Pronounced eh-too-fay, it’s probably a dish you haven’t had unless you’ve been to New Orleans or another city in Louisiana.
And in case you can’t tell, I’ve quite the love affair with New Orleans lately. Chalk it up to a travel bug, or maybe just to the fact that the food is so damn good. If I could travel there and eat to my heart’s (and belly’s) content, I would die a happy woman.
Sometimes it seems quite silly to involve yourself so much with food, no?
5 years ago I never could imagine myself taking the time and effort to craft meals like this together. Or even blog about it! After all, food is just that: food. It doesn’t add to your skill set in the way that learning a new language or mastering a new instrument would do. Nor is it something like philosophy, reserved for late-night passionate debates among old friends.
American fast-food culture tends to discourage thinking about our food much beyond the point-of-sale. And if you don’t, then that is perfectly fine! Less time spent in the kitchen allows for more time. More time with family, more time for reading a well-worn book, or more time catching up on a TV show. Or napping. Naps are great. Like, really, really great.
But, if you look past food as just being a vehicle for subsistence, you’ll find that it can be just as complex or as interesting as anything else. Arguably as much as art, fashion, or architecture – food is the cornerstone of history, anthropology, geography, culture, and health.
Take, for example, black pepper. Black pepper was once so valuable that it was used as a form of currency. Later, black pepper only became accessible to Americans for trading after a New England merchant left to Sumatra looking for the mysterious spice.*
Today, you can find black pepper in practically every kitchen. I often hesitate to add to the ingredients list in my recipes.
(+10 points if you can detail this history of black pepper to a poor unsuspecting victim at your next dinner party)
Now. take chicken etouffee. Chicken with a spiced roux sauce, vegetables, and sausage.
Influenced by the french who founded Louisiana, the French mirepoix of celery, carrots, and onions was adapted for local ingredients – swapping the carrot for bell peppers. The use of bell peppers then becomes a signature of creole and cajun cuisine.
While Cajun/Creole food largely draws from the French, it lends much credit to influences from Spanish, German, Italian, and West African cuisine. For example, this dish calls for Andouille sausage, a spicy, smoked, and peppery sausage. The prevalence of sausage in Louisiana dishes would not be as high as it is today were it not for the German immigrants who had popularized them.
And then there is the roux. The roux is a classic French technique used to thicken sauces or, in most cajun/creole cuisine, add flavor to dishes like gumbo or jambalaya. Much like an Italian to a risotto, a Louisianian cook can have their ingredients and technique down to a science.
Fat (in the form of butter, oil, or lard) and flour are heated together. In order to ensure that the fat coats every bit of the flour, you must stir the roux almost constantly. The fat helps release starch from the flour, in which the starch molecules (catalyzed by heat) can then can absorb liquid in the dish, thickening it to a delectable consistency.
A roux is what gives chicken pot pie its melt-in-your-mouth sauce, or a gravy its perfectly smooth viscosity. Here, as a mixture of oil and flour, it cooks for up to 30 minutes until it is a deep chocolate brown color, imparting a nutty and smoked finish to the food.
Traditionally, you make an etouffee with locally-sourced crawfish or shrimp. Now, chicken is such a staple of the American diet that you can easily substitute it.
(also I’m not the #1 fan of shrimp but, well, that’s just completely beside the point)
So whether you are like me and find yourself taking pleasure in picking out the little complexities that make up everyday food, or you find it a complete bore and would rather skip to the recipe, I challenge you try to discover more about a simple item that you might not think twice about. It doesn’t even have to be food. As a nod to the past and a glance into the shaping of our future, the history of our modern luxuries is fascinating, if one only takes the time to look.
Thanks for reading,
PS: Whatever you do, be sure to serve the meal with some Southern cornbread, to sop up the sauce.
*The history of black pepper is from the great book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman.