Cajun Cooking

Louisiana Native Shares Culture Though Food

Mitchel Ortego prepares Cajun recipes his mother made for him while growing up in southern Louisiana.

The current trend toward Cajun foods found on restaurant menus does not appropriately represent Cajun cooking, according to Mitchel Ortego, a resident of Bemus Point who grew up in Southern Louisiana.

“I’m a Cajun and we didn’t grow up eating fire hot food,” he says, referring to the very spicy and blackened dishes that are being billed as Cajun cuisine. The Cajuns have roots that go back to the Acadians, French settlers who settled Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Beginning in the 1750s, the Acadians began settling in southern Louisiana after being exiled by the British.

“My grandparents dominant language was French and my parents spoke English and French, but most of my generation did not pick up French,” he says. “Rice fields are common in south Louisiana and we had rice nearly every day. It was our potato.”

Along the Louisiana coast Cajun fishermen harvest shrimp, crab and oysters. The early Acadians that settled inland were predominantly farmers and my grandparents were sharecroppers. They raised their own livestock.”

Ortego joined the Navy Reserve in his senior year at Lafayette High School, after which he attended University of Louisiana-Lafayette. From there he went into active duty in Pearl Harbor during the Vietnam War. He returned to college after this, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. After 30 years as a professional engineer working in the oil and gas industry in Houston, Texas and south Louisiana, he moved to Austin, Texas, in 2001. There he continued his career as a business developer for a consulting engineering firm for 13 more years.

A pot of Cajun chicken stew simmers on the stove.

More recently he joined his wife in the Jamestown area where she has been caring for her mother. He is adjusting to northern winters and has taken up snowshoeing. He has a passion for fishing and the great outdoors.

“My mom is an excellent cook,” Ortego says. “I realized as she was getting older that if I did not learn her cooking methods, it would be gone (one day). She always cooks in cast iron pots.”

He tells about her steak and gravy meals using round or seven (chuck) steak, explaining that the “seven steak” nickname was given, because the bone is shaped like the number seven.

Ortego returns to his native Lafayette, Louisiana several times each year to visit his mother, who always makes his favorite dish, shrimp okra gumbo. As a long-time fan of okra, he advises that “when using fresh okra, cook it in a pot with a little oil until the slime cooks out of it or use canned stewed okra. A good okra gumbo is hard to beat.”

Most of the recipes he has offered are his own, but he doesn’t like to take credit for developing them, because they are the popular dishes he grew up with.

Pictured are some of Ortego’s favorite recipe enhancers.

“I know them by heart,” he says of the recipes that are common to Southern Louisiana. He doesn’t know of any other recipe for his mother’s eggplant rice dressing. “The eggplant makes it very moist and it is an excellent version of ‘dirty rice,'” he says.

Chicken fricassee is another name for Cajun chicken stew. The cook sometimes adds potatoes and carrots when the dish is simmering, eliminating the need for rice. He prefers to use skinless, deboned chicken thighs when making this dish and buys premade roux, but finds it is unavailable in our area, therefore he purchases Kary’s Roux at Amazon.com. He says a roux is an important base for gumbos and stews and points out that his stew and gumbo recipes are basically the same, but the gumbo has more liquid. Should one wish to make their own roux, a recipe is given.

Crawfish or Shrimp Monica was created by Chef Pierre Hilzim, named after his wife, Monica Davidson. Since finding this dish at a food booth at the long-running New Orleans Jazz Festival, Ortego has sought out the booth with each return festival visit.

“It was the busiest food booth every year,” he declares. “I only saw it at the festival, so I decided I had to get the recipe. If you can’t find Louisiana crawfish, use shrimp, crab or both.”

New Orleans Red Beans and Rice can be found in most restaurants on Monday, as Monday used to be “wash day,” thus the women would put red beans and rice on the stove to simmer while they washed the clothes.

The cook of the week describes himself as a “flavor guy” and uses broth in place of water and chicken thighs in place of white meat, because he finds more flavor in those ingredients. He does not use the skin and trims fat from poultry. Organic products are used, when available. He uses fresh, rather than canned, tomatoes in his dishes. Almost all of the recipes he has contributed contain chopped onion, bell pepper and celery, except the Crawfish and Shrimp Monica. The Cajuns refer to those three vegetables as the Holy Trinity, because they are in every stew, jambalaya and gumbo and many other Cajun dishes.

Ortego confesses he has been known to take shortcuts on occasion when putting a meal together.

“Zatarain’s and Tony Chachere’s (boxed products) are good shortcuts. You need to dress it up with the meat and vegetables.” He uses Tony Chachere’s Cajun seasoning, because “it’s not real hot and is a good mix of spices.”

Better Than Bouillon brand base is his preferred source for adding flavor to soups, stews, gumbos and more. He discovered the product in a supermarket in Lafayette where a chef was present to promote recipes using products sold in the store. His cupboard regularly holds these concentrated stocks in vegetable, beef, chicken and seafood varieties.

“These are great and available locally,” he says.

The following are recipes for some of the dishes our featured cook remembers from growing up in Louisiana and are still prepared in his mother’s Lafayette kitchen.

Cajun Chicken Stew

2 medium onions, chopped

1 pepper, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 tomato, diced

2 tsp garlic, minced

1 chicken, cut up and skinless

1/2 c roux (premade or refer to recipe below)

2 T canola oil

4 c chicken stock

2 T Better than Bouillon chicken base

1 envelope onion soup mix

Cajun seasoning

1 c rice

2 c water

Salt and pepper to taste

In skillet, sautee onions, pepper, celery, tomato and garlic in oil over medium heat until onions are clear, approximately 10 minutes. Set aside. In the same saucepan, season and brown chicken, adding more oil if needed. In a 2 quart or larger saucepan, add chicken, sauteed vegetables, onion soup mix and chicken stock. Bring to a boil and add the roux and bouillon. Stir well. The mixture should have the consistency of chowder. Season to taste with your favorite Cajun seasoning. Simmer uncovered for approximately 2 hours, stirring occasionally. In a saucepan, bring water and rice to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve chicken and gravy over steamed rice.

To make your own roux, add 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup of canola oil in a heavy saucepan (cast iron or similar) over low heat, constantly stirring until brown which takes about half an hour.

Mom’s Eggplant Rice Dressing

1 c rice

2 c water

1 large eggplant

3 T canola oil, divided

2 medium onions, chopped

1 pepper, chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

2 tsp garlic, minced

1 1/2-2 lbs ground meat (I use 1/2 beef and 1/2 pork)

salt and pepper to taste

In a saucepan, bring water and rice to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes. Set aside. Peel and cut eggplant into 1-inch cubes and add to skillet with 1 tablespoon oil. Cover and cook on low heat stirring frequently to prevent burning until eggplant is soft enough to mash. Remove, mash and set aside. In a skillet, heat remaining 2 tablespoon oil and sautee onions, pepper, celery and garlic on medium heat until onions are clear, approximately 10 minutes. Add ground meat and brown. Skim any excess oil. Stir in the mashed eggplant and cook on low heat for 5 minutes. In larger pot, add all with cooked rice and mix well. Season to taste and simmer for another 10 minutes.

Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya

3/4-1 lb andouille or other smoked sausage (or shrimp, ham or any combination)

2 T canola oil

2 medium onions, chopped

1 pepper, chopped

2 tsp garlic, minced

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 tomato, diced

1-11/2 lbs skinless, deboned chicken thighs

1 pkg onion soup mix

1 c rice

2 c water

salt and pepper to taste

Cut the smoked sausage in small pieces then microwave for 1 to 11/2 minutes to melt some of the fat. Set aside. In a skillet heat 2 tablespoons oil and sautee onions, bell pepper, minced garlic, celery and tomato on medium heat until onions are clear, approximately 10 minutes. Remove and set aside. In the same saucepan, season and brown chicken. Add more oil, if needed. In a 3 quart or larger pot, add the sausage, chicken, vegetables, package of onion soup mix, rice and water. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Crawfish or Shrimp Monica

1 lb dry rotini pasta

1/2 c butter

2 T garlic, minced

2 green onions, sliced

2 c half and half

1 tsp-2 T Cajun seasoning or salt and pepper to taste

1 lb fresh, cooked or frozen Louisiana crawfish tails, fresh shrimp or crab meat, undrained. Cook pasta according to package directions. Rinse and drain well; set aside. Melt the butter and sautee garlic for about 2 minutes. Add green onion and cook another 2 minutes. Stir in half and half and Cajun seasoning, starting with 1/2 teaspoon, taste and continue adding and tasting, to reach desired level. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, add the crawfish and cook another 5 to 10 minutes or until nicely thickened and heated through. Stir in the pasta and parsley (if desired). Serve warm.

Chicken, Sausage and

Okra Gumbo

Option: Seafood (shrimp, crab, oysters) can be substituted. Do not add seafood until 10 minutes before gumbo is done. Okra can be omitted, but not recommended.

2 T canola oil

2 medium onions, chopped

1 pepper, chopped

2 tsp garlic, minced

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 tomato, diced

1 chicken, cut up and skinless (I prefer to use skinless and deboned chicken thighs)

3/4-1 lb andouille or other smoked sausage

2 bay leaves

1 pkg frozen pre-cooked okra or 2 cans stewed okra

1 pkg onion soup mix

2 qts chicken stock

1/2 c roux (premade or refer to recipe below)

2 T Better than Bouillon chicken base

Cajun seasoning mix

1 c rice

2 c water

salt and pepper to taste

In a skillet, heat oil and sautee onions, pepper, garlic, celery and tomatoes on medium heat until onions are clear, approximately 10 minutes. Remove and set aside. In the same skillet, season chicken and brown. Add more oil if needed to brown chicken. Add the chicken, sausage, bay leaves and sauteed vegetables to a large pot along with the okra, package of onion soup mix and chicken stock. Bring to a boil and add the roux and bouillon. Stir well. Season to taste with your favorite Cajun seasoning mix. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours. In a saucepan, bring water and rice to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve over steamed rice.

To make your own roux, add 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup of canola oil in a heavy saucepan (cast iron or similar) over low heat, constantly stirring until brown which takes about half an hour.

New Orleans Red Beans and Rice

1 lb dry kidney beans

2 T canola oil

2 medium onions, chopped

1 pepper, chopped

2 tsp garlic, minced

2 stalks celery, chopped

6 c vegetable stock

1 pkg onion soup mix

2 bay leaves

1 lb cubed ham or smoked sausage

1 ham bone and/or ham hocks

1 c rice

2 c water

Cajun seasoning or salt and pepper to taste

Rinse beans. Soak beans in a large pot of water overnight. In a skillet, heat canola oil. Sautee onions, pepper, garlic and celery on medium heat until onions are clear, approximately 10 minutes. Drain beans and add to a large pot with vegetable stock, sauteed vegetables, onion soup mix, bay leaves, cubed ham, ham bone and/or ham hocks. Simmer for 3 hours. Meanwhile, in a saucepan, bring 2 cups of water and rice to a boil. Reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve beans over steamed rice.

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