Getting to Know: Louisiana Flavors
The roots of Louisiana cuisine reach deep into the soil of a dazzling array of cultures. There’s Cajun cooking, a rustic, hearty, game-heavy cuisine that has its origins in rural France via Acadia. Creole cuisine is an urban fusion of West African, Native American, French, Spanish, German, and Italian traditions. Today, Cajun and Creole traditions overlap and together comprise most of what we call Louisiana cuisine. Its multicultural influences—rooted in, but not limited by, tradition—make this cuisine uniquely American. Here are the ingredients you need to know to celebrate the brassy boldness of Louisiana cooking.
Pronounced “an-DOO-ee,” this garlicky, peppery smoked pork sausage is used in a wide range of Louisiana dishes, including gumbo, jambalaya, and our Red Beans and Rice. Our favorite is smoky, spicy Jacob’s World Famous Andouille, which can be ordered online.
Tasso is a cured, smoked pork product of Cajun origin made from the fatty and flavorful pork shoulder. Its seasonings typically include cayenne pepper, garlic, herbs, and other spices. This intensely flavored meat is most often finely chopped and used as a component in dishes such as jambalaya.
Roux is a mixture of fat and flour. While lard may have been the most common fat choice a generation ago, modern Creole cooks are more apt to use butter, while their Cajun cousins are more likely to reach for vegetable oil. Roux can be cooked to white, blond, and brown stages, each of which imparts a different flavor and thickening power to the finished dish. Dark roux (pictured at left and used in most gumbos) can take hours of constant stirring to make. Try our Gumbo recipe, which uses a cool technique to cut down on the stirring and mess.
Many Cajun and Creole dishes start with a foundation of sautéed chopped onion, green bell pepper, and celery known collectively as “the holy trinity.” The standard ratio is roughly three parts onion, two parts celery, and one part bell pepper; it’s important to cut the vegetables into similar-size pieces so they’ll cook evenly. Once sautéed, the vegetables are often added to a roux that has been cooked to the desired color.
These freshwater crustaceans—also called crawfish, crawdads, or mudbugs—look like mini lobsters. Most recipes, including the iconic crawfish étouffée, call for just the tails, but the whole body (including the head) is happily, messily consumed at a proper crawfish boil. Outside of Louisiana, most crayfish tails are sold frozen.
This oblong, ridged vegetable is African in origin and is popular throughout the South. When it’s sliced and cooked, its insides turn viscous (OK, slimy), which aids in thickening soups, stews, and gumbos; the slime-averse are advised to cook whole (uncut) okra pods briefly. Breaded and fried okra is a popular appetizer in the South. We’ve found frozen okra to be acceptable in most dishes.
The “red pepper” often called for in Louisiana recipes is spicy powdered cayenne. Despite what the label says, most products are made with a blend of cayenne and different chiles. The volatile oils in all chiles lose potency within a few months, so buy cayenne in small jars and replenish it regularly. We use a full 2 teaspoons in our recipe for Creole Fried Chicken.
Whether they’re called Creole, Cajun, or just Louisiana spice blends, their ingredient lists include paprika, garlic, thyme, salt, pepper, and cayenne. While we prefer our zesty homemade version to anything you can buy, our favorite supermarket product is Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning, which has a salty, spicy kick.
Filé powder is a thickening agent often used in gumbo (gumbo is traditionally thickened by either filé or okra but not both). Filé is made by drying and grinding the leaves of the sassafrass plant and is most often added at the end of cooking, as too much time in the pot makes filé stringy. It has a woodsy flavor that some liken to root beer.
Coffee with chicory is a signature New Orleans drink. The roots of this plant, which is in the dandelion family, are roasted, ground, and added to ground coffee to impart a distinct flavor. Although it is thought to have first been used to extend the coffee supply in Napoleonic France, chicory coffee became commonplace in New Orleans during the Civil War.