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The Spice of Life : Paul Prudhomme Finds a New Frontier Where Fiery Foods Reign


When the four-star chef came to visit, he brought lunch.

In fact, Paul Prudhomme, the man who put Cajun food all over the culinary map in America, sat right down at the interview table and cooked lunch, a dish called frontier chicken, which appears in his new book, "Fiery Foods That I Love" (William Morrow, 1995, $25).

The "frontier" he means is not a point west of the Mississippi but the cutting edge of cooking practice in the coming decade, as palates become more sophisticated and ethnic influences grow more pervasive.

"Almost every community has a place you can get fenugreek; you can get chiles everywhere now," Prudhomme said, turning on his propane burner. "Going into a supermarket is just a thrill, because there's so much stuff in there now and so much of it is fresh."

While he talks, he sprinkles a spice mixture on skinless, boneless chicken breasts and rubs it in lightly. He puts olive oil in a skillet and begins to saute the chicken breasts, and the aroma of the spices--cardamom, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, turmeric and cayenne, among others--begins to fill the room.

Americans are finally beginning to learn what other cultures have known for centuries: that herbs and spices not only give eloquent flavor to food, they have helpful and healing properties.

Prudhomme, whose name became synonymous with "blackened" food--highly spiced food, usually chicken or fish, cooked quickly over extremely high heat--during the '80s, has long been a proponent of cooking with the herbs and spices he grew up with in Louisiana's Cajun country. But he was looking for new ways to explore them when he realized what was happening to chicken.

"Everywhere you go, they have chicken," he said. "It's just chicken--and it's different." Every region, every neighborhood, almost, adds its own signature to the plain-chicken palette. In the South, it might be dipped in buttermilk and cornmeal and fried. In California, it might be marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, grilled and served with salsa. In Thai communities, it would be seasoned with cilantro and lemon grass and steamed. In Middle Eastern communities, it might be seasoned with turmeric and served with rice. He realized, as he traveled around, that the regional and ethnic signatures were created primarily with herbs and spices.

And it wasn't just chicken: Everything from artichokes and arugula to white beans and zucchini could be endlessly transformed by different combinations of spices.

"When I started doing these recipes, I got so excited, I became a babbling idiot about them," he said. "For a couple of years, I was always thinking about this and planning it, and then I got the OK to do the book, and it was one of the most wonderful experiences I ever had."

He neatly removes the sauteed chicken to a plate and to the skillet adds bell peppers in three colors, onions and some of the seasoning mix.

"It's unusual combinations, and that's what makes the book," Prudhomme said. "You may find in one recipe ingredients and herbs and spices that are characteristic of Indian cooking, Thai cooking, Caribbean cooking and French cooking--or Louisiana cooking, all in one recipe. And to make those flavors work, and to make those flavors work incredibly well, that's what my life's about, that's what I do well."

Prudhomme explains that he has a knack for remembering tastes and being able to replicate them from his spice shelf. But it's not about just being able to put things together. "That's important, but not near as important as that they work together," he said.

While he talks, he adds garlic, ginger and flour to the skillet, making a roux, or sauce, in the pan. He adds the rest of the bell peppers and the jalapenos. Many of the recipes in the book, he says, use only two or three main ingredients, and most of the flavor is contained in the spice mixtures.

As he works he talks about "staging" ingredients (not putting all of an ingredient in all at once, but adding part of it at different times to get different tastes), about the chemistry of cooking (there's a reason recipes say to bring mixtures to a boil; as the temperature changes, the flavors also change); about such foundation flavors as onions, garlic and ginger ("It's such a wonderful system of support"); and about the kitchen of the future (he foresees "smart" ovens that automatically change temperatures every few minutes, to cook food perfectly and keep it from drying out).

He adds tomatoes and a little water to the pan and then puts in the "magic" ingredient, the one that won't be tasted but will smooth out the complex flavors in the dish: an overripe banana. The virtually undetectable touch of sweetness from the fruit perfectly balances the spices, and the complex combination of the spices perfectly balances the heat from the pepper and chiles.

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