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.

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

Tips:  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.

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

Cajun or Creole – What’s the Difference?

Shrimp and Okra Gumbo

Shrimp and Okra Gumbo blends the best of Cajun and Creole in one delicious bowl. (All photos credit: George Graham)

Just last week I was telling a good friend that I had plans to make a shrimp and okra gumbo for the weekend.  Without hesitation, she asked, “Cajun gumbo or Creole gumbo?”  Oh, here I go again.  After a 10-minute explanation, I could see my friend regretted even asking the question.  But, it is a difficult subject, and one that has engaged the highest level of scholarly study.  If you have a bit shy of ten minutes, pour another cup of coffee and hear me out.

So what is the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine?  For a Louisiana food writer covering Cajun Creole cooking, that’s akin to asking, “what’s in a gumbo?”  There is no clear answer, and that is the beauty of the culture and cuisine.  At the risk of becoming embroiled in culinary controversy, let me shed some light on this long and sometimes heated debate.

The difference between the two is most easily explained by looking at the two cultures and their geography.  Europeans of wealth and stature settled in the city of New Orleans and brought with them a palate for more gentrified cuisine reminiscent of their French, Spanish or English roots.  Over time, servants and cooks of African descent learned these sophisticated recipes and techniques and blended them with their spicy, herb-infused cooking.  Before long, tastes mingled into a soulful mix that became the defining taste of Creole.  Cooking with tomatoes, cream, butter, cheeses and other more refined ingredients led to the rich cuisine for which New Orleans has become famous.  French sauce techniques helped define dishes like shrimp remoulade, trout meunière, oysters Bienville, crabmeat ravigote and so many other great Creole dishes.  And those classic European dishes were joined by down home Creole foods like gumbo z’herbes, smoky red beans and rice, dishes spiked with okra, as well as a tomato-infused version of jambalaya.

Meanwhile, in the marshes of southwest Louisiana a different sort of culinary evolution was taking place.  In 1755, the expulsion of the French Acadians from Nova Scotia by the British resulted in the migration of thousands of families to the wetlands of southern Louisiana.  All along the Gulf coast and northward into the prairie region of Acadiana, settlers put down roots.  These were not people of wealth, but simple farming families.  To survive, they trapped, fished and hunted for food, and applied their basic rural French culinary skills to simple recipes that fit their palate.  Settlers along the coastal parishes made their livelihood by shrimping, crabbing and harvesting oysters; further inland, farming the flatlands with sugarcane and rice as predominant crops led to dishes using all of these indigenous ingredients.  The Atchafalaya Basin was a wild source for crawfish, and eventually the rice fields were flooded after the harvest for farming crawfish in a controlled aquaculture environment.  Over time, the Germans settled into the region north of Lafayette and brought with them sausage-making and smokehouse skills that blended beautifully into the gumbo of flavors we now know as Cajun.

Family plays an important part in Cajun foodways.  Even today, celebrations erupt whenever families come together to cook a whole hog.  The boucherie and the cochon de lait are French traditions that are important to the Cajun way of life.  Even crawfish boils are family celebrations that bring people together over food.  Food is a key ingredient of the joie de vivre of living in South Louisiana.

I’ve heard Cajun food described as a basic and unrefined method of rustic, rural, farm cooking.  I disagree.  To me, that description shortchanges the talent and taste of the culinary art of the French Acadians.  I believe the evolution of this distinctly original cuisine is based on artisan techniques handed down for generations and preserved as a cultural treasure.  Pride and passion for Cajun foodways are as much defining elements of the people as the music, dance and language.  Deep, dark gumbos, spicy tasso, rich crawfish étouffée and black-iron pot rice and gravy are original recipes steeped in historical reverence for a culture that endures.

But, the explanation doesn’t end there.

I contend that over time Cajun and Creole cuisines have converged into one distinct cuisine that is represented throughout Louisiana.  The holy trinity of spices – onions, bell pepper and celery – is the divine starting point of both cuisines.  Okra appears often in gumbos on both sides of the Atchafalaya Basin, and a bowl of creamy red beans with smoked andouille is a link that deliciously bridges the two cultures. The beauty of eating in Louisiana is the blending of flavors into unexpected and surprisingly unique dishes.  That is what makes Cajun Creole food so tasty.

Let the debate end.  What’s the true Louisiana cuisine?  Who cares?  The blurring of the lines of distinction of these two cultures has resulted in Cajun Creole — a truly original, one-of-a-kind cuisine.  To celebrate and illustrate this union, I offer up a steaming hot bowl of shrimp and okra gumbo.

One bite and you will clearly understand.

Cajun Creole Shrimp and Okra Gumbo
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 90 minutes
Serves:  6 – 8

Tips:  You can buy Savoie’s dark roux online or you can make your own roux by reading my story and recipe for Rox’s Roux.  I prefer using shrimp or seafood stock to build flavor in this gumbo.  For even added flavor, buy a small bag of dried shrimp and add to the stock.  In this gumbo, the rich Creole flavors come from adding tomato paste and fresh okra – both of which are important in tying the cultures together.

Cut okra

Freshly cut okra adds a Creole touch to this gumbo.

1/4 cup canola oil
2 cups yellow onions, diced
2 cups green bell pepper, diced
2 cups celery, diced
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
12 cups shrimp or seafood stock, plus water if needed
1 cup dried shrimp
2 cups sliced okra
1 ½ cups dark roux
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 pounds fresh large Louisiana shrimp
Louisiana hot sauce, to taste
Cooked long grain white rice, for serving (recommend: Supreme)
1 cup green onion tops, diced
Filé powder

In a large cast iron pot on medium heat, add 1/4 cup of canola oil.  Once sizzling hot, add the onions, bell peppers and celery. Sauté until the onions turn translucent.  Add the garlic and parsley, and sauté until combined.  Add the tomato paste and stir to combine.

Add the shrimp stock along with the dried shrimp.  Add the sliced okra.  Bring to a boil and add the roux.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and season with cayenne pepper.  Cover the pot and let cook for one hour.

After one hour, lift the lid and skim the surface of any excess oil.  Taste the gumbo.  If you prefer your gumbo thinner, add more stock or water.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add the shrimp, cover the pot and simmer for 20 minutes more.  Turn off the heat.

Uncover the pot and skim the surface of any excess oil.  Sample the finished gumbo and season with hot sauce to taste.

Ladle the gumbo into large bowls over a mound of rice and garnish with diced green onion tops.  Have filé powder and hot sauce on the table for adding.  Serve with ice-cold beer and hot French bread.

_MG_2415

Blending a deep dark Cajun roux with Creole okra is the base for introducing fresh Gulf shrimp in this classic South Louisiana dish.

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

Acadiana Table Named Finalist in Best Food Blog Awards

 

 Vote For Acadiana Table Before April 9th

SAVEUR Best Food Blog Awards

Yes indeed, glory be and pass the hot sauce!  Your Acadiana Table has been named one of six finalists in the SAVEUR Magazine 2014 Best Food Blog Awards in the Best Regional Cuisine category. Out of 30,000 nominations, the editors picked us. And you can help us win by following this link to SAVEUR, and cast your vote for Acadiana Table.  Between now and April 9th, let’s spread the gospel of Cajun Creole cooking by inviting your friends, family, co-workers, second cousin, tante and parrain to vote as well.

The world is sinking its teeth into Cajun Creole cooking.  Thanks for helping make Acadiana such a delicious place to live.

 

Sweet Surrender

Strawberry Chocolate Dessert

Surrender to this amazing fruit-filled dessert. (All photos credit: George Graham)

Believe me, freshly picked fruit eaten right off the plant is the ultimate pleasure of life in Louisiana.  Strawberries, blueberries, fresh citrus, and melons are the best around.  As spring arrives, so do the steady stream of products that I most enjoy experimenting with in my kitchen.

Combining sweet berries with chocolate is a weakness of mine — I love the playful disparity of flavors.   My kitchen pantry is chock full of exotic chocolates that are rarely seen in local markets.  I shy away from the usual sweetened milk chocolate and move toward the dark stuff – the good stuff.  Callebaut is one of my favorites.  This intense dark Belgian chocolate has a bold – almost bitter – intensity that brings mystery to any simple dish.  When combined with sweetened berries it builds a magical contrast of tastes.

Sweet ingredients

Decadently rich ingredients will transport you to another place and time.

Simply put, macerating is to fruit as marinating is to meat.  Growing up in Louisiana, we bought berries by the flat (eight quarts), rather than the pound.  What we didn’t eat in the first couple of days would inevitably be cut up, blended with sugar and left to sit until the fruit broke down into its sweet surrender.  In this dish, I add a raspberry-infused Chambord liqueur along with powdered sugar to help do the work.  My objective here is twofold: add sweet flavor to the fruit and create the residual juice of the gods with which to infuse my cream.

The third building block of this delicious dessert is an infused topping that is both sweet and creamy.  Making crème fraiche from scratch using buttermilk is a cool trick, and when countering the tartness with the sugary juices of the macerating liquid, it is ethereal.

The final component of this dish is a simple Southern biscuit.  Most cooks take the shortcake shortcut of store-bought pastry that is piled up next to the bin of strawberries in the produce section of the supermarket, but this recipe is different — deliciously, delectably and delightfully different.  Making a biscuit from scratch is simple using my four-ingredient recipe, but it sends this recipe into a new dimension.

Follow me.  Surrender to the sweetness and discover a combination of tastes you’ve never experienced before.

Berries and Biscuit Jars
Prep time: 45 minutes, plus overnight
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Serves: 4

Tips:  I know what you’re thinking; I’ll just buy a can of biscuits and a tub of Cool Whip.  Stop it.  Follow this recipe and learn how easy it is to cook from scratch.  You might never buy store-bought again. Chambord is what I had on hand, but Grand Marnier or any sweet, fruit-based liqueur will work.  Buy the White Lily self-rising flour – the official flour of the South (I find it at Walmart).  Try this with blackberries, raspberries, cherries, or any number of variations.  As for chocolate, find an unsweetened, dark chocolate for depth and contrast.  For serving, the shallow Mason jars add a down-home touch to this simple dessert.  They’re inexpensive and you can buy them at craft, hardware or grocery stores.

Sweet surrender

Berries, biscuits, cream and chocolate come together.

For the berries:
2 cups fresh strawberries, stemmed and sliced
2 cups fresh blueberries
1 cup pecans, chopped (recommend: Cane River Pecans)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup Chambord liqueur

In a mixing bowl, add all of the berries and pecans.  Add the sugar and liqueur.  With a potato masher, mash some of the berries in order to release their juices. Stir the mixture, cover and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

In four shallow Mason jars, add a portion of the berry mixture to almost the top of the jar.  Place in the refrigerator until serving.

For the infused crème fraiche:
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup buttermilk

In a large quart-size Mason jar (or upright glass container), add the milk and stir in the buttermilk.  Seal and let sit at room temperature for 4 hours.  Stir the mixture once again, seal and refrigerate overnight.

Remove the crème fraiche from the refrigerator and add 2 tablespoons of the Chambord-infused juice from the berries.  Stir, reseal and refrigerate until serving.

For the biscuits:
2 cups self-rising flour, plus extra (recommend: White Lily)
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup mayonnaise (recommend: Blue Plate)
2 tablespoons softened butter

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, sift the flour.  In a separate container, add the buttermilk and whisk in the mayonnaise and 1 tablespoon of the softened butter.  Make a well in the center of the flour and add the liquid. Using a spoon, slowly incorporate the flour into the wet ingredients by folding it over.  Continue until it has all come together.

Pour the contents of the mixing bowl onto a work surface sprinkled with more flour.  If the dough is too wet, add a little more flour. Using your hands gently bring the mixture together and pat it down to a 1/2 inch thick rectangle.  Fold the dough over onto itself and pat down once again.  Repeat this one more time and pat it down once more to 1/2 inch thickness.

Using the lid of the Mason jar, cut out 4 biscuit rounds and move them to a baking sheet lined with parchment.  Place the biscuits in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes.  Rotate halfway through to ensure even cooking.  As the biscuits begin to brown, remove them from the oven and brush on the remaining butter.  Keep warm until serving.

For the chocolate and garnish:
4 ounces of dark, unsweetened chocolate
4 sprigs of mint leaves

Using a sharp knife, shave off shards of chocolate into 4 even piles of about 1 tablespoon each.

For assembly, remove the jars of berries from the refrigerator and place on a serving platter.  Add a small spoonful of the crème fraiche over the top of the berries to serve as an adhesive anchor for the biscuit.  Place the biscuit on top.  Spoon the crème fraiche over the biscuit and sprinkle liberally with the chocolate shards.  Garnish with mint and serve with more crème fraiche on the side.

Sweet surrender

Sweet surrender.

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

Cracklin’ Addict

FinalCroppedCracklins (1 of 1)

Crispy, crunchy — and addictive — Cajun cracklin’. (All photos credit: George Graham)

I admit it. I am a recovering cracklin’ addict and am now in a 12-step program on the way to enlightenment.  Okay, so I am embellishing a bit.  But, just a bit.  Hear my story.

I was first grabbed by the demon porcine pleasure at a later stage of life when I should have known better.  What is essentially fat fried in fat should have been an obvious clue to anyone with a college education.  Or the little grease-stained brown paper bags should have certainly been a tip-off.

I was hooked fast.

The fact that most every little store around Acadiana sells pork cracklin’ (also known as grattons) at the register certainly bodes well for how far this porky addiction has spread.  Oh, I tried to quit, but Earl’s Grocery, my neighborhood pusher, drew me back in every time I opened the front door and breathed in the heady siren call of bits of pig frying in a black iron cauldron of lard.  I can’t resist the bacony flavor or the contrast of crunch with the smooth ooze of pork tallow.

Cracklins are described by most as the by-product of the boucherie, a Cajun celebration of the slaughter of a whole hog.

I disagree.

I believe it to be the main product, and everything else is an afterthought.  The skin and tasty bits of fat surrounding it are lovingly boiled in oil, tended gently and brought to the peak of crispness.  It is an art form.

Cracklins are not for everyone.  These little taste bombs will decimate your diet, derail your noble sensibility and send you down the path of sinful consumption.  Be warned.  These little bags sold on every street corner in Cajun country are just the start.  Soon you’ll be smothering a sausage-stuffed pig’s stomach, roasting a boudin-stuffed pork loin, and Lord forbid, making a fried pork jowl BLT.  Don’t say I didn’t caution you.

Over the years, I’ve embarked on a healthier lifestyle that no longer includes this delicacy, but, from time to time, I have been known to come home with grease-stained fingers and a look of guilt on my face.  And from the acrid smell of my clothes, my wife knows immediately that I’ve fallen off the wagon once again.

Curse you cracklin’!

Curse you for being so decadent and deliriously delicious.

Cracklin' bag

Relapse in a bag!

Cajun Cracklin’
Prep time: 1 hour
Cooking time: 1 – 2 hours
Serves: A party or one addict

Tips:  Cracklin’ is more an artisan craft than a kitchen recipe.  There are varying methods for cracklin’ as with gumbo, and they are all correct, as long as they achieve a quality product.  Some like to start the cubes of fat off in water, but I am going with the “fat-in-fat” method.  You’ll need a very large pot – I use a deep, 20-quart black iron pot –  and an outdoor burner with a paddle.  After that, the only main ingredients are rendered hog lard and pork belly.  But, that’s where the simplicity of cracklin’ comes to a screeching halt.  It takes trial and error to get it right, and in South Louisiana there are generations of families that pass down this time-honored tradition.

Cracklin' ingredients

Basic ingredients for a simple recipe.

At least 4 – 6 pounds hog fat back or pork belly, cut into 3/4 inch x 4 inch strips
Hog lard (amount varies with the pot size)
Salt
Cajun seasoning

Before you begin:
Find a butcher that understands pork and the art of the cracklin’.  There needs to be just the right amount of skin, fat and meat. Some prefer the back fat and some prefer the belly.   Have the butcher cut the cracklin’ fat into strips.  They will shrink to approximately thumb size during the cooking.

If you live in an apartment, forget it. This is an outdoor adventure only since both the overwhelming smell of fat frying in fat along with the risk of a pork fat inferno are prime reasons to take it outside.  A big black iron pot, long-handled spoon or paddle, oven mitt, a variable heat source and a thermometer are the key equipment needed. Oh, and you might want to wear a long-sleeved shirt and protective eyewear.

First fry

Be careful of popping grease in the first fry.

The first fry:
With the pot on a low fire, add all the pieces of pork fat to the pot.  Pour in enough lard to come 3/4 of the way up to the top of the fat.  Be careful in this first phase of cooking as the moisture trapped in the fat cubes will burst and create little grease bombs (thus the long-sleeved shirt and glasses).

Here, the long slow process of the first rendering of fat is crucial as you begin to reduce the raw pieces of pork revealing the meat.  The lard should be on a low fry around 225 to 275 degrees, and the continual movement of the fat by stirring with the long-handled spoon will keep it from sticking together.  Repeatedly stir the pot every 3 minutes or so.

Cooking cracklin'

As they cook, continually check the temperature of the oil.

There are some important physical principles to remember.  The grease will get hotter and will increase in quantity as the fat melts off the pork.  It is important to use a thermometer to check the temperature of the lard since the longer it cooks the hotter it gets.  Lower the fire to lower the temperature. Ladle off some of the lard if it increases to a dangerous overflow level.  Continue to cook for what might be close to an hour or more.

Once the cubes of pork have rendered and achieve a tan brown color remove the cracklin’ to a metal wire rack on a tray.

Think you’re done?  Think again.

Frying cracklins

Checking a batch of cracklin’ for crispness.

The second fry:
It’s just like twice-fried potatoes.  The science of heating oil to varying temperatures and returning the product to a higher, flash-fry heat achieves something miraculous in taste and texture.  Once-fried cracklin’ can become extremely tough and difficult to bite through the exterior skin.  This second fry will crisp the skin — some say “pop” the skins –  that literally defines cracklin’.  (Note:  Some folks like to add a handful of ice to the oil at this stage, but I haven’t experienced that technique.  It supposedly makes the grease boil rapidly and “blisters” the skin crisp.  Be careful if you try it.)

Make sure the quantity of oil still approximates the original amount and turn the fire on high until your thermometer reads between 375 to 400 degrees.  Add the rendered pork back into the pot and turn the fire off.

Cajun Cracklin' recipe

Crispy, crunchy cracklin’.

Continue to cook until they begin to achieve a rich, golden brown color.  This is a crucial stage since some of the cracklin’ will cook faster than others so remove in stages based on color.  Remove the cracklin’ to a large tray with a wire rack lined with paper towels to soak up the grease.   Season with salt and Cajun seasoning.

Open an ice-cold can of beer and enjoy.

You deserve it.

Cracklin' on rack

Hot out of the pot and ready to eat!

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

Hungering for Spring

Heirloom tomato salad

The changing flavors of spring are celebrated in this colorful salad.  (All photos credit: George Graham)

“Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow.”
Ernest J. Gaines, A Gathering of Old Men

Acclaimed Louisiana writer Ernest Gaines reminds me of how change is the natural order of things and to stay rooted in indifference is the stuff of stagnant minds.  Lafayette’s Horse Farm is a prime example — a long-forgotten track of farmland poised for rebirth as a vibrant centerpiece of a community’s passion for positive change.  And the growers and artisans that ply their trade weekly at the site’s farmer’s market are testament to the transformation our culinary culture is currently undergoing.

Change is inevitable.  Change is good.

One good thing about enduring an especially harsh winter is that the change of season with the arrival of spring is so much more appreciated.  In the South, we are normally blessed with short winters, and by the end of February, we are usually completely thawed out and farm-fresh vegetables begin showing up soon after.  It is my favorite season in Acadiana.

Much is written about Louisiana cuisine, and most of the focus is on our exceptional Gulf seafood, unique smoked sausages and one-of-a-kind crawfish all prepared into spicy Cajun Creole dishes.  You know what I’m talking about – jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo.  Believe me, if you are a follower of my Acadiana Table you will clearly pick up on my passion for Lousiana’s culinary culture.  But, there is a lighter side to South Louisiana that over the past few years has begun to blossom and spring onto the dinner tables of both homes and restaurants.  Throughout Acadiana, I am watching revolutionary change — a groundswell movement of organic farming and artisanal craft-making that is lovingly bringing new products and ingredients to market.

Every Saturday morning at the Lafayette Farmers and Artisans Market at the Horse Farm, these local growers and producers gather to share their skills and talents with a community that understands and appreciates their gift.  The Horse Farm, smack dab in the middle of Lafayette, is undergoing a renaissance as a soon-to-be-developed central park project that has ignited the passion of the community.  Already a successful weekly outdoor market complete with a lively jam session of Cajun accordions and fiddles, the Horse Farm is more a celebration of Acadiana’s joie de vivre than just a marketplace.

Mary Patout

Mary Patout with her fresh microgreens at the Horse Farm.

This farmer’s market is different from the run-of-the-mill roadside market.  It is full of personality and self-expression reflected by the many skilled artisans representing their local farm communities.  From nearby St. Martinville, Mary Patout runs Mary Mary Markets and blends her fresh-grown herbs and sprouts into mouthwatering condiments like her peppery handmade beer mustard.  Abi Falgout is there every week with Bread and Circus Provisions’ specialty food products.  Try their potent General Lee Pickled Mirliton — a flavor explosion.  I love to talk food with these knowledgeable folks and I never fail to learn a culinary trick or two by discovering a surprising new ingredient for my table.

To celebrate the coming of spring and the emergence of new and exciting ingredients that grace the tables of Acadiana, I’ve sourced fresh local products into a simple, yet splendid salad.  This is a free-form salad that can take on endless variations depending on your access to quality fresh ingredients.  Think of it as a work of art – a large white ceramic platter as your canvas – and paint on the vibrantly delicious colors of spring.

City Farm

Fresh organic herbs are a specialty of City Farm.

I buy fresh organic herbs from Mark and Mary Hernandez who run City Farm, a 7.5-acre spread in Lafayette.  The two are pioneers in the local Community Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) movement and are teaching others how to grow the old fashioned way, without the use of synthetics or pesticides.  My friend West Constantine’s WesMar Farms goat cheese is a must for stuffing into either hulled-out cherry tomatoes or ripe peppadews.  West and his wife Marguerite own a licensed dairy based in Moreauville, Louisiana.  Inglewood Farms just north of Lafayette comes weekly to the Horse Farm market with a variety of mixed greens, heirloom tomatoes, spring onions, and the like.  They grow fresh produce year-round in their hot house, and if they happen to have their unique variety of organic radishes or mild hakurei turnips, load up.

For me, embracing a change of season with the harvest of spring is richly rewarding.  I invite you to support the Horse Farm and help celebrate Acadiana’s culinary reawakening.

Heirloom Tomato Salad with Creole Pickled Shrimp and Citrus Vinaigrette
Prep time: 45 minutes
Pickling time: 4 hours or overnight
Cooking time: 0
Serves: 4 – 6

Tips: Get creative. Edible primrose flowers pop colorfully in this salad and have a taste much like mild lettuce.  I found them at The Fresh Market, but you may already have edible flowers (pansies, perhaps) in your garden.  Fresh ripe heirloom tomatoes are all important for this dish, so be sure to build your salad with that foundation.  For convenience, you can use the flash-frozen Vermilion Bay Sweet small raw shrimp sold at Rouses or online at Cajungrocer.com.

Box of ingredients

Buy fresh from local growers whenever you can.

For the salad:
2 cups spring mix salad greens
4 large heirloom tomatoes, various colors
4 ripe hothouse tomatoes
6 cherry tomatoes
1 small red onion
2 large spring onions, green stalks removed
1 bunch fresh dill
1 cup alfalfa sprouts
2 radishes, thinly sliced
1 bunch fresh basil
1 dozen small primrose flowers (substitute: any colorful edible flower)
6 peppadew peppers
1 cup goat cheese, herb-infused
Freshly ground black pepper

On a large white platter, spread various hand-picked spring mix salad greens.  Make sure to spread out the different colored greens. Slice all of the tomatoes discarding any end pieces.  Place the sliced tomatoes in and among the salad greens.  Slice the onions into thin rounds and separate the slices into rings.  Scatter them around the salad.  Pinch the fronds off the dill stalks and sprinkle over the salad.  Spread the alfalfa sprouts and radish slices over the platter. Place basil leaves and flowers in various places on the salad.

Drain the peppadew peppers of any juice.  Using your fingers or a teaspoon, stuff a portion of the goat cheese to fill the cavity of the peppers.  Place the stuffed peppers among the salad greens on the platter.  Season the salad with a few grinds of black pepper over the whole platter.

For the dressing:
4 ripe oranges
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar, if needed

In a medium size container, squeeze the juice from the oranges.  Add the vinegar.  While whisking, drizzle olive oil into the container until it begins to emulsify.  Season to taste with salt and black pepper.  If you like, increase the sweetness by adding sugar.  Cover and refrigerate.

For the shrimp:
4 ripe lemons
2 ripe limes
1 tablespoon sugarcane vinegar (recommend: Steen’s)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup yellow onion, diced
1/4 cup celery, diced
1/4 cup bell pepper, diced
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh jalapeno, finely diced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon Louisiana hot sauce
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 dozen medium-size fresh Louisiana Gulf shrimp, peeled and raw

In a large covered container, squeeze the juice of the lemons and limes. Whisk in the vinegar and the olive oil.  Add the chopped vegetables.  Add the red pepper flakes and hot sauce.  Add a pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper.  Add all of the raw shrimp.  Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours before serving or overnight.

For serving, I recommend presenting the platter in the center of the table with individual plates.  I like to keep it casual and let my guests build their salad atop a cracker-like flatbread and spoon over as much dressing as they like.

Tomato salad

Farm-fresh ingredients are the only key to this colorful salad.

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

Heads or Tails

Pot of Crawfish Stew

Boudin-stuffed crawfish heads swim in a rich roux-based Crawfish Head Stew. (All photos credit: George Graham)

Finally, it’s crawfish season in Acadiana and the pent up demand for the magically sweet crustaceans is busting at the seams.  The tradition of sucking heads and pinching tails is a Lenten season custom in this predominantly Catholic region of South Louisiana I call home.

I was salivating at the news that Randol’s, a favorite nearby spot, had its boilers lit for the start of the season.  My friend Frank Randol runs a year-round operation that has a diverse seafood menu.  Part dancehall, his wildly popular eatery is one of the only remaining family restaurants in Acadiana that plays live Cajun and Zydeco music every night of the week.  This time of year, Frank is focused on boiled crawfish and crabs both for his restaurant as well as his extremely successful wholesale business.  Frank is one of the largest Louisiana processors shipping crawfish and crabmeat to restaurants throughout the nation.

Unlike most anywhere else in America, there are dozens of restaurants in South Louisiana that focus just on boiled seafood and only open during the six-month season.  I call them “boiling stations,” and their seasonal specialties are always crawfish and crabs with shrimp sometimes an option.  Usually there is no menu — you simply order by the pound with three pounds or five pounds being the standard individual orders.  The only other decision is heat level — spicy or mild.  These days, many of them even have a drive-thru window with a line of cars snaking around the building.

I have a routine I follow when eating boiled crawfish at a restaurant.  I always order five pounds for me and another five pounds for Roxanne.  Please understand, my wife has never finished a whole five-pound order, and that’s a good thing.  I get a to-go bag for both the uneaten crawfish and all the shells from the table.  It’s stew-making time.

Peeling crawfish

Peeling boiled crawfish for both tail meat and a rich stock.

Like any local crawfish fanatic, I am practiced in the art of peeling “bugs.”  It’s actually quite simple with a three-step motion of breaking off the tail, uncollaring the ring at the top and pinching out the tail meat.  And for this crawfish head stew, the head is equally easy to prep as the entire cavity of the legs and pinchers separates easily from the head cavity.  All the pieces and parts of shell go for a quick rinse of excess spice and then into the stockpot for an hour.

Stuffing heads with fresh store-bought boudin is both a time-saver and a flavor boost for this dish.  The pungent, liver-spiked pork mixed with rice makes a perfect stuffing, and if you have access to fresh boudin, it’s a cinch.  Making your own boudin is an option as well and I have my basic recipe here.

This is a hearty rural Cajun stew, and it forgoes the tomato sauce infusion that is common in many citified Creole bisque-like versions of this dish.  Instead, it is built on the deeply rich flavor that a potent dark roux imparts.  With a two-pound mound of succulently sweet tail meat, a crawfish shell-infused stock and three dozen boudin-stuffed heads, I have the makings of a Cajun classic.

Heads or tails, you are a winner with this dish.

Crawfish Head Stew
Prep time: 90 minutes
Cooking time for stock: 1 hour
Cooking time for stew: 90 minutes
Serves: 4 – 8

Tips:  Buy whole boiled crawfish or crawfish tail meat here.  Making a stock from crawfish shells is a key to this dish, but be sure to rinse excess spice off the shells to control the level of heat.  If you only have frozen crawfish tails, then you’ll need to have a good shrimp or seafood stock.  Make a dark roux like Rox’s roux recipe or buy Savoie’s dark roux in a jar.  Stuff the heads with your favorite commercially prepared boudin or make your own with my recipe for Cajun boudin.

3 pounds whole boiled crawfish (or two pounds cooked crawfish tail meat plus 6 cups seafood stock)
Water
3 pounds pork boudin
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 cups yellow onions, diced
1 cup bell pepper, diced
1 cup celery, diced
1 cup green onion tops, diced
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup dark roux
Cajun Creole seasoning blend
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Louisiana hot sauce
4 cups cooked long grain white rice (recommend: Supreme)
1 cup finely diced green onion tops, for garnish

Rinse the boiled crawfish of excess spice.  Separate the head from the tails and place in piles.  Peel all of the tail meat, cover and refrigerate.  Place the shells from the tails in a colander and rinse once again.  Add to a stockpot.

Pull the leg and pincher undercarriage from the head portion leaving an empty cavity.  Place all of the leg and pincher shells into the colander retaining the heads.  Rinse the leg and pincher shells and add to the stockpot.  Fill the stockpot with water until it just covers the tails.  Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 1 hour.  Remove the stockpot from the heat and strain 6 cups of the stock into a container for later use.

Place the boudin on a cutting board and remove from the casing.  Move the crawfish heads to the cutting board.  Using your hands, scoop a portion of boudin and stuff tightly into the empty cavity of as many heads as you can.  Place in a covered container and refrigerate.

In a black iron pot with lid on medium high heat, add the oil.  Add the onion, bell pepper, celery and green onion tops.  Cook until the onions turn translucent and then add the garlic.  Stir while adding the roux and stock.  Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer.  Cover and cook for 1 hour.

Add the crawfish tail meat, cover and cook for 15 minutes more.  Add the stuffed crawfish heads, cover the pot and turn off the heat.  Let soak for 15 minutes, uncover and taste the stew.  Add seasonings and hot sauce to your desired level of heat.  (Note:  This dish should be spicy, but your guests can always add more spice at the table.)

Serve the stew in shallow bowls over a mound of perfectly steamed white rice.  Garnish with green onion tops and serve with French bread, ice-cold beer and extra hot sauce on the table.

bowl of crawfish stew.

Heads and tails together in a steamy bowl of crawfish stew.

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

Tante Sue and the Blackened Bloody Mary

Blackened Bloody Mary

Blackened Bloody Mary — the perfect Mardi Gras drink. (All photos credit: George Graham)

In South Louisiana, celebrations abound on the weekend before Mardi Gras, but one party just keeps on going year round.  Fred’s Lounge located on the main drag in Mamou is an original, off-beat piece of the French Acadian tapestry that has been sipped and savored by locals and the famous alike.  Every Saturday morning Fred’s Lounge opens at 8:00 am.  But, it’s not until later – 9 am sharp — when the KVPI-FM radio broadcast begins that the fun really cranks up.

Dancing at Fred's

Dancing the two-step is a Saturday morning ritual at Fred’s.

Rox and I arrived just as the live band kicked into high gear for what was to be another no-holds-barred, you-ain’t-seen-nothin’-yet, Cajun good-time. Characters abound at Fred’s on any normal Saturday, but the joint was full of Mardi Gras revelers dressed in full regalia.

Tante Sue

Tante Sue shooting schnapps behind the bar at Fred’s.

Tante Sue (Fred’s  83-year old widow) was holding court sippin’ her Hot Damn cinnamon schnapps from a holster strapped to her side.  Serving up Bloody Marys (the house favorite), barking out the rules (no dancing on the tables), singing with the live band (in Cajun French, of course) are all part of Tante Sue’s Saturday morning routine.  The beer-drinkin’ fun goes on until the proverbial last-call for alcohol at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the every-Saturday ritual winds down.

Lady with Bloody Mary

With her Mardi Gras head piece and a spicy Bloody Mary, this visitor from Virginia is ready for a morning at Fred’s.

Living in Louisiana is special for many reasons, but Mardi Gras is at the head of the list.  While the rest of the country goes about their normal routine, all of Louisiana celebrates the biggest party of them all.  Balls, parades, parties, and even the rural Courir de Mardi Gras madness are all in full swing.  My crazy-good Bloody Mary recipe is good any time of year, but I always bring it out during Mardi Gras, and this year, in honor of Tante Sue, I’m sharing this recipe with you.

South Louisiana is Bloody Mary country.  New Orleans is the epicenter for the cocktail, and after one night out in the French Quarter it’s not hard to figure out why this hangover cure has made its home there.  Folks in South Louisiana are quite passionate about their Marys, and everyone in these parts has a favorite recipe.

Lots of brilliant culinary masterpieces start out as kitchen mistakes.  This is one of them.  My journey to discovery began with a pile of ripe tomatoes and peppers and ended with a kitchen timer that never went off.   It was a recipe for roasted tomato soup that wound up to be a souped up version of a Bloody Mary.

roasting tomatoes

Pan roasting tomatoes brings out their sweetness.

On my way to making that soup, I slid the sliced tomatoes (along with some sweet peppers) into a 400-degree oven for what I thought would be a quick 15 minute roasting to loosen the skins and release the sugars.  45 minutes later, I had what I thought was a burnt mess destined (along with my broken kitchen timer) for the trash.

But, after removing some of the burnt bits and taking a taste, I discovered the magic of the dark, depth of flavor that blackening brings out in tomatoes.  It just makes sense.  Charring the exterior of a red bell pepper has always been a basic trick to peel back flavor.  But, it was the combination of blackened tomatoes and peppers together, that woke me up and prompted me to change course.

To remain true to tradition, I adhere to three Bloody Mary mandatories that must always be followed: tomato is at the base, spice (and lots of it) is imperative, and garnish is all-important.  How you construct your perfect Bloody Mary is where the fun comes in.  Creativity abounds.

A well-made Bloody Mary is cause for celebration, so let’s break out the vodka.  It’s time for a cocktail.

Tante Sue would be proud.

Blackened Bloody Mary
Prep time – 30 minutes
Cooking time – 45 to 60 minutes
Serves 4

Tips:  Start out with the ripest, sweetest tomatoes you can find.  Freshly grated horseradish is an artisan touch to this drink that is hard to duplicate from a jar. Don’t go cheap on the alcohol – only the best for the perfect Bloody Mary.  For me, Cajun Power garlic sauce is an indispensable ingredient for this and many other dishes, but you can substitute fresh garlic if it isn’t available.

Bloody Mary ingredients

Quality Bloody Mary ingredients.

For Bloody Mary base:
3 pounds ripe red tomatoes
1 pound sweet red mini peppers
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon Cajun Power garlic sauce (substitute: 2 cloves fresh garlic)
2 tablespoons celery salt
3 tablespoons fresh horseradish, grated
3 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Wash the tomatoes and peppers.  Slice the tomatoes in half and place cut-side up on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Place the whole peppers on the tray.  Place the baking sheet in the oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until roasted and the skins blacken.

Once the tomatoes and peppers have blackened remove the tray from the oven.  Remove the stems and place the peppers in the container of a blender.  Move the tomatoes to the container.  To the container, add the lemon juice, Worcestershire, Tabasco, garlic sauce, celery salt and grated horseradish.  Add the water along with salt and a grind of black pepper. Pulse the blender until all contents are blended.  The Bloody Mary base should be thick but still able to pour.  If it is too thick add more water.

For serving:
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup kosher salt
6 ounces quality vodka
4 stalks celery, with leaves
4 pickled okra
4 pickled garlic cloves
4 slices smoked bacon, cooked crispy

In a small bowl add the lemon juice, and in another small bowl add the salt.  Invert a large glass into the bowl of lemon juice and moisten the rim.  Put the rim into the salt and move around until the salt coats the rim. Add ice cubes to the glass and pour 1 1/2 ounces of vodka.  Pour enough of the Bloody Mary base to fill.  Garnish with celery stalk, and a pickled okra and garlic clove toothpick.  Add a slice of crispy bacon and serve.

Thank you Tante Sue

Paying respect to everyone’s favorite crazy “aunt” — Tante Sue.

INVITATION:  If you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

5 Keys To The Perfect Muffuletta

Perfect Muffuletta

The Perfect Muffuletta! (All photos credit: George Graham)

Finally, it’s time to relax.  The holiday madness is over, we’ve rung in the New Year and the Super Bowl has officially ended the party season.  Right?  Wrong!  Maybe elsewhere, but here in Acadiana, we love a celebration, and with Mardi Gras coming up, our party season is just getting started.  Parties, balls, parades — the Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana doesn’t really stop until early March when the Lenten season calms things down.  So, with a full week of party planning still ahead, it’s time for a South Louisiana favorite – the muffuletta.

There’s nothing more New Orleans than a muffuletta sandwich, but they’re tricky and I have five keys to unlocking the mystery. There is considerable argument over who has the best.  There’s even an ongoing argument over how to spell the name – “muffaletta” or “muffuletta.”  Conventional wisdom seems to put the French Market of New Orleans as the epicenter of the muffuletta universe, and clearly it is a “u” in the sandwiches seen in the many shops along the riverfront.  These are the benchmark muffulettas on which others attempt to raise the bar.

Central Grocery

The Mecca of the Muffuletta – Central Grocery in New Orleans.

I advise that before actually making a muffuletta you should make the pilgrimage to the French Quarter and Central Grocery, the origins of this Sicilian masterpiece.  When you open the door to the neighborhood Italian grocery, the heady aroma overcomes you – potent dried oregano, pungent oil-soaked olives, spice-cured salami, freshly grated Pecorino Romano.  The colorful tins of imported Italian olive oil and row upon row of dried pastas lining the walls from floor to ceiling speak to you in a Sicilian accent.  You just know that fresh Italian ingredients are going into this handcrafted sandwich.

But, these muffs are made ahead, not to order. Why?  This is one of the keys to unlocking the mystery. Round loaves of Italian bread are wrapped tight and stacked high.  Under their own weight, the paper becomes oil-stained and dripping with the olive salad marinade, an indication of a well-soaked muffuletta.

But, can we improve upon the master artisans at Central Grocery?

There are other versions, and it is the hot, melted muffuletta at Napoleon House in the French Quarter that I intend to duplicate.  Crispy Italian bread blanketed with an herb-spiked olive salad, piled high with classic deli meats and a crown of melting cheese (it’s okay to salivate) is perfection indeed.  If you carefully follow these five key steps, I promise you will unlock the mystery of the perfect muffuletta sandwich.

The Perfect Muffuletta
Prep time: 20 minutes + 2 hours
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Serves: 4 – 8

Muffuletta ingredients

Quality Italian bread and deli ingredients are crucial.

Key #1 – The bread is all-important to the integrity of this sandwich and should be a large, thick-crust, round loaf of Italian bread, preferably with sesame seeds.  I source mine locally from Rouse’s.  Find a good Italian bakery and you should be able to duplicate the muff bread that is common throughout Louisiana.

For the sandwich:
2 loaves 10-inch round Italian bread with sesame seeds
4 cups olive salad (recipe follows)
1/2 pound Genoa salami, thinly sliced
1/2 pound ham, thinly sliced
1/2 pound mortadella with pistachios, thinly sliced
1/2 pound provolone, thinly sliced
1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Key #2 – Good quality olive salad is crucial.  If you live in Louisiana or have access to a good Italian grocer, you can find a jarred product called Muffuletta Olive Salad Mix – my favorite is Boscoli and you can order it online at Cajungrocer.  Or you can make your own and allow it to marinate for a week or more.

For the olive salad mix:
1 10-ounce jar green olives, pimiento-stuffed
1 cup Italian black olives, pitted
1/2 cup celery, chopped coarse
1/2 cup carrots, chopped coarse
1/2 cup cauliflower, chopped coarse
1/2 cup jarred or fresh red pepper slices
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon capers
1/4 cup flat-leaf Italian parsley
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Place all ingredients in a food processor.  Quick pulse until chopped but not pureed.  Cover and refrigerate overnight and up to a week or more.

For sandwich assembly:
Key #3 – Make these sandwiches at least two hours before you want to serve them since the longer they soak, the better.

Slice the bread in half horizontally exposing the inside of both halves.

Pour olive oil on the bottom bread half to soak generously.  Add a thick layer of olive salad over the bottom bread half.  Lay out the sliced salami evenly distributing the meat over the bottom bread, and then add a layer of half the provolone.  Then, a layer of mortadella.  Then, a layer of ham.  Then, another layer of provolone.   Add more of the olive salad on the top bread half and close it up.

Compressing The Muffuletta

A heavy pot makes a handy weight.

Key #4 – Compressing the sandwich to distribute the flavors will make a world of difference.  Wrap the sandwich tightly in aluminum foil and weigh it down with the heaviest pot you have.  To make it heavier add some canned goods inside the pot.   Leave it and let it sit for two hours or longer.

Key #5 – Turn up the heat.  Set the burners of an outdoor gas grill to low. (Alternatively, you can use a 350-degree oven.)  This is a major point of differentiation from the traditional muff.  Here, you are going to melt the cheese, crisp the bread and add the smoky flavor from the grill.  Place the foil-wrapped sandwiches on the hot grates, close the hood and leave for 15 minutes. Unwrap the top of the foil exposing the sandwich and heat for another 5 minutes with the hood closed.

Keep warm until your guests are ready and then slice each muffuletta into quarters for serving.

A Barq’s root beer (in the bottle, of course) or an ice-cold beer is the beverage of choice for the perfect muffuletta.

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

Best Seat in the House

Clafoutis pan

A sugar-dusted French clafoutis studded with red raspberries and blackberries. (All photos credit: George Graham)

For someone as food-obsessed as me, getting to know cooks and professional chefs is a treat.  Many years ago the California trend of open kitchens brought chefs out of the relative obscurity of restaurant kitchens, giving them visibility and the opportunity to get close to their customers.  And whenever I hear of a chef’s table option for dining in the kitchen, I jump at the chance.  Recently, a variation of this proved to be one of my most memorable dining experiences.

Chef Peter Sclafani and Ruffin Rodrique have stormed the Lafayette restaurant scene with the opening of Ruffino’s on the River in 2013.  Their Italian-inspired Cajun Creole menu has resonated with locals and has fast become the hottest reservation in town.

A key to Ruffino’s success is the depth of its kitchen talent.  Peter is a wiz at plucking culinary talent from just about anywhere and giving them a creative platform to excel.  I recently got to experience this firsthand with a personal invitation for Rox and me to sit at the Chef’s Counter – a new twist to the restaurant’s seating scheme.  Along with six other diners, we perched on high-back stools and watched as a team of chefs created and served up one spectacular dish after another.

Duo of Scallops
Cucumber capellini, soy caviar, Benton’s bacon broth, corn purée

Australian Octopus Salad
Asparagus, chickpea croutons, salsa Verde

Chappapeela Farms Duck Breast
Cauliflower purée, foie gras, bacon vinaigrette

72-hour Sous Vide Short Ribs
White beans, roasted vegetables

Raspberry Clafoutis
Bourbon vanilla ice cream, pecan tuile

Chef Peter was there, but he gave up the spotlight to Chef de Cuisine Kyle Waters and his team:  Katie Gross, executive sous chef, Aaron Andre, sous chef and Nancy DeVille, pastry chef.  Dish after dish, these guys plated with superb precision and a flair for theatrics.  Discussing the sourcing of these local ingredients (can’t wait to visit Chappapeela Farms in Husser, Louisiana) and techniques of preparation (the sous vide water immersion was a highlight) gave these young chefs a forum for connecting with their guests.

I’ve always maintained that a well-run restaurant is a stage and when the curtain goes up the troupe of waiters, cooks and front of the house crew all perform in unison.  And speaking of entertainment, Chef Katie is an Orlando, Florida transplant, and before joining the Ruffino’s group, she cooked at the Grand Floridian at Disney World.  She is a most capable chef that has quickly become immersed in the Cajun Creole food culture.

The dish I serve up for today’s Acadiana Table was inspired by that evening.  Pastry chef Nancy DeVille, a Lafayette local, created an amazing raspberry clafoutis dessert that capped off a perfect evening.  Clafoutis is a flan-like custard dessert from the Limousin region of central France.  Although I did not get the chef’s exact recipe, her step-by-step description helped me in my quest to duplicate hers.  After much trial and error, I do believe my spirit-spiked version comes fairly close to her masterpiece, but will never duplicate that most memorable evening.

Black and Red Custard Clafoutis
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Serves: 4

Tips:  I like the rustic black iron presentation of this elegant dish, but feel free to improvise.  Fruit choices are limitless with this custard base.  I plan to make a pear version soon.  Garnishes and pairings for this dessert (champagne, cookies, whipped cream, ice cream, etc) run the gamut.  Have fun with this one.  For an unforgettable experience call Ruffino’s at 337-706-7333 and reserve your seat at the Chef’s Counter.  Oh, and tell them Acadiana Table sent you.  

Clafoutis ingredients

A mishmash of ingredients come together in an elegantly simple dessert.

2/3 cup sugar
3 large eggs
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons Greek yogurt
1 blood orange (substitute: navel orange)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon Citronge orange liqueur (substitute: Grand Marnier)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Nonstick spray butter
1 cup fresh raspberries
1 cup fresh blackberries
Water
Powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, add the sugar and eggs.  Whisk vigorously until fully incorporated.  Whisk in the milk, cream and yogurt as well as the zest and juice of the orange.  Add the vanilla and cinnamon as well as the orange liqueur.  Add the flour and whisk to incorporate all.  Move the bowl aside and let the ingredients rest for 10 minutes.

In a 10-inch black iron skillet (or individual ramekins), place the red raspberries and the blackberries alternating colors in a pattern.  Slowly and gently pour the custard mixture around the pan being careful not to cover the fruit.  Place the pan on a shallow sheet tray and fill the bottom of the tray with water.  Place on the middle rack of the oven and bake just until the custard mixture is set, about 30 to 40 minutes.  Watch carefully and remove before the top begins to brown or the berries begin to burn.  (Note: If you divide these into individual pans, your cooking time will be shorter.)

Remove the pan from the oven and bring to room temperature.  (Note: Optionally, you can cook this dish ahead, refrigerate and serve cold.)  For serving, sprinkle with powdered sugar and let guests serve themselves on individual dessert plates.  Ruffino’s serves this with a scoop of bourbon-infused vanilla ice cream and a sugary tuile cookie for an over-the-top presentation.

Clafoutis spoons

A splendid end.

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

Jacked Up Short Ribs

Jacked Up Short Ribs

A black iron pot of beef short ribs in a hearty whiskey-infused sauce.  (All photos credit: George Graham)

So, here’s the long and short of it.  I am short rib obsessed.  There is something about this underrated cut of beef that I love.  It is incredibly versatile, and I use it for everything from burgers to a center of the plate entrée like this one.

Although I had cooked beef short ribs for years, I had never really viewed it as upscale.  That is until I visited Alessandro Stratta’s restaurant Renoir in Las Vegas some years ago.  His short ribs were braised in red wine sweetened with lavender honey and deglazed with sherry vinegar.  The resulting beef-eating experience was a stark departure from any I’d ever experienced before.  Sticky sweet, but with dark, rich beef flavor.  With that dish, he single-handedly elevated short ribs to stratospheric heights on the national scene and has been copied by chefs across the country.

Not only have short ribs become an incredibly succulent restaurant entrée, but there is another overriding reason for its popularity on menus of all kinds – it’s cheap.  The food cost is minimal for a beef entrée, and when adding a luscious sauce, this dish commands top dollar.  Michelin-rated restaurants in New York, Chicago and San Francisco have all embraced this simple cut with their own amazing versions of Chef Stratta’s recipe.

Short rib ingredients

Well-marbled short ribs on the bone only need a few simple ingredients to create magic.

Here, I’ve done a Southern take on short ribs with a whiskey-infused sauce and a spicy addition of Cajun seasonings and green chile tomatoes.  There are many wine-based versions of this dish, but I like the fun and funk of this “jacked up” one.  With the addition of Jack Daniels whiskey, the resulting sauce has a smoky, oak barrel roundness that works perfectly with the beef.  The tomato undertone turns this sauce an earthy, brick red with an acidic bite that delivers a Louisiana Creole punch.  While this is not a timid dish, it is a simple recipe and very forgiving on the measurements as well as the cooking time – the longer the braise, the better.

Plate of short ribs

Jacked Up Short Ribs — A new classic is born!

Jacked Up Short Ribs
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 2 1/2 hours
Serves: 4

Tip:  Find well-marbled short ribs and don’t worry about the fat content – fat adds flavor. I suggest using the thick, vertically cut bone-in short ribs versus the thinner Asian style.  I use Jack Daniels in this recipe, but most any good moderately-priced bourbon or whiskey works fine.  One follower of Acadiana Table made this recipe with Jack Daniels Honey whiskey and omitted the sugar.  She said it was “delicious.”  (See her comments below.)

8 meaty beef short ribs
1/2 cup Cajun seasoning blend
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup onion, diced
1 cup celery, diced
1 cup green bell pepper, diced
1 cup carrots, diced
2 cups baby portabello mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup Jack Daniel’s whiskey
1 tablespoon sugar
1 can mild Rotel diced tomatoes and green chiles
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups beef stock
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped
2 bay leaves
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Corn starch and water for thickening, if needed
Green onion tops

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Sprinkle the short ribs lightly with Cajun seasoning making sure to coat all sides.  In a large mixing bowl, add the flour and stir in the remaining Cajun seasoning.  Add the short ribs and coat with flour.

In a cast iron pot with a heavy lid on high heat, add the vegetable oil. Once the oil is smoking turn the heat to medium, add the short ribs and sauté the meat on all sides. Once they are completely browned move them to a platter and set aside.

Immediately add the onions, celery, bell pepper, carrots and mushrooms to the pot and lower the heat to low.  Saute them slowly until the onions just begin to brown and then add the garlic.  Stir constantly and make sure the garlic does not burn.

Keep sautéing until the onions begin to caramelize and then carefully add the whiskey to deglaze. Scrape the bottom of the pot but be careful since the alcohol might ignite — it will subside once burned off.

While the whiskey is cooking down add the sugar, Rotel, tomato paste, beef stock, chopped rosemary, bay leaves, and a pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper.

Cover the pot and reduce to a simmer.  Let it braise on the stovetop for 30 minutes and then place in the hot oven for 1 hour.

Remove from the oven and uncover.  Check to see that the short ribs are fork tender. If so, place them on a serving platter.

Remove the vegetables and bay leaves from the sauce.  With a large spoon, skim any fat from the top of the remaining liquid. On the stovetop, cook down the remaining sauce to achieve the desired gravy thickness.  If needed, mix corn starch and water to make a slurry and add to the pot. Adjust with more beef stock to thin it out.

Return the short ribs to the sauce and move the cast iron pot to the center of the table for family style serving. Garnish with green onion tops. In the down-home Louisiana tradition, I like to serve these short ribs with steamed long grain white rice, but a more elegant presentation might be with mashed potatoes.  I’ve even laced my potatoes with horseradish (or wasabi) for an unexpected twist that goes perfectly with the rich, beefy sauce.  And for sure, have plenty of crusty French  bread and a big, bold Cabernet to accompany this impressive dish.

Spoonful of short ribs

Short ribs cooked until fork tender in a rich sauce.

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

On The Trail of the Perfect Boudin

Cajun boudin links

Tasty links of fresh steamed Cajun boudin. (All photos credit: George Graham)

If you are fortunate enough to live in Louisiana or are planning a trip here, the bayou back roads are a source of delicious discovery.  The food culture abounds along these rural highways and byways that offer up a treasure trove of good eating.  There’s even a Louisiana Culinary Trails website and downloadable app to help you find what you hunger for.  But, one irresistible culinary prize you will find linking all four corners of the state — especially here in Acadiana — is boudin.

Arguments abound on the source of the best boudin in Acadiana.  The Louisiana state legislature almost came to a screeching halt a few years back as the towns of Broussard and Scott fought over who should be named The Boudin Capital.  Even marriages have been known to break up over such a quandary.  There are so many options, so many differing styles that it is near impossible to answer the question.

Boudin (boo-dan) blanc is a curious blend of herbs and seasonings with bits of pork and liver included, mixed with long grain Louisiana white rice.  All combined, put through a grinder and stuffed into a pig’s intestine casing.  The good stuff, when you can find it, is boudin noir – pig’s blood added, but that’s for a different discussion.

Boudin blanc stops short of becoming a true smokehouse sausage because it is steamed rather than smoked.  The character of boudin is its moistness – its squeezability.  Eating boudin is akin to squeezing a tube of toothpaste, only directly into your waiting mouth. It is the essence of Cajun life and is sold in near about every roadside grocery, convenience store or gas station around.

There is even an official Cajun Boudin Trail pinpointing the location of most every stop along the roads selling the stuff.  Robert Carriker has a PhD in Boudin – well, actually history – and he heads up the project as well as the history department at the University of Louisiana Lafayette.  Dr. Carriker wrote the book on boudin.  He has not only mapped out the spicy spots on the trail peppered throughout South Louisiana, but the site has reviewed every single one of them.  I urge you to download a map, hit the trail and join the debate.

Don's sign

Who has the best boudin? The debate rages on.

Styles differ, and there are certain well-known specialty houses that have become meccas for the true boudin aficionado. Comeaux’s, Don’s, Best Stop, Boudin King, Earl’s, Poche’s, Bourque’s — these are just a few of the five-star rated versions of boudin that provoke endless debate.  “Boudin King is too ricey…Poche’s too spicy…Best Stop too livery…Comeaux’s too bland” — the dispute rages on.  I have a clear winning solution that if adopted (and it won’t) will end this silly babbling battle over boudin.

They’re all good.

Each has a nuance of flavor and taste profile all its own.  It’s like asking which is the better wine – California Cab or Oregon Pinot?

It’s all good.

But, that’s too easy.  And to broker an end to that discussion would be a diplomatic impossibility and, well, clearly wrong.  So, the debate rages on, and as you travel the boudin trail in search of the perfect link, it’s not hard to see who the real winner is.

Boudin and Beer

A light lunch — Cajun style. Doesn’t get any better!

Cajun Boudin
Prep time – 1 hour
Cooking time – 1 – 2 hours
Serves 6 – 10

Tip:  This is a basic recipe and simply a starting point for exploring boudin.  The key to boudin is the balance of ingredients: meat to liver, rice to meat mixture and overall spice profile.  You must experiment with different levels to find the proper ratio for your particular taste.

4 pound pork roast
1 pound pork liver
2 cups long grain white rice (recommend: Supreme)
2 large yellow onions
4 tablespoons garlic
4 tablespoons Cajun seasoning
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
2 bunches green onions, diced
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Louisiana hot sauce

Braise the pork roast covered in water for an hour or two or until falling apart.  In a separate pot, boil the liver until well done.  In a rice cooker, make the rice following the package directions.

Chop the yellow onions and garlic.  Remove the pork from the pot reserving the cooking liquid.  In a food processor pulse the meat and liver along with the yellow onions and garlic until it reaches a smooth, yet chunky consistency.  Be careful not to over-process to a mushy stage.

Incorporate the cooked rice in a ratio that you prefer.  I suggest 80% meat mixture to 20% rice.  Gradually add some of the cooking liquid until the mixture is moist. Add the Cajun seasoning, cayenne and green onions.  Add salt, black pepper and hot sauce to taste.  Evenly incorporate ingredients together.

Stuff the mixture into sausage casings using a sausage stuffer.  Optionally, you can form the bulk boudin into patties.

To keep the boudin hot without drying out, it is customary to place the boudin in a slow cooker set to warm with an inch of water in the bottom.  If your boudin is not in a casing then wrap it in plastic.  This is a great way to hold the boudin for hours.

Boudin links should be eaten hot with an ice-cold beer and saltine crackers.  Boudin balls can be rolled in crackers and fried.  And boudin patties – one of my favorites — are perfect as a base for fried eggs at breakfast.  Any way you try it, boudin is perfectly delicious.

Boudin and eggs

Breakfast in Acadiana — a Cajun boudin patty crowned with a farm-fresh egg.

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

Rox’s Roux

Roux Pot

The dark abyss of a perfectly made Cajun roux. (All photos credit: George Graham)

Making a dark Cajun roux from scratch is a dying art.  Not too many years ago, there wasn’t a Cajun Creole household in South Louisiana that didn’t have the unmistakably intense aroma of a dark roux, in all its glory, wafting through the kitchen.  Home cooks were taught basic roux-making skills early on, and it was a rite of passage to pass it on to the next generation.

Times have changed.

With the proliferation of jarred and powdered roux products, as well as packaged gumbo mixes, the art of roux making is slowly dying off.  Don’t get me wrong, some prepared roux products are very good, and I use them sometimes myself.  But, there is no substitute for a homemade roux, and I believe it is the obligation — no, responsibility — of roux makers to hand down this timeless artisan skill to their children.  I know my wife has.

Rox can make a roux.

As deep and dark as blackstrap molasses and just as rich.

My wife Roxanne doesn’t cook every night nor does she profess to be a culinary artisan, but she is one of the best natural cooks I know.  For her roux, she follows a strict set of guidelines handed down from generations of good Cajun cooks before her.  She was born and raised in Jennings, and I sometimes tease her that her grandmother’s black iron pot and well-worn, wooden gumbo spoon were her dowry.  Truth be told, to her they are significantly more valuable than anything money could buy.

On a cold January day, she can work magic in that pot with a roux-infused chicken and sausage gumbo like none other I’ve tasted.  A roux is the foundation on which gumbo is based.  Rox’s roux is nursed and nourished with a serious attention to detail that defies logic.  It’s as if my wife goes into a semi-lucid state of consciousness that is mesmerizing.  She stirs and stirs.  And focuses on color, texture and smell.  For over an hour, she stirs.  No phone calls, no conversations, no distractions whatsoever.

White, cream, beige, tan, brown, mahogany, and beyond.

There is an instinctive point of departure — a point of no return that she pushes beyond.  A less brave or sure-handed cook would stop short of perfection.  She has the confidence and courage to pursue that hauntingly dark depth of a rich chocolate-colored roux.  Hershey bar chocolate is the terminus, and anything more is burnt and destined for the disposal.

With her wooden spoon scepter in her right hand, my gumbo queen rules the kitchen.

Perfect roux

Rox’s roux is chocolate syrupy thick and just as rich.

Rox’s Chicken and Smoked Sausage Gumbo
Prep time: 1 hour
Cooking time: 3 hours
Serves:  6 – 8

Tips:  My wife always makes more roux than she needs.  Her rule is that as long as you are spending an hour of your life stirring roux, make enough for the next gumbo, too.  I prefer using chicken stock to build flavor in my gumbo, but water is acceptable.  In this gumbo, Rox recommends the deep smokiness of Rabideaux sausage from Iowa, Louisiana, and Supreme brand long grain white rice from Crowley, Louisiana.  Be careful stirring roux – there’s a reason it’s called Cajun napalm.  

3 cups all purpose flour
3 cups canola oil (for the roux)
1/2 cup canola oil (for sautéing)
2 cups yellow onions, diced
2 cups green bell pepper, diced
2 cups celery, diced
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
2 cups smoked pork sausage, sliced into bite-size pieces (recommend: Rabideaux)
12 cups chicken stock, plus water if needed
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 chicken thighs, bone-in and skin-on
2 chicken breasts, bone-in and skin-on
Louisiana hot sauce, to taste
Cooked long grain white rice, for serving (recommend: Supreme)
1 cup green onion tops, diced
Filé powder

First you make a roux.  Rox’s roux starts out in a large cast iron pot on medium heat.  With no distractions and approximately one hour of time at your disposal, begin by adding the flour and oil.  With a long-handled wooden spoon, begin to stir.  Constant stirring and moving the flour around the bottom of the pot is the key to browning the flour evenly to prevent burning.  This early stage will go slowly as you begin to see the white flour take on a beige and then a tan color.  Continue stirring slowly and evenly, scraping the bottom and the circular crevices of the pot to move the flour around in the hot oil.  At about the half-hour mark, you will begin to see a brown color developing and smell the first hints of toasted flour. This is where the stirring becomes even more crucial.

At this point, you begin to enter the quickly developing phase where the least bit of inattention could result in burnt flecks of flour appearing – a sure sign you’ve ruined the roux.  Watch your heat and lower it if cooking too fast.  Constant stirring to keep the flour from staying in one place too long prevents burning. You will begin to smell an even nuttier aroma as you see the color turn darker mahogany.  Most stop here, but you will keep going until you achieve a deeper, darker chocolatey consistency and color.  Forget time at this point since you are now cooking by instinct, sight and smell.  The utmost attention is needed to your stirring, and when you see that Hershey chocolate darkness, you will know you have arrived. Welcome to Rox’s roux.  Turn off the heat, but continue stirring until it begins to cool down and quits cooking.  Spoon the roux into a bowl and let cool.

In a large skillet on medium heat, add 1/4 cup of canola oil.  Once sizzling hot, add the chicken pieces skin-side down.  Brown the chicken on one side and turn to brown the other side.  Remove the chicken from the skillet and add to a large gumbo pot with lid.

In the large skillet on medium heat, add the onions, bell peppers and celery. Sauté until the onions turn translucent.  Add the garlic and parsley, and sauté until combined.  Add the sausage and sauté just until it begins to brown.  Add a cup of stock to the mixture and scrape the bottom of the skillet to loosen the brown bits of flavor.  Add the mixture to the large gumbo pot.

At this point, add enough additional chicken stock or water to the gumbo pot to cover all the chicken and vegetable mixture.  Season with cayenne pepper and stir to combine.  Add 1 1/2 cups of roux and stir to combine.  Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer.  Cover the pot and let cook for one hour.

After one hour, lift the lid and remove the chicken pieces.  Skim the surface of any excess oil.  Taste the gumbo.  If you prefer your gumbo thinner, add more stock or water.  If you prefer your gumbo thicker, add more roux.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes more.

Uncover the pot and skim the surface of any excess oil.

At this point, you can leave the chicken on the bone or remove the bones and skin from each of the pieces.  Add the chicken back to the pot.  Cover and simmer for 30 minutes more.

Uncover the pot and skim the surface of any excess oil.  Sample the finished gumbo and season with hot sauce to taste.

Ladle the gumbo into large bowls over a mound of rice and garnish with diced green onion tops.  Add a bit of filé powder if you like.  Most good Cajun folks serve cold and creamy potato salad with gumbo along with ice-cold beer and hot French bread.

Rox's gumbo

The perfect chicken and smoked sausage gumbo!

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

Crabapple-Braised Whole Pig’s Leg

Pork leg recipe

Pork leg slowly braised served with Cajun rice dressing. (All photos credit: George Graham)

The art of the French boucherie is a beautiful and time-honored tradition that seems to be lost on the current generation.  Factory meat — pre-packed and portioned with maximum efficiency — is the supply line du jour in today’s society.  In our fast paced, multi-tasking lifestyle we don’t seem to know or even care where our food comes from.

Over the past few years, I’ve come to embrace the slow food movement in America that is reconnecting families and farmers in a relationship that brings meaning to the dinner table.  Sustainable, locally sourced meats, fruits and vegetables are fast becoming the heart of my grocery shopping rather than the exception.

Leg of pork

A well-butchered leg of pork is a beautiful thing.

Recently I drove out to farmer Charles Thompson’s farm in Youngsville to pick up my portion of a hog share.  Charles runs Market Basket Farm and sells his pigs by the whole or half share.  Selling in advance insures that he has his livestock pre-sold and he can then bring the animal to slaughter in a quality manner.  His pasture-raised hogs are of the highest caliber and humanely treated which insure the best meat product for your table.  The meat is butchered and packaged from tail-to-snout, labeled clearly and ready for pick up on a pre-arranged schedule.  It is an efficient system.

The whole hog leg recipe I share with you today is a celebration of the boucherie, and I hope you will embrace the dish’s clarity of purpose and simplicity.  Provoking conversation and family discussion about where our food comes from is the only way to sustain our culinary heritage.  Slow braising a leg of pork in a sweetened apple-infused bath is a classic treatment that deserves to be brought back to our tables.

There is nothing especially difficult about this recipe.  I found a bin full of crabapples at my local green market, and the idea for this recipe took shape.  Crabapples eaten raw are a bit on the sour side, but when cooked down in a cider-based braise their tartness balances the sweetness in a perfect combination.  I suspect this dish is more at home in northern France’s Normandy region where apple orchards and pig farms coexist, but I believe that right here in Louisiana this recipe belongs in every good cook’s repertoire.

Pig's leg with crabapple

The crabapple sauce is the perfect balance to the richness of the meat.

Crabapple-Braised Whole Pig’s Leg

Prep time: 30 minutes
Brining time:  Overnight
Cooking time: 2 hours
Serves: 2

Tip:  Make sure the pig’s foot is included.  Pig’s feet add flavor and a certain gelatinous texture to the sauce that is indescribable.  If crabapple’s are not available, use tart apples cut in half.

For the brine:
2 quarts water
2 cups apple cider
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup salt
1 whole leg of pork, butchered, cleaned and cut into pieces with foot

In a large lidded container, add all of the ingredients and stir to distribute.  Add the pork and close the container.  Refrigerate overnight.

For the pork and sauce:
1 onion, quartered
2 stalks celery, cut into chunks
1 bell pepper, cut into chunks
2 carrots, cut into chunks
1 dozen crabapples
1 12-ounce jar apple sauce
2 cups apple cider
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
Freshly ground black pepper
Kosher salt
2 cups pork stock (substitute: chicken stock)
Cornstarch
Water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the pork leg pieces from the brine and place in a foil-lined baking pan.  Add the onion, celery, bell pepper and carrots along with half the crabapples.  Pour the jar of apple sauce into the pan and distribute evenly.  Add the cider and vinegar along with the fresh rosemary.  Season with a grind of pepper and a sprinkle of salt.  Cover the pan with foil.

Place the pan in the oven and cook for 90 minutes.  Uncover the pan and strain the liquid from the pan into a pot along with all the vegetables and the pig’s foot.  Place the remaining pork back into the oven to cook uncovered for another 30 minutes.  Remove from the oven and cover with foil to keep warm.

On medium high heat, bring the liquid and the contents in the pot to a boil and add the pork stock.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and let cook for 15 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon remove all of the vegetables and pig’s foot from the liquid.  Add the remaining 6 crabapples to the pot. Bring to a simmer and let cook for another 20 minutes as the liquid slowly reduces and the crabapples cook down.

To thicken the sauce, make a slurry by adding 2 tablespoons of cornstarch to a small bowl and adding 2 tablespoons of cold water.  Stir to combine and add to the simmering pot of stock.  Bring the pot to a boil and watch as it thickens to a desired thickness.  If the sauce is not thick enough, add more cornstarch slurry until you can coat the back of a spoon.  Sample the sauce and season with salt and pepper to your taste.

For serving, remove the pork pieces and arrange on a platter.  Spoon the sauce over the pork and place the cooked crabapples alongside on the platter.  Serve with sautéed carrots and Cajun rice dressing along with a pitcher of sweet tea.

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

Mondays at Moulin de Mougins

Poached pears

Pears paired with almond-infused cream.  (All photos credit: George Graham)

Some years ago my wife and I made a whirlwind trip across the French countryside winding up on the Cote de Azur in the South of France.  Spending a magical evening in Cannes at the Hotel Martinez on the Boulevard de la Croisette, we trekked the hillsides around the coastal towns along the Mediterranean.

A true fan of Provencal cooking and the great chefs, I had my sights set on a visit to the little town of Mougins and the very famous Moulin de Mougins home to Chef Roger Vergé.  Vergé is a protégé of Paul Bocuse and a mentor to more contemporary chefs such as Daniel Boulud and many others.  At the time, Vergé’s style of nouvelle cuisine helped usher in a renaissance of French cooking that stands to this day.

With no advance reservation, we arrived at the shrine of the legendary chef and pulled into the restaurant for an early lunch.  It was closed.  As is the custom on Mondays with most Michelin-rated restaurants, the chef and staff get one well-deserved day off.  Our loss, their gain.

Cut pair

Red wine-infused yet fruity inside.

Cooking with Fruit, a cookbook penned by the famous chef is part of my collection.  It inspired me to create a dessert dish, and I offer this simple, yet elegant dish in homage to his great talent.  Chef Vergé long ago hung up his copper pots, but I do believe he would appreciate my salute to his love of rustic country cooking with fruit as showcased in this recipe.

Pears are a very familiar orchard staple throughout South Louisiana and this pairing with red wine and an almond-infused cream sauce is a natural combination.  Stewing fresh fruit in a sweetened Pinot noir bath is dramatic enough, but when nestled in fresh cream steeped in Amaretto and sprinkled with toasted almonds, I do believe this South Louisiana dish is something Chef Vergé would be proud of.

Although the famous chef is no longer cooking at Moulin de Mougins, I do hope to return one day, however, not on a Monday.

Poached Pears in Amaretto Crème
Prep time:  30 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Serves: 3

Tip:  Don’t break the bank.  Use a decent, yet economical, 1.5 liter bottle of Pinot noir.  After all, you will be infusing it with multiple flavors and sweeteners.  Feel free to add more pears to this bath of sweetened wine if you have more guests.  I use bosc, but most any pear will work.  Be sure to find pears of equal size and shape.

For the pears:
1.5 liter bottle of red wine (recommend: Pinot noir)
2 cups pomegranate juice
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup sugarcane syrup (recommend: Steen’s)
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon ground whole cloves
8 pears, ripe but firm

Peel the pears, but leave the stem intact.  Cut the bottom of each pear so that it will stand on end.

In a large pot, add all the ingredients except the pears.  While stirring, bring to a boil and immediately turn the heat down to a simmer.  Add the pears and let cook until softened so that a bamboo skewer can slide easily into the center.  Watch carefully as the time will vary with the ripeness of your pears, but no more than 20 minutes should be sufficient. Remove the pears and let the liquid cool to room temperature. In the same pot or in a container with a lid, submerge the pears so that all of the pear is covered in the wine-infused liquid.  Cover, refrigerate and chill before serving.

For the sauce:
4 cups heavy whipping cream
1 cup amaretto almond-flavored liqueur
1 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup mint leaves

In a large saucepan on medium heat, add the cream and slowly bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the amaretto. Stir the mixture and reduce by half.  Add half of the chopped almonds to the sauce and stir.  Remove from the heat and let come to room temperature before serving.

For serving, pour the sauce into a serving platter.  Position the pears in the sauce standing on end with stem side up. Sprinkle the remaining chopped almonds around the platter and garnish with mint leaves.  All guests can serve themselves by taking a pear from the platter and spooning on as much sauce as they like.  Serve this dessert with a chilled sparkling wine.

Bite of pear

A bite of sweet, creamy fruit.

INVITATIONIf you like this story and recipe then please click the “follow” button at the bottom of the page.  You will receive a weekly alert when new stories and recipes are posted.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 709 other followers