Thursday, March 22, 2012

Down the Big Easy

American cuisine is easy to laugh at; after all, what do most people across the world know about American cuisine but McD, fried chicken and bad takeout? The truth is that there is no such thing as an American cuisine, as the United States are a collection of different cultures and geographies, with different ethnic makeups and nutritional requirements.

Louisiana is a prime example of this trait: originally founded by the French, sold to the American colonies, then populated by Spaniards and African slaves, who formed what is Creole culture, while the Acadian refugees formed the Cajun country. Everybody intermingled reluctantly with local tribes, but survival demanded that they all learned from each other. The mix of cultures intermixed techniques and necessity, and a constant battering of heat and storms birthed blues and one of the most occult culture in the Americas.

If you were to ask what is the signature dish of Louisiana, the majority would claim gumbo their relief, tho jambalaya is a close second. Creole/cajun cuisine has been described as hard to pull off, and I'd lay the blame at the cajun roux, which a mixture of flour cooked in butter until it is a hair's breath from burning. That is certainly a skill that could be well-worth developing, but I've decided to skip that lesson for now and just move on to make a delicious and hearty dish that never fails to please.

The first thing that you have to consider when you make gumbo is what your thickener will be; that is the purpose of the roux after all. You have in fact three other options: onions, tomatoes and okra. I will tend to use all three myself, both for flavor as for what they bring to the mix.

Start with a couple of good white onions that have been either thinly sliced or finely chopped, either works. You are going to poach them in a good quantity of fairly neutral fat; basic vegetable oil or ghee works fine. Add some chopped celery and a bell pepper or two (one green, and one red or yellow, for variety) and stir, getting it to soften. If you are going to use okra, this is the time to add it in. Its better to use pre-cut frozen stuff, it just makes things easier. Stir until soft, then add garlic to taste. Add meats like sausage, bacon cubes, or other bits of meat in small bite-size. Brown, then add tomatoes. Finally pour in as much stock as you want, keeping in mind whether you want to make it a stew or a soup.

Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, for a good forty-five minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, add whatever seafood you happen to have on hand. What flavoring you add will entirely depend on what you have at hand, but try to keep it simple: a light touch of kosher salt, ground black pepper, oregano, thyme. I'd suggest experimenting, but don't overdo it, or you'll drown out the other flavors.  Serve with rice or biscuit.

This is one seriously easy dish; in fact, you get so into it that your loved ones will most likely ask you to stop making it because they have had enough for a while. You can use different meats, all depending what you happen to have at hand. The minimal ingredients I would say comes down to onion, bell pepper, celery, meat and stock. This is a great way to get some use of vegetable odds and ends, like that half tomato you used for lunch and those potatoes that are sprouting legs and are trying to escape. Clean the lot and toss in!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Laying low and delicious.

I have taken a long break from the blog, but I am returning to bring you more useful tips, info and techniques to help you develop your inner cook. Today will be something of a two-for-one deal, probably because its a Monday at the end of the month, when money's getting tight in expectation of the budget hit when rent comes due in a few days. So we're going to look at a nice technique that will make a good impression and will allow you to open a new branch of flavors in your meals: poaching.

First off, a definition: poaching is a cooking term that means slowly cooking in liquid. Its not boiling, as poaching requires a much lower level of heat, and the liquid used will often not turn into a sauce. Its a more delicate technique, but that can result in very interesting results.

The most common poached food you might have come in contact with is poached eggs, especially in the posh breakfast staple, egg benedictine. Poached eggs are an easy way to learn the basics, and cheap to: all you need is a cooking vessel, either a sauce pan or a frying pan deep enough to hold the cooking liquid and the egg, water, an acid flavouring agent (good vinegar or lemon juice) and an egg of two. A ramekin comes in handy to manage the pouring on the egg.

Fill the vessel with water and add about a spoonful of your acid agent. Bring to a very light simmer, making sure you not only not boil the water, but just enough that you can see a very gentle roll in the liquid. Crack the egg in the ramekin, being careful to keep the yolk whole. Pour the egg gently into the water, then cover and turn off the heat; this will prevent the whites from cooking too tough at the bottom. Let stand, undisturbed for three minutes, then remove using a slotted spoon. The white should be just set enough to keep it together and the yolk should be barely set on the edges but runny.

Its an easy, no-mess way of preparing your eggs in the morning, keeping the scent of cooking food to a minimum. Also, its a delicious way to impress that date you brought home last night and that stayed over for breakfast. Some now you know how to poach eggs; the same basic technique can be used for other, more delicate foods, like fish, chicken, or fruits, using different cooking liquids. Now, here's my favourite poached preparation, poached onions, or onion confit.

The idea is the same, but the items are cooked in this fashion more as a preservation method. The start example of this is duck or goose confit, originally from south western France, where the birds and cut into pieces, cured, and then poached into cooking fat, usually their own. The parts are then put into jars that are then filled to cover with the cooking fat to seal. The preparations can then keep for long periods with minimal refrigeration.

In Italy and southern France, condiments like onions, garlic and chilies. The preparation is very simple, if a little time-consuming, definitely something of the "slow food" movement. The basic elements required for this is a thick frying pan, olive oil and onions. Simple.

First, thinly slice your onions. Just half and slice, keep it simple. Then, put a good amount of olive oil in the pan a bring to a low heat, basically medium-low, edging towards the low side; you don want to fry your onions, just heat them in the oil. When you're confident that oil is at the right temperature, add the slices, and stir to ensure that everything is spread out. There should be plenty of oil, as it acts as the poaching medium. I like to add a bit of thinly sliced or crushed garlic to the mix, for flavor and to balance the chemistry, and a pinch or two of kosher salt to help the onions sweat. A few drops of balsamic vinegar, some herbs (oregano, rosemary and thyme work well), a touch of sugar also can help you shape the flavors.

This will need to cook for a good forty-five minutes, stirring occasionally. Adjust the heat as needed to avoid the crusting at the bottom of the pan. It is ready when the onions nearly disintegrate. You want a very soft mixture. Take off from the heat and use.

It makes a great alternative to tomato sauce in pizza and pasta, and its a great way to build a base for a ragout or stew sauce. And its a perfect base for our next blog entry, gumbo!