Ground Beef and Mirliton Skillet

Ingredients:

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb lean ground beef
2 cups diced mirliton (chayote squash), about 2 medium sized mirlitons
1/3 cup chopped onion, about 1/2 an onion
1 small chopped red bell pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 C water or beef stock
1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1 Tbsp. creole seasoning
Salt and Pepper to taste

Preparation:

Halve and de-seed the mirlitons and cut into 1-inch cubes. With mirliton, it is often easier to boil them (like potatoes) before cooking with with them. Boil the diced mirliton in lightly salted water for 15 minutes or until fork tender. Drain mirliton and set aside. In a large skillet, sautee onion in heated olive oil until translucent. Add garlic and bell pepper. Add ground beef and brown. Add water and seasonings. Add mirliton and stir well. Allow to cook for another 5 minutes. I like to mash the pieces of mirliton into the beef, although this tends to happen on its own as the boiled squash is fairly soft.

I also think the addition of 1 can of tomatoes (Ro-tel) might be nice. If you try this, skip the water and use the canned tomatoes as the liquid.

Makes 3 servings.

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What is the difference between “creole” and “cajun?”

Many of my friends and acquaintances who did not grow up in Southeast Louisiana believe that the terms “creole” and “cajun” are interchangeable. One specific example I can recall happened sometime soon after Katrina. Someone I had just met found out I grew up in New Orleans. They mentioned how much they liked Cajun food and looked forward to visiting there when things cleared up in New Orleans. In my mind, I took issue with this statement, not because I have anything against Cajuns, per se. Rather, I find that most people outside the Gulf Coast of Louisiana have no concept of the historical and social roots of the two distinct, but related, cultures.

When I was young in the 70s and early 80s, I do not even remember hearing the word “cajun” used in reference to anything. In my experience, there were city people and country people. The country people could be further divided into those who lived in marshy areas and those who lived in places like Mississippi. Granted, the country side of my family is from the Pearl River area of Louisiana and Mississippi—Bogalusa, Picayune, etc. My “New Orleans” family described their heritage and style of cooking as Creole. If I remember correctly, it was PBS that introduced me to Cajuns. Justin Wilson and his “How y’all are?” was the first exposure I had to Cajun cooking and culture. I am sure others living in New Orleans were aware of Cajuns. My point is not to dismiss their awareness of this rich culture, rather I am simply pointing out that my own awareness of it came around the same time as the rest of the nation’s.

The word “creole” is rooted in the Portuguese word criollo, which today means someone who was born in a colony run by the French, Spanish, or Portuguese. The usage of this word carried no distinction between someone who was black or white. And to this day, this is how the term is used in Louisiana. Again, people outside of (and inside) Louisiana often believe that a Creole person is someone who is either black or multiracial. While this is true in part, historically it carries no racial overtones and this is not how the word has been used in New Orleans. It does however carry ethnic overtones and simply implies that one’s family is French or Spanish—or, as in my case, a combination of both—in origin. According to the book, Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization by Arnold J. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon, the racial implications came from two periods. The first was when the United States purchased Louisiana and American migrants began pouring into New Orleans bringing the Anglo concept of the color line with them. The second was after Reconstruction and during the Jim Crow era when the color line was further reinforced when white Creoles began to accept white Anglo culture as their own. The book further explains that this was acceptance neither definite nor was it complete. What occurred instead was an eroding of the Creole culture among whites through the enforcement of English-only in public schools, intermarriage with Anglo families, and an increasing identification with “whiteness.” It was not complete simply because not every white Creole bought into the changing identity and to this day there are white Creole families that speak French at home, albeit in small numbers.

Please note that I chose not to address the myth of Americans vs. Creoles. It makes for a good story, but it is not complete and ignores many of the people who lived in New Orleans at the time. I also do not want to paint a picture of complete racial harmony in New Orleans. Relatively speaking though, until the last century Creoles on the whole saw themselves as a culture distinct from the rest of the United States and, for the most part, got along regardless of race and started many families together. There again are many myths regarding black cooks and housekeepers carrying the creole culture to black households. Keep in mind, there was a large population of free people of color who gained their freedom as a result of the French manumission laws regarding slavery. This is an important difference between the Anglos and the French and the creole culture existed across the color line.

It is also interesting to note, that much of America’s familiarity with Creoles came from the black migrations during the 1920s. During this time, fewer white Creole families left the New Orleans area than did black Creole families due to economic changes occurring in the nation. Oakland, California was one major focus for this migration along with Los Angeles and Chicago. It certainly explains why Oakland always felt like “home” to me.

Cajuns also have French roots, but trace their roots not from the Gulf Coast region. Instead, they trace them from the Acadian region of French Canada today known as the Maritime region of Canada. The word “cajun” is a corruption of the word “acadian.” By now, most people know the history of the Cajun people and how they migrated to Louisiana. Interestingly, there was little interchange of creole and cajun culture despite their proximity to one another. This is not to say that there was none, just very little. The proof that there was some plays out in the foods of both culture—gumbo and jambalaya being two such examples. This cultural interchange probably came in the form of trade and the sale of produce from the agricultural regions of Acadiana. Yet, the two cultures remained distinct and evolved separately.

Keep in mind, it is important not to view the region as bi-polar. There were many other ethnic groups that settled up and down the Mississippi River—Germans along the “German Coast” and Spanish settlers from the Canary Islands in several areas of the delta. It is perhaps easier for most people to view the region as bi-cultural, however. But I want to point out just how complex and diverse the historical roots of the Gulf Coast region truly are. Most long-time families in the area can trace their roots back to several points of origin and very few, if any, older families have one distinct line. Because the area has been historically an important center for trade and commerce, many people from across the globe were attracted to the region and settled there. It helps to explain the unique—almost schizophrenic—cultural traditions of the region.

As far as how this distinction relates to cooking: simply put creole cooking is highly influenced by French culinary traditions of sauces, tends to use butter, and is generally viewed as more refined (there are exceptions!). Cajun cooking, on the other hand, tends to be a cuisine of necessity. By that, I mean that as farmers and fisherman there was a need to live off the land and essentially eat what the harvest “brung ya’.” Many people view it as sophisticated vs. peasant food and while there is not anything wrong with that, it feeds into an oversimplification of what really happened. There are also exceptions where creole food is countrified and cajun food is citified. As a final note, blackened stuff of any kind is not cajun. That was an invention of Paul Prud’homme who happens to be of Cajun descent. Prud’homme’s was actually trained as a creole chef at Commander’s Palace.

I’m sure by now, y’all are saying “well, that was a mouthful.” I am a social sciences student working toward getting my credentials to teach US history in at the High School level and have a great fascination with all things Southeast Louisiana.

Crawfish Boulettes

At Deanie’s Seafood Restaurant in New Orleans, these are served with the fried seafood platter and the crawfish combination. Deanie’s calls them “crawfish dressing balls.” To say that I crave them all the time is an understatement; it’s more like true lust. On our last trip, we went to Deanie’s twice just so I could get these little treats.

Half seafood platter


Crawfish Boulettes

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb crawfish tails, with fat (I used shrimp once and it was just as good)
  • 1 medium bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stalk of celery, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
  • 2 tbps Creole seasoning, or to taste
  • 4 eggs, beaten separately in two bowls of two eggs apiece
  • 1 tbps Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, to taste
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • corn meal for breading

Directions:

In a food processor, grind the crawfish tails together with bell pepper, onion, celery, garlic, and parsley. In a mixing bowl, incorporate the bread crumbs, Creole seasoning, two of the beaten eggs, Worcestershire, hot sauce, salt and pepper. Shape mixture with hands into smallish meatball-sized portions. Dip each boulette into remaining beaten egg, dredge each into breading medium and fry in oil until golden brown. Serves about 8-10.

Creole-Style Boiled Rice

I hate making rice. I mean, how can something so seemingly simple, be so temperamental? It either comes out too dry with a hard crunch to each grain or it comes out a huge mass of gelatinous, white nastiness that just sits on the plate daring you to put something on it. Good white rice should spread out on the plate, not sit there taunting you. On my last trip to New Orleans, I was thrilled to finally be able to eat rice the way I remember it, separate grains and with a slight tooth, al dente if you will. Not mushy. Not sticky. Just good old plain rice.

I own a rice cooker and, I admit, it makes decent rice for red beans and gumbo. But often the bottom becomes crusty or the rice might come out a little too mushy for my taste and, quite honestly, the results are always a little disappointing. But, thanks to Danno over at Nolacuisine.com and the folks at Commander’s Palacerestaurant in New Orleans I have it… the golden chalice… perfect white rice. The key is to boil the rice like pasta until it is tender and then drain it. You can also dry the grains in an oven if need be, but when I make it (so far) it comes out perfect! “Why vinegar?” you may ask. It serves two purposes: one, the acid helps tighten up the grains of rice and prevent it from getting mushy and two, it helps make it very white. Recipe modified from Commander’s Palace cookbook:

Creole-Style Boiled Rice

1 cup long-grain rice, Basmati is good… I use Mahatama
1 quart water
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon white vinegar
2 bay leaves (the recipe calls for fresh if you have access to it)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Bring the water, salt, and vinegar to a rolling boil in a large pot that has a lid, add the rice and bay leaves, and stir occasionally and gently with wooden spoon until the water returns to a boil. Stirring will release the starch, so avoid overstirring, and, when boiling, do not stir at all. The boiling prevents the rice from sticking. Cover the pot but with the lid slightly ajar to let steam out. Continue boiling for about 12 minutes or until the grains soften and water appears to dissipate. The grains will swell and become tender to the touch. Drain the rice by creating a small opening between the cover and the pot or use a colander. Season with additional salt and pepper.

Makes approximately 2 cups of cooked rice.

Jambalaya

Another flexible dish, like gumbos, with infinite combinations. There are two types of jambalaya that I am aware of; creole and cajun. Creole jambalayas use tomatoes and lean on the red side as a result, cajun jambalayas lean on the brown side and (as far as I know) don’t use tomato. The following recipe will be for a creole jambalaya.

I make jambalaya in a strange way… according to tradition. Rather than cooking the rice WITH the sauce, I cook them separately so that the rice comes out correctly each time. I found that when I did it the traditional way (cooking the rice in the sauce for an hour or so), the rice either came out underdone or mushy. If you choose to make it the traditional way, double the chicken/beef stock to 1 1/2 quarts.

Fin!

Jambalaya

1 lb. smoked sausage or andouille, sliced and browned
1 lb. chicken thighs, cut from bone, diced and browned
1/2 cup + 2 Tbps. olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 can diced tomatoes
2 toes garlic, diced
3 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
3/4 quart chicken or beef stock
1 small can of tomato paste

1 tablespoon creole seasoning (use more if you like)
1 tablespoon worchestershire sauce

6 cups rice, cooked

Brown the sausage and chicken in half the olive oil in a large saucepan or iron pot. When meat is nice and brown and you get the “gratin” on the bottom, saute the trinity. Add diced tomato (juice and all), garlic, bay leaves, thyme and heated stock. Add creole seasoning and bring to a simmer for 20 minutes at least, preferably longer like an hour or two. While sauce is simmering, in a separate small pot take 2 Tbps. olive oil and heat over medium heat. Empty can of tomato paste into hot oil and stir, stir, stir. This is called pincé-ing. Stir until paste is the color of mahogany (deep reddish-brown). Add paste to sauce. This will serve two purposes: one, it will thicken the sauce slightly and two, it will add that extra bite. When sauce is done, add cooked rice and mix thoroughly. Serves 6.

Variation: you may use pasta instead of rice. Add 1 lb. cooked pasta. Bake in a preheated 350 degree; oven for about 30 minutes in a casserole dish.

Creole Tuna Casserole

What could be better? Elements of creole cooking combined with comfort food… for me that’s redundant, but that’s not the point…

Creole Tuna Casserole

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tins (12 oz. total) of tuna packed in water, drained
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 medium bell pepper, diced
2 cloves of garlic
1 can of Rotel or diced tomatoes
16 oz. shell-type or rotini pasta (any type that will hold sauce well)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 1/2 cups of milk
8 oz. SHARP cheddar cheese
a couple of dashes of Worchestershire sauce
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon creole seasoning
hot sauce to taste
1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs or Panko bread crumbs (depends on your taste)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees;. Start your pasta water boiling. Sautée onion and bell pepper in a tablespoon or so of olive oil until onions are translucent (about 5 minutes). Add garlic and tomatoes and sautee mixture for another 2 minutes. Season vegetable mixture with creole seasoning, salt, pepper, Worcestershire, and hot sauce then remove from heat. Check pasta for just below al dente stage as the pasta will cook more in the oven, drain pasta when it’s done. The next step is to make a béchamel sauce. Start the roux by melting the butter and adding the flour to the melted butter. You only want this to be a blond roux, so you don’t need to cook it long, just long enough to get rid of the raw flour taste. Add cold milk to roux and whisk until smooth. Add 3/4 of your shredded cheddar cheese to béchamel and whisk until creamy smooth. Combine tuna, pasta and vegetable mixture in a bowl and mix together until all the ingredients are fairly integrated. Add béchamel to mixture and fold until blended. Transfer mixture into a casserole dish, top with leftover cheese and bread crumbs. To make bread crumbs turn out crunchy and golden brown, add a tablespoon more of butter, chopped, to the top. Bake at 350 degrees; for 30 minutes.

EDIT: you can try it with Fontina or Gruyere mixed in with the cheddar. Or better yet, try Pepper Jack.