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Jambalaya…

One of my favourite Cajun dishes is Jambalaya – a satisfying spicy mix of rice and several different meats and veg – and personally I find the rich smoky flavour of this large potful cooked by my husband’s cousin on a wood fire in the back yard pretty damned hard to beat 🙂

stirring-the-jambalaya

Stirring the pot…

jambalaya-cookingBubbling away nicely…

jambalaya-ready-to-eatFinished Jambalaya, ready to eat – and eat it we did! 🙂

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‘Add The Holy Trinity…’

Cajun Cooking Lesson Two: ‘Add the holy trinity…’

Once the roux is made, the next step in many Cajun-style stews is to add the holy trinity of onion, celery, and bell pepper – and also chopped garlic – yum!

roux-with-holy-trinityRoux with the Holy Trinity added – the finished dish was white beans, cooked outside 🙂

Adding the cold, crisp veg to the sizzling pot stops the roux darkening any further, and after it has all been stirred about for a bit, releasing all that fragrant aroma, a flavoured stock (broth) is added along with seasoning, and at this point the stew base is ready for whatever particular ingredients come next, depending on what dish is being made.

When it comes to stock, I’ve always preferred to make my own – it’s what I learned from childhood onwards, boiling up a chicken carcass or a ham knuckle to make a delicious base for traditional Scottish soups, so I use that same basic stock for my Cajun stews, and they turn out perfectly well. But the weirdest-feeling thing to get used to for me was that Cajun cooking is almost back-to-front from the way I learned to cook in Scotland.

I learned through cooking at home long ago that meat is first browned off, then diced carrots and onions or whatever are added, and all are cooked together immersed in liquid stock before the finished stew is thickened and seasoned pretty much at the last minute, with a traditional mix of cornflour and Bisto to give the gravy that glossy rich brown colour. Stew is often served with boiled potatoes and peas and/ or other garden-grown veg.

Cajun stews, however, are thickened from the start, and vary from being sticky butterscotch to treacle coloured, depending on the darkness of the roux used, which in turn is dependent on the meat used – for example shrimp stew needs a light roux, whereas alligator (not that I’ve tried it!) can apparently take a very dark roux. The rich flavour and seasoning is always cooked in from the very beginning, too, and the resulting stews are usually served with boiled rice, and perhaps with sweetcorn or field peas or white beans.

Cajun seasoning tends to be a blend of many things – a locally-made blend we picked up in Pierre Part when we last visited contains sea salt, red pepper, granulated garlic, paprika, black pepper, and granulated onion – but the Brand names I see used most frequently are Tony Cachere’s Original Creole Seasoning (known simply as ‘Tony’s’), and Zatarain’s crab boil and fish fry.

‘First, Make a Roux…’

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!

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Adventure

This is not my adventure, it is an adventure from the past, from the other side of the world. One hundred years on from the start of the First World War, these photographs represent my husband’s paternal grandfather’s great adventure, when in 1918 he was called up to join the American Army, not knowing what lay ahead for the future.

Thankfully the end of his basic training coincided with the end of the War, so he never saw active service overseas, never saw the rest of the world beyond the boundaries of boot camp. He returned home safe and well, married and had a family, and lived to a ripe old age. But for a quiet Cajun farmer from Louisiana’s deep south who spoke French first and foremost for his whole life, and for whom English was always a second language, this was a great adventure nonetheless, and one his whole family remain forever proud of…

WW1-medal-frontThe front of the medal reads ‘Trust in the Lord and Keep your Powder Dry’

WW1-medal-back    The back reads ‘Service with American Army in the Worlds War 1918’

See Weekly Photo Challenge: Adventure for other adventures 🙂

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Contrast

For this week’s Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: Contrast I’ve chosen two images that break the rule on always having the light source behind you. Sometimes intentionally creating shadows and sillhouettes by taking a shot into the light, highlighting and exaggerating the contrast between light and dark, can often bring a different perspective to what may otherwise turn out to be a rather boring image.

The first was taken here in London, and is a backlit shot of three elliptical pods on the London Eye sillhoutted against a dramatic-looking sky. I love the way the people inside are so completely anonymised, yet I feel their presence brings a real sense of scale to the image.

The second was taken in Louisiana, at Vermilionville Cajun Heritage Centre, where I felt inexplicably drawn to the odd collection of bits and pieces congregated together on the back porch – taking the shot with the shadows reaching towards me, rather than away, somehow feels more intimate, I think… backlit-porch-bits-and-pieces

 

Eclectic is a good word…

Quilt

I’m not really much interested in being fashionable, whether in clothes or house decor or furniture. I’m not a constantly updating ‘out with the old and in with the new’ kind of person. When I like something I become attached to it and prefer to hang on to it, and my husband is much the same. So I’m sitting here curled up on the sofa in my usual position with my laptop on a precariously-balanced bean-bag lap-tray, looking around our chaotic whirlwind of a flat and wondering how I might best describe it.

At first glance it’s easier to say what it is not – not minimalist, not of one time or style, not in the least fancy or fashionable as compared to all those home improvement/ lifestyle programmes you always see on TV. Not a student flat, and not a temporary commuter accommodation either (although there are plenty of both available here in East London) – there are too many signs of roots put down, of permanence, of longevity.

It is a mix of all things us – to say it is ‘homely’ sounds too kitsch, but it is definitely our home, always looks ‘lived in’. It has evolved organically rather than having been planned this way, with a cocktail of old stuff, new stuff, bought stuff, hand-made stuff, inherited stuff and the occasional charity shop find all rubbing shoulders together. In one sense nothing really goes with anything, but in another, it all goes with uswe are the common denominator linking our possessions. So perhaps ‘eclectic’ is a good word?

For such a small space I suppose we have quite a lot of bits and pieces, but I like being surrounded by mementos of my past as well as my present – neither of us live close to family, so for us having my grandmother’s old marmalade jar sitting next to my husband’s mother’s porcelain milk jug helps us feel connected. The old heavy cast iron cornbread skillets lugged half way across the world in our hand luggage so as not to incur any excess baggage charges remind me that I’m married to my very own Cajun swamp-boy from Louisiana’s deep south, and the traditional wooden porridge spurtle with carved thistle top taking pride of place in our cooking utensil jar is a small yet significant marker of my own Scottish heritage.

We have loads of very un-trendy but fun magnets stuck all over our fridge-freezer, each one with a specific magical memory – our 10th anniversary trip to Paris, day trips to the beach at Brighton, family-focused visits home to Scotland and the US. Sentimental stuff, but for me that’s the stuff of life, the stuff that matters most.

On the back of our sofa is an unfinished quilted throw in a log cabin design – the fabrics create a memory mix of past sewing projects and bright recycled cotton clothing, with an old cotton sheet as backing – it’s a real blast from the past for me. The quilt itself was made years ago and is in one solid piece, but I crazily decided to hand quilt it all, so to date the actual quilting is still only three quarters done. I also have multiple colourful crocheted blankets everywhere – basically just oversized granny squares, nothing fancy, but they’re practical, functional and created mainly with comfort in mind.

I suppose that having suffered from ongoing depression throughout my life, living with so much fluctuating psychological distress and unhappiness over the years, I truly appreciate the happy moments when they arise and want to be able to surround myself physically and emotionally with their memory, rekindle their spark of joy, remember that when all is said and done, as long as you work hard to ensure the good parts outweigh the bad, life can still be very much worth living…