Some Key Ingredients for Louisiana Cuisine


Both the rich, complex Creole cuisine of New Orleans and the homey, country-style Cajun cuisine of Acadiana (French Louisiana) rely heavily on many ingredients that are made and grown locally. Substitutions can be made for some, but if you're going for anything like the real thing, try to get authentic ingredients. But first, as my (and everyone's) grandmother says ... "First ya make a roux."



Just as it is in classical French cuisine, roux is a mixture of flour and fat, usually butter or oil. The proportion is roughly 1:1, but I tend to use slightly more flour than oil; maybe 1-1/4 cups of flour to 1 cup of oil.

It is the basis for many Louisiana dishes, particularly gumbo, but also etouffees, sauce piquantes, and more.

There are three basic types of roux: light (or what the Cajuns call "blond"), medium (or "peanut butter" colored), and dark. There is white roux also, which is cooked for just a minute to get the flour taste out, but this is rarely used in Louisiana cooking. For gumbos, for instance, Creole cooks tend to prefer a blond or medium roux, where Cajun cooks tend to prefer a very dark roux, which is wonderfully smoky tasting. There are, of course, exceptions to this. In fact, you'll see people making many different "levels" of roux. Blond, light brown, medium-light brown, medium brown/"peanut butter", and dark browns that range from the color of milk chocolate to the color of bittersweet chocolate. This is the most amazing roux of all in flavor, but the most difficult to achieve; it's really easy to burn it from this point. Use your eyes and nose; if it's gone over to being burned you can smell it. It's like the difference between really dark toast and burnt toast. You also have to take it off the heat slightly before the roux gets to the color you want, because the residual heat in the pan (particularly if it's cast iron) will continue to cook the roux. This is why it's a good idea to add your "trinity" (onion, celery, bell pepper) to the roux before it gets to your desired color, because that'll help slow the cooking process.

Roux is used to thicken gumbos, sauces, étouffées or stews, and in the case of a darker roux to flavor the dish as well. Dark roux has more flavor, a wonderful roasted nutty flavor, but tends to have less thickening power.

Preparation of a roux is dependent on cooking time; the longer you cook, the darker the roux. A blond roux will only take four or five minutes; a dark roux up to 20 or 25 minutes at high heat, or up to an hour at low heat. Roux must be stirred constantly to avoid burning. Constantly means not stopping to answer the phone, let the cat in, or flip the LP record over, and if you've got to go the bathroom ... hold it in or hand off your whisk or roux paddle to someone else. If you see black specks in your roux, you've burned it; throw it out and start over.

When you're stirring your roux, be very careful not to splatter any on you. It's extremely hot, and it sticks. They don't call it Creole napalm for nothing ... I have a lovely burn scar on my forearm from last year's Christmas Eve gumbo, when I got sloppy with the stirring.

Certain dishes (like crawfish étouffée) would benefit from a butter-based roux, but if you're going to make a dark roux, this will take a long time. Butter roux must be cooked at low to low-medium heat, or the butter will scorch. Darker roux are better suited to being made with oil. If you know what you're doing, you can make an oil-based roux over medium-high to high heat, whisking like hell, and you'll have a beautiful near-milk-chocolate colored roux in about 20 minutes rather than an hour. Peanut oil works best for high-heat roux cooking.

I'm told that some home cooks are making roux in the microwave now. "No stirring!", they say. "It works!" Bah. Humbug. There's a certain satisfaction to stirring it by hand that I myself refuse to delegate to a microwave. Some things simply must be done by hand if you're serious about this.

Now, one not-so-bad idea is the oil-less roux, pioneered by Cajun Chef Enola Prudhomme. Basically, you just dump the flour into a cast-iron skillet and toast it dry, making sure to stir it around as you would a normal roux. I've never tried this, but apparently it works rather well, and is perfect for folks who are on low-fat diets.


Then, perhaps the next most important indigenous ingredient ...


A Louisiana delicacy. Ecrevisse in French. Some folks call 'em "mudbugs", hillbillies (Jed Clampett, for instance) call 'em "crawdads", tourists and Yankees call 'em "crayfish". If you go to New Orleans and ask for "crayfish", you'll be asked, "Oh hey dawlin', where ya from?" They are crawfish.

Crawfish have a marvelous, delicate flavor, and the crawfish fat adds a mind-bogglingly delicious enrichment to sauces and the like. There no substitute for crawfish; if you want to make crawfish etouffee and you substitute shrimp, you've made shrimp etouffee.

Louisiana does export some of its crawfish crop (but 90% of it, or about 10 million pounds per year, is consumed within the state), so some markets around the US do offer them. BEWARE! Crawfish do not keep well, and if they smell or taste the least bit "fishy", they're off. Best bet is to have them shipped live (or the frozen tails) from a source in Louisiana. See the sources page for some Louisiana seafood mail-order outlets.


Next, sausages and seasoning meats ...


A spicy Louisiana smoked pork sausage. Not to be confused with the continental French "andouillette", which is a tripe sausage and is icky. Hot or mild smoked sausage of any brand can be substituted, but good andouille is a joy. Check the sources page for mail-order information.

Creole hot sausage.

Regular pork sausage from your butcher just won't do. Fortunately, it's easy to make it yourself, or you can mail-order it from some Louisiana outlets (I'm not sure if Vaucresson's mail orders, but I'll check). For southern Californians, Pete's hot sausage is locally made by a Louisiana expatriate, and is available at most of the places in L.A. listed in the sources page.


Tasso is a very highly seasoned lean pork butt, used as a seasoning meat. It has an intense, delicious flavor, and a little goes a long way. I suppose you could substitute smoked ham, but you will not get remotely the same flavor. You can obtain tasso from a few mail-order sources, but if you have a smoker you can make it yourself.


Next, seasonings and condiments ...

Cane syrup.

The clear or brown syrup made from sugar cane, and often used locally instead of maple syrup or those thin, nasty, artificially-flavored "pancake syrups". The best cane syrup around is the wonderful brown stuff made by the good folks at Steen's Syrup Mill in Louisiana.

Cayenne pepper.

Fiery ground red pepper made from the cayenne chile. Powerful stuff, and used liberaly in Louisiana cooking, especially in combination with white pepper and freshly ground black pepper.

Crab, shrimp and crawfish boil.

Spices for boiling seafood. They come either in a flow-through packet, in dry powdered form, or as a liquid concentrate, used to flavor the water in which seafood is boiled. It's strong, pungent and spicy. Zatarain's, Rex, Yogi and Tony Chachere's are the prevalent brands. Zatarain's comes in the well-knowf "flow-through" packet; the others are granulated, which you can add to the water and/or sprinkle on the seafood itself after boiling.

Creole mustard.

A thick, pungent, spicy, coarse local mustard used on po-boys as well as an ingredient in many dishes. The mustard seeds are marinated before preparation. Most common brands are Zatarain's and Horse Shoe. If you can't find this where you live, substitute a coarse-grained, country-style whole-seed Dijon mustard.

Filé powder.

Filé powder (sometimes spelled "file powder" or called "gumbo filé") is made from dried and ground sassafras leaf. It is used as a seasoning and primarily thickening agent in gumbo, and has a wonderfully pungent and aromatic flavor. Common local brands are Zatarain's, Rex or Yogi. There is no substitute. Remember that filé should never be added to a pot of gumbo while it's cooking, but rather added at the end when the gumbo is off the fire (it's best when you sprinkle it on, cover the pot and let it sit for 15 minutes). If it's brought back to a boil, it will turn stringy, so make sure to reheat any leftovers gently. Pronounced (FEE-lay).

Tabasco and other hot sauces.

The King of All Pepper Sauces. Available worldwide, and made in Avery Island, Louisiana by the McIlhenny family since the 1880s. Used as a table sauce and as a cooking ingredient. The McIlhenny Company now also makes a mild green jalapeño Tabasco, as well as garlic Tabasco and a wonderfully flavorful (but incendiary) Habanero Tabasco.

Other good pepper sauces that are not as distinctively flavored as and are mellower than Tabasco are Crystal and Louisiana Red Hot. Sample and pick your favorite sauce, remembering that there are over 60 different brands of hot sauces made in Louisiana.

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Chuck Taggart   (e-mail chuck)