Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Story of a Foodie and Some Great Cajun Memories

I was thinking the other day and wondering exactly how I got here. What factors have lead to my intense love and commitment to food? Why is my time in the kitchen purely cathartic? I’m not in “the business”. I didn’t go to culinary school. I didn’t grow up around restaurants. No one in my immediate family was even a particularly good cook. Yet, I dream of new recipes. Entering the market for me is like a 5 year old walking into the Toys-R-Us in Times Square. I could spend whole days devoted to cooking, hunting down new restaurants or writing about the foods that pass through our lives. So how did it begin? What are my first memories? Well there are early memories of making my mom pancakes for breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day and a few odd-and-end moments but what I’m really looking for is that tipping point; that moment I knew food meant more than sustenance.

I would have to say it probably began in my military days while stationed in Louisiana. Shortly after arriving back in 1985, I quickly realized that mess hall food, while free, was going to need some augmentation. Dried pieces of chicken and bland mashed potatoes were only going to go so far and asking for a burger should never prompt the mess worker to stick his tongs in a vat of liquid and retrieve a mystery meat patty (And why was the place I was supposed to dine called a “mess” hall anyway?). So I ventured out and what an experience. The tastes and smells in the backwater bayou country of Louisiana are indescribable. My first of many “favorite” restaurants was discovered in Alexandria, a small town smack in the center of the state.
View from the balcony at Tunk's Cypress Inn on Lake Kincaid

I don’t recall how I found Tunk’s Cypress Inn. I’m sure it was recommended by someone. Alexandria was a good hour drive from Ft. Polk where I was stationed but it was also the closest “city” where young GI’s found some night life. No matter how I found it, once I did, I was hooked. I ventured in as often as I could. It was a building built atop a dock on Lake Kincaid and it was quintessentially “Cajun” (of course, at the time, I didn’t know what the words quintessential or Cajun meant). They offered fare that in the mid 80’s hadn’t even been heard of outside Louisiana. When I first saw the HUGE platter of Crawfish on another table, I was a bit intimidated. How could anyone eat such a mound of food? And they were on MANY tables!! Well, I simply had to try them. I soon found out that the reason for the large quantity of Crawfish on each table was because each individual crawdad (interchangeable term) wasn’t horribly meaty. In fact, eating boiled Crawfish is an experience to be savored. It soon became common for me and a few buddies to head in to Tunk’s, drink some beer and spend a couple of hours picking over massive piles of Crawfish.

Another influence was the festival-every-weekend mentality in Louisiana and these festivals were always centered around a food. I recall some type of berry festival and a gumbo festival and on and on. A favorite of mine was the celebration in Mamou known as Le Courir de Mardi Gras a Cheval (the Mardi Gras run on horseback). So the of age men would wear these wild costumes (at Mardi Gras? really?) and go from house to house on horseback begging for offerings for the pot of Gumbo to made later that night. Typically, the men dance to entertain and pay for the food which turns out to be a chicken that must be chased down and caught. Perhaps in the age of the Nintendo Wii and Xbox 360, this sounds a bit mundane but I have the fondest memories of that Gumbo and the spectacle that surrounded a pot of food.
Chasing Chickens in Mamou, Louisiana

It wasn’t too long afterwards that I made my first of many trips to New Orleans and the rest is history, well sorta. It would be many years later before I owned a cookbook or began collecting kitchen ware but I have to say these were the years that I was a culinary embryo. My palate was forming and I was absorbing new tastes at an alarming rate.

So this week I decided to take a trip down memory lane and replicate an old favorite of mine, fried catfish. Now completely farm raised, catfish have a mild, delicate flavor and are quite delicious. I love them prepared in many ways but traditional Louisiana fried catfish is always a winner. I put a couple of twists on it to play around (like marinating all day in stone ground mustard) and I have to say I was pleased. I also served my version of dirty rice and a butternut squash hash (not really Cajun but one of my new favorites). And in true Louisiana fashion, I topped the entire plate with a few fried oysters. For a sauce, I made something I learned from an old Cajun guy and that story is for another time. It had a name but I don’t recall it. It is a bright and tangy reduction of Worcestershire and lemon with garlic and peppercorns. Now that was a touch. The catfish, oyster combo was a renaissance moment for me transporting me back to the earliest days of culinary exploration. Yes, this is where it began.

A quick note about Cajun seasoning. I have made my own many times and continue to experiment with different variations. From mild to hot blackened, I love different varieties. One thing I’ve noticed is that I have yet to make a spice combo that I find better that the off the shelf varieties available in grocery stores. One of my favorites is Paul Prudhomme’s line but I’ve even had store brands that were good. Since most varieties I’ve made have up to 12 different spices and they are between $3 and $8 each, it might be prudent to just buy a few different premixed seasonings and find out what you like best. Also read the entire recipe before beginning since the order is a bit different if you wish to serve all together (that’s the idea, duh!).

Without further ado:

Cornmeal Fried Catfish and Oysters with Dirty Rice, Butternut Squash Hash and a Special Worcestershire Reduction

Dirty Rice

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp Cajun seasoning
1 ½ cups cooked basmati rice
1 scallion, sliced thin and on a bias (45 degree angle)
Salt and pepper to taste

A true dirty rice has meat in it and is usually much spicier, but without meat this is a fantastic accompaniment to fried catfish. Melt butter over medium heat but do not brown. Add the seasoning and toast for just a moment in the butter. Add the rice and warm through and add the scallions at the end. Divide between 2 plates.

Butternut Squash Hash

1 butternut squash, peeled and diced into very small cubes. About 2 ½ cups.
1 tbsp honey
1tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/8 tsp cumin

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir well. Place in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Can be done the day before.

When ready to cook, heat a skillet over medium high heat. Put a touch of olive oil in the pan and add the squash mix. Sauté until soft and the edges of the squash are caramelized.
Place next to the rice mix on the plate.

Catfish and Oysters

2 catfish fillets (5-8 oz each, I suspect)
3-4 tbsp stone ground mustard
Salt and pepper
8 large oysters (reserve the liquor for the sauce)
2 cups cornmeal
1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional and adjust to taste)
4 tbsp butter divided

Salt and pepper the fish and rub the mustard all over. Place in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Mine were in about 6 hours when I made this.

Mix the cornmeal and cayenne pepper together and divide into 2 vessels, one for the catfish and the other for the oysters. Lightly dredge the catfish and shake off the excess. Let sit for at least 10 minutes before frying. In a fry pan over medium high heat add 2 tbsp butter. When melted and beginning to brown, add the catfish fillets. Fry about 2 minutes per side and remove from pan. Place on paper towel lined plate. Add the next 2 tbsp butter to the pan.

Dredge the oysters in their cornmeal mix and shake excess. Add to hot pan and cook about 1-2 minutes per side, turning only once. Remove and also let drain on the plate for a couple of minutes.
Place a catfish filet and half of the oysters atop each plate with the rice and Butternut Hash.

Worcestershire Reduction

1 bottle Worcestershire sauce
Reserved oyster liquor
1 lemon, cut in half
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
½ onion roughly chopped
2 tbsp peppercorns
2 tbsp butter

Combine all the ingredients except butter in a sauce pan and simmer over medium heat until sauce is reduced by a little less than half (about 25 minutes). Strain. Place back in sauce pan and whisk in butter. Remove from heat and drizzle a few tablespoons over each plate of catfish and oyster dinner. Serve the rest on the side.

Serves 2.


Kevin said...

Hmmm that looks more like slightly soiled rice than real "dirty rice." I'm in Breaux Bridge, LA (Crawfish Capital of the World - Alexandria is the cut-off point for all things Cajun, anything north of there is redneck/Britney Spears country) Next time we fix some rice dressing, I'll take a photo to show you what it's supposed to look like.

Interesting blog, I'm curious to try the Worcestershire Reduction.

Louis said...

hahahaha... no question this does NOT resemble the good "dirty rice" I've had and loved. IT tasted pretty good though and the Cajun spices gave it a nice flavor. "Soiled" rice just doesn't sound edible.