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Cookbooks on Spicy, Varied Cajun-Creole Cuisine Continue to Flourish : Savory Fare That Attracts a Variety of Tastes

December 11, 1986|TONI TIPTON

Has the fascination for Cajun-Creole foods become passe? One could hardly think so, given the plethora of restaurants, seafood markets, cooking classes and mail-order catalogues featuring Cajun-Creole specialties and ingredients. Interest in this style of cookery is indicative of a much larger culinary statement in that its popularity reflects the return to favor of things American, in general, and regional fare in particular.

Paul Prudhomme, prominent Cajun chef in New Orleans, elevated the down-home style of cooking to the level of sophisticated restaurant fare nationwide nearly two years ago with the release of a cookbook on the subject. The next step was cookbooks on the subject, which continue to flourish, as our taste buds become more and more desirous of foods that are hot and spicy. And with this has come the demand for Louisianian ingredients, most of them uncommon such as crayfish, okra and file powder, as enthusiasts attempt to re-create this sultry flavor in their own kitchens.

But even if the culinary intrigue for things Louisianian is gradually making its way up the connoisseur's list of food "outs" for the year, Cajun-Creole food is still the type of cookery that's been mysterious enough to provide mainstream audiences with an endless variety of entertaining ideas.

Delightfully Savory Fare

This popular flavor historically has been characterized mostly by the larder and the mood of the cook at the time. But the end result was always the same--delightfully savory fare that beckoned. And today's interest in fresh fare hasn't changed Cajun-Creole very much.

There is a strange permanence about the food of Louisiana. It has long enjoyed haute status among travelers to the region who have craved the flavor of the spicy victuals long after the trip back home. And because of the surging interest and availability of ingredients, it may very well have wedged its place in culinary history--one that stands to remain intact long beyond this recent enthusiasm for the fare.

What's the difference, one might ask, between Cajun and Creole cookery? Not much by way of recipes and ingredients. Both rely heavily on Gulf seafood and shellfish, the most integral of which is crayfish (also called crawfish). Other prominent ingredients include okra, tomatoes, rice and lots of spices.

The most significant difference between the two cultures is a demographic one. Creole cooking seems to reflect the sophistication of New Orleans--the city influence and vast ancestry, including Spanish, African, Italian, Dutch, West Indian and French. The Cajun way with food is derived from a more rustic, country-style way of life. The Acadian people settled in the bayou country of Louisiana in areas like Lafayette and they capitalized on the game of the region. Recipes often include such unusual ingredients as alligator and squirrel.

Personal preference will have to be the guideline for making purchases of cookbooks on the subject. As evidenced by the following roundup of recent releases, Cajun-Creole cookbooks all offer basically the same recipes--varying mostly by the degree of difficulty of each recipe.

The following compilation merely provides a description of the books and some sample recipes. Some authors have tried to make their works seem different from the rest by writing exclusively about either Cajun or Creole and are therefore very hard-pressed to distinguish between the two. In these cases, the recipes will separate the good from the bad--let your taste buds decide.

Cajun-Creole Cooking, by Terry Thompson (HP Books: $9.95, softcover, 176 pages, illustrated)

"Cajun-Creole foods are steadfastly un-trendy," says Terry Thompson, author of this beautiful text of recipes highlighting south Louisiana fare.

"The adherents of the cuisine could care less what color peppercorns are 'in' this year. . . . And now for the big jolt to the world of haughty--or haute --cuisine. It doesn't even matter if you use canned artichoke bottoms or garlic powder or premixed Cajun-Creole seasonings. The taste of the completed dish is the final judge. If it tastes wonderful, isn't that what it's all about?"

Yes, it is. And although this type of cooking fits neatly in with today's cooking priority--use the freshest ingredients available--Thompson does provide suggestions for substitutions.

This book captures the essence of what's in vogue, yet takes into consideration limited availability of ingredients in some parts of the country and teaches its readers how to compensate. For example, Thompson states that the five most important ingredients in Cajun-Creole cookery are fresh ones--onions, celery, green peppers, green onions and parsley--all available just about everywhere. Yet, she continues, "if the only fresh ripe tomatoes available at the market are the cardboard-skinned, pale pink hothouse variety, then by all means, use canned tomatoes!"

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