My mom and grandmother on her side grew up in Minnesota, where they ate bland foods, like white fish, turnips and rutabagas, and rarely used seasonings other than salt.
Nanny, my grandmother on my dad’s side, grew up in the South and could make a pot of greens with just about any plant and a bit of fatback pork. I guess we Boyd kids got the Southern gene because we thought my dad’s green beans were to die for.
He’d take chunks of thick-cut bacon and onions and simmer them with the beans over low until the beans absorbed this wonderful flavor.
When I became editor of Rice Farming magazine, I was introduced to real gumbo, jambalaya and other Louisiana fare. I quickly learned that the key to making gumbo was the roux. I’m not talking about roux out of a bottle – I’m talking about real roux that involves equal parts fat and flour stirred constantly on the stove until it turns a deep chocolate brown.
I wasn’t about to ask my mom how to make roux. After all, her putting Trix cereal — raspberry red, lemon yellow and orange orange, Silly Rabbit — into meatloaf is part of Boyd family lore.
Thanks to Miss Anne at the New Orleans School of Cooking, I now know how to make a real roux and know what not to do, too. On a whim, I signed up for a cooking class and was amazed how easy the traditional Louisiana gumbo and jambalaya are if you follow a few key steps.
A retired kindergarten teacher, Anne Leonhard teaches cooking at the school as well as occasionally on local TV stations.
In between the cooking tips, she provided a humorous glimpse of Louisiana history and how it related to today’s dishes. She also reminded the class how important it was to constantly stir the roux or else it would burn. Ignore your phone and don’t answer the doorbell, she reminded us.
But Anne wasn’t paying attention for just a moment, and the roux got away from her. You can tell it’s starting to burn because of black flecks that appear. Sometimes we learn the most from our mistakes.
Anne also introduced us to the holy trinity of ingredients — onions, celery and bell pepper — found in most Louisiana dishes. Let’s not forget the garlic. The grand finale is the seasoning, done after you’ve added the stock and andouille sausage, chicken, shrimp or other meats.
If you go to Louisiana-based Rouses Markets, you’ll find shelves of Cajun seasonings, and most are similar, Anne told us. They typically contain basil, thyme, pepper, paprika, oregano, salt, onion powder, garlic powder and possibly cayenne. The difference is the ratios of ingredients.
The amount and type of seasoning is really up to you.
A key component to these dishes is rice. For Miss Anne, it has to be Uncle Ben’s converted rice. She was referring to the brand of parboiled rice she uses because the kernels keep their shape even after sitting in liquid for a few hours.
She also said the nice thing about these dishes is if more people come over than you expected, you just add more rice. For our class, she used 10 cups of rice in the jambalaya.
Anne also warned against using basmati or jasmine rices. Because gumbo and jambalaya have bold flavorings, they overshadow the subtle fragrance and taste of the specialty rices. Best to stick with parboiled for these dishes, Anne said.
And you never add rice to gumbo. Instead, you put a scoop of rice in a dish and ladle the gumbo over it, she told us.
When I was in kindergarten, the best part of class was show and tell. And Miss Anne didn’t disappoint us. We all got ample samples of her gumbo and jambalaya.
Now I can’t wait to try these new-found cooking techniques.
Laissez les bons temps rouler.