Louisiana is a land of great mystery. I set out to find answers to such burning questions as: What’s the difference between Cajun and Creole? What about gumbo and jambalaya? And why does Louisiana feel like another country?
It should come as no surprise that my answers all involve food. We see the truth we want to see.
My first impression of Cajun cooking came via Justin Wilson on his PBS cooking show. He was a memorable character, known for his accent, whimsy and expression, “I gha-rawn-tee!'' (guarantee), from the Cajun ''J'vous garantis.''
He demystified Cajun cooking, bringing traditional recipes to the masses in an accessible way. I highly recommend falling down the Justin Wilson YouTube rabbit hole for some Cajun inspiration.
Cajun and Creole are two distinct cultures, which continue to blend in Louisiana. Natives know the difference, but the rest of us simply don’t unless we’re well-versed in Louisiana culture. As far as food goes, and very simply put, Creole cuisine is more citified while Cajun cuisine is considered “country food.”
A marked difference is tomato use: Creole food has them and Cajun doesn’t, generally speaking. Both cuisines are known for their family connections, so the best way to experience either is to find your way into the kitchen of a Cajun or Creole cook. I’m accepting volunteers.
The word “Cajun” originates from the term “les Acadians,” which was used to describe French colonists who settled in the Acadia region of Canada. In the 1700s, Acadians were forced out in the British Conquest, and eventually settled in Louisiana.
Cajun food is heavily influenced by the French, and also known for being spicy, but oftentimes “spicy” simply means heavily seasoned, and not “hot.”
The same tricky word play goes for “blackened.” Blackened meat or fish is coated in butter before applying spices with a heavy hand. The spices become dark from the butter saturation, then the food is fried to form a blackened crust.
Blackened isn’t burned, it’s just spicy, but not hot-spicy, just heavily-seasoned spicy. Clear as a Louisiana swamp?
Creole food is a blend of the many cultures of New Orleans including Spanish, African, Caribbean and Portuguese, just to name a few. Traditionally, slaves in the kitchens of fancy members of society prepared the food.
Because they had unlimited time and resources, the dishes were complex, including long lists of ingredients and spices. That is why Creole food continues to have a “highbrow” connotation when compared with Cajun food, which was the food the slaves making the Creole food were probably eating.
As for gumbo and jambalaya, they differ from kitchen to kitchen. They are both heavily spiced dishes loaded with meat, seafood and vegetables. The main difference is rice: jambalaya is cooked with rice, and gumbo is more soupy and served on top of a scoop of rice.
Try these recipes for a taste of Louisiana.
Easy shrimp and sausage gumbo
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
12 ounces andouille sausage, sliced into ½-inch pieces
1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning (without salt)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 15-ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
4 cups chicken broth
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 green onions, sliced
Cooked white rice, for serving
In a large, deep skillet over medium-low heat, melt butter, then add flour. Cook, stirring constantly, until dark caramel colored, about 10 minutes. Add onions, peppers, and celery, and stir until softened, about 5 minutes more.
Stir in garlic and sausage, then season with Cajun seasoning, salt, and pepper. Stir in bay leaf, diced tomatoes, and chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until thickened, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour.
In the last 10 minutes of cooking, add shrimp. Once shrimp is pink and cooked through, taste and adjust seasonings. Stir in green onions, reserving some for garnish.
Serve spooned on top of white rice. Recipe source: www.delish.com
New Orleans pralines
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup light cream
1 ½ cups pecans, halved
2 tablespoons butter
Combine sugars and cream in a heavy 2-quart saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until mixture forms a thick syrup. Add pecans and butter and continue to cook over medium heat, stirring frequently.
Remove saucepan to a heat-proof surface (such as a wire rack) and let cool for 10 minutes. Use a tablespoon to drop rounded balls of the mixture onto sheet wax paper or foil, leaving about 3 inches between each ball for pralines to spread. Allow to cool.
Recipe source: www.frenchquarter.com
Classic muffaletta sandwich
1 cup pitted olives, preferably a mix, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced celery
1/2 cup roasted red pepper strips
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed, dried, and roughly chopped
2 to 3 Italian hot pickled peppers (such as pepperoncini), chopped (optional)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the sandwich:
1 loaf focaccia, halved lengthwise
4 ounces salami, thinly sliced
4 ounces capicola, thinly sliced
4 ounces mortadella, thinly sliced
4 ounces provolone cheese, thinly sliced
Combine olives, shallot, celery, red peppers, capers, hot peppers (if using) and olive oil in a small bowl. Stir to combine. Season to taste with vinegar, salt, and pepper.
Tear out some of the doughy insides of the bread if it's especially thick, and lay bread slices down face up on cutting board. Spoon olive mixture on both top and bottom halves. Layer meat and cheese onto bottom half, then top with top half.
Cut into quarters and serve immediately, or for better flavor, wrap in plastic and allow bread to soak up juices for one hour before serving.
Recipe source: www.seriouseats.com