and we live together in the world’s melting-pot that is London, so between us we have access to a veritable smorgasbord of cultural cuisine.
I love the alchemy that is cooking – love everything about it, sourcing ingredients, preparing them, putting them together in various ways and (hopefully) conjuring something delicious out of it all at the end of the process. So inevitably, the prospect of learning all about real Cajun cooking from my in-laws was just too good a chance for me to pass up.
Even the names of all those traditional Cajun dishes – Jambalaya, Shrimp Etouffee, Turtle Sauce Piquant, Red Beans and Rice, Gumbo – sounded truly exotic to a Scots lass brought up on a rather plain but wholesome diet of mince and tatties and the like. So I watched, and I did learn after a fashion, and thought it might be fun to share some of those learning experiences here…
Cajun Cooking Lesson One: ‘First, make a roux…’
All good Cajun recipes seem to start with this same basic instruction. Ok, I thought – that’s going to be some kind of paste made with grease and flour and cooked out – how hard can that be? I’ve spent a lifetime making a basic creamy white sauce with butter, flour, milk and seasoning, surely it can’t be that different? In a way I was right, but in another way I’ve found there’s a whole world of a difference between the two.
Making a pale and delicate white sauce requires a truly light and subtle touch and the shortest of cooking times; here less is more. The initial buttery-yellow paste needs to be stirred continuously and thinned out almost immediately, with the addition of more and more milk while it thickens smoothly as the flour cooks out and the sauce reaches the right consistency. All that is left is to season to taste, et voila, c’est magnifique, bon appetit!
In Cajun cooking, making a far more robust roux – from lightest to darkest – requires a paste of hot oil and flour being carefully cooked out while continually stirring for as long as it takes for it to reach a pale-to-dark caramel colour with a distinctive nutty burnished aroma. For me this takes a good ten minutes or so at least, and only at that point is any liquid added to stop the basic roux darkening any further, and allowing for the rest of the cooking process to be continued. The basic rule is, the darker the roux, the richer the flavour; here more is more.
After an initial period of trial and error, I finally succeeded in the art of making a light to medium roux – yippee! The tricky bit for me seems to be getting the initial temperature of the heat-source right – too low and the roux will not darken and thicken quickly enough, but keep the heat too high and it burns all too easily, carbonises instead of caramelises, smelling acrid and turning blackened and gritty in the blink of an eye. Burned roux – and it definitely lets you know it’s burned – is forever spoiled, and sadly there is nothing left to be done with it but start all over again.
On the topic of burned roux, unfortunately I have to report that however pleased I am to have passed muster with a light- to-medium roux, succeeding in making a dark roux is another matter entirely. My brother-in-law is an absolute roux-master, his dark rich gumbos a firm favourite in the family. The basic process here is exactly the same, but the time it takes to achieve the darkest treacle-toffee colour and deepest nutty aroma is so much longer. It requires a level of patience and skill that right now it seems is beyond me.
However hard I try, I just can’t seem to catch the beautifully darkening roux just at the point of turning, but before the point of burning – I either tend to play it safe and stop too soon, or subconsciously want it to work so much I jinx it, and before I know it, it’s spoiled, time and time again.
I realise it’s something I need to work out for myself eventually, experimenting variously with more or less fire, quicker or slower stirring, judging by sound or smell, until I finally find myself catching that turning-but-not-burning point with ease. But until that time comes, I guess I’ll just have to keep on trying – practice makes perfect. And try I will, because I refuse to be beaten by something as simple as a couple of spoonsful of grease and flour and a variable bit of heat… 🙂
PS My mother-in-law has since shown me how to make roux in the microwave – beautifully quick and so much easier – but I still want to be able to do it the old-fashioned way, just so I know I can!