Grim's Grub: The holy trinity ... of Cajun cooking
Here's a lesson in cooking vocabulary.
If you start to delve into professional cooking, some recipes might go over your head if you don't understand the vocabulary.
For example, if someone says, "add a roux," you might scratch your head and have to look up the definition to find it's a mixture of flour and fat used to thicken.
French cooking might include recipes that require a "mirepoix," and you soon find out that's just a fancy word for a mix of two parts onion, one part carrots and one part celery.
In Chinese cooking, you might read about needing a "master stock." You delve deeper to learn that master stock is a flavorful liquid made by boiling aromatics that is then traditionally kept in a refrigerator and brought to boiling regularly over time to ensure it does not go bad. It is used to blanche all sorts of meats and foods so the flavors constantly grow.
The holy of holies in Cajun cooking is the "holy trinity." Cajun traditions and cooking are a rich, varied melting pot created by the intersection of French, Acadian (deportees from Nova Scotia) West African, Spanish and Native American cooking.
Having French ancestry, the holy trinity is like an upgrade to mirepoix. I prefer the holy trinity because mirepoix can be too sweet with all that carrot.
The holy trinity replaces the carrots with bell peppers, because apparently bell peppers grow better in that region than carrots and are very cheap to grow or buy. There is also such a thing as sofrito, which is the Spanish version of onion, garlic, bell peppers and tomatoes.
The name "holy trinity" is a lot younger than the mix itself, which has been important in South Louisiana cooking for around 250 years. It was first recorded officially in 1981, when Craig Claiborne with the New York Times wrote in a story that "a friend of mine once called the combination of chopped peppers, onions and celery the holy trinity of Creole cooking."
Some suspect he was referring to a popular celebrity chef. Before Emeril Lagasse added a Cajun kick to the airwaves with his famous Essence seasoning, there was Paul Prudhomme. Like Lagasse, Prudhomme earned some fame for his own blends of spices and became a household name for celebrity chefs, especially for his creole and Cajun dishes.
Prudhomme is often credited with making Cajun cooking popular nationally. Wikipedia says his blackened redfish recipe, prepared for a Williams, Virginia, economic summit, was so popular in the '80s that it nearly drove the species to extinction. He's also the one who introduced Turducken to U.S. cuisine.
Prudhomme is believed to have started calling celery, onion and bell pepper the holy trinity in his kitchen at K-Paul's in Louisiana, where some chefs did nothing but cut onions, celery and peppers all day long for up to 35 or 40 gallons of the mix per day. It obviously got that name because of its importance in Cajun recipes.
To me, the green pepper provides subtle sweetness and even bitterness. The celery provides piquancy, and the onion gives it just a little nose tingling kick without which many foods would be lacking. Now that alone makes it worthy of the name.
For the first recipe - Paella/Jambalaya - if you go easy on the hot ingredients it is more like paella. If you go heavy on the heat and leave out the saffron, it's jambalaya. Only one of the proteins is needed, but three make for a special dish.
- 2 cups rice
- 2 3/4 cups pork, chicken or seafood stock
- 1 cup white cooking wine
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1/4 cup green bell pepper, chopped
- 1/4 cup onion, chopped
- 1/4 cup celery, chopped
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1/4 cup clam juice
- 5-8 threads saffron (or 1 teaspoon turmeric) for paella or 2 tablespoons tomato paste for jambalaya
- 1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning or ground red pepper for jambalaya
- 1 chicken breast sliced in half lengthwise and then into little strips
- 1 spicy Italian sausage, andouille or chorizo, sliced (the skin will slice better if partially frozen, or remove the casing and "crumble" it)
- 1 cup shrimp, peeled and cleaned
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt and pepper to taste
In a pot over medium to high heat, add your oil, followed by the chicken and sausage. Stir to coat and begin cooking. Once both meats are beginning to take on color, add the holy trinity (peppers, onions, celery) and stir regularly to cook on all sides evenly. Once you can smell the green peppers and onions start to release their scents, add the garlic and stir well to distribute.
Allow the garlic to caramelize just slightly (if it burns it will turn bitter) before adding the rice. Stir the rice and then, reserving the shrimp, add all the other remaining dry ingredients, stirring with each addition, followed by all the liquid ingredients. Bring this mix to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium low before simmering for 15-20 minutes uncovered.
At this point, tuck the shrimp into the mix and cook another 5 minutes without stirring while covered.
Hot Cajun Omelet
- 3 slices pepperjack cheese, cut diagonally
- 2 eggs, separated into whites and yolks
- 1 andouille or chorizo sausage, sliced
- 2 tablespoons onion, chopped small
- 2 tablespoons green pepper, chopped small
- 2 tablespoons celery, chopped small
- 1 teaspoon lard, oil or other fat
- 1/4 cup or less of water
- Salt and pepper to taste
In a small pan over medium heat, melt the lard and add the sausage. Stir to coat the sausage. This should also cause some fats to render out of the sausage. When the sausage appears approximately halfway cooked, add the onion and stir to coat in the combined oils.
Once the onion begins to turn slightly translucent around the edges, add the peppers and celery and mix thoroughly. Keep an eye on this mix, stirring frequently and turning off the heat if needed while working on the next part. The goal is for the celery and green peppers to still have some firmness as this will make for the most flavor.
Oil or spray a large, flat pan and heat over medium high heat on another burner. Beat the egg whites until they are bubbly. Beat the yolks separately and then mix into the whites briefly to prevent the bubbles from deflating completely. (You may also just beat them together, but this will provide a more airy omelet.)
Pour the eggs into the pan and rotate it to coat evenly. Once a base has begun to form in the eggs, place three slices of cheese on one half of the eggs (or in the middle if you prefer to roll your omelets). Using a slotted spoon or spatula, transfer the sausage and vegetable mix on top of the cheese and fold over.
Reposition the omelet into the center of the pan and arrange the remaining cheese on top. Pour some of the water onto either side of the exposed bottom of the pan, then cover with a lid to melt the cheese. Plate and enjoy, but beware of the spice.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.