Grab a cup of Louisiana coffee and join me in exploring the food culture that stirs the passion of the people of Acadiana. Every Monday morning I dish up a new story and recipe. Pull up a chair and have a seat at my Acadiana Table.

Pan-Griddled Pork Chops with Goat Cheese Mashed Potatoes and Mustard Green Gravy

Griddled Pork Chop recipe at Acadiana Table

Ordinary pork chops turn extraordinary with help from a mustard green gravy. (All photos credit: George Graham)

I never met a pork chop I didn’t like.  Ok, if you’ve spent any time at my Acadiana Table you know I love pork chops, and the simpler the better.  This weekend Roxanne decided to make my favorite pork chops and mashed potatoes for dinner, and I decided to join in and help her develop a new recipe that is simple, yet elevates the tastes in directions that are both soul satisfying and elegant.

With several of farmer Charles Thompson’s pork chops — from heritage breed hogs — thawing out in a briny bath of salt, apple cider and water, I decided to turn my attention to the crowning glory of this dish – mashed potatoes and gravy.  I have a standard technique for perfect mashed potatoes that I will never deviate from.  I am a staunch believer in boiling my Idaho russets in salted water until just tender, not waterlogged.  Ricing potatoes in a handheld ricer is the best way to get consistency and to achieve a soft, smooth texture that creates the perfect pillowy platform for the ultimate quest – gravy.

For most, gravy is a byproduct, but to me it is the crowning glory of most any dish.  Without a good gravy, a mound of mashed potatoes is unfinished.  With it, they are magical.  The gravy I have in mind is based on a milk gravy my mom made every time she fried chicken or pork chops.  A light blond roux with lots of whole milk spiced with black pepper was the age-old method, but I plan to create new tastes.  Blending the thickened milk gravy with a touch of Dijon mustard, and cooking it down with mustard greens infuses it with a contemporary twist of flavors.  Instead of black pepper I use white, and the rich, flavorful potlikker from the greens provides an added flavor boost.

With a package of my friend Wanda Barras’ fresh artisan goat cheese, I am intensifying the mashed potatoes into a rich reservoir worthy of holding my deluge of mustard gravy – this has got to be good.  Griddled pork chops in a black iron skillet develops a browned, crusty exterior that gives just the right crunch with every bite around the bone.  Like it has for me, this recipe is sure to become one of your favorites.

Pan-Griddled Pork Chops with Goat Cheese Mashed Potatoes and Mustard Green Gravy
Prep time: 1 hour
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Serves: 2 or 4

Tips:  You can easily scale this recipe up if you have more guests or bigger eaters.  This mustard green gravy could just as easily work with chicken.  

For the pork chops:
4 cups water
4 cups apple cider
1 cup salt
4 bone-in, thin-cut pork chops
1/4 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning

Brine the pork chops by mixing the water, cider and salt in a large covered container.  Add the pork chops and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

In a black iron skillet on medium heat, add the oil.  Remove the pork chops from the brine and pat dry removing all the salt.  Sprinkle the pork chops with Cajun seasoning.  Once the oil is hot, add them to the pan and cook until browned on both sides and fully done. Move to a paper towel-lined platter to drain.  Keep warm until serving.

For the gravy:
1/2 cup white flour
Whole milk
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 cup chopped mustard greens
1 cup reserved stock (potlikker) from the mustard greens
Kosher salt
White pepper

In the same black iron skillet on medium heat, add the flour to the remaining pan drippings. With a flat edged wooden spoon or spatula, scrape the bottom of the pan and stir the flour until it begins to cook and becomes a roux.  Once it takes on a beige color, add a little milk to the roux.  Stir until the mixture thickens and then add a little more milk.  Once you have a thickened gravy, add the mustard and the chopped mustard greens.  Continue stirring to incorporate and let the greens release their juices.  As the gravy thickens again, add some of the potlikker to loosen it to a gravy consistency that will coat the back of a spoon. Taste and season with salt and white pepper.  Move the pan off the heat and reserve until serving.

For the mustard greens:
4 strips smoked bacon
1/2 cup yellow onions, diced
1/2 cup green bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup celery, diced
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 bunch mustard greens, washed with stems removed and chopped
Water
1 smoked ham hock
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large pot with a heavy lid on medium heat, add the bacon and cook until crisp.  Remove the bacon to a platter and break into pieces for later use.  Add the onions, bell pepper, celery and garlic to the bacon drippings and cook until the onions turn translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the chopped mustard greens and add water to cover the greens mixture.  Add the ham hock and season lightly with salt and pepper.  Bring the pot to a boil and the reduce to a simmer and cover tightly.  Let the greens cook for 45 minutes.

For the mashed potatoes:
4 large russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
Water
Kosher salt
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 ounces goat cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large pot, add the potatoes.  Fill with water to cover the potatoes and lightly season the water with salt.  On high heat, bring the water to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.  Cook for approximately 15 minutes, until the potatoes are fork tender. Drain the water from the potatoes and using a potato ricer, process the potatoes until all lumps are gone. Return the shredded potatoes to the warm pot and add butter, heavy cream and goat cheese along with a grind of black pepper.  Using a spoon, stir lightly until mixed and the cheese is melted.  Cover the pot and keep warm.

For serving, turn the heat on the pan of gravy and bring back to a simmer.  If the gravy has thickened too much, thin it out again by adding more potlikker.

Spoon a mound of mashed potatoes in the center of a plate and add a heaping spoonful of the mustard gravy.  Top with a griddled pork chop.  Serve with a bowl of mustard greens on the side along with hot cornbread and a pitcher of sweet tea.

Pork Chop and Mustard Green Gravy recipe at Acadiana Table

Pork chop, mashed potatoes and gravy — warm comfort food.

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Crab-Stuffed Portobello

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Cheesy portobello mushroom stuffed with Louisiana blue crab and fresh herbs. (All photos credit: George Graham)

The large, round portobello mushrooms were calling out to me at Fresh Pickin’s market the other day.  Just begging to be stuffed, these bowl-shaped fungi are just the right size for a creamy, cheesy seafood and herb-infused blend of flavors.

Improvising with what’s already in your fridge or garden is a fun way to cook.  No rules, no recipes, just your instincts on what tastes good.  I cook like this most of the time and once the dinner is served, I’ve usually forgotten the exact ingredients and quantities that went into the dish.  Not this time.  I decided to meticulously detail the recipe for this easy and light dinner entrée.

I don’t wash mushrooms since they seem to soak up water like a sponge.  Rather, I take a brush and gently brush the tops, and with a spoon, I remove the stem and scoop out the dark brown gills lining the inside.  I always buy one more portobello than I am stuffing, since I like to add more chopped mushroom to the stuffing.

This dish is perfect for a light lunch or an evening meal paired with a bottle of good wine.  Make this simple, yet elegant recipe part of your Acadiana table.

Crab-Stuffed Portobello
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Serves: 4

Tips:  I had a container of handpicked Gulf crabmeat in my freezer, but this recipe would be great with shrimp or crawfish.   Be sure to use fresh herbs rather than dried.

5 large portobello mushrooms
1 stick unsalted butter
½ cup yellow onions
½ cup celery
1 tablespoon minced garlic
½ cup vermouth
1 cup chopped fresh basil
Fresh thyme sprigs, divided
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Dash of Louisiana hot sauce
8 ounces Louisiana crabmeat
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup fresh unseasoned breadcrumbs
2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350º F.

Using a scrub brush, clean the tops of the mushrooms and with a spoon, remove the stem and dark brown gills inside.  Chop 1 of the mushrooms for later use.   Move the remaining whole mushrooms to the side and reserve.

In a large skillet on medium heat, melt the butter.  Add the onions, celery and chopped mushrooms and cook until the onions turn translucent.  Add the garlic and vermouth.  Cook until the liquor begins to burn off and the vermouth reduces by half.  Add the basil and 2 tablespoons of  fresh thyme, reserving the rest of the thyme for garnish.  Turn off the heat.

Season to taste with paprika, salt and pepper along with a dash of hot sauce.  Add the crabmeat and grated Parmesan.  At this point, the mixture should have significant moisture to add the breadcrumbs.  Stir the breadcrumbs and distribute evenly throughout the mixture until absorbed.

Move the whole portobellos to a parchment-lined baking tray.  Spoon the stuffing mixture inside each mushroom.  Top with a generous sprinkling of grated Monterey Jack and a drizzle of olive oil.  Place in the oven and cook for approximately 15 minutes until the cheese begins to bubble and turn brown.  Remove and keep warm.

For serving, place one stuffed mushroom on a plate and garnish with a sprig of thyme.  Serve with a green salad lightly dressed with your choice of dressing.

EditPortobello2Forks

Perfect portobello portion.

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Shrimp on a Roll

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Louisiana Shrimp Roll – a cool summer sandwich. (All photos credit: George Graham)

When Louisiana summer heats up, Louisiana food cools down. Seldom does gumbo appear on the home dinner table when temps approach 100ºF and the clamor to escape the stifling heat includes the menu. Ice-cold watermelon, sweet-churned ice cream, syrupy sno balls and pitchers of freshly squeezed lemonade are just a few of the warm-weather tricks that have become backyard family traditions.

One dish that I’ve perfected over the years is a cold sandwich featuring fresh Gulf shrimp. The inspiration for this dish came from my travels in New England. One summer I trekked from New York through Connecticut to Cape Cod and Boston and northward along the eastern seaboard discovering (and dining at) the unique seaside communities that dot the coastline. My culinary epiphany came with that first bite of a perfectly crafted lobster roll in the harbor town of Salem, Massachusetts. It was magical.

The underlying principal of that lobster sandwich is at the heart of this recipe for my Gulf coast version – the Louisiana Shrimp Roll. Simplicity rules – fresh seafood accented with fresh herbs and citrus combined with a light hand on spices and binders. Let the flavor of the sweet shrimp shine through. Mayonnaise is a needed ingredient, but rather than the normal canned tuna or chicken salad tendency to drown everything in a mayo mess, go easy. And watch the added heat, only a pinch of cayenne does the trick to add a bit of intrigue to this sandwich.

On the backyard deck, poolside or at a beach picnic, roll out this easy shrimp sandwich for a cool summer meal.

Louisiana Shrimp Roll
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cooking time:  15 minutes
Serves:  4

Try not to improvise with the measurements in this list of ingredients — follow closely and taste before you add.  If your shrimp are larger than bite size, feel free to cut them into smaller pieces.  Use a good quality mayonnaise or better yet, make your own.  I would not attempt this sandwich on typical po-boy French bread since the dense bread could overwhelm the lightness of the dish.  I use a soft, fresh hoagie-type roll, but a quality hot dog bun will work fine.  An optional idea for this shrimp mixture is to serve it stuffed in a cold Creole tomato.

Water
2 fresh lemons, halved
Salt
2 pounds small, raw peeled Louisiana shrimp
½ cup mayonnaise, recommend Blue Plate
1 cup finely diced celery
½ cup finely diced green bell pepper
4 tablespoons chopped green onion tops
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, chopped
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Kosher salt, to taste
4 buns
4 red-leaf lettuce leaves

In a large pot half filled with water on high heat, add a generous handful of salt.  Squeeze the lemon halves into the water along with the lemons.  Bring to a boil and add the shrimp.  Stir the shrimp and let come to a boil.  Turn off the heat and let sit for 3 minutes.  Test one of the larger shrimp for doneness.  If fully cooked, drain the shrimp and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking.  Move the shrimp to a covered container and refrigerate.

In a large mixing bowl, add the mayonnaise.  Add the celery, bell pepper, green onion tops, cilantro, thyme and mint.  Stir to combine.  Add the cayenne, black pepper and lemon juice.  Stir to combine.  Add salt to taste.

Add the shrimp to the mixture and stir to combine thoroughly.  Taste again and adjust any ingredient to your desired taste and texture.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or longer.

For serving, line the four buns with a lettuce leaf and pile on a generous portion of the shrimp salad.  Serve cold with chilled white wine or a pitcher of iced tea.

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Sweet Gulf shrimp and an herb-infused dressing combine for a light summer sandwich.

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Lend Me An Ear

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Spicy and cheesy, serve this Blue Plate Corn on the Cob for your Fourth of July barbecue. (All photos credit: George Graham)

In the South, sweet summer corn is a long anticipated signal that the seasons have finally shifted culinary gears. On or off the cob, not a Sunday dinner goes by that corn isn’t somewhere on the table. As a kid growing up in a family of Southern cooks, my job was shucking the corn for every backyard barbecue or evening supper. Stripping back the husks and pulling out the strands of silky golden “hair”, I would occasionally find a worm or two to torment my sister with. But, husking a couple dozen ears of yellow sweet corn was as much fun as it was to eat.

Over the years, I’ve amassed a lengthy repertoire of fresh corn dishes for my Acadiana Table. Good Southern recipes along with spicy Cajun Creole traditions elevate corn into tasty casseroles, soups, salads and side dishes of all kinds. But, there’s always been one stumbling block — corn on the cob. Everybody loves it, but nobody quite knows what to do with it except boil it and butter it. Well, hear me out and I will change that with my Cajun recipe for Blue Plate Corn on the Cob that will redefine your corn experience this July 4th holiday.

Now, I will freely admit that my inspiration for this dish came from the least likely source – a Mexican flea market. A few years ago in the outskirts of Houston, I stumbled on an outdoor fiesta featuring an interesting array of South-of-the-border goods, music and food. And it was in a mobile food truck turning out Mexican corn on the cob that I found my cornucopia of inspiration. Roasted and rolled in spicy Mexican cheese, I discovered that a simple ear of corn on a stick in the right hands could be a stick of culinary dynamite. For me, it was the taste explosion heard ‘round the world.

But, how could I improve on the Mexican version with the Cajun flavors of my Acadiana?

Listen up.  Here’s the easy recipe for my Blue Plate Corn on the Cob.  Turns out it is a simple seven-step, assembly-line process: shuck, season, boil, grill, slather, roll and sprinkle.

This is the perfect backyard side dish that will take center stage this Fourth of July.  Trust me. Your family and friends will love it.  You’ll have them grinning from ear to ear.

Blue Plate Corn on the Cob
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Serves: 6 – 12

Tying back the husks makes both a fun presentation and an easy handle for eating. If you buy the already husked corn, then you can insert a bamboo skewer in one end for ease of handling. This corn is addictive and most guests will want at least two. This recipe is very scalable so buy plenty of corn. Use a softened butter, but not melted. I use Parkay squeeze butter that is already soft and pourable. If you do not have a gas grill then use a charcoal barbecue or feel free to hold them briefly over the gas burner of your stovetop until the kernels brown slightly. The key is to get a little char flavor of roasted corn. Once you’ve coated all the corncobs, feel free to microwave them briefly on high for 1 minute just before serving.

12 ears of fresh yellow corn, with husks
Water
1 (3 ounce) bag of dry crab boil, recommend: Zatarain’s Crab and Shrimp Boil
1 cup salt
2 cups butter, softened
2 cups mayonnaise, recommend: Blue Plate
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons chili powder
4 cups crumbled blue cheese
1 pound cooked crispy bacon, chopped into small pieces
½ cup Cajun Creole seasoning

On a cutting board with a sharp knife, cut the tip off the corn about 1 inch from the end. Peel back the husk and remove all of the corn silk with your fingers. Pull the husks back and tear off one of the longer green husks. Take the single husk and loop it around the rest of the husks tying it in a knot. Repeat with all the corncobs and stand them in a deep pot with corn tips down and the husks up.

Fill the pot with water just until it covers the kernels of corn on the cob. Turn the heat to high and add the crab boil seasoning and 1 cup of salt. Bring to a boil and turn off. Let the corn sit in the seasoned water for 10 minutes.

Remove the corn from the pot and drain. Using paper towels, dry the corn. On a gas grill on high, add the corncobs with the kernels over the flames and the husks off the burners. Grill the corn just until some of the corn kernels start to brown, and remove before they blacken. Place all the corn on a platter.

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Louisiana ingredients are music to these ears.

On a platter or sheet tray with a half-inch rim, add the softened butter, and using a spatula, smooth it out. Add the mayonnaise and combine. Add the cayenne and chili powder and stir to combine evenly. Set aside.

On a platter or sheet tray with a half-inch rim, add the crumbled blue cheese and the crispy bacon pieces. Combine together and break up any larger chunks of cheese or bacon. Set aside.

For assembling, position the three stages: the platter of corn, butter/mayo mixture and crumbled blue cheese/bacon. Take an ear of corn and add it to the butter/mayo mixture and slather all sides evenly. Then roll the corn in the crumbled blue cheese/bacon. Sprinkle lightly with Cajun Creole seasoning and place on a platter. Repeat with all the corncobs. Serve alongside barbecued meats or burgers for a festive Fourth of July.

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Make plenty, they’ll go fast.

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Iceberg Ahead

Iceberg wedge

A towering wedge of iceberg. (All photos credit: George Graham)

There was a time, and I remember it well, that iceberg lettuce ruled the salad world.  In those days, lettuce simply was iceberg – no options.  Today, the varieties are staggering;  mixed greens, micro-greens, arugula, frisée, romaine, endive, and on and on.  Not only are the options endless, but it seems that iceberg has gotten a bad rap of not being hip and trendy.  Imagine that, iceberg is no longer cool.

Well, call me old-fashioned, but I’ve been a closet iceberg fan all along.  Oh, I trot out the frou-frou spring mix when company comes a-callin’, but for me and me alone, a towering wedge of iceberg is the salad green of choice.

My rules for the perfect wedge salad are few, but firm.  Cold is key.  Not only do the lettuce and ingredients have to be cold, but the serving plate itself must be frosty.  In fact, a pewter plate stored in the freezer just before serving, would be ideal.  A quality blue cheese is a must, and I will gladly pay a premium price for the heady aroma and tart, pungent taste of a stellar cheese that sings the blues.  Crisp and crunch are crucial.  Any well-crafted wedge will have bacon and nuts, but my otherworldly wedge has pepper-dusted smoked bacon and spicy toasted pecans – a Cajun Creole punch.

Assembling this salad should be staged as a major construction project.  All the pieces and parts should be ready to go at the last minute.  Building the perfect iceberg wedge is a titanic undertaking well worth the effort.

Iceberg ingredients

Contrast of textures and tastes.

Iceberg Wedge Salad with Buttermilk Blue and Spiced Pecans
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Serves: 4

This salad is designed to be an entrée portion, but could just as well accompany a well-marbled steak.  Spring for the best blue cheese (I use Point Reyes) you can afford.  I like these spiked pecans, but plain salted pecans would be fine.  Timing is everything with this recipe.  Several steps can be done ahead, but be sure to have your guests seated before final assembly of this ice-cold salad.    

For the dressing:
1 cup Greek yogurt
1 cup mayonnaise (recommend: Blue Plate)
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon sugarcane vinegar (recommend: Steen’s)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups blue cheese, crumbled

In a large mixing bowl, add the yogurt and whisk in the mayonnaise and buttermilk. Continue whisking while adding the lemon juice, vinegar and Worcestershire.  Whisk the mixture while drizzling the olive oil and combine.  Season lightly with salt and pepper.  With a rubber spatula, gently fold in the crumbled cheese and combine.  Cover with plastic wrap, and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator for 2 hours or overnight.

For the pecans:
2 cups whole pecan halves
1 stick butter
2 tablespoons dry Cajun Creole seasoning
Kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 300º F.

In a large heavy bottom skillet on medium heat, add the pecan halves.  Rotate the pecans as they begin to toast.  Be careful and remove them before they burn. In the same skillet, add the butter and let melt.  Add the seasoning and stir to incorporate.  Return the pecans to the seasoned butter and mix until all the nuts are coated.  Remove the pecans to a baking pan and lightly sprinkle with salt. Place the baking pan into the hot oven and let bake for 10 minutes.  Remove the pan and let the pecans come to room temperature before serving.

For the salad:
1 extra large head iceberg lettuce, cleaned
8 strips smoked bacon
2 tablespoons Cajun Creole seasoning
1 large red onion, finely diced
2 cups ripe red cherry tomato, halved
4 thick slices blue cheese
1 cup green onion tops, diced
Freshly ground black pepper
4 stalks of green onion

Select 4 large dinner plates and place them in the freezer for 1 hour before serving.

Cut the lettuce into 4 equal-sized quarters.  Position them on a platter and place in the coldest part of the refrigerator for at least 1 hour before serving.

In a large skillet on medium heat, add the bacon strips and cook until fried crispy. Sprinkle liberally with Cajun Creole seasoning.  Remove to a paper towel-lined platter to drain.  Crumble the bacon into coarse pieces and reserve in a bowl until serving.

For serving, remove the plates from the freezer and position a lettuce wedge on each.  Spoon a generous amount of dressing over one side of the wedge and let the dressing pool at the bottom of the plate. Sprinkle over the diced onion and an even distribution of tomato halves.  Stand a thick slice of Roquefort in the dressing leaning against the wedge.  Sprinkle the green onion tops and grind a generous amount of coarse black pepper over the salad.  Garnish with a stalk of green onion.  Serve the salad immediately.

Iceberg salad

Crunchy, creamy and crisp iceberg wedge salad.

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Shrimp and Artichoke Fettuccine

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Fresh, creamy and smokey — seafood pasta is a Cajun favorite. (All photos credit: George Graham)

Combining fresh Louisiana seafood with pasta is a popular dish throughout Acadiana.  There are endless variations, but most favor a white sauce rather than red, and frequently have smoked meat or sausage layering flavor in the dish.  There is even a version of jambalaya called “pastalaya,” that replaces rice with pasta.

On my Acadiana Table, it is fresh Gulf shrimp and artichokes that are at the heart of my recipe.  Dried whole wheat fettuccine is my pasta of choice, but that’s only the start to this multi-layered dish.  Olives, baby portobellos and cherry tomatoes bring added complexity to the flavor profile.  Many times, I will use Andouille or smoked ham, but this time, spicy Cajun tasso ups the smokiness factor.

The key to this dish is the contrast of the crunch of lightly sautéed vegetables with the smooth cream-induced sauce coating it all.  Fresh herbs and grated cheese added at the last moment of cooking is a flavor burst that brightens the dish.

Shrimp and Artichoke Fettuccine
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Serves: 4

I use whole wheat fettuccine, but any type will work.  If you cannot find tasso, use diced smoked ham.  Try this recipe with oysters or crabmeat for a change.

Water
Salt
1 pound package dried fettuccine noodles
4 tablespoons olive oil
Diced yellow onions
Diced celery
Diced carrots
1 cup sliced baby portobello mushrooms
1 cup smoked tasso ham
½ cup white wine
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 14-ounce can quartered artichoke hearts, packed in water
½ cup red cherry tomatoes
½ cup yellow cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons sliced olives
2 pounds medium-sized fresh Gulf shrimp, peeled
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Louisiana hot sauce
½ cup chopped fresh basil
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano

In a large pot on high heat filled half way with water, bring to a boil.  Add a generous handful of salt and add the pasta.  Following package directions, cook just until the pasta reaches al dente.  Immediately drain the pasta into a colander and rinse with cold water.  Reserve for later use.

In a large skillet on medium heat, add the olive oil.  Add the onions, celery and carrots and cook until the onions turn translucent.  Add the mushrooms and ham.  Continue cooking for 5 minutes and add the white wine.  Cook until the wine reduces by half, about 5 minutes.  Add the cream and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the artichokes, tomatoes and olives.  Continue cooking until the cream just begins to thicken.

Add the shrimp and cook for 5 minutes.  Add the par-cooked pasta to the pan and stir to incorporate it into the hot cream mixture.  Season to taste with salt and pepper and a dash of hot sauce.  Just before serving, add the chopped basil and cheese and stir.

For serving, spoon the pasta into shallow bowls making sure to evenly distribute the shrimp.  Serve with crusty French bread.

Pasta Plate

Pasta perfection!

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Into the Lite

Cauliflower soup

Cauliflower is the new potato in this healthy soup. (All photos credit: George Graham)

Hot summer days are quickly descending upon us and experience tells us all that, from a culinary heading, we should be moving into the season of freshly prepared, lite and healthy dishes.  However, Louisiana cooks don’t seem to follow conventional wisdom. This time of year, you are just as likely to see a hearty etouffée or a platter of steak, rice and gravy on the dinner table.

Try as I might, shifting gears is not easy, but inspiration is always welcome. “Green Mom” is my wife’s tennis friend and an advocate of healthy eating.  Tanya is her real name, but her zeal for a healthy, organic lifestyle for her family and several television interviews later, she will forever carry the title of Green Mom.

The brilliance of her natural, whole foods lifestyle is in substituting ingredients that some down-home Cajun traditionalists might view as unorthodox.  She has introduced a legion of her South Louisiana converts to quinoa and couscous, brown rice and whole wheat, fiber laden replacements to the tried and true, gravy-laced Cajun recipes.

Like most everyone I know, my family loves a velvety smooth, cream-based potato soup – true comfort food.  Following the lead of Green Mom, my wife and I began a search for a lower calorie, natural version that doesn’t sacrifice taste or texture.  Green Mom had the answer – cauliflower.

The value of nutritionally dense cauliflower is that it is low in fat and carbs, but high in vitamin C and fiber.  I prefer steaming because aggressive boiling reduces the levels of these compounds by as much as 75%. As a white vegetable, I initially thought the similarities of cauliflower to starchy carb-laden potatoes pretty much start and stop right there.  But, once I steamed a large head of cauliflower and took a stick blender to it, I began to see its potential as my new “potato” soup.

Cauliflower has a distinct taste that is difficult to mask – either you love it or hate it.  While I do not mind it, I intend to elevate it in a different direction with garlic, fennel and olive oil.  The anise-flavored fennel takes on a subtle sweetness when sautéed in olive oil and a smidgen of garlic.  And with a splash of almond milk, this soup is rich and creamy but without the guilt and shame.

Finally, I’ve seen the lite.

Cream of Cauliflower, Garlic and Fennel Soup with Goat Cheese Crouton
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Serves:  4 – 6

While the chicken stock veers away from the vegetarian heading of this recipe, I like the flavor it adds.  Almond milk is a little-used ingredient that once you use in this soup will become your new secret weapon. The nutty hint of almond balances well with all of the other bold ingredients and adds that unmistakable creaminess that is needed to bring this soup together.  While the goat cheese crouton is optional, it adds a crunchy contrast.

Cauliflower soup ingredients

Natural and fresh ingredients are the key.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup fennel bulb, sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup onion, diced
4 cups water
2 large heads cauliflower, green leaves and stalk removed
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 cup unsweetened almond milk, plus more if needed
Sea salt
White pepper
1/2 cup creamy goat cheese
4 – 6 toasted crostini rounds
Fennel fronds, for garnish

In a skillet with on medium heat, add the olive oil.  Once the oil is hot add the onion and fennel slices.  Saute until the fennel begins to soften and the onions become translucent.  Add the garlic and continue cooking while stirring until the garlic begins to soften.  Reduce the heat if it begins to brown.  Once done, turn off the heat and move the pot to the side.

In another large pot on high heat, bring 4 cups of water to a boil.  Break the cauliflower into florets of approximate equal size so they will cook evenly and place in a steam basket.  Position the basket in the pot over the boiling water and cover. Let steam for 15 minutes until completely tender.  Remove cauliflower and drain.

Drain the water from the pot and put back on the stovetop on medium-high heat.  Add the chicken stock, cauliflower, fennel, onions and garlic.  Bring to a simmer and cook until the chicken stock has reduced by half, about 8 minutes. Add the almond milk and reduce the heat to low and cook for another 10 minutes.

Blender

Almond milk for a lighter blended soup.

With an immersion blender, blend the vegetables and liquids in the pot until thickened and all chunks become smooth.  If it becomes too thick, add additional almond milk until it is a creamy chowder-type texture. Reduce the heat to a simmer and continue cooking.

Taste the soup and finish with sea salt and white pepper to desired taste.

Spread the goat cheese liberally on top of the crostini.  Broil on high heat just until the cheese softens but not long enough to turn brown.

Ladle the soup into bowls and top each with a goat cheese crouton.  Garnish with a sprinkling of fennel fronds.  Pair with a chilled white wine.

Spoonful of soup

A spoonful of creaminess without the guilt.

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Floundering Around on a Saturday Morning

EditFlounder

Baked Gulf flounder stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat. (All photos credit: George Graham)

To me, flounder is flat-out the most delectable of all the Gulf finfish.  And for my money, stuffing a whole flounder with Gulf shrimp and crabmeat is the ultimate dish for someone as seafood-obsessed as me.  Whenever I see it on a restaurant menu, I can’t resist.  And I couldn’t resist the flounders I recently discovered at the docks in Delcambre on a recent Saturday morning.

Buying shrimp right off the boats in the coastal village of Delcambre, just an hour south of Lafayette is one of the pleasures of living in South Louisiana.  The Delcambre Seafood and Farmers Market is held on the first Saturday during seven months out of the year and you can check the schedule by going to their website here.  It’s a good time to load up on fish, shellfish and fresh produce from area fishermen and farmers.  When given the chance, I always shop this way because buying direct ensures quality and gives maximum profitability to the hard-working families.

Fresh Flounder

Fresh-caught Gulf flounder.

Flounder is a much sought-after fish and the delicate white flesh has a subtle sweetness that makes it perfect for stuffing.  Every now and then I see the 5-pound “doormat” flounder that makes a dramatic statement on the dinner table, but a 2-pound flounder is the perfect stuffing size.  Cleaned and scaled, the flounder only needs to be cut down the backbone and the flesh peeled back to form a pocket.

Time to stuff.

Stuffed Whole Flounder
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Serves: 2

I like the combination of shrimp and crabmeat in this stuffing recipe, but crawfish or oysters would be delicious, as well.  I use white lump crabmeat, but claw meat will work.  Add only enough breadcrumbs to combine the mixture, but remain moist.

2 two-pound, whole flounders, cleaned with a large pocket cut in the center
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 cup diced yellow onion
1/2 cup diced green bell pepper
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
½ cup diced celery
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons vermouth
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Dash of Louisiana hot sauce
Cajun seasoning
2 pounds medium-size Louisiana shrimp, raw and shelled
8 ounces Louisiana crabmeat
1 cup fresh unseasoned bread crumbs
1 whole lemon, sliced thin

Preheat the oven to 350º F.

Place the flounders on parchment-lined trays.  Rub the skin with olive oil and sprinkle salt and pepper in the inside of each pocket.

In a large skillet on medium heat, melt the butter.  Add the onion, bell pepper and celery.  Sauté until the onion turns translucent and then add the parsley, rosemary, garlic and ginger.  Continue cooking to combine the herbs and add lemon juice and vermouth.  Season the mixture with smoked paprika, hot sauce and a light sprinkle of Cajun seasoning.  Remove from the heat.

Place the shrimp on a cutting board.  Reserve a few of the whole shrimp to garnish the top of the stuffing on each flounder.  Chop the rest of the shrimp in smaller bite-size pieces. Add the chopped shrimp and crabmeat to the mixture stirring to combine.  Add only enough breadcrumbs a little at a time to reach the desired consistency of a moist stuffing.  Set aside to cool.

To assemble the dish, spoon the stuffing mixture into the pocket of each flounder. Place a few of the shrimp on top of the stuffing.  Season the fish with salt and freshly ground black pepper and a light sprinkle of paprika.  Add lemon slices to the top of the fish.  Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.  Remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes or until the thickest part of the fish easily flakes at the touch of a fork.

For serving, use two spatulas to gently move each flounder to a platter being careful not to break off the tail section.  Serve with crusty French bread.

Flounder bones

Make no bones about it, this is delicious fish!

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Savory Pain Perdu Pie

Pain Perdu Pie

Spicy, peppery and colorful — a savory breakfast pie.  (All photos credit: George Graham)

Breakfast in South Louisiana is a celebration of farm-to-table goodness.  The farming traditions of the region are rooted in a tough work ethic that is handed down through generations of French Acadian families that harvest the sugarcane, rice, sweet potatoes, soybeans and other significant crops.  Early to bed and early to rise is the routine of Cajun Creole farmers.

In the 1950s and 60s, my wife’s grandfather Clodius Fontenot was a farmer in northern Jeff Davis Parish between Jennings and Hathaway.  As was prevalent at the time, he lived on and farmed a piece of land owned by another family in a mutually beneficial exchange.  His typical day started an hour before daylight sipping a cup of deep, dark Louisiana coffee as he headed off to the fields.  Long about 8am he returned to the house with his farm hands to sit down to a hearty Cajun breakfast prepared by loving hands.  Mo Mo Eve mixed up biscuits and sweet dough breakfast pies from scratch and fried up fresh sausages and farm-raised eggs to feed the crew.  It was a major production, yet a daily ritual that the hungry men depended on.

Early life in Acadie was a matter of survival and making the most of what you had.  Those culinary traditions live on, and over the years breakfast remains an important and culturally significant meal in Acadiana.  French traditions at the hands of creative cooks have influenced a number of dishes that have become classics such as pain perdu.

Pain perdu, a simple French toast, is a prime example and has become the most famous of Cajun breakfast dishes.  With its French translation, pain perdu is “lost bread” – the tastiest way to reclaim any loaf bread lost to day-old staleness.  Over the years, this recipe has been interpreted into countless sweet, fruit-filled versions, but I set out to defy conventional wisdom and translate it into a new and savory way of looking at a tried-and-true classic.

Breakfast pie

A unique one-pot brunch.

My unique version focuses on a savory black iron breakfast dish that launches a spicy pepper punch on top of a smooth custardy foundation.  Fresh eggs are plentiful on rural farms of Acadiana, as are preserved peppers and tomatoes that line the shelves of every canning room.  Fresh chaurice sausage – a highly seasoned raw sausage – can be found more readily in the rural markets dotting the parishes surrounding Lafayette.  I love its unique peppery pork flavor, and buy it whenever I see it.  It is perfect for building an added layer of complexity for this spicy pain perdu dish.

Nothing lost here.  One bite and you’ve found a new breakfast standard.

Savory Pain Perdu Pie
Prep time: 1 hour
Cooking time:  1 hour
Serves:  4

If the only raw sausage you find is linked in the casing, not to worry — just squeeze it out.  I make homemade sugarcane vinegar-based pickled pepper sauce, but feel free to pick up a bottle – usually found on the vinegar aisle — at your grocery. I use a 10-inch black iron skillet that is 2 inches deep.  With a larger skillet, you can scale this recipe up for more servings.

Pain Perdu ingredients

Simple, yet colorful ingredients.

14 large farm-fresh eggs
1 cup half and half
4 1-inch thick slices day-old French bread
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 cup bulk chaurice sausage (substitute: any spicy bulk sausage)
1 cup yellow onions, diced
2 tablespoon green onion tops, minced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1 cup Rotel-type diced tomatoes and green peppers, diced
1 tablespoon Cajun pepper sauce
Non-stick spray
1 cup (jarred or canned) red and yellow bell peppers slices, drained
2 small red tomatoes, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh jalapeno, diced
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Sprig of fresh rosemary, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350º F.

In a large mixing bowl, crack all the eggs and add the milk.  Whisk until fully combined.  Add the bread slices and let soak for one hour, making sure they are all fully immersed.

In a medium size black iron skillet, add the bulk sausage.  Render the fat out of the sausage by sautéing until browned and fully cooked.  Remove the sausage pieces to a platter.

In the same skillet, add the onions to the remaining fat and sauté the onions until they turn translucent.  Add the green onions, garlic and rosemary, and sauté for 1 minute.  Add the diced tomatoes and green chiles, as well as the pepper sauce, and turn off the heat.  Pour any excess grease from the skillet.  Add the mixture to the platter with the sausage.  Rinse the skillet and wipe dry.

Spray the cast iron skillet with non-stick spray, place the four slices of bread and pour over the egg mixture.  Spoon the vegetables and sausage mixture in and among the egg mixture and bread portions. Lay the sliced peppers and tomatoes randomly throughout the mixture.  Sprinkle the cilantro and diced jalapenos around the mixture.  Season lightly with salt and black pepper.  Place in the oven and bake for 30 – 45 minutes, or until the egg is set and the blade of a knife comes out clean.

For serving, slice the portions of seasoned egg-encrusted bread and place on a plate.  Serve it like any good Cajun farm family would, with more of the pickled pepper sauce on the side.

Pain Perdu slice

A savory and spicy slice of pie.

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The Orange Blossom Special

EditRouladeChickAsp

Havarti cheese and asparagus fill these bacon-wrapped chicken breasts. (All photos credit: George Graham)

During a recent road trip, I ran across orange blossom honey at a roadside farmer’s market in La Grange, Texas just outside of Austin.  Whenever I travel, I love to prowl through small-town groceries and markets to discover the unique local products I never see in my neck of the woods.   On this morning, it was a bottle of Burleson’s Orange Blossom honey that caught my eye.  Waxahachie-based T.W. Burleson began making honey in 1903 with the purchase of a colony of bees and honey-making equipment for $20 — a sweet investment for a company that is now one of the largest honey purveyors in the country.

But, the real reason I had to get my hands on the orange blossom honey was that it immediately reminded me of singer Johnny Cash as well as my long-time friend.  While I wasn’t much of a fan of Cash’s music at the time, my college roommate Terry was a raving fanatic.  After a year of being forced to listen to the entire Cash playlist, I was slowly converted to the “Gospel of Cash.”   To this day, when the fiddles fire up on the Orange Blossom Special,  I stand at reverent attention for the Nashville anthem.  It is sweet music for sure.

I didn’t have chicken in mind when I picked up the honey, but on the drive back I thought about sweet Southern barbecue sauces and glazes.  It just makes perfect sense to balance a salty bacon-wrapped chicken breast with a sweet, mustardy mopping sauce.  Pounded, stuffed, wrapped, skewered and brushed, this chicken dish is all rolled up in one sweet package and the orange blossom honey surely makes it special.

Grilled Bacon-Wrapped Chicken with Orange Blossom Honey Mustard Glaze 
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Serves:  4

The crispy texture of the cooked bacon contrasts sharply with the creamy, cheesy stuffing and shields the breast meat from dryness.  I like how the Grand Marnier elevates the scent and flavor of the orange, but it can easily be eliminated.  The bite of the Creole mustard is a whole grain contrast to the sweet honey, so I highly recommend going with a tart mustard versus a sweeter Dijon-style variety.  Watch your fire, and if the asparagus tips start to burn, then wrap the ends with foil while the chicken continues cooking.

Creole mustard and honey

Creole mustard and orange blossom honey make a delicious glaze.

1 cup orange blossom honey
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier orange liqueur (optional)
1/2 cup Louisiana Creole mustard
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
4 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Cajun seasoning
12 asparagus spears, woody ends removed
1 pound Havarti cheese
1 pound smoked bacon

Preheat the outdoor gas grill on medium heat.

In a saucepan on medium heat, add the honey, Grand Marnier, mustard and rosemary.  Stir together and combine.  Cook until the honey has melted, and the mustard is thoroughly infused. Remove from the heat and let stand at room temperature.

On a cutting board lined with plastic wrap, place a chicken breast and cover with another piece of the plastic wrap.  With a meat mallet or a heavy saucepan, pound the chicken fillet until flattened out.  Repeat with all chicken breasts.

On a baking tray lined with aluminum foil, place the four flattened chicken breast filets.  Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper and a dash of the Cajun seasoning.  In the center of each breast, place three asparagus spears and top with a liberal sprinkling of the grated cheese.  Roll the fillet up and place bacon strips across each breast until covered.  Secure with toothpicks.

Move the tray to the outdoor grill.  Place on the grates and grill the chicken, rotating periodically, until the bacon is crisp and the chicken almost completely cooked, about 15 minutes.  Open the cover and brush on all sides with the honey mustard glaze.  (Note:  If the asparagus tips start to burn, this is when you should wrap the ends with foil while the chicken continues cooking.)  Turn the fire down and continue grilling for another 10 to 15 minutes until the glaze is browned and the sugars caramelized.  Be careful not to burn the glaze.

Remove from the grill and serve immediately with the remaining glaze on the side along with mashed potatoes.

EditCURouladeChickAsp

Grilled Bacon-Wrapped Chicken with Orange Blossom Honey Mustard Glaze

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Is Orzo the New Rice?

EditOrzoShrimpMain

A colorful and flavorful orzo, shrimp and kale salad. (All photos credit: George Graham)

Lately, I’ve seen orzo showing up on the Acadiana table of folks who didn’t even know it existed a few years ago.  Cajun Creole home cooks are a stubborn bunch who hold to tradition more so than most cultures.  But, this ingredient has made the grade for several easily explained reasons.

First, it’s easy to cook.  Orzo cooks quickly (less than 10 minutes) in salted boiling water.  And it’s versatile.  It’s great in soups, or in a salad as I’ve done.  I’ve even heard that it is a great substitute for Arborio in a risotto.  And that leads me to the final, and most important, reason that South Louisiana has embraced orzo; it’s a lot like rice.

Acadiana is rice country and it shows up on the Cajun Creole dinner table more than most any other single ingredient.  Orzo mimics the shape and texture of rice, but has a taste profile that is an interesting twist to the tried and true.

Orzo is Italian for the word barley, but truth be told, it is not a grain at all.  It is pasta and might explain its ability to pick up flavors and hold on to other ingredients so well.  In fact, in my recipe today I am dressing this orzo salad with a combination of quality extra virgin olive oil (the good stuff) along with freshly squeezed lemon juice.  The orzo picks up that combination of flavors with astonishing results.  Adding fresh kale and Louisiana shrimp makes this orzo dish a light and healthy lunch.

For all my traditional long grain white rice fans out there, not to worry.  I can assure you that orzo pasta is not going to show up covered in gravy anytime soon.  Rice is the king of all crops in Acadiana and will reign supreme for generations to come.  But, give this little foreign newcomer a try and you might be surprised.  It just may find a place on your Acadiana table.

Orzo, Shrimp and Kale Salad
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4

This salad is versatile and the ingredients easily altered.  Adding seared tuna or grilled salmon would turn this into a stellar center-of-the-plate dinner entree.

Orzo salad ingredients

Orzo pasta and fresh ingredients for a simple salad alternative.

Extra virgin olive oil
1 dozen fresh mushrooms
Kosher salt
Water
1/2 cup table salt
1 bunch green asparagus spears
2 dozen large raw Louisiana shrimp, peeled
1 12-ounce package orzo pasta
2 cups kale, chopped
1 cup spinach leaves
1 cup parsley, chopped
1 cup red cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup yellow cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup slivered almonds
2 fresh lemons
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet on medium high heat, add a light coating of olive oil.  Clean the mushrooms with a brush and slice thinly.  Add the mushrooms to the skillet and sauté until just browned.  Sprinkle lightly  with salt and move to a platter.  Cover and refrigerate.

In a large pot filled halfway with water on high heat, add the salt.  Bring to a boil and add the asparagus.  Cook until just blanched, about 4 minutes.  With a slotted spoon, remove the asparagus and plunge immediately into a bath of ice water.  Once cooled, snap off the woody ends and cut the remaining spears into bite-sized pieces.  Cover and refrigerate.

In the same pot of salted water, bring to a boil and add the raw shrimp.  Turn the fire off and cook until the shrimp begin to turn pink and the largest shrimp is done, about 5 minutes.  With a slotted spoon, remove the shrimp and drain on paper towel.  Let cool.

In the same pot of salted water, add the package of orzo.  Bring to a boil and cook to package directions.  Once cooked, pour the orzo into a colander and let drain.  Add the orzo to a large mixing bowl and coat lightly with olive oil.  Cover the bowl and refrigerate.

For assembly, remove the mixing bowl of orzo and add the asparagus.  Add the kale, spinach, parsley, tomatoes and almonds. Take one lemon and grate the zest into the salad mixture.  Squeeze the lemon juice into the salad being careful to remove any seeds. With the other lemon, slice and remove each end.  With a sharp knife, very thinly  slice the lemon into rounds.  Add the lemon rounds to the salad.  Season the salad mixture with salt and pepper to taste.  Toss to incorporate all ingredients, cover and refrigerate.

For  serving, toss the salad once again and portion the mixture onto salad plates.  Add the shrimp to each plate.  Make sure to include all of the key ingredients on each serving.

EditOrzoShrimpCU

Orzo, Shrimp and Kale Salad — a fresh alternative.

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Zapp your taste buds with this Cajun Crawtator Casserole

EditZappsMain

Crawtator and Crawfish – a Louisiana pairing. (All photos credit: George Graham)

I first crossed paths with the late Ron Zappe in the 1980s when he was a struggling local business owner trying to gain entry into the competitive snack foods market.  He was the epitome of the Cajun entrepreneur – full of spicy ideas and a taste for adventure.  He succeeded in turning that small chip-making outfit in Gonzales, Louisiana into Zapps Potato Chips, a national brand.

As the story goes, his wife came home from the grocery with a bag of kettle-fried chips and sparked the idea for a new career.  True to his Louisiana roots, it was the spice that created a differentiation for his products and it was a creative branding approach that separated him from the national competition.  Crawtator potato chips were born and were an instant success.

With a couple of bags of chips in my pantry, I set out to create a dish that would celebrate the fun and joie de vivre of Ron Zappe.  My goal was to combine ingredients that could be both a main dish or a casserole suitable for any occasion.  After much trial and error and according to reviews from my friends, I have a winner.

This recipe is inspired by the flavor of those chips that mimic the spiciness of a Cajun crawfish boil.  With the contrast of the crunch of Crawtators and the creamy richness of the potato and crawfish, this dish has a depth of flavor and texture that elevates it to the high heavens.

Ron Zappe is smiling down on us.

Cajun Crawtator Casserole
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 90 minutes
Serves:  8 – 10

There are lots of ingredients in this carefully multi-layered dish, but it’s well worth the climb. I usually recommend substitutions for hard-to-get Cajun ingredients, but I’m hard-pressed to suggest a stand-in for Zapp’s Crawtators. Buy them online at CajunGrocer.com and you will be rewarded.  Enough said.

3 (5.5-ounce) bags Zapp’s Spicy Cajun Crawtator potato chips
10 medium-sized Yukon gold potatoes, peeled
1 stick unsalted butter
2 cups onion, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup flat leaf parsley
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
2 tablespoons rosemary, chopped
1/4 cup white wine
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup Greek yogurt
1 package (8 ounce) cream cheese
2 cups Monterey Jack cheese
2 eggs
2 pounds Louisiana crawfish tails (substitute: small raw shrimp)
Cajun seasoning
Hot sauce
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup green onion tops, diced

Preheat the oven to 375º F.

Take the bags of Crawtator potato chips in your hands and squeeze together until the contents are crumbled and the pieces broken down.  Open the bags and pour into a container and reserve.

In a medium size pot on high heat, add the potatoes and add enough water to cover.  Bring to a boil and continue cooking until the potatoes are tender. Remove and drain.

In a large cast iron skillet on medium heat, melt the butter and add the onions, celery and bell pepper.  Saute until the onions turn translucent and add the parsley, garlic and rosemary.  Add the wine and continue cooking until the alcohol evaporates.  Add the heavy cream and continue cooking until reduced by half.

In a large mixing bowl, add the yogurt, cream cheese, Jack cheese and the eggs.  Beat together and combine.  Add the potatoes and with a heavy spoon break up the potatoes into chunks.

Combine the two mixtures and stir to incorporate the two.  Add the crawfish tails and stir to combine.  Season with Cajun seasoning, hot sauce, salt and pepper to taste.

(Note: You have options — this dish can be baked in a large casserole baking dish or in individual ramekins.)

Pour the mixture into a greased baking dish. Smooth out and sprinkle with green onions and top with the crumbled Crawtator potato chips.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake in oven at 375º F for 45 minutes.  Remove from the oven, uncover and bake for 15 minutes more.

Remove from the oven and serve with crusty French bread.

EditZappsCU

Crunchy and creamy – A new Cajun classic.

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Hopper Poppers

Hooper poppers

Hopper poppers hot out of the fryer.  (All photos credit: George Graham)

Not quite sure when this whole “popper” thing burst onto the Cajun Creole food scene, but my hunch is it traveled across the Sabine River like so many other Texas transplants.  Sometime back in the 1990s, I began hearing about hunting camp cooks serving up jalapeno peppers stuffed with all sorts of wild things wrapped in bacon.  Today, I can’t go to any supermarket, neighborhood grocer or restaurant and not see it offered.

Some years ago, I gave in to the mounting pressure to welcome this dish onto my Acadiana Table.  I’ve experimented with all sorts of versions – smoked duck, ribeye steak, and even dove – but, it was a recent trip to Iowa, Louisiana and their annual rabbit festival that sparked my inspiration for this variation.

Long ago, the small town of Iowa, one hour west of Lafayette, was home to the largest rabbit processing operation in Acadiana.  In 1986, the Iowa Rabbit Festival was launched to promote the industry and over the years it has become a popular regional food and music event.  The cook-off was in full swing when I arrived and over 25 competitors were busy cooking rabbit dishes that defied imagination.  Amanda and Luke Deville from Teet’s in Ville Platte were juggling two great dishes – a Rabbit Cacciatore and their Rabbit Sauce Picante, last year’s winner.  Mike Casey from Lafayette had a tasty Rabbit and Spaghetti, and Angie Dugas was busy interpreting a Coq Au Vin with rabbit instead of rooster.

Sean Bourque

Sean Bourque competing at the Iowa Rabbit Festival cook-off.

A steady line was building for one booth on the end that was turning out what proved to me to be a clear creative winner – Hopper Poppers.  Sean Bourque, a local amateur, was serving up his battered and bacon-wrapped rabbit stuffed with cream cheese in a hollowed out jalapeno pepper and fried golden brown.  I downed two of the bite-sized flavor bombs.  This dish was a revelation as it fired on all cylinders – spicy, sweet, smooth and crunchy.

In my recipe, I am following Sean Bourque’s lead on the idea of this dish but I am creatively deviating in execution.  Rabbit is a tame-tasting meat that has a certain mildness that needs to be augmented with flavor, so I am marinating the rabbit in a buttermilk and beer-infused bath.  And most all poppers contain cheese – mostly plain cream cheese.  This is a direction that you can easily improve upon and I am going with creamy brie for a classy contrast that balances out the jalapeno bite.

Bacon-wrapped rabbit

Cheese-stuffed and bacon-wrapped rabbit poppers.

The prep time is the main investment in this dish since these little packages take only a few minutes to cook.  On occasion, I pop open a six-pack of beer and put my friends to work in the assembly process that they always seem to enjoy doing with this dish.  With all the ingredients organized and ready for assembling, it’s a cinch.

Hop to it.

Hopper Poppers
Prep time: 90 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Yields:  48 pieces

A couple of cleaned rabbits will yield enough meat to make about four dozen of these poppers.  I use both the green and red jalapenos for presentation sake as the flavor and spice level are identical.  Use a good regular-sliced applewood smoked bacon as I find the thick cut to be, well, too thick.  This is not as much about the bacon as it is what’s inside.  Frying temperature is crucial with this recipe in order to cook the interior rabbit and bacon without overcooking the exterior crust.   I recommend using a thermometer to maintain the heat level to 350º F.

3 whole rabbits, cleaned
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Cajun Creole seasoning
1 beer
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons Louisiana hot sauce
2 pounds applewood smoked bacon
2 dozen raw jalapeno peppers
1 pound brie cheese, rind removed
Toothpicks
4 large eggs
2 cups buttermilk
4 cups all purpose flour
1 gallon canola oil

Seasoned rabbit

Seasoning the rabbit pieces for a marinade.

Wash the rabbits and dry with paper towels.  Cut the whole rabbits into quarters and sprinkle liberally with salt, pepper and Cajun Creole seasoning.  Place in a shallow pan and pour in the beer and buttermilk along with the hot sauce.  Mix well, cover and place in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours.

Spread the bacon strips out on a platter and stretch them out.  Cut them into two lengths.  Move aside for later use.

Sliced jalapenos

Fresh jalapenos halved and hulled out.

On a cutting board, slice open the jalapeno peppers in half lengthwise to expose the cavity.  With a teaspoon, remove the ribs and seeds.  Place on a platter and reserve for later.

On a cutting board using a sharp paring knife, cut the brie cheese into 1/2 inch slices or just enough to fill the inside of the jalapenos.  Place on a platter for later use.

Remove the rabbit from the pan and drain.  Place on paper towels and dry thoroughly.  On a cutting board and using a sharp knife, cut off 1-inch filets of rabbit meat from the bone.  Continue until you have approximately 48 slices of meat.  Dry the meat thoroughly.  Place the meat on a platter and reserve any remaining rabbit for another use.

For assembly, fill the cavity of a sliced jalapeno half with a portion of cheese and place a slice of rabbit meat on top.  Wrap with just enough bacon to wind around the jalapeno once and insert a toothpick to hold the ends of the bacon together.  Continue until all of the poppers are prepped.  Cover and keep at room temperature.

For the wet batter, crack the eggs into a large bowl.  Add the buttermilk along with 2 tablespoons of Cajun Creole seasoning and 1 tablespoons of hot sauce.

For the dry batter, add the flour along with 4 tablespoons of Cajun Creole seasoning.

In a large pot, add enough oil to cover the poppers when frying, approximately 4 inches.  Turn the burner to medium high and heat the oil to 350º F.

For frying, add the poppers to the egg mixture and coat.  Several at a time, move them to the dry mix and coat.  Shake off any excess flour.  Add them one at a time to the hot oil being careful not to crowd the pot and to maintain 350º F temperature.  As they begin to turn golden brown on all sides, remove them to a rack-lined pan. Continue until all the poppers are finished and serve immediately while they are hot.  Some like a dipping sauce with this, but I prefer letting the complex flavors of the ingredients shine.

Rabbit poppers

These rabbit poppers go fast. Make plenty!

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A Caesar Salad To Sing About

Oyster Caesar

Crispy fried oysters and crawfish crown a classic Caesar.  (All photos credit: George Graham)

Caesar salad is a thing of beauty, but finding a well-made Caesar these days is next to impossible.  The chaining of American restaurants has led to all sorts of tame and lame versions of America’s classic dishes, and my beloved Caesar is one of the casualties.  How can something so simple as lettuce and croutons with an olive oil-based dressing be so blandly executed?

In this Cajun Creole version, I return to the basics and put a South Louisiana spin on it.  The inspiration for my recipe came from a visit to my home by my friend Kari Lauritzen Weaver, a professional chef from Los Angeles.  More precisely, Kari is a chef-for-hire who will cook an intimate meal or a full scale dinner party for her well-healed Hollywood clientele – Barbra Streisand being her most famous.  Yes, my friend actually cooked an elegant dinner for Barbra and friends in her Malibu mansion — a dream assignment for most any chef.

It was Kari’s first visit to Acadiana and our afternoon was planned around a foodie’s road trip to the faces and places of South Louisiana.  A light lunch was in order, and her arrival at noon prompted me to whip up a basic Caesar, but with a tasty twist to properly introduce her to Cajun country.

The classic Caesar was invented in – of all places – Tijuana, Mexico by Italian restaurateur Caesar Cardini.  Tableside preparation set this dish apart, and it quickly became a classic white tablecloth dish in America’s best restaurants.  I first saw this done many years ago at Broussard’s, a renowned restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter, and it made an impression on me.  It quickly became a part of my recipe repertoire.

Smoked oysters

Smoked oysters elevate the taste of this dressing.

My version adheres to Mr. Cardini’s rules, but for three additions – smoked oysters, fresh Louisiana oysters and crawfish.  I supplement my anchovy-infused dressing with an addition of canned smoked oysters which adds a briny, smoky flavor.  And crowning the salad with crisp, fried Louisiana oysters and crawfish tails is a no-brainer.

Kari was most impressed with the dish and returned to California with an endless source of South Louisiana inspiration and ingredients.  Who knows?  Maybe Barbra Streisand is dining on this Cajun Creole Caesar tonight and  singing our praise.

Fried Oyster and Crawfish Caesar Salad
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Serves: 4

If outside of Louisiana, order your crawfish tails here.  Find smoked oysters in most any supermarket right next to the canned anchovies.  Buy the fresher, whole heads of Romaine lettuce, not the pre-washed and pre-cut bagged version.  Find a quality Parmigiano Reggiano, not the stuff in the green can.  Same with croutons – make your own and you will never use store-bought again.  The coddled (between raw and soft-boiled) eggs are classic but optional.  This recipe makes more dressing than you will need, so save the rest for your next Caesar.

Caesar ingredients

Follow this list of ingredients for Caesar perfection.

For the salad and dressing:
2 heads Romaine lettuce
4 large eggs
1 tin of canned flat anchovies
1 tin of canned smoked oysters
4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons Creole mustard
2 teaspoons Tabasco hot sauce
1 large fresh lemon, halved
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, divided
1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil, plus more
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups freshly made croutons
1 cup yellow cherry tomatoes, halved

Wash the Romaine leaves and dry on paper towels.  Leave a few of the leaves whole and tear the rest into bite-sized pieces.  Place in a mixing bowl and refrigerate.

To coddle the eggs, place the eggs in a pot of water and bring to a boil.  Immediately turn off the heat and let the eggs cook for no more than 1 minute.  Remove the eggs and rinse under cold water.  Peel the eggs and scoop out the cooked whites and the runny yolk into the container of a blender.

Add all of the anchovies and smoked oysters along with their liquid into the same container of the blender.  Add the Worcestershire, mustard, Tabasco and squeeze in the lemon juice, removing any seeds.  Add 2 tablespoons of the cheese.  Turn the blender on low.

While the blender is on low, drizzle the olive oil until an emulsion forms and all the ingredients are incorporated.  Taste the dressing for balance and flavor.  Add more olive oil to round out the flavors and thin out the dressing.

For the fried oysters and crawfish:
4 cups canola oil
3 large eggs
2 cups cornmeal
1 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons Cajun Creole seasoning
1 dozen fresh Louisiana oysters
1 pound Louisiana crawfish tails
Kosher salt

In a pot or skillet on medium high heat, add the oil and bring to a temperature of 375º F.

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs.  Add the oysters.

In a mixing bowl, add the cornmeal and stir in the flour and dry seasoning.  Add the oysters and bread them evenly.  Add the oysters to the oil and fry until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes.  Remove and drain on paper towels.  Sprinkle lightly with salt.

In the same mixing bowl, add the crawfish tails to the eggs and then into the mixing bowl with the seasoned cornmeal to coat evenly.  Add the crawfish to the hot oil and fry until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes.  Remove and drain on paper towels.  Sprinkle lightly with salt.

For assembling the salad, remove the lettuce from the refrigerator, and with paper towels dry up any moisture that has accumulated at the bottom of the bowl.  Add the croutons.  Pour over just enough of the dressing to coat the leaves.  Add half of the remaining cheese.  With two large spoons, toss the lettuce and the croutons with the dressing.  Add more dressing if needed, or reserve the remaining dressing for another use.  Sprinkle on the remaining cheese.

On individual cold dinner plates, arrange the whole Romaine leaves and bite-sized greens along with the croutons.  Place several of the sliced cherry tomatoes around the plate and top with several of the fried oysters and crawfish.

Cajun Creole Caesar

Texture and taste — this Cajun Creole Caesar has it all.

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Hog’s Head Cheese

Hog's Head Cheese

Spicy, herb-infused Hog’s Head Cheese. (All photos credit: George Graham)

Not to mince words, but a terrine featuring pork parts cooked down and chopped fine, seasoned with a perfect herb and spice balance, bound in a gelatinous cloak and served cold is a thing of ceremonious beauty.  Ok, so it’s hog’s head cheese.  But, before you bolt for the door, please read on, and you just may learn to appreciate this spunky, funky and just plain tasty Cajun Creole delicacy.

I don’t know exactly why Americans have an aversion to forcemeat preparations that envelop the bits and pieces of familiar animals we consume every day into savory wonders.  Traveling through France has always been a culinary adventure of sorts, and it was in the Loire Valley that I first tasted a terrine of wild game.  That livery, meaty pâté scooped up on toast points and paired with an elegant champagne was a revelation of how such a bold flavor can be tamed.

South Louisiana meat markets have been serving up terrines of pork alongside other smoked meat fare for generations.  Hog’s head cheese is as basic a Cajun dish as boudin.  Combining the ground pieces and parts of the pig along with a healthy dose of spice and heat all held together with a binder is a classic terrine.

Unlike many classic French terrines, this is not technically a forcemeat preparation as it uses cooked meat rather than raw.  Also, my version omits the gelatin and opts for pig’s feet to do the binding.  This recipe is more akin to a meat loaf and can be prepared in either a terrine-style dish or a common loaf pan.

With a freezer full of pork and pork parts, I set out to connect with the terroir and create an earthy terrine of pork, more commonly referred to as, oh well, you know.

Hog’s Head Cheese
Prep time: 45 minutes + 2 hours
Cooking time: 2 hours
Serves: 4 – 8

Here in Acadiana most butchers can provide you with all the pig parts you need.  If you have a Latin grocery, they are also a great source for pork pieces.  And, if adventurous, find the whole pig’s head and braise it for 2 hours to get the good stuff.  I will be most proud of you.

2 pig’s jowls, butchered and cleaned
1 pig’s tail, butchered and cleaned
4 pig’s feet, butchered and cleaned
1 pig’s leg, butchered and cleaned
Water
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 cup ground pork
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup yellow onion, diced
1 cup celery, diced
1 cup carrots, diced
1 cup green bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup red bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup yellow bell pepper, diced
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 cup white wine
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
1 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 cup green onion tops, diced
1 tablespoon Louisiana hot sauce
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon white pepper
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Non-stick spray
1 envelope clear gelatin, if needed

Pork meats

Jowls, tails, legs and feet — the good stuff.

Preheat oven to 375ºF.

In a bowl under running cold water, place the cleaned and butchered pork jowls, tail, feet, and leg portions.  Rinse them and inspect to see that they are cleaned and free of any blood.  Dry the pieces on paper towel, place them on a large baking sheet and cover with aluminum foil.  Place the tray into the oven and roast for 1 hour covered.  Uncover and roast for 1/2 hour more.

Remove the tray from the oven and let cool. With a paring knife, remove the parts and pieces of pork meat from the bones.  Remove any large fatty pieces and discard.   You should have at least 2 cups of pork meat.  Dice the meat into small pieces.  Cover and refrigerate.

In a medium size pot, add the water along with all of the pork bones and pig’s feet.  Bring the water to a boil and reduce to a simmer.  Cook until about half of the water reduces, about 1 hour.  Strain the stock and discard the bones and any other pieces.  Skim any fat from the stock, cover and keep at room temperature.

In a large skillet on medium high heat, add the oil.  Once the oil is hot, add the ground pork and cook until browned and fully cooked.  Remove the pork to a bowl, cover and refrigerate.

Pour off all but one tablespoon of grease from the pan and add the butter.  Turn the heat to medium high and when the butter begins to sizzle, add the onions, celery, carrots, and bell peppers.  Lower the heat to medium and cook the vegetables until the onions turn translucent.  Add the garlic and white wine, then cook until the wine evaporates.

Turn off the heat and add the chopped rosemary, thyme, parsley and green onion tops.  Season with hot sauce, cayenne and white pepper.  Stir to incorporate and taste the mixture. Add salt and black pepper to taste.  Cover the mixture and refrigerate.

Meat mixture

Cooked meat with vegetables and herbs.

In a large mixing bowl, add the vegetable and herb mixture.  Add the chopped pork pieces along with the ground pork.  Stir the mixture to incorporate, making sure to break up any clumps of meat or vegetables.

In a large loaf pan coated with non-stick spray, add enough of the mixture to come to the top of the pan.  Press down on the mixture to compact it into the pan and add more of the mixture if needed to fill the pan.  Add the pork stock to the loaf pan until it comes to the top of the pan.  Shake the pan gently to make sure the stock is surrounding all of the meat and vegetable mixture.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

For serving, remove the loaf pan and uncover. Check to see that the gelatinous stock has set firmly.  (Note: If the stock did not develop enough gelatin from the pig’s feet and did not set properly, you should pour off the stock into a bowl and add 1 envelope of clear gelatin.  Then add the stock back to the loaf pan and refrigerate once again.)  Once the stock has set, slide a thin knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the mixture.

Place the platter on the table and serve with crackers or toasted bread rounds along with grainy Creole mustard. Ice-cold beer is a must.

Slice of head cheese

Hog’s Head Cheese at its best.

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