Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Is your Mama Catholic, and can she make a roux?

First you make a roux...

The complete article and more information, please visit the link above!

First time I ever ran across the phrase "Is your mama Catholic and can she make a roux?" was while reading "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" by Rebecca Wells, a fabulous novel set in Louisiana. Now, the different parts of the South can be as disparate as night and day, and as a Tennessean from the mountains the word 'roux' was not in our everyday vocabulary. But as a Southerner I understood the critical question about mamas, and therefore realized that if roux ranked enough to be included in that question, it must be fundamental indeed.

Years later, when I began to ask myself the critical questions that led to my philosophy of technique over recipe, I realized that I did indeed know how to make a roux, and had been taught not only by own mama, but her mama as well. We just lacked the cultural link to the French culinary history that Louisiana had, and therefore didn't feel we had to discuss it. We also lacked some of the finer permutations of the roux though - what we made was nearly always a simple white or 'light' roux. This is the basic thickening method for cream sauces and gravies - most often a Bechamel. If you've ever eaten Macaroni and Cheese, Sausage Gravy and Biscuits, or tons of cream based casseroles, you've had roux.

The elevation of a roux though comes when the French and Cajuns get hold of it. The word 'roux' means 'red' in French, and it refers to the richer colors a roux acquires as it cooks. We'll talk about that in a minute.

The purpose of a roux is to thicken sauces, stews and soups. Beyond that though, a darker roux will impart an unmistakable nutty flavor to the dish in which it is used. A roux is simply flour and fat cooked together to the desired color. Cooking them together before using allows the starch in the flour to absorb moisture, which in turn allows the flour to thicken a sauce or soup without lumps. The more liquid the flour particles have absorbed at the beginning, the less likely they will be to clump together later. This is a nifty means by which to make sure your sauces and stews are silky and beautifully thickened, with nary a lump or bump in sight.This is the basic method for making most sauces and of course - the bechamel.

However, if you've ever received the unparalleled delight that is a basic Cajun gumbo, you'll understand why a roux is also much more than that. If you cook a roux longer than strictly necessary for thickening, the flour is therefore toasted, and the roux takes on an incomparable nutty flavor. It also picks up more and more color, which is where the names of the different roux come from.

All righty - there's the intro. Let's move on...

What IS a roux, anyway?

Roux is simply fat and flour. All roux is fat and flour. The differences between roux (rouxis also the plural - there isn't rouxs or rouxes) come in what kind of fat and how long it is cooked. Most roux uses butter and flour in equal proportion, 1/2 stick (or 1/4 cup) of butter and a 1/4 cup of flour. Or a cup of butter and a cup of flour. A 1:1 ratio is the standard for roux, period. Note I said standard - I personally like most things a little thicker than standard, so I use about another 25% more flour than fat than the standard. (See - once you know the method you don't need to follow all the rules!)

Most traditionally, roux is made with butter, especially clarified butter. However, you can use just about any fat you wish. I've used bacon fat in Bacon Pot Pie, oils in Gumbos and Etouffee, and schmaltz in Chicken and Dumplings. They're all delicious. Your choice is yours - although you should be led by two factors. What you will be using the roux for, and how long you'll be cooking the roux. The longer your roux cooks, the more likely it will be to burn. So you'll want to choose judiciously there. A higher smoke point - with vegetable oils vs. butter or bacon grease might be a better choice, and is more traditional with the Cajun classics. However, keep in mind that the true art of roux is in stirring, so as long as your willing to stir and baby it, you can use whatever you like. Your roux is not only a means by which to thicken - it's also a flavoring agent if you want it to be (in darker roux). And the fat you choose is a large part of this.

All the colors of Roux...

I've read about forty two bajillion cookbooks, essays and articles, especially on method. Many will try to give you a distinct number of roux - some say three, some say five, some simply list colors. The truth is, there are as many types of roux as there are color variations between white and black. However, there are some basic 'grades' and each one has it's own uses and benefits. So I'll give you the high points on the color scale. To make the darker roux, keep stirring. You'll progress through each of the lighter colors on your way to the final one.

White Roux

White roux is the first thing you'll get on the scale. This is often used in simple cream gravy or sauce, and can be used to make the Bechamel that is used to bind other dishes. A white roux is achieved when the flour has cooked enough to be rid of the 'floury' taste. This roux is the most powerful of thickeners.

Blond Roux

Considered a 'medium' roux, many Creole dishes use a blond roux as a base. Creole cuisine is somewhat more 'refined' than Cajun; think of it as the elegant city version of Cajun's rustic punch.

Peanut Butter Roux

Also thought of as a 'medium' roux, Classic Cajun cuisine will sometimes use a blond roux, but many of the distinctive flavors of Cajun dishes come from the incredible nutty, smokey flavors found in the roux - which often is not lighter than a peanut butter roux. Peanut butter roux simply looks like peanut butter - when the color is the same, this one is done.

Chocolate Roux, Dark Chocolate Roux

Keep stirring a medium roux over low heat, and the color will continue to deepen, as will the flavors. While roux that are 'dark' - such as the chocolate and brick roux, have more distinct flavors, it's not always what you are looking to achieve. More delicate flavors can't really benefit from a dark roux. However, if you're after a knock-your-socks-off Gumbo or German Brown Sauce, you'll start with these. Imagine all the colors of chocolate, from milk chocolate to dark, and you'll understand the similar variations in color of roux. Just remember the darker the color, the more complex and intense the flavor.

Brick Roux

The richest, most distinct flavoring agent, a brick roux has lost much of the thickening power it started with. What is has traded for is FLAVOR. There is nothing like it, and when someone ask 'can you make a roux', I personally feel that if you haven't mastered this one, the answer is NO. The good news are that it's not that hard, if you follow the rules, the first of which is not to leave it! Brick roux is one small step from burnt roux, and if you burn it, start over. There's no way to salvage it. The color of a brick roux is exactly that - it obtains a distinct reddish tone, and the fragrance is both nutty and smoky.

Yeah, yeah - But how do I MAKE a roux?

All you do is heat the fat, sprinkle in the flour, and stir. The traditional tried and true sworn-by-method-of Southern-cooks is to use a cast iron skillet and a wooden spoon. That's it. The whole method. Now - the trick is to stir - seriously. Don't walk off. This is not the time to call your Mama. Don't get yourself a cold drink. Within just a few minutes, as soon as the mixture is incorporated in fact, you'll have a white roux - what's most often used in a casserole.

Now while cast iron is the classic, I have to confess I've used a steel skillet or porcelain pot and I have remained a member of polite society. More or less.

Remember as well that while a classic ratio is 1:1, you can tailor this based on your preferences. Make a roux a couple times the standard way, using butter or oil and an equivalent amount of flour, then begin to tweak it as you like. Begin with a medium heat, then remember the main objective. If you want a darker roux, use slightly lower heat to accommodate smoke points. If you want butter flavor but a chocolate roux, use half vegetable oil. Or all oil - which means you can use higher temps and have a shorter cook time.

It's all up to you - think about what you want in your final product. Personally, for a darker roux, I'm happy with half butter or bacon fat and half oil, with a slightly longer cooking time. The flavor is unbelievable. Be prepared to spend at least a half hour on a chocolate roux - up to an hour depending on the temperature you're using.

The good news is that roux can be made ahead - and frozen or refrigerated for up to a couple months. If it lasts that long. Mine never does. Roux in the fridge calls like a siren - "gumbo..." it says. "Etouffee... can you taste it?". You can put it directly into whatever you're making. Sweet, huh?

The number one mistake people make is to not stir. I can't emphasize this point enough. I mean it. If you stop, and then see black specks, you're toast. You've burned your roux, and there's no redemption. Start over.

That's it - you're ready. Don't be afraid of roux. Allow yourself a couple times to experiment and screw it up - although if you keep the heat down and don't stop stirring, you'll be fine. Be ready to rock some Gumbo (can you tell I love that stuff), and prepare to show yourself off as a Bombshell. You'll have earned it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Blackened Catfish - or Chicken or Shrimp or Anything!

Most of the time you’ll see the terms ‘blackened’ in regard to fish or poultry, and sometimes meats. It is credited with being an old Cajun cooking technique, but the fact is it was created in the early 1980’s by New Orleans Master Chef Paul Prudhomme at his restaurant, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. This was located in the French Quarter, and was co-owned by Chef Paul and his late wife Kay.

Blackening was immediately recognized as something special, and attained huge and nearly instant popularity. The dish which was served at K-Paul’s was Blackened Redfish. It was so popular it was cited as the reason Gulf populations of this sports fish were quickly declining, although the numbers of redfish in the Gulf had been dropping since the 1970’s.

Blackening is meant to be a quick cooking method. In this technique, a peppery crust is developed through the liberal use of butter and high heat, in combination with a spicy rub on a relatively thin, uniform piece of meat or fish. It can be done either with a grill, or a well seasoned cast iron pan. Note that I said the liberal use of butter – despite popular opinion, this is not a means by which to achieve a svelte figure (take a look at the inventor).

Although blackening something is not how to start a diet, it is extremely easy, and the results are out of this world. One bite and it’s easy to see how Chef Prudhomme achieved his fame. Or infamy – depending on how much you like spicy food.

For the complete recipe breakdown, and more information on the technique, click the link at the top of this article!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Tuna Casserole - Comfort Food and Budget Bombshell

For the price breakdown on this dish, click the link above!

Not long ago a friend of mine told me he was eating “tuna, peas and mac and cheese”. Oh, ‘tuna casserole?’ I asked. “No – just tuna, peas and mac and cheese”. EWWW! When I told him I could make it the right way, he said “yeah, but you’d use only the best ingredients, and that blows the budget”. He explained that it was a dish that came out of the early years of their marriage, when the grocery money had to stretch to cover the very most. He also admitted that his awesome wife “wasn’t real fond of it”.
Now wait a minute. This happens to hit something that is at the very core of my culinary philosophy. I am a single mom with four children. I KNOW what it means to make a dollar stretch until squeaks. Sure I skip all the packaged stuff. I take time to make things from scratch. I don’t ever buy convenience foods. And I do it on purpose. Homemade and scratch means that not only do things taste better, but they cost less. There are a very few exceptions to this, but only a very few.
This is why I love to preach method and technique over recipes. Knowing the methods sets you free – not just in the kitchen, but also with your grocery budget. Once you understand your ingredients and how to make each one work, you’ll be free to take advantage of every sale you come across. You can adapt what you know how to do to what is fresh and inexpensive. Sure it takes time and effort. BUT…
How much extra time is spent at work to cover the increased cost of packaged, convenience or restaurant foods? I don’t think an extra couple hours of planning or cooking is a very high price to pay at all when you consider the benefits. Fresh food, higher quality, increased health and nutrition, and complete control of our dietary intake. That’s a given right there.
So I took a twofold challenge with Tuna Casserole. I wanted to do several things. I wanted to show the traditional comfort food that few of us admit to loving. But we do. I wanted to show that nearly the same ingredients my friend used could be used in a ‘scratch’ version – so that the flavors rocked, and it was something his poor wife might actually want to eat – not to mention the kids. This is the version my mother, grandmother and HER mother made - so this one is the beloved standard. My daughter cooked with me, so it's proven for five generations. Not bad there. And I also wanted to demonstrate that it can be done for nearly the same cost as the hideous concoction he described.
I did a price breakdown for this dish. If I didn’t have a grocery receipt for one of the items I used, I pulled the price from a national warehouse store website. I usually buy generic items, so the actual cost of the name brands from the warehouse store actually brought the price up some. If I find the actual price I pay at my local discount supermarket, I’ll adjust the price accordingly. (See Box.)
Now if your budget isn't quite so restricted, feel free to adjust or increase any of the ingredients you want. If you prefer all white tuna, or more cheese, or want to add sour cream or cream cheese to the bechamel, go ahead. A touch of terragon is great, as is thyme, or a little dried oregano - all serve to just make it better. Use Parmesan cheese, or a white cheddar - soon I'll be posting an 'upgrade' version of this dish. So I do it myself from time to time. But the one I instruct here is the all time fabulous comfort food classic. Give it a shot!
The Recipe!

You'll need:

1/2 pound egg noodles

1 cup petite frozen peas

1 small yellow onion, diced - about 1 cup

4 oz. button mushrooms, diced

1 5 oz can light tuna, packed in water, drained very well

1/4 cup butter, divided

2 oz heavy cream (about three tablespoons or so)

1/2 sleeve Ritz crackers, crushed

4 oz. sharp Chedder cheese, grated

1.Cook egg noodles in salted boiling water according to package directions, about 6-7 minutes. Preheat oven to 350F.

2.Meanwhile, melt half the butter in a very large skillet over medium heat. Saute onion and mushrooms for about five minutes, or until fragrant and onion is becoming transluscent.

3.Stir in cream and drop heat to low. Stir in drained tuna, breaking up an large pieces, and toss in peas. Stir well to combine. If the sauce seems a little tight, add just a little pasta water, 1/4 cup at a time, until you like the consistency. Add salt and pepper, tasting to adjust for seasoning.

4.Drain noodles, and add to skillet. Toss well to combine. Transfer mixture to a 7x11 casserole dish. Top with shredded cheese.

5.Melt remaining butter, and stir into crush crackers. Spread cracker mixture evenly over top of cheese.

6.Back at 350F for 25-30 minutes, or until bubbly, and cheese is melted. That's it! Go eat!

Black Bean and Chicken Soup

If you'd like to see the cost breakdown for this dish, check out the link above!

Recently I was accused to using "all the best" ingredients - and it tore me up. My passion and philosophy is that technique is what elevates food - and I'm on an incredibly strict budget. I shop sales and look for bargains like the best of them. I guess in a way it was a lopsided compliment - the friend that said that to me had been looking at my Thrillbilly Gourmet blog, and had decided that the only way to cook the way I do is to spend way to much at the store.
Au contraire mon amis! If you pay attention to the dishes I make, you'll see that I waste nothing, and that most of my flavor comes from two places - applying the right method to each ingredient to maximize it's punch, and from selecting flavor packed ingredients in the first place.

This simple little soup is a perfect example of how I cook every day. This dish is absolutely packed with the good stuff - beans, veggies and lean protein, and is loaded with flavor. In this case I had some chicken I needed to use, so I poached it quickly and threw it in the pot. However, most of the time I don't do that - and if you leave out the chicken or use a less expensive cut - or just less period - you cut the cost per serving from .49 to .24. On top of that this soup is easily main dish - it's rich, hearty and filling, even without the chicken. The beans themselves provide ample protein - you don't need the extra from the poultry unless you just want to.
Did I use only the best ingredients? Yes I did. But they were the ones on sale or readily available cheaply all year round - dried beans, onion, carrot and celery, garlic, chili powder and cumin. This makes a big pot of soup - depending on what you include in the meal to go with it you'll easily get between 12-16 servings. It gets better as it sits too, so refridgerate the extra, and use it for a second meal. We like it as it is, but because it's thick, we sometimes roll it in tortillas with lots of dark green lettuces and some salsa for a fabulous (if messy!) burrito. Make up some cornbread and have a ready made supper with a big fat salad. This one is another of my 'double duty' recipes - cooking once and having a huge jump start on another meal. My big boys happily warm up some after school, and it's easy to feed my menfolk (my dad and brothers are often here) at lunch quickly, well and inexpensively.
Tailor it as you will too - if you have to have cheese, go ahead. Monterrey or Pepper Jack, Cheddar or a little Mozzarella, Cojito or Queso Fresco - whatever floats your boat. But remember, if budget is your concern, that's another protein and therefore pricey. I made this soup to be flavorful enough not to need it.

The Recipe!

You'll need:

1 bag of black beans (canned if have to, but I prefer the dried, and they cost much, much less)
2 medium carrots, diced
1 medium celery stalk, diced
2 yellow onions, diced
1 Tbl cumin
Freshly cracked black pepper
Kosher salt
1 Tbl chili powder
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 28 oz can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 lb of cooked shredded chicken (optional)
to garnish:
sour cream
minced parsley or cilantro
lime juice

1.I really like using dried beans. I normally let them soak overnight, since that method preserves more of their nutritional value. So - soak them overnight, drain the soaking water, cover them again with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and cook for about an hour to an hour and a half. The fresher your dried beans, the shorter the cooking time. Halfway through this first cooking time, add cumin and chili powder, and a good teaspoon of salt. More if you like. You'll know they're ready when you can taste one and have it be just a little bit underdone. If it were pasta it'd be 'al dente'.

2.Add onions, carrots, garlic and celery to the pot. Continue to simmer for another half hour. After twenty minutes you can taste for seasoning - the broth will be your best indicator. Taste adjust seasoning for salt and pepper. If you'd like additional cumin or chili powder - or both! - add it now.

3.Taste again. Once the beans are cooked - tender but not mushy - stir in tomatoes and juice. Don't add the tomatoes before the beans are done, because the acid in the tomatoes will prevent the beans from becoming tender, although they'll be 'done'. If you're using chicken, stir it in, or use it as a garnish.

4.To serve, simply ladle into bowls. Add a little squirt of lime juice to each bowl, and top with a dollop of sour cream. Sprinkle with the parsley or cilantro - and eat up!