Marcellus Kennedy lights up when he talks about Cajun food.
“My great-grandmother tells me stories about growing up in Louisiana. Her great-grandmother was a slave and used to cook Cajun and Creole food that she learned from the slave owners,” he says.
Kennedy, executive chef at Deaconess Medical Center, inherited his great-grandmother’s recipes and her passion for Cajun cooking. He regularly features Cajun dishes at the hospital’s cafe, including jambalaya and gumbo. “People love it,” he says.
“The biggest misconception about Cajun food is that it’s spicy. I think of it as full-flavored and well seasoned. Heat is a perception,” Kennedy says. He describes Cajun food as a lot of one-pot dishes, a stewed meat or seafood cooked with fresh vegetables and rice served alongside.
Cajun cooking was traditionally peasant food, with the Canadian French settlers adapting French cooking to use the bounty in their new Louisiana homeland. “They cooked a lot outside over the fire,” Kennedy says describing the crawfish boils and gumbos cooked by his ancestors. Catfish, shrimp, smoked sausage, wild game and pork all figure prominently in Cajun recipes.
Parades, masks, dancing in the streets, and spicy gumbo – these are often the things that come to mind when we think of Mardi Gras.
Also called Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras is traditionally celebrated on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent for Christians. The days leading up to Lent became known as “carnival,” from the Latin words “farewell to meat.” French settlers in 17th century Louisiana initiated the Carnival festivities in this country as one last chance to indulge before abstaining from meat, cheese, butter and other rich foods during Lent.
New Orleans, home to the country’s most famous Mardi Gras celebration, is also the heart of Cajun cooking.
Making a roux
Roux – flour and oil slowly cooked together – is one of the most important elements in Cajun cooking. A properly cooked roux acts as a thickener and adds color and flavor to soups and stews.
New Orleans’ celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse has been rumored to say that a good roux takes two beers, referring to the amount of time and patience involved in making it, not the ingredients.
Stir the roux constantly, using a whisk or wooden spoon and be careful not to splatter the hot liquid onto your skin. The nature of the finished dish dictates the desired darkness of the roux. A rich, coffee-colored gumbo requires a dark roux that can take 45 minutes to make. A more delicate soup might be thickened with a light brown roux that cooks for 5 to 10 minutes. Reduce the heat as the color darkens and continue to stir the roux as it cools or it will burn.
The holy trinity
Many Cajun recipes begin by sautéing green bell peppers, onions and celery, know as the holy trinity. These three vegetables are diced and sautéed in butter or oil to form the flavor base of Cajun soups and stews. The holy trinity may vary slightly by region, incorporating garlic, tomatoes and various spices. Bell peppers are preferred because they impart a sweet flavor to the dish, rather than heat.
It wouldn’t be Mardi Gras without a King Cake. Traditionally, this colorful, oval-shaped cake was baked in France to celebrate Epiphany, or King’s Day, in honor of the three kings’ visit to the Christ child. A small trinket was hidden inside the cake, and the person who found it was dubbed the king or queen for the day. In modern King Cakes, a small plastic baby symbolizing the Christ child is hidden in the cake, and the finder is responsible for holding the King Cake party the following week.
The King Cake is distinguished by its colorful purple, green and gold topping, symbolizing justice, faith and power, respectively.
Marcellus Kennedy shared some of his favorite recipes.
From Marcellus Kennedy. Serve this soup over rice as a main course.
1 ½ pounds raw shrimp
2 cups onions, chopped
3/4 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 ¼ tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup vegetable oil or bacon fat
1 cup flour
10 cups shrimp stock (see recipe below)
3/4 pound andouille sausage (sliced)
1 dozen oysters (look for a jar of shucked oysters at the supermarket)
1 pound crabmeat
3 (10-ounce) packages frozen okra
1 (14 1/2 ounce) can peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
3 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
For the shrimp stock: Shell the shrimp and set them aside. Put the shells and heads into a large stockpot. Cover with 10-12 cups of water. Bring to a boil and boil for about 2 hours. Skim froth from top of pot and strain to remove shells. Reserve stock.
For the gumbo: Make the roux by browning flour and lard/oil stirring constantly until dark brown.
Add onions, green peppers, celery and garlic to the roux and sauté for about 3 minutes. Pour 10 cups of hot shrimp stock in separate large pot and add roux and vegetables slowly, stirring often until well blended. Add bay leaves, salt, spices and peeled tomatoes.
Add sausage and simmer on low for 25 to 30 minutes. Add shrimp, crab, oysters and frozen okra. Turn up the heat. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat, cover and let sit for 20 minutes. Serve over white or dirty rice.
Yield: 10-12 servings
1 pound chicken livers
1/2 cup bacon grease (can substitute vegetable oil, but bacon grease has more flavor)
1/2 pound pork sausage
1 cup yellow onion, chopped
1 cup green pepper, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons fresh parsley, chopped
3 cups long grain rice
6 cups chicken stock
Heat bacon grease over medium heat in a medium sauté pan. Add chicken livers and pork sausage and cook, stirring, until the meat is browned, about 6 minutes. Add the onions, celery, bell peppers, garlic, spices, salt and pepper and cook stirring for approximately 10 minutes. Add chicken stock and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits.
Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add rice and stir thoroughly. Cook for about 30 minutes or until rice is tender. Remove from heat. Remove bay leaf and stir in the parsley.
Yield: 10-12 servings.
Mardi Gras King Cake
For the cake dough:
½ ounce instant yeast
1½ cups warm water
½ cup sugar
5 cups flour
1½ cups dry milk powder
2 teaspoons salt
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup butter, melted
To assemble the cake:
¼ cup of butter, melted
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Egg wash (mix ½ cup milk with 2 beaten eggs)
For the glaze:
2 pounds of powdered sugar
1 pinch of salt
1 tablespoon almond extract
¾ cup water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Purple, green and gold sugar for decorating
To make the dough:
In a measuring cup, combine yeast and ½ cup of warm water. Sift dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Using a dough hook on an electric mixer, blend dry ingredients 2-3 minutes on low speed. In a separate mixing bowl, combine eggs, ¾ cup butter and remaining 1 cup of water. Slowly pour this liquid and blossomed yeast from measuring cup into the mixing bowl with flour, gradually increasing speed. Mix for 8-10 minutes or until dough separates from the bowl. An additional ½ cup of flour may be sprinkled into the bowl if the dough is too wet. Brush a large stainless bowl with melted butter until coated then place dough inside. Brush dough with remaining ¼ cup butter and cover for tightly with plastic wrap. Allow dough to proof in a warm place 1 hour or until it doubles in size.
To make the glaze: In an electric mixer, combine powdered sugar and salt. Mix on low speed while slowly pouring in almond extract and water. Add cinnamon and continue to blend until glaze is smooth. Set aside.
To assemble the cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees after dough has proofed. Roll out onto a well-floured surface into an 18-by-12-inch rectangle. In a small bowl, combine sugar and cinnamon. Brush top of dough with melted butter, then sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar mixture. Cut cake vertically into 3 even sections. Pinch together end of each strip. Starting from the joined end, form into a basic 3-strand braid and then into a circle. Pinch together to hold form. Brush entire cake with egg wash and proof in a warm place until double in size. Bake 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Drizzle glaze over entire cake and sprinkle with purple, green and gold sugar. If desired, make a small slit underneath and insert a trinket in the cake.
Yield: 16 slices.