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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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L is for Light…

It’s taken me such a long time to learn that counter-intuitively, even when it comes to light in photography, sometimes less is more. I used to think that the brightest, strongest sunlight would give me the best pictures, and would usually end up disappointed and despondent. Instead of being vibrant and full of colour as I expected my images would often be washed out, over-exposed, with really dark heavy shadows.

Confusingly, where I took pictures under a cloudy, overcast sky or in the shade – where the light was softer, more diffused – I would often get much better results. Better colour, better balance between light and dark – just an overall better exposure resulting in a far more pleasing image.

These images were taken at Vermilionville Historic Village, Lafayette, Louisiana… I love the way the diffused light coming in through the window helps illuminate the main subject in each shot 🙂 Bed Rocker Wooden chair

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J is for Judgement…

‘Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst’ – Henri Cartier-Bresson

There are so many questions running through my head when I think about taking a photograph. Why am I taking this particular shot of this particular subject? What do I want the image to say – what is the story? Where is the best position to shoot from – close in or further away? Which angle works best? Where is the main light source coming from? What about camera settings – shallow or full depth of field? What should I keep in and keep out of shot? How best should I frame it? What do I need to watch out for – annoying background distractions can so easily spoil an otherwise lovely shot – and it never ceases to amaze me how moving just a few feet this way or that before pressing the shutter can sometimes make all the difference to the final image…

Looking up into the Spanish moss hanging from an old oak tree in Southern Louisiana, I loved the way the light caught on the ragged fronds reaching down towards me – it seemed much more dynamic a shot than taking the whole tree front-on…spanish-moss

And for some reason I just loved the stark simplicity of these silhouetted drill bits sitting so proudly on the dusty window-sill – to me they speak of the quiet dignity of craftsmanship past…silhouetted-drill-bits

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H is for Horizon…

Hmmm… I seem to be pathologically incapable of achieving a straight horizon in my images – the thing is, I usually think it is straight! I know I can always superimpose grid lines to help me get my shot framed horizontally and vertically correct, but I just don’t like getting it wrong, and keep trying to make myself see it right for myself, by eye. Luckily I can always custom fine rotate the final image on my computer if necessary, and I am getting better at it as time goes on – but I honestly don’t know why I just don’t always see the horizon as skewed in the first place!London-skyline Louisiana-horizonThe London skyline from the top of Primrose Hill, and the beautiful tranquil waters of Lake Verret, Louisiana, with both horizons tweaked to make them… er… horizontal!