Hungry for that N'awlins cooking Primed for pork
By Wanda Adams
I've fallen in love again. With HBO's "Treme" (pronounced "trem-ay") series about post-Katrina New Orleans.
I've been privileged to visit NOLA a half dozen times. I love it there. It's like Hawai'i — culturally rich and complicated, with great food and layers and layers of history.
So, of course, "Treme" includes many food scenes and provokes many food memories for anyone who has been to New Orleans. There is John Goodman ("Roseanne") as an English professor furious with the government's handling of every aspect of the Katrina disaster. He is, like every New Orleanean, something of a gourmand, dining out with his wife, played by Melissa Leo ("Homicide, Life on the Streets" and Academy Award-nominated "Frozen River") on crab cakes and oysters. There are red beans and rice in other scenes. (And let me tell you, the red beans and rice in New Orleans are sensational, and I, for one, don't know how they get the depth of flavor they do. I could live on that stuff.)
Treme is a district of New Orleans known for its large population of African-American music artists. It was badly damaged by Katrina. The first question everyone asks in this series is "How's your house?" The pain is palpable. But still, they make music, they make Mardi Gras, they "line" for funerals. And they eat.
Just watching this series made me so hungry for Louisiana food, I pulled out my old copy of "Patout's Cajun Home Cooking" (Random House, 1986) and the book fell open to my favorite recipe: Maw Maw's Chicken Stew. (Maw maw is Cajun for grandmother.)
The Patout family went into the restaurant business in 1918 in New Iberia, La., the heart of Acadiana, Cajun country. Alex Patout and his wife now operate Alex Patout's Louisiana Restaurant in New Orleans along with other ventures.
When I interviewed him and ate at his first New Orleans restaurant back in the late '80s, he was very much the young Turk of N'awlins chefs, forging a path between homestyle Cajun cookin' and the more sophisticated and high-brow Creole style, among several chefs (Frank Brigtsen, Susan Spicer and others) who were creating a new Louisiana style that drew out the signature elements of each and made something different of them.
But this recipe is pure history.
The way we cook is so revealing about ourselves. If my Portuguese grandmother was making chicken stew, she'd start with olive oil, garlic, parsley and tomatoes. If my Mississippi grandmother was making chicken stew, she'd brown the meat with vegetables and thicken it with flour. If my Japanese neighbor was making chicken stew, we'd start with shoyu, sugar, garlic and ginger and not thicken it at all.
This stew is a Louisiana classic. It's made in two parts: First the roux, then the stew.
Roux is the centerpiece of Cajun cooking. Cajun roux is basically flour cooked in oil (used to be lard, now a good grade of vegetable oil). Sounds simple. Isn't. Roux is like the ocean; you can never turn your back on it. Patout tells a story of a relative who would unplug the phone, lock the door and park her car around the block when was making roux, so she wouldn't be disturbed. He's not exaggerating. Be warned. As the flour fries in the oil it goes from a very light tan to a deep mahogany. After that it's burning and you have to start over. It can happen fast. The progression of color takes quite some time to start (20-30 minutes for a light roux), but once it starts you have to watch it like a hawk, stirring the whole time. You can make roux in advance and store it in the fridge; Cajuns are never without a cache of roux in the icebox.
To make the roux: The ratio is 2 cups oil to 3 1/4 cups flour. In a heavy skillet or Dutch oven, heat 2 cups oil to 350 degrees and begin to gradually sprinkle in the flour, using a wooden spoon or whisk to mix it in. (Careful; if this stuff splatters, it'll burn you.) Once you have a smooth paste, cook and stir until you achieve the correct color; for this stew, you want a darkish brown.
Be further warned: This is not a tame stew. It's got some kick. If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.
Be further warned: For most of us, this is a weekend project. It takes some hours to cook.
Now for the stew (which I have cut back and adapted from its large family-size proportions):
ALEX PATOUT'S MAW MAW'S CHICKEN STEW
• 1 large fresh, raw chicken (3 pounds minimum)
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 1/4 tablespoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
• 1/4 tablespoon black pepper
• 1/4 tablespoon white pepper
• 3 cups dark roux (see above)
• 1 1/4 yellow onions, chopped fine
• 1 bell pepper, chopped fine
• 1 celery rib, chopped fine
• 1 quart chicken stock
• 1 cup sliced mushrooms
• 1 cup chopped green onions
• 1/4 cup chopped celery
Remove fat from chicken and reserve. Cut chicken into serving pieces and season with half the salt and peppers. In a large, heavy skillet, render the chicken fat and add the chicken pieces, browning well over medium-high heat.
Add the roux to the pot and heat through. Add half the onions, bell peppers and celery rib to the hot roux, remove from heat and let cool.
Place the chicken stock in a large pot, add remaining bell peppers and celery rib and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and begin whisking in the roux, a cup at a time, making sure it dissolves completely before the next addition. Once you have achieved a medium-thick stock, stir in the remaining salt and peppers and allow to simmer on low heat for 45 minutes to an hour.
Add the chicken pieces and simmer until tender. Remove from heat, allow fat to rise; skim fat and discard, then add the mushrooms, green onions and chopped celery and cook 5-8 minutes. Serve with rice (in Louisiana, that would be long-grain rice, unlike our Hawai'i style).