Monday, January 28, 2008

Red Beans and Ricely Yours

A hearty pot of red beans bubbling away on my stove.

Today we're going to talk about making that Monday-night-in-New Orleans standard: red beans and rice. Why do Monday and red beans go hand in hand? Well, it's leftover from a time when families had ham for dinner on Sunday night and focused on doing their wash on Monday. A pot of beans -- all full of spice and leftover pork from the night before -- could sit on the stove all day and simmer while someone was out washing the clothes.

It's an inexpensive dish to make, but when it's done well it is worth its weight in gold. Little wonder then that jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong signed all his letters and autographs with the phrase "Red Beans and Ricely Yours."

So let's get started, because the sooner you get this on the stove, the better off you'll be.

Here's your shopping list:
1 package of kidney beans
1 package of smoked ham, diced
1 package of andouille sausage if you can find it; otherwise use a well-seasoned or smoked pork sausage. Whatever type sausage you use, just be sure to cut it into bite-sized pieces.
1 large onion, diced
1 large bell pepper, diced
2-3 celery stalks, diced
diced garlic (I firmly believe that one uses his or her judgement on this; me, I'm heavy-handed with it)
2 bay leaves
salt, cayenne, black pepper and white pepper to taste and a pinch or two of paprika (Note: You can take the easy route and opt for prepackaged Cajun seasoning instead. Again, the amount you use depends on your spice preference. I go for middle-of-the-road heat, assuming that people who require more will head for the Tabasco.)
2-3 teaspoons of oregano (for smokiness)
a pinch of thyme
about a tablespoon of parsley (for freshness)
steamed long grain rice

Here's what you do with all this:
Soak the beans in a pot of water overnight. The next day, rinse the beans in a colander, put them back in the pot and cover them with about two parts water to the amount of beans you have. Toss the diced onion, diced bell pepper, diced celery, garlic, bay leaves, spices, herbs, ham and andouille into the pot and jack the heat up to high, bringing everything to a boil. Stir the pot of red beans, then turn the heat down so that the pot of beans simmers for 4-5 hours. Always, always, always be sure to stir your beans (not to mention, adjust your cooktop heat and spices if it's necessary) about every half-hour. If you don't, they will stick and it will suck to clean up that mess.

You know the beans are ready when the sauce is like a thick, rich gravy. Serve the beans over steamed long grain rice and wash it all down with an ice cold beer. I'd drink Abita Golden if I could find it up here, but because I can't, a Sweetwater 420 works just fine too.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Chicken and Andouille Jambalaya

I learned something about myself recently. It’s that I haven’t really done a good job of telling my friends (or AJC food writer John Kessler, for that matter) how to make jambalaya. I described my method for one friend on three scribbled steno pad pages, never going into any specifics about the spices involved because I honestly don’t season the dish the same way each time I make it. I described my method for another friend two different ways and, because she has a mind like a steel trap, she actually called me out about the transgression. I posted one recipe on Food Buzz that I thought described the step-by-step well, only to remove it once I realized it did not. And I emailed Kessler after he wrote a story about recovering from burnt jambalaya, urging him to try it my way, only realizing after I hit send that I wasn't quite clear about what my way actually was.

Though I don't advocate being a slave to recipes, I am now advocating at least being able to give someone a reliable recipe from which they can work. This is my new New Year's Resolution.

So Saturday night I sat down with my ingredients, my 12-inch cast iron skillet and a notepad and endeavored to capture a faithful rendering of the chicken and andouille jambalaya I create on a pretty regular basis in my home. It’s a recipe I learned from watching my mom (who just seems to make the dish as if it’s an involuntary function, like breathing), begging a championship jambalaya cook for his recipe and tinkering a bit on my own. What I present to you below is something with a good and zesty base flavor that’s smoky, but not overly spicy. If you’re big on heat, all you need are a few dashes of Tabasco to take this dish from fais-do-do to zydeco.

Before I proceed, here are a few notes on what will make this a memorable jambalaya:

1. A well-flavored andouille sausage, preferably something like Savoie’s (which I’ve found in my local supermarket) which is made in Louisiana. The sausage is smoky and fairly spicy; because of that you shouldn’t have to do much to season the dish. If you can’t find a good Louisiana andouille, I suppose you could use a brand like Aidell’s, which is made in California. Just don’t tell me about it if you do. If you can’t find andouille at all, a smoked sausage will do.

But here's a pile of what you really want, the good stuff:

2. You also want well-browned (that does not mean burned) long-grain rice. The browned rice adds a depth of nutty flavor to this dish that really makes it great. Expect to spend about 15 minutes stirring and stirring your rice until it looks about like this:

Not to be hyper-regional, but I’d call that color café au lait. No?

3. You could sprinkle any garden variety Cajun seasoning into your jambalaya, but I find that they all have different balances of spices. You could also mix your own Cajun seasoning, for a little more control over the taste. Here’s the mix I used for the following recipe: 1 tsp. salt, 1 pinch cayenne, 1 pinch white pepper, 1 tsp. black pepper, 2 tsp. parsley, 1-2 tsp. oregano, 1 pinch thyme, 1/8 tsp smoked paprika, 1/8 tsp onion salt. I find it's near perfect, when you consider the flavors that are already coming at you from the well-toasted rice and nicely-flavored sausage.

So with that in mind, here’s your list of ingredients:
1 diced medium onion
1 package of diced andouille
1 lb. boneless skinless chicken breast cutlets, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 cups rice
3 cups water
1 ½ - 2 TBS garlic
Cajun seasoning mix (either as directed above or to your own taste)

1. Coat the bottom of a 12-inch cast iron skillet with a thin layer of olive oil and brown the diced andouille. When the andouille is browned, remove it from the skillet, put it on a towel-lined plate and set it aside.
2. Brown the boneless skinless chicken breasts in the same skillet, remove them from the skillet and set them aside on a different plate.
3. Pour the rice and onion into the leftover oil remaining in the skillet and cook until light- or medium-brown in hue. This will take about 15 minutes of your effort. Be sure to stir frequently so that the rice does not stick. When the rice is about 13 minutes along in this toasting process, add the diced garlic to the mixture. Don’t add it too soon, or else the garlic will get overcooked and taste bitter. Me, I have a no bitterness policy in 2008.
4. When the rice is well-browned, add the andouille and chicken to it, along with any leftover juices there may be and mix it all together. Then add the water and spices, and stir until well incorporated.
5. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cover the skillet for about ten minutes.
6. After ten minutes, uncover the jambalaya and stir it well, bringing the cooked rice to the top and pushing the less-cooked rice closer to the heat . Cover the skillet again for five to seven minutes.
7. When five to seven minutes have elapsed, uncover the jambalaya and stir it again, taking extra care to gently scrape up anything that is stuck to the skillet. Serve it with cold beer (I say Abita, of course) and a simple green salad with a tangy Creole Mustard vinaigrette (recipe follows).

Creole Mustard Vinaigrette
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
½ cup coarse brown grainy mustard, or Creole mustard if you can find it
salt and pepper to taste
2/3 cup of vegetable oil

Whisk ingredients together and serve over romaine lettuce.

Here are the jambalaya and the salad plated:

Sauce Piquante has a new vice

I like chocolate, and the darker and more bittersweet it is, the better. So when I was in a local culinary store browsing around this morning, I saw this Vosges candy bar and couldn't resist. What I love about it: it's not overly sweet, you get good rich dark chocolate flavor (it's 70 percent cacao, after all) and once you bite into a piece you also get a burst of coffee from the New Orleans chicory and some crunch from the cacao nibs.
Dangerously enough, the aforementioned store is displaying Scharffen Berger cacao nibs right by the Vosges bars. So I bought those too, thinking it's high time I give Chocolate and Zucchini's Biscuits Tres Chocolat a try and then experiment with these crunchy little morsels in some regional dishes too (bread pudding, maybe?).
If you've used chocolate nibs before, let me know. I'd like to know what sort of recipes you use them in, what they're like to cook with, and anything else that's important to know before throwing myself into playing with these high-octane goodies.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Recipe Philosophy

I've written that I view recipes as a suggestion, not a mandate. To underscore that, I fiddled with a Galatoire's recipe for Chicken Bonne Femme yesterday. I did it because:
After taking a few test runs of the cookbook, I've discovered that the authors
either assumed the home chef was cooking with an industrial strength oven, or
cooking with a team of sous chefs at their disposal, or meth-ed out on some sort
of crack rock that would enable them to pull this stuff together faster than the
speed of light.

In short: After learning my way around a kitchen from a series of well-fed relatives, assorted cooking instructors and my own trial and error, I felt like the original Chicken Bonne Femme recipe I referenced made things harder than they needed to be, even after all manner of well-considered prep. So I rearranged the steps and improvised a little here and there. I sincerely believe that my meddling produced a Bonne Femme that a highfalutin' restaurant would be proud to serve its patrons.

Lest you think I am some drawling version of Jim Henson's The Swedish Chef, let me refer you to Michael Ruhlman's fine blog, where he articulates this philosophy on recipe usage here. Soon, I will take this "recipe as guide, but not mandate" spiel a little further in this space, with a very classic Louisiana dish where the pinches and dashes and so forth are all neatly catalogued in my head, though not in any formal tablespoonly measurement. To those who have asked me for this recipe and accused me of never giving it out the same way twice: I'm going to give you the best cooking framework I can and soon for that oh-so-satisfying dish known as Chicken and Andouille Jambalaya.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Chicken Bonne Femme

A couple of weeks ago, I saw Rachael Ray yammering on about Scallops Bonne Femme, an earthy and rich dish that's served family-style in a hefty cast-iron skillet. Though I often think her recipes have too many things going on in them, I have to say this one caught my eye and my tastebuds. Yet, because I live in a house of people who turn their nose up at oysters, scallops and pretty much anything else that's fun (I can't help it because I grew up on the Gulf Coast and they didn't), I wondered if there was a way to vary that dish with a more, shall we say, inoffensive ingredient like chicken for the same effect.

Fortunately for me, my mother gave me the Galatoire's Cookbook for Christmas this past year. It was a selfish act, no doubt. Why? She marked the time-honored eatery's recipe for her favorite dish, crabmeat au gratin, and then made a point of noting that she marked that dish in the note she scribbled to me in the front of the book (Do you think the woman wants me to make her some crabmeat au gratin? Hmm...hard to say). But I bring this up because the cookbook has a great recipe for Chicken Bonne Femme that I thought I'd share with you. It's not only a perfect family-style meal that serves four, but a hearty-yet-elegant meal you can dish out for less than $15.

You read me right: In the spirit of Rachael Ray I am starting the new culinary sensation: "Feast for Under Fifteen." Amazing what sort of epiphanies you can have during that afternoon cup of French Roast.

At any rate, I've altered the recipe somewhat because after taking a few test runs of the cookbook, I've discovered that the authors either assumed the home chef was cooking with an industrial strength oven, or cooking with a team of sous chefs at their disposal, or meth-ed out on some sort of crack rock that would enable them to pull this stuff together faster than the speed of light.

Me, I believe we can't have that sort of madness in this space, especially not for something that amounts to comfort food. I believe we need to take our time and enjoy what we cook.

But before we do, here's a shopping list:

1/2 pound of sliced bacon

1 fryer chicken cut into eight pieces (Publix, for example, sells these already cut up for about $7 usually)

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Vegetable oil, for frying

1/2 stick of salted butter

2 large onions, sliced

1 tablespoon of minced garlic

2 large Idaho potatoes, sliced thinly (The original recipe says to peel them, but I like the depth of flavor the skin brings to the dish)

1/4 cup of chopped parsley to garnish

And here's what you'll do with all that:

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

2. Rinse the chicken pieces and dry them thoroughly before seasoning them well with salt and pepper. Put the chicken in a lightly oiled baking dish and bake for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Be sure you turn the pieces halfway during baking.

3. While the chicken is baking, fry the bacon until crisp then put it on a paper towel-lined plate.

4. Then, pour vegetable oil into a frying pan and deep fry the potatoes until they are golden brown. Remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon, place them on paper towels to drain and season them well with salt and pepper.

5. In another pan, melt the butter, then add the onions and saute them until they are caramelized. Deglaze the pan with 1/2 cup of water to moisten the onions and lift any bits of browned goodness off the bottom of the pan. Crumble the bacon into the onions and add the garlic too. Toss to combine the ingredients, then remove from the heat.

6. When the chicken is done, pour the onion mixture on top of it and then add the potatoes too (I don't think you don't have to use all the potatoes in this step; just use enough to make it look pretty. Because people have different views on how much starch they should eat, you can have the additional potatoes in a different serving dish at the end so that people can help themselves). Return the baking dish to the oven and cook together for an additional 3-5 minutes.

What you get for your efforts: Mmmmmm. Something that's perfect for a cold night like tonight.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A championship gumbo

For Monday night's BCS national championship game, I whipped up a seafood gumbo. You will see me write about many gumbos and stews in this space, to be sure, but this recipe is definitely a good place for me to start those musings.

What you’ll need:
1 cup, plus three tablespoons of olive oil or vegetable oil (either way, you’re all good)
1 large onion, diced
2 large celery stalks, diced
2, eight-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes
About 2 cups of sliced okra
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon white pepper
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
3 bay leaves
6, 8-ounce cans of clam juice
1 ½ pounds of peeled fresh shrimp
1 pint of oysters (you can omit this if they make you squeamish)
1 pound of jumbo lump crabmeat
1 cup all purpose flour
steamed white rice

What you’ll do:
1. Heat three tablespoons of oil in a stockpot, then add the onions and celery. Saute the vegetables until they are tender.
2. Add tomatoes and okra and simmer until the liquid has cooked down. Then, season with salt, peppers and bay leaves before adding the clam juice. Bring mixture to a boil, then lower to a simmer before adding the shrimp, oysters and crabmeat. Simmer about ten minutes.
3. While the gumbo simmers, add the remaining oil and flour to a pan (This would be what they call the roux), whisking until smooth. Continue to whisk the mixture until the roux is chocolate brown. Be careful not to let this mixture stick and burn, because if you do, you will have to throw it out and start all over again and that would suck. Let it cool a little bit.
4. Stir the roux into the gumbo a little at a time (Caution: If you do too much, too fast, it will pop and sizzle all over the place). When all of the roux has been mixed in, let the gumbo simmer about ten minutes more, until it is thicker.
Remove the bay leaves, then serve in bowls with steamed long grain rice.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Showered with Shrimp Mosca

A month before my wedding nearly six years ago, my mother hosted a kitchen shower for me at her house. She pulled out the fine china and silver, stacked a multi-tiered glass cake stand high with petit fours and finger sandwiches and served hot tea and an ice cream-based punch to everyone who attended.

A mound of presents wrapped in pastel-hued paper stood at the ready, each of them paired with a recipe that matched the Williams-Sonoma-procured this-and-that concealed within. Little by little, I unwrapped cookie sheets and a recipe for Mexican wedding cookies, pasta bowls and a recipe for Crawfish Monica, an elegant Asian-inspired table runner and a recipe for Thai Red Curry with Shrimp. Though I’ll get to those recipes and more over time in this space, it is the one my mother gave me for Shrimp Mosca that I’ll feature today.

Mom had never cooked Shrimp Mosca for me as a child or adult, so it was the first time I had seen the recipe. But from the sounds of it, it just seemed like one of those perfect last minute dinner party dishes that a newly-married woman could make for a handful of her hungry friends. Simple and zesty, it only requires two pounds of fresh shrimp (don’t use frozen), good olive oil, dry white wine and a cabinet full of the right spices and herbs. Served with crusty French bread (for sopping up those sauces) and a simple green salad, all you’ll need to wash it down is a nice bottle of dry white wine.

Another ideal side: A roll of paper towels, as this is no dish for the prim. Shrimp Mosca is all about peeling and eating at the table, so be ready to get up to your elbows in a mighty fine sauce.

2 pounds unpeeled shrimp
6 or more buds diced garlic
2 whole bay leaves
1 teaspoon rosemary
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon crushed whole black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper
1 tablespoon salt
¼ cup of dry white wine (the drier, the better)
2 oz olive oil

a note: Though Italians would frown on my use of dairy with seafood, I have been known to toss in tablespoon of butter too, from time to time. The butter yields a thicker sauce that makes all that bread dipping a little more decadent.


1. Heat the oil (and butter, if you like) in the frying pan, add shrimp, spices and herbs. Saute for 5-10 minutes.

2. Add wine and simmer on low for 10-15 minutes. You want the shrimp to be pink, but not overcooked and tough.

3. Serve with crisp hot bread.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Misadventures in Baking, Part 1

I can spend countless happy hours in the kitchen stirring a roux into chocolate brown perfection and minding a gumbo that’s chock full of the freshest ingredients I can find. But when it comes to baking, all bets are off. Baking requires a level of precision that confounds me, as I am more of an improvising, pinch-of-this-and-a-dollop-of-that style cook. Baking is a science, for crying out loud, and I, for one, am a “C” student in that subject.

But my goal is to get better. And what follows is one of my first attempts down that road.

On Christmas Eve we had smoked pork tenderloin and fresh green beans sautéed in olive oil and shallots. I felt all that savory needed to be counterbalanced by something a little sweet, so I envisioned sweet potato biscuits as the perfect -- and very regional -- accompaniment. My hope was that whatever I pulled from the oven would be as melt-in-your-mouth good as the buttery, fluffy biscuits Chef Scott Peacock turns out on fried chicken night each Tuesday at Decatur’s Watershed Restaurant. But that’s not exactly what I got. Perhaps a more baking-savvy blogger can read this and give me some tips on how to get there though.

Here’s what I did:

Armed with a copy of LSU AgCenter’s Serving Louisiana, I referred to the Sweet Potato Biscuits recipe on page 153.

Here are the ingredients:

2 cups flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup shortening
1 cup mashed cooked sweet potatoes
6 tablespoons milk

Here’s what you do:

1. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and mix well.
2. Cut in the shortening until crumbly. I didn’t have shortening handy, so I figured Plugra -- which is, in my opinion, the butter of champions -- would work just as well and used it instead.
3. Stir in the sweet potatoes and milk. Me, I got in there with my hands too, kneading it until the ingredients were well incorporated. See?

4. Knead the dough lightly on a floured surface, then roll out until it’s ½ inch thick. Cut it with a biscuit cutter.

5. Arrange the rounds on a lightly-greased baking sheet and bake at 425 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Makes 1 dozen biscuits.

Here’s what I think:

Using butter instead of shortening might have been one of my first mistakes, as my mother told me after the fact that it cooks faster than shortening and could be part of the reason why the bottom of my biscuits cooked too quickly. The recipe yielded a biscuit that was borderline cookie-like in texture; it wasn’t the light, airy and buttery creation I envisioned. And perhaps I should have sprinkled in some brown sugar or cinnamon because the sweet potato taste was virtually nonexistent.

If anyone has any suggestions on how to take what I described above and turn it into an airy, sweet biscuit, please send them my way. I will publish whatever yields the best result.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Luck and Wealth in the New Year

For me, January 1 is about endless bowl games, half-hearted promises to clean the house, a mental fog earned by staying up as late as possible the night before, and the quintessential Southern New Year’s meal – black eyed peas, smothered cabbage, corn bread and a bit of ham. Eat all this and you will not only be lulled into a fairly sizable food coma, but part of a tradition that is said to bring any eater wealth (that's where the cabbage comes in) and good luck (that's the black-eyed peas).

When I was a little girl, I remember how my mother used to have the peas and cabbage simmering on the stove by the end of lunchtime, guaranteeing that for the rest of the day my sister and I would dread the thought of eating vegetables slow-cooked in pork for dinner. Mom always cautioned us against turning our noses up at her handiwork; if we didn’t eat this, she said we’d have a pretty miserable year.

“Me? I’m not taking any chances,” she’d say, taste-testing a spoonful of black eyed peas before sprinkling a bit more salt into the pot. Full of youthful bravado, my sister and I decided we would take every chance possible to avoid what seemed to be a none-too-appetizing meal.

As I grew older and, one would hope, wiser, I decided that a little bit of ritual never hurt anyone, and in doing so, I came to enjoy what generations of people in my family have eaten on January 1. Though I failed to cook these dishes last year (and 2007 was about as unlucky as it gets), I made a point of doing it yesterday, serving myself a big heaping plate of this salty, comforting goodness.

And I have to say: I’m already feeling pretty lucky, thank you very much.

Here’s what you’ll need to feel lucky too:
1 package of cornbread mix, or ready-made cornbread
1 baked ham or slices of country ham

for the cabbage and black-eyed peas
¼ cup of vegetable oil
½ package of diced cooked bacon, smoked ham or sausage (preferably andouille, if you can find it)
2 onions, diced
1 head of cabbage, cored and chopped
chopped garlic to taste
1 pound of black eyed peas
1 cup of chopped green onions
cooked long grain rice
black pepper
cayenne pepper

Smothered Cabbage
1. Heat the oil in a heavy pot over medium heat, then add ½ of the cooked bacon, onion and garlic. Stir until the onions are translucent.
2. Add the cabbage to the pot, and up to three cups of water. Stir the mixture, cover the pot, reduce the heat to low and let it simmer for a half hour.
3. Uncover the pot and season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Add ½ cup of chopped green onions before covering the pot and allowing it to cook for another 30 minutes or until fork tender.

Black-Eyed Peas
1. Combine the peas, onions, garlic, 1 quart of water, salt, black pepper, Tabasco and diced bacon in a large heavy pot. Bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low until the peas are tender, at least 45 minutes.
2. Stir in parsley and ½ cup of green onions and cook about five more minutes.
3. Serve hot over white rice. Here’s what it looks like on a plate, piled high with cabbage, cornbread and country ham:

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Welcome to Sauce Piquante!

Sauce Piquante is a food blog written by a 35-year-old Louisiana girl who lives in the Greater Atlanta area with her husband, her sassy toddler and a bipolar hound mix. Though the author has made a living reporting and writing stories for a variety of national publications, she has not penned a word about her one great passion – food.

That changes today.

But first, a few things you should know:

The author is not a professional chef. She has degrees in journalism and history, which means she is only qualified to give you a run for your money on Trivia Night at your local bar. (By the way, you’ve got first round…) So why read this? Why not read it? The author knows some pretty good kitchen tricks, thanks to an endless array of zealous roux-making relatives, assorted cooking classes and a willingness to sit in the kitchen and learn from her mistakes.

This blog is not necessarily about all things Southern or Cajun/Creole/Louisiana, even though the author’s culinary worldview was formed by a childhood of eating gumbos, jambalayas and etouffees. At Sauce Piquante, you’ll see some Asian and African fare, some Latin and Southwestern dishes, even some European and Middle Eastern cuisine, too. Why? Because classic Southern food is not just packed with global influences, but cosmopolitan Southerners – those happy-go-lucky folks thought to be eating nothing more than gravy-soaked this, or super-smothered that -- are embracing dishes from all over the map. Here we hope to explore that vitality whether it’s expressed in a soul food tapas restaurant in Atlanta or a Lebanese bakery in Baton Rouge.

The recipes you’ll see here are the author’s best approximation of what she does, chop by chop, sprinkle by sprinkle, and so forth. After all, she views recipes as a suggestion, not a mandate, so laisser les bons temps rouler.