#38 Cajun Microwaves

Most of the foods and activities we’ve discussed so far have been rooted in Cajun tradition for decades if not centuries.  All this talk of tradition might have you thinking that Cajuns are stuck in the past, but don’t go confusing us with the Amish.  Unlike our friendly bearded friends, Cajuns aren’t afraid of innovation.  If there’s a better way to get things done, we’re all ears.  The faster we can get a job done, the quicker we can move on to the more enjoyable things in life.  Cajuns we don’t sit idly by, waiting for the outside world to make things easier, we problem solve. When faced with the question of how to better season their meat, the Cajun Injector was born.  When faced with the daunting task of cooking beer flavored chicken, the ChickCAN was born.    Today’s showpiece of Cajun inventiveness is #38 on the list of Stuff Cajun People Like…the Cajun Microwave.  And please don’t write me to say it was invented by some Cuban guy, cause I’m not listening (la la la).

The Cajun Microwave is basically an outdoor convection oven with a charcoal box on top.  This wooden box with a stainless steel interior solves the problem of how to prepare a large piece of meat, like cochon de lait,  without having to dig a large pit in the ground.  With a Cajun microwave, simply place your seasoned pig or other meats in the Cajun microwave, close it up, and place hot coals on top.  Like a dutch oven, this cooking method keeps moisture in, resulting in a juicier meat.  Some deluxe Cajun microwaves even have a grill on top so you can grill out while you wait for the main course.  With a Cajun Microwave, you can feed 75 of your closest friends being the envy of the all your fellow tailgaters.

Now Cajun Microwaves aren’t for everyone.  For one, they’re sort of pricy, ranging from $500 to well over $1000 depending on size and materials.  This is pretty expensive, considering the alternative is digging a big hole in the ground.  Of course, plans are available online, so you can always build one yourself rather cheaply.  Another criticism is the lack of smokiness, since the Cajun Microwave roasts your meat rather than smoking it.  These are all valid criticisms, but for many the advantages make up for any shortcomings.  For one, using a Cajun Microwave is more efficient than the in-ground method, and it’s faster than open pit cooking.  And most importantly, it looks cool as hell.  Say what you want, but MacGyver ain’t got nuthin’ on a hungry Coonass.

#37 Coush Coush

‘Hot Boudin, cold coush coush Come on, Tigers, Push, push, push!’

-Faithful Tiger Fans

Every culture has its favorite comfort foods, and while we’ve covered most of the Cajun staples here, we haven’t talked about the most important meal of the day – breakfast. When it comes to breakfast, move aside Wheaties, because coush coush is the Cajun breakfast of champions.

Nothing hits the spot better on a cold winter morning than a warm bowl of coush-coush. A simple dish made with inexpensive ingredients, coush coush was a breakfast staple back before the days of the cereal aisle. It is prepared by pouring a mixture of cornmeal, salt, baking powder, and milk into a hot skillet greased with vegetable oil, lard, or bacon drippings. A dark crust is allowed to form before the mixture is stirred, giving coush coush its signature crunchiness. The final mixture is served like cereal with milk and sugar, or as a stand alone dish with cane sugar drizzled (or poured in my case) over it. The result is a warm satisfying meal that’s sweet and chocked full of nice crispy bites.

Unlike other Cajun staples like gumbo, jambalaya, and etoufée, coush coush is a dying tradition. The last time I recall eating it was as a young boy sleeping over at my grandmother’s house. Loaded with fat, coush coush isn’t exactly a healthy breakfast option, but that’s never hurt the popularity of boudin and cracklins. I attribute the decline of coush coush’s popularity to competition. Cajuns have the same breakfast choices that the rest of this country has, whether it’s choosing one of the many fast and convenient options from the breakfast aisle, or hitting the McDonalds drive through for coffee and an egg McMuffin. In today’s fast paced world, people just don’t have the time to spend 30 minutes cooking breakfast. That’s a shame, because coush coush is a dish that deserves its place in Cajun culture, and shouldn’t be allowed to die out.

Next time you’re about to cook a big Sunday morning breakfast, consider giving coush coush a try instead of pancakes, for old times sake.


Coush Coush (From www.wafb.com)

Prep Time: 30 Minutes
Yields:
6 Servings

Ingredients:
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 and 1/2 tsps salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 and 1/2 cups milk

Method:

In a 12-inch cast iron skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. In a large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, salt, baking powder and milk. Using a wire whisk, blend ingredients until well incorporated. When oil is hot, pour in cornmeal mixture. Do not stir. Allow a crust to form. Once formed, stir well and lower heat to simmer. Cover and cook approximately 15 minutes, stirring often. Serve with milk and sugar or with hot coffee milk as cereal.

#36 Frogging

‘Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails’. Boys around the world are fascinated by bugs, reptiles, and just about anything else slimy and green. They chase their screaming sisters around with lizards and frogs. Well, Cajun tee garçons are no different, except that they never quite outgrow their love of one green creature in particular – the bullfrog. Where most people see slimy, creepy critters, Cajuns see opportunity…for their bellies. You see, bullfrogs are the perfect prey: easy to catch, dumb as a rock, and simply delicious.

Once the sun goes down, and the air is filled with the sound of croaking frogs, it’s time to start getting ready because, unlike other outdoor activities, frogging is a night sport. Effective frogging requires two or three people: one to drive the boat, one to handle the spotlight, and one to catch the frogs. With a head mounted spotlight, you can get by with two people. Catching a frog is pretty straightforward. One person scans the banks of the swamp or bayou with a spotlight, looking for illuminated frog eyes. While the frog is momentarily stunned by the beam light, the boat driver heads straight into the bank near the frog, and the catcher, positioned at the front of the boat, grabs the frog and deposits his catch into a frog box or sack.

While I’m a hand-frogging purist, many other Cajuns like to gig frogs. A gig is a long stick with a pointy barbed end used to stab the frog. It’s a lot less messy, since you don’t have to reach over the boat and get your hands dirty. It also lowers the risk of getting snake bitten, since you’re not blindly sticking your hand into the weeds. A lot of guys who frog from airboats like to gig. I prefer catching frogs with my hands for a couple of reasons. First, I can deposit the unharmed frogs into a box and clean them in the morning, resulting in fresher meat, and more sleep for dis Coonass boy. It also gives the frogs time on death row to reflect upon the lives they’ve lived (just kidding, did I mention how stupid dem frogs were). With gigging, it’s best to clean your catch right away, before the frogs die and the meat goes bad. Secondly, it’s just more fun and rewarding to catch a big bullfrog with your bare hands.

After waking up from a long night of frogging, it’s execution time. Some people like to whack the frog in the head with a hammer. I just grab the frog by its legs, and swing its head into a clothesline post. Before you PETA people get your panties in a bunch, realize that a frog is just barely above a lobster on the intelligence scale, and a whack on the head is one of the most humane methods for killing them.

Once your meat is cleaned, it’s time for cooking. There are two ways I like my frogs prepared: fried frog legs, or frog sauce piquant, a spicy tomato based Cajun dish. If you non Cajuns can get past the idea of eating a frog, I promise you’ll love the taste. And no, it doesn’t taste a bit like chicken.

#35 Turducken

How should I stuff my turkey? It’s a question that’s plagued humanity since the beginning of time, or at least since the beginning of the turkey. For years, cooks around the world tried all sorts of different ingredients, from corn bread to rice, and even apples and nuts. Finally, in the early 1980s, a brave cook answered this question by stuffing his turkey with a duck, and if that weren’t brazen enough, he proceeded to stuff a chicken inside of that duck. Having no more room to stuff anything else, he placed his invention into the oven, and after several hours of cooking, the turducken was born. To borrow a phrase, this guy was a real man of genius.

I’ll bet the first people to see a turducken laughed, but I’m also willing to lay down money that all their plates were cleaned. With all the different stuffings and flavor combinations, eating turducken is like a wild party for your mouth (not dat kind of party!). Unlike most Cajun dishes however, this Acadian answer to the Russian doll is usually reserved for special occasions, due to price and the difficulty of making it. A cooked turducken may look just like a turkey, but once you cut into the deboned layers of meaty goodness and stuffing, you’re guaranteed some kee-yaws (oohs and ahhs for you non Cajuns) from your guests.

The turducken has a foggy history, with some people crediting Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme with creating the recipe while others credit New Orleans surgeon Gerald LaNasa, who was known for using a scalpel to prepare an early version of the dish. Whether the turducken was invented by a New Orleans doctor or a home town Cajun cook, a good idea is a good idea, and I’m declaring it a Cajun dish.

The best way to prepare the turducken is to go to the store, and buy one ready made. If you don’t believe me, then check out Paul Prudhomme’s insane turducken recipe. In one of his steps, you actually have to climb a mountain and slay a dragon. Ok, it’s not that complex, but it’s pretty damn close. These days, you can order a turducken from most local meat markets. With the popularity of turducken spreading across the South, it’s not too hard to find a store that will ship one across the country to you. So if you want to have a memorable Thanksgiving meal, try a turducken. It’ll beat mom’s dry baked turkey every time.

#34 Goin’ to Lafayette

You non-Cajun readers might have the impression that Cajuns are a bunch of barefooted, foul-mouth, uncouth folks who go around shooting and making a gravy out of everything that moves. Well, you pretty much got dat right (just kidding), but every now and then we country Coonasses yearn for a taste of civilization. Whenever we’re craving a night out on the town or a little fine dining, we put on our shoes, jump in the pickup truck, and take a trip to town, which for most Cajuns means one thing…we’re goin’ to Lafayette.

Believe it or not, there are just some things you can’t get at the local Super Wal-Mart. Fashion, for instance, is not one of Wal-Mart’s strong points (who’d have thunk it?), so most Cajun lady folks like to do their shopping in town, either at the Mall of Acadiana, Super Target, or one of Lafayette’s many discount stores. While the women folk are shopping, the men can go down to Academy and load up on hunting and fishing gear, catch a gun and knife show at the Blackham Colosseum, or just hang out at the nearest bar and drink the time away while we wait for the women to finish shopping.

Lafayette’s a lot like any metro area, just scaled down a bit. Name a chain, and it’s probably got it. One notable exception is a shortage of Starbucks on every corner. Starbucks is replaced by CC’s Community Coffee Houses, though not at every corner. If you’re hungry, there are plenty of dining options, since Lafayette has one of the highest number of restaurants per capita of any US city (at least that’s what someone told me). There’s a nice mix of national chains and local restaurants. You can go to Chili’s or choose one of our unique local eateries.

After the shopping and eating is done, Lafayette has plenty of entertainment options. Whether you’re watching a UL sporting event, a concert at the CajunDome, or listening to bands at Downtown Alive, there’s always something to do.

When I left Louisiana back in ’98, the only ethnic foods were Chinese, a Lebanese place, and one Thai restaurant. Since then, Lafayette has experienced a renaissance of sorts. If you’d have told me back then that Lafayette would someday have over five sushi restaurants, I’d have fallen down laughing. The downtown Lafayette area has been built up with plenty of new restaurants and shops. South Lafayette continues to add new strip malls and has a growing suburban area. I’m not sure what’s fueling this growth, other than a booming oil industry. I just hope we’re not setting ourselves up for another 80s style bust. Now, if Lafayette can just get some good jobs and half decent schools, it might just lure some of us remote Cajuns back.

#33 Catfish Courtbouillon

Catfish Courtbouillon (coo-bee-yon)If you’re a regular reader, you might have the impression that I’m a tomato hater. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Fact is, I believe that there’s a place for everything, and the best place in the world for a tomato is in one of my favorite fish dishes…the catfish courtbouillon (pronounced coo-bee-yon).

Catfish courtbouillon is a simple dish consisting of tomato sauce, bellpepper, garlic, onions, and catfish. The ingredients, excluding the catfish, are simmered together in a black iron pot for at least an hour, until all the flavors blend together and the tomato taste mellows out a bit. The longer you let everything simmer, the better the final dish will be. Near the end of cooking, the catfish pieces are dropped in, starting the hands-off phase of cooking. Once the fish hits the pot, there’s to be absolutely no pot stirring. Stirring would break up the fish, so it’s replaced by the occasional twisting of the pot to make sure the fish doesn’t stick. I remember watching my mom-mom twisting her pot back and forth, her big grandma arms flapping as she did it. It’s like you get to cook AND exercise at the same time (mais, buy the Cajun Black Iron Pot Workout™ video today and watch the lard melt away chére!).

It’s really hard to mess up a courtbouillon, but there are three rules that should never be broken. First, always use freshly caught wild catfish instead of pond raised fish. I believe it’s the wild catfish’s scavenger diet that gives it its signature taste (coupled with a bit of good old Louisiana water pollution). It’s also a lot of fun to catch the ingredients. The second rule is to cut the fish into steaks, not filets. Leaving the bones in will keep the fish from falling apart in the pot, and if you use larger catfish, the bones will be large enough to pick out. There’s nothing worse than picking small fish bones out of your food. And last but no least, always toss the catfish head in the pot. There’s some good meat on the head that shouldn’t be ignored, and don’t worry ’bout having to look your catch in the eye, cause you pop dem eyeballs out first.

The final dish is served over rice with some moque choux corn on the side. Here are a couple of good recipes I found, if you want to try making some for yourself.

#32 Jambalaya

What the hell is jambalaya? This was a question posed years ago to the sixth grade version of myself by a distant pen pal, named Carlos. Since this pen pal was foisted upon me by my Kum Ba Yah singing Catholic school teacher in an idealistic attempt to expose me to the outside world, I didn’t feel a particular need to respond right away. I was much too busy playing Super Mario to write back to some stranger. Well, I might be a lot of things, but let it be known far and wide that I’m not a flake, just an overachieving procrastinator. So Carlos, if you’re out there, here’s your answer, some twenty odd years late.

Jambalaya is the ultimate in single pot Cajun cooking. A combination of rice, vegetables, stock and a mixture of meats all cooked together in a single pot (usually black iron), jambalaya is a deceptively simple meal that takes only minutes to learn, but years to master. Done right, it will bring tears to a Cajun man’s eyes, but done wrong, jambalaya a greasy mushy mess. Unlike gumbo, jambalaya is a great year round dish, whether served fireside at the camp, or at home by your mama.

The jambalaya was an attempt by New Orleanians of Spanish descent to make paella in the New World. Without ready access to saffron, tomatoes were substituted, and the resulting dish bore a red hue instead of the trademark yellow of paella. This new dish was dubbed jambalaya, from the Provencal word “jambalaia,” meaning a mish-mash or mixup. Eventually, the jambalaya made its way to Cajun country, lost those damn tomatoes, and became the more tasty brown jambalaya we know and love today.

Every year a jambalaya cookoff is held at the Jambalaya Festival in Gonzales Louisiana, located on the far eastern outskirts of Cajun Country. Here you can sample some of the best jambalaya you’ve ever tasted. Unfortunately, the festival finished last weekend, so you’ll have to wait a whole year to see what I’m talking about (damned procrastination reared its ugly head again).

If you’d like to try making your own jambalaya, here’s a good recipe I found for feeding 120 people, or as I like to call it, my immediate family. If you don’t have that many mouths to feed, you might try this recipe which won the 1978 Jambalaya World Championship title.

So Carlos, I hope this answers all your jambalaya related questions. If not, just write back, and I promise you an answer sometime in the next 20 years.

Jambalaya (On the Bayou):