“When the taste changes with every bite and the last bite is as good as the first, that’s Cajun! I’m a Cajun and that’s Louisiana cooking.
“People often ask me what’s the difference between Cajun and Creole cooking … Both are Louisiana born, with French roots. But Cajun is very old, French country cooking — a simple, hearty fare.
“Cajun food began in Southern France, moved on to Nova Scotia and then came to Louisiana. The Acadians adapted their dishes to use ingredients that grew wild in the area — bay leaves from the laurel tree, file powder from the sassafras tree and an abundance of different peppers … But Creole food began in New Orleans and is a mixture of the traditions of French, Spanish, Italian, American Indian, African and other ethnic groups.”
Paul Prudhomme, the chef who made Cajun cooking a national phenomenon, died last year at the age of 75. I attended a conference, The First Symposium on American Cuisine, in 1982 in Lexington, Ky., at which Paul was a speaker. His speech about Cajun cooking and regional cooking in general was very inspiring.
I had just opened Ross’ North Fork Restaurant and was seeking an identity for cooking from scratch using local ingredients in our neighborhood. Although North Fork cooking doesn’t have the clearly defined identity of Cajun cooking, I realized that our bounty of fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables with historical roots in New England did have a personality all its own.
Following in the footsteps of Paul Prudhomme and others during the ’70s, many chefs discovered regional cooking around the country, leading to a food revolution in the United States that is still going on. We owe Paul a debt of gratitude.
The following recipes are adapted from his book, “Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen” (1984).
Slow Roasted Duck with Sweet Potato-Eggplant Gravy
Remove the giblets and neck (do not discard) from one 6-pound duck, trim off the wing tips, tail and flap of skin around neck.
Prepare a seasoning rub by combining 2 tablespoons kosher salt, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon white pepper, 1 teaspoon dried rosemary, 1 teaspoon sage, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper and 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin. Rub the duck inside and out with this mixture and poke holes in the skin of the duck with a sharp fork.
Place the giblets (except the liver) into the duck cavity along with the neck and wing tips. Tie the duck legs and wings close to the body with string and place the duck into a Dutch oven.
Roast in a 250-degree oven for 6 hours. Remove the duck from the oven and set aside. Pour the drippings into a bowl and refrigerate overnight.
When the duck cools enough to handle, split it in half and pull out the bones with your fingers. Make cuts along the leg and wing bones and remove.
Place all the bones in a saucepan and add half of an unpeeled onion, 2 bay leaves and a teaspoon of thyme. Simmer for 1 hour, strain and refrigerate.
Refrigerate the boned duck. The next day, spoon the fat off the top of the drippings bowl and set aside.
Combine the strained broth with the chilled drippings found under the fat into a saucepan and bring to a simmer.
For the gravy, melt 1/4 cup of the duck fat and add 2 cups peeled and diced eggplant. Cook at medium heat until it begins to brown. Stir in 1/2 cup chopped onion and another cup of diced eggplant. Continue cooking and add 3/4 cup diced sweet potato and 1 teaspoon minced garlic.
Season with 1 tablespoon salt, 1 teaspoon white pepper, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1/2 teaspoon dried mustard and 1/2 teaspoon thyme.
Stir in 2 cups of the duck stock and 2 tablespoons brown sugar. Simmer for 20 minutes and purée in a food processor.
Add the puréed sauce back to a saucepan and add 1 cup diced sweet potato and 1/2 cup chopped green onions. Thin out the sauce by adding another 1 cup stock and 2 tablespoons of orange liqueur (such as triple sec or Grand Marnier). Simmer at low heat until the sweet potato is tender.
At service time, place duck halves under the broiler to crisp up the skin, cut into portions and serve with the gravy on the side.
Heat 2 tablespoons duck fat in an ovenproof saucepan and add 1/2 cup chopped onion. Cook briefly and stir in 1 1/2 cups brown rice.
Chop the reserved giblets and any duck meat trimmings reserved from the boning process and add them to the rice. Add 4 cups of the stock along with 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 1 teaspoon pepper and bring to a boil.
Cover the pan and place it in a 350-degree oven for 45 minutes, or until rice is tender. When finished, remove from the oven and stir in 1/2 cup chopped green onions.
Purchase 2 pounds of large shrimp in the shell and 1 pint of fish stock.
Peel and devein the shrimp, reserving the shells. Heat the pint of fish stock in a saucepan.
Separately, heat a sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons canola oil along with the shrimp shells. Cook at high heat until the shells turn red, then add 2 cups water. Let this mixture simmer for 20 minutes and strain into the fish stock.
Make a seasoning mix by combining 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon white pepper, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon oregano and 1 teaspoon thyme.
Separately, chop 1/2 cup onion, celery and green pepper and combine.
Heat a cast-iron skillet and add 3/4 cup canola oil. Allow this to get very hot, about 5 minutes on high heat, and stir in 3/4 cup flour, being careful not to splash the oil. Stir this roux mixture with a wooden spoon until it turns a dark, reddish brown.
Remove from the heat and stir in the chopped vegetables and 1 tablespoon of the seasoning. Whisk this mixture into the simmering stock and continue cooking at low heat.
Meanwhile, heat a saucepan and add 1 stick of unsalted butter. Add the peeled shrimp and 1 cup chopped green onions along with the remainder of the seasoning mix. Cook until shrimp just turns pink and pour in the sauce.
Serve over rice.
Fried Catfish with Hush puppies
Cut 2 pounds of fresh catfish fillet into 3-inch-long pieces.
Make a seasoning mix by combining 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon oregano and 1 teaspoon thyme.
Set up a breading station by placing 1 cup flour with 2 teaspoons seasoning in one pan; 2 beaten eggs with 1/2 cup milk and 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard in a bowl; and another pan with 1 cup flour, 1 cup cornmeal and 2 teaspoons seasoning.
For the hush puppies, combine in a large bowl 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper, 1/2 teaspoon oregano and 1/2 teaspoon thyme. Stir in 2 beaten eggs along with 1/2 cup chopped green onions and 1 teaspoon minced garlic.
Bring 1 cup milk and 2 tablespoons butter to a boil and add to the above mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon and refrigerate for 1 hour.
At service time, heat 1 quart canola oil in a Dutch oven to about 350 degrees. Spoon the hush puppies into the hot fat in batches and cook until they brown, about 3 minutes. Remove and place on a paper towel-lined pan in a warm oven.
Dredge the catfish pieces in the flour, then in the egg wash and finally in the cornmeal mixture. Place them in the hot oil in batches until brown, about 5 minutes, and remove to the towel-lined sheet pan.
Serve with tartar sauce.