Deep in the heart of Louisiana, out of the exile of a group of Acadians, a culture was born. Out of that culture a unique style of cooking was birthed and thrives today. The Cajun style cuisine is one of the most sought after cooking styles in the nation.
It can be easy to cook a gourmet Cajun cuisine on a budget, but you have to keep a few things in mind - flavor profiles, traditional ingredients, and authenticity. Let's take a look at a few tips to get you on the right track:
Use authentic Cajun flavor profile
Sterotypes abound in Cajun cooking. One in particular is that all Cajun food is very spicy. While many of the dishes found in Cajun cuisine are made with spicy ingredients, the goal is not to singe the roof of your mouth. Instead, the term you want to learn is “flavor profile.” When you learn about authentic ingredients in Cajun cooking, you find an underlying flavor profile that may, at times, be spicy and hot, but is just as often sweet and smooth.
One familiar flavor profile is found in Tabasco. While it is often used in the traditional red beans and rice dishes, the heat is often an afterthought. It is the vinegar undercurrents that help make the dish what it is and brings all the flavors together. If this were not the case, a milder Tabasco would never have made it to market.
If you taste-test a variety of hot sauces, you'll find a wide range of heat, which proves it's not all about the heat. It is more about the sweet or tangy background taste that lingers on the palate and enhances the warmth as it crawls down to the belly and up into the sinuses. Think of the heat of the sauce as the vehicle for moving the other flavors around the body.
True, Cajuns do like their heat, but you can often use sauces and spices that compliment the ingredients in the dish without adding an extreme bit of heat. As long as it fits in a similar flavor profile, you can add a variety of seasonings. Again, think tangy vinegar and sweet hidden flavors.
Of course, any Cajun meal is laced with a liberal dose of cayenne pepper and bay leafs. Once you get those two flavors infused, the rest is a matter of taste. Again, the flavor profile follows suit; both cayenne and bay leaf offer a deep, woodsy flavor with a touch of heat and smoke.
Use authentic Cajun ingredients
Another way to create gourmet Cajun meals is to use authentic ingredients used in actual old time Cajun recipes. There is no reason to be afraid of ingredients you may not be familiar with. Cajuns have been cooking with things like grits, crawfish, okra, Andouille sausage, and boudin for a good, long time. Not only do these ingredients bring a rich array of flavors, they also introduce some new textures to add to your gourmet palate.
That's not to say that all Cajun ingredients will be desirable to all palates. Some of the ingredients are rather exotic and you don't have to venture into those areas if you don't want to. You may shy away from things like blood sausage, nutria, and frog legs, and that's alright. There is still a bounty of harvest to fall in love with outside of the swamp. Just cook like a Cajun; always sprinkle joy and love generously when cooking, and you can't miss.
Use authentic Cajun methods
Most authentic Cajun dishes begin with some kind of roux. You can't make jambalaya or gumbo without it. Simply put, a roux is a thickener made with oil or butter, and flour. This roux is made unique in Cajun cooking because there is a color wheel you want to follow – the darker the roux, the deeper the Cajun flavor becomes. You'll find a good gourmet Cajun gumbo begins with a “chocolate color” roux. There is some trick to cooking the perfect roux, and this is a technique that any gourmet Cajun cook needs to perfect. Find the right balance in a roux, and you find the perfect Cajun dish.
The “Holy Trinity” refers to the basis for almost all Cajun dishes. Put simply, you need green pepper, onion, and celery, sauted until just tender, to start your recipe. A large, heavy pot or skillet is the Cajun cooks best friend. Put any of your nonstick stuff aside and opt for a cast iron Dutch oven or deep cast iron skillet. Get one pot going with your roux and another with your Holy Trinity and your kitchen will be transformed to a Cajun kitchen on the Bayou.
Give your everyday recipes a Cajun twist
You can even switch up the gourmet by adding some Cajun flair to your everyday meals. Cabbage and black eyed peas cooked with a little Andouille sausage can offer an entirely different taste experience than your typical preparation. Don't wait to use okra in your gumbo; go ahead and use it in any soup to thicken it up and add an interesting texture. Sprinkle cayenne pepper on your oven fries. Make a dark roux the next time you make beef gravy to give your gravy more depth.
If you're not ready to experiment too much with spices right now, choose a popular Cajun seasoning blend like Tony Chachere's to sprinkle on soups, potatoes, vegetables, seafood, meat, fish, or even eggs to give your basic meals a Cajun kick. These packaged seasonings are a good all-around seasoning experience especially for people just learning to enjoy Cajun flavors.
Using Cajun ingredients in your everyday meal preparation gives you an opportunity to experiment with the different flavors without going all out trying to learn new recipes. If you're not ready to buy a tub of crawfish quite yet, just season up a familiar fish with Cajun seasonings. Before you know it, you'll be moving into more unfamiliar territory... and loving it!