A week ago, Paul Prudhomme died at age 75. A lot of ink has been spilled about his passing and his enormous contribution to the American culinary scene. Chef Paul was an important piece of my own food background, so I am going to spill just a few more drops in his honor.
Paul Prudhomme was the youngest of 13 children. His parents were sharecroppers in south Louisiana, near Opelousas. This is the heart of Cajun Country. It's about an hour or so straight west of New Orleans. Lafayette is the epicenter. The towns of Eunice, Breaux Bridge, Church Point, and even Avery Island (the source of Tabasco) are within striking distance. If you ever have a chance to visit-- go. The area is rich with food and music traditions. We're talking country people. Small towns. It's a lot like any other rural part of America, except instead of corn or soybeans, you see vast tracts of sugar cane, and bayous and rivers instead of lakes and streams.
Paul Prudhomme grew up in that tradition, watching his mother and siblings using the foods they could grow or raise to make delicious, belly-filling and heart-warming meals. If you have an older relative who waxes philosophically about how his mother toiled to bake bread weekly and put meals on the table every week, while preserving meats and vegetables to get the most out of a hog or beef-- same thing, just with a Cajun French accent. This was original farm-to-table cooking, because it was essential to survival.
So, Paul learned these traditions, and perfected them really, eventually landing in New Orleans to become the executive chef at Commander's Palace. He then opened his own restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen on Chartres Street in the French Quarter. I confess, I've never eaten there, but I have walked by several times. It's hard to say what we are looking for in the French Quarter at any given time, but it usually is not fine dining. At any rate, if you are a fan of Emeril Lagasse, John Besh, or Donald Link, just keep in mind that Paul Prudhomme made straight the path that these chefs travel.
No, my encounters with Chef Paul were in cookbooks. I have a copy of Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen and another I will get to in a moment. If you want to make credible Cajun or Creole, this is the one you need. I studied it at length. Back in the early 1990's, it was extremely difficult to find some of the ingredients one needed to make basic dishes like jambalaya or gumbo. It was nearly impossible to find fresh jalapenos in a produce section, let alone tasso ham or andouille. But with a few substitutions, you could come close and now, those ingredients are widely available and there are even great south Louisiana retailers who will ship the real deal to you for a price. These dishes are eye-opening and delicious. One of Prudhomme's hallmarks is the use of spice mixes- heady mixes of cayenne, white pepper and black pepper, along with a few dried herbs like basil, thyme, or oregano, depending on the dish. But the peppers are a given and it's a magical mix. It's the blend that is responsible for delivering a brand of heat that only Cajun food can- a deep, slow, round burn that demands you take another bite. This isn't light fare and some of it is a bit of a project. For instance, making chicken andouille gumbo requires frying the chicken first- in oil, lots of it. Everything, and I mean everything in the house smelled of fried chicken, including socks in a dresser drawer. It's also one of those times it occurred to me that having a fire extinguisher nearby was probably a good idea. We survived and the smelly house was worth the gumbo.
Louisiana Kitchen also contains the method for making your own Turducken, just in case you want to test your patience and knife skills boning three birds. (Make sure you attempt assembly a few days before Thanksgiving in case you need the aid of a surgeon after you sever some tendons in your hand with that boning knife.) It also describes how to blacken redfish, chicken, or burgers. (Hint: do NOT try this in the house.) It's true that blackened redfish became so popular that Louisiana had to impose a commercial fishing ban on it.
The Prudhomme Family Cookbook is another sort of critter entirely. It contains recipes contributed by Chef Paul, as well as the Prudhomme siblings. I've never seen a cookbook put out by a south Louisiana Catholic parish Lady's Altar Society as a fund raiser, but I bet it reads about like this. In addition to the sorts of recipes you'd expect to find- jambalaya, shrimp Creole, gumbo, you are also going to find recipes that were selected to preserve them. I'm talking things like boudin rouge (a pork sausage that requires about a quart of fresh pork blood) and paunce bourre (stuffed pork stomach, yep, Cajun haggis). This book is out of print, so if you ever see a copy, grab it.
One quick diversion. I received a copy as a gift in 1990. I used to love to read it, especially one recipe for something I thought was absolutely nuts. About three or four pages are dedicated to the concept of getting a couple gallons of peanut oil together and frying a whole turkey. I thought the concept was fascinating and crazy, but by the end of the decade, you could purchase a rig to attempt this stunt at home. And by now, that craze has mostly passed after any number of wannabe Cajun rednecks have burned down their deck. However, that burner is exactly what you need to blacken redfish along with a big cast iron pan. How's that for irony?
Fall always makes me crave Cajun food, and Cajun music. The chill in the air demands something spicy that requires a cold beer and begs a dance in the kitchen after dinner.
Au revoir et bon chance, Chef Paul. Merci beaucoup!