Dig Baton Rouge

Becoming Homegrown: This month, I’m learning Cajun food secrets

For as long as I can remember, I have never been a big fan of Cajun food staples. I’m talking about gumbo, jambalaya and piquantes. My family will tell you differently, but I can’t recall loving anything besides bisque or boiled crawfish. Even I recognize that it’s nearly unforgivable to not like boiled crawfish. Now, if you’re thinking, “Oh, he must be from above the Mason-Dixon,” I hate to disappoint you. I am a Baton Rougean and my family extends from DeRidder to New Orleans. Also, I have no known allergies, and if you’ve been following me, you’ll know I used to weigh 479 pounds. So, you see, there’s no real reason for these unusual Southern feelings.

Please don’t completely write me off yet. There are instances in which I will eat this particular cuisine—gumbo with potato salad in it, accompanied by hot sauce and étouffée atop fried catfish (á la Catfish Acadiana), also accompanied by hot sauce. Nor will I disrespect someone’s home or hospitality if it’s served as the main course. And, with all foods, I’ve had some better versions and some that solidified my disdain.

In an effort to further embrace my Louisiana roots, I figured it was time to find a recipe for a Cajun dish that I wouldn’t just tolerate, but one that I would actually enjoy.

I reached out to a friend’s dad to assist me with this milestone. The government knows him as Daniel Musso, but to everyone else, he’s Papa Musso or “Pop.”
Though Pop doesn’t earn a living in the kitchen, his life is surrounded by food and the people around his table. He has a rather large Italian family, and all who meet him instantly become a part of the famiglia. I’ve had his meals innumerable times, and he never disappoints. Pop’s cooking motto is “If I can buy something for $19.99, but can make it for $9.99 at home, I will.” With this in mind, we chose the classic, shrimp étouffée. He promised me three things: It’d be simple, it’d be a crowd pleaser and I would like it.

Étouffée has its etymology in southwest Louisiana, with many sourcing it to Breaux Bridge. The dish is typically prepared with either crawfish or shrimp and served over a bed of rice. Variations are plenty, but the debate usually centers on adding tomatoes. We opted to skip the red fruit for simplicity of both flavors and for my first venture.

I will warn that we kept in true Louisiana fashion when implementing this recipe. We used our taste buds, eyes and hands for most of our measuring instruments. Without further ado, here’s the recipe that Pop promised would change my life:

1-½ sticks of butter
3-½ tablespoons of flour
2 cups of onion (sweet or white), chopped
½ cup of red bell pepper, chopped
½ cup of celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 pounds shrimp peel and deveined
Cornstarch
Green onion, chopped Salt
Tony’s
Black pepper
Garlic powder
Bay leaf
Water

Take one stick of butter and melt it in a saucepan. Once it’s melted, add in the Cajun Holy Trinity — the celery, bell pepper and onion — and the garlic. You’ll sauté until translucent. If you choose, you can throw in a teaspoon of salt here for flavor. Add a little water in the pan (enough to keep the garlic from burning and to get a smoother consistency).

Continually stir for smoothness.

While stirring, gradually add in your flour throughout your mixture. The roux will compact and everything will smell amazing! Add in about three cups of water, set aside and let it come to a light, rolling boil. You’ll need to occasionally stir the mixture.

Take the remaining butter and melt it in another skillet. Either in a separate bowl or that same skillet, toss your shrimp in a palmful (a tablespoon) of Tony’s. After mixing, place it on the heat and cook until the shrimp turns pink.
Once the shrimp are ready, add all contents to the roux. Adding both butter and shrimp add the extra necessary flavor that’s reminiscent of any Cajun dish. You’ll bring the pan back up to a boil, while gently stirring.

In the meantime, mix some cornstarch (about a tablespoon) and water in a separate bowl. When it comes to an even liquid consistency, slowly pour it into the étouffée, while stirring with your other hand. This trick will provide a last touch of thickness. Let the dish simmer for 15 minutes.

Once you’ve patiently waited, grab a teaspoon and taste. You’ll be testing to see what it needs, determining saltiness, blandness and flavor temperature. Depending on your preference, add in either more Tony’s, black pepper or garlic powder. Throw in a bay leaf and chopped green onion. Stir it around and let it simmer on low heat.

After a few minutes, your étouffée is ready. Serve the buttery gold course over rice, and bless it with a sprinkle of chopped green onion. Your guests will be impressed and will hopefully say “c’est si bon!” At least mine did and they assured me it wasn’t just out of polite pleasantries.

Pop and I weren’t quite Julia Child and Paul Cushing, or Emeril with our specificity, but one thing I’ve always known is that in Louisiana home cooking, you measure and season with your heart and gut. Cooking with Papa Musso was no different. There are multiple variants of this dish, so feel free to add in or subtract some of the flavorings.

You’ll notice that we accompanied the entree with freshly baked bread and gritter cakes. Sorry to tell you, but you won’t be getting the recipe for those today. That’s just for me, Papa Musso and the rest of the famiglia.

Cooking with Papa Musso is what I envision having a TV show is like. There were anecdotes, laughs, and in the end, an incredibly delicious entree that I made with my own two hands. I won’t say I’m ready to jump into the deep end just yet and it might have taken me nearly 30 years; but for now, I’m satisfied with this étouffée. Until next time, this has been Josh Howard with “Becoming Homegrown.” Hmmm, now doesn’t that sound like a great idea for a show?

Photos by Nick Martino.

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