Monday, February 20, 2012

Mardi Gras: Crawfish Etouffée & Hushpuppies

This week thousands of people will be descending on New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras, with its parties, parades and downright debauchery. Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday, is the annual festival of excess which for many, is the last chance to indulge before Ash Wednesday starts, the sober six week period of abstinence that comes with Lent. During this time many will give up a favourite food, drink, or bad habit, but until then the drinks will flow and the partying will continue as residents of New Orleans famously celebrate Mardi Gras into the wee hours of the morning.

Chef Paul Prudhomme of K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans

Although the crowds may come to 'Nawlins' for the revelry, they stay and often return for the city's famous Cajun and Creole cuisine. A blend of French, Spanish, African and Caribbean influences, it's said to be the oldest culinary culture in the USA. One of the most celebrated restaurants in New Orleans is K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, home to Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme, who almost single handedly propelled the distinctive cuisine of his native Louisiana into the international spotlight, serving classic Louisiana foods and haute Cajun dishes like Seafood Gumbo with Andouille Smoked Sausage, Shrimp Creole, Turtle Soup, Chicken and Tasso Jambalaya, Cajun "Popcorn", Blackened Prime Rib, Sweet Potato Pecan Pie, and classic Crawfish Etouffée. 

K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in the old French Quarter 

The differences between Cajun and Creole foods are hotly debated, and while both share similar spices and flavourings, Creole food is considered to be more elegant, refined and sophisticated, whereas Cajun food is more rustic and highly seasoned. "People often ask me what the difference is between Cajun and Creole cooking. Both are Louisiana born, with French roots, but Cajun food began in Southern France, moved on to Nova Scotia and then came to Louisiana", explains Chef Paul. "The Acadians adapted their dishes to use local ingredients that grew wild in the area: bay leaves, filé powder and hot peppers such as cayenne, Tabasco and banana peppers. But Creole food began in New Orleans, a fusion of French, Spanish, Italian, American Indian and African influences. Seven flags have flown over New Orleans, and every time a new country took over, the old government would leave and their cooks would stay behind. They'd then incorporate their own way of cooking into the cuisines of their new employers, and in this way, Creole food was created". 

Chef Paul Prudhomme's first cookbook has been called 
the best Louisiana regional American cookbook ever published

One of Chef Paul's most famous dishes is Crawfish Etouffée, which is found in both Cajun and Creole cuisine. A fragrant combination of fresh Louisiana crawfish smothered in a brown gravy made with a rich seafood stock, browned flour, onions, bell peppers, celery, garlic and spicy seasonings, the dish is usually served with rice and sometimes an order of hush puppies. Having introduced the world to the rich complex flavours of New Orleans cooking, Chef Paul's cookbooks allow us all to enjoy some of the best regional dishes that Louisiana has to offer, and what better way to celebrate Mardi Gras, than with one Chef Paul's personal recipes — his classic Crawfish Etouffée.

Crawfish Etouffée
Serves 8
Recipe courtesy of Chef Paul Prudhomme

2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp freshly ground white pepper
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp dried basil
1⁄2 tsp dried thyme
3⁄4 cup canola oil
3⁄4 cup flour, sifted
1⁄4 cup finely chopped onion
1⁄4 cup finely chopped celery
1⁄4 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
3 cups seafood or chicken broth
12 tbsp (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed
2 lbs peeled crawfish tails or peeled medium shrimp 
1 cup finely chopped scallions
Cooked white or yellow rice, for serving

In a small bowl, combine salt, cayenne, white pepper, black pepper, basil, and thyme, and set aside. In a large pot, or non-stick skillet, heat oil over high heat until it just begins to smoke. Sprinkle in flour, whisking constantly, and cook for 30 seconds. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, whisking constantly, until the roux is the color of dark chocolate, about 30 minutes. Add onions and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until onions soften, about 5 more minutes. Remove pot from the heat and stir in 1 tbsp of the reserved spice mixture, along with the celery and bell peppers. Continue stirring until the roux has cooled and darkened slightly, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, bring 2 cups broth to a boil over medium-high heat. Gradually add the roux and whisk until incorporated. Reduce heat to low and cook for about 2-3 minutes. Remove pan from the heat, and set aside.

In a large saucepan, melt 8 tbsp butter over medium-high heat. Stir in crawfish tails and scallions and cook, about 1 minute. Add remaining spice mixture and reserved broth mixture, along with remaining broth and butter, and stir the pan to combine until glossy. Remove the pan from heat and serve the étouffée with rice and hushpuppies.

Makes 24-30

3/4 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1/4 tsp Kosher salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp finely minced white onion
1 tbsp finely minced scallion
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tbsp melted butter
1 large egg
vegetable oil for frying

Combine all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the minced scallions and onion to the fry mixture and stir to combine. Pour in the buttermilk and mix until it forms a lumpy dough. Add in the melted butter and the egg and mix together thoroughly, until it resembles a stiff batter. Using a deep pot, preheat oil for frying to about 350°F.

Using a melon baller or spoon, drop the batter, one tablespoon at a time into the hot oil, and fry until golden brown, turning the hushpuppies during the cooking process. Cook in small batches to maintain the oil temperature. Dip the spoon in a glass of water after each hushpuppy is dropped into the oil. Drain briefly on paper towels, and serve hot with Crawfish Etouffée.