Fat Tuesday Flavor

What is the relationship between étouffée (pronounced ay-too-fay), gumbo and jambalaya? You might be able to give a general description of each, but if you take away the rice, the descriptions become almost identical. Here are the general guidelines to differentiate among the three.

Étouffée: A thick, stew-like liquid made from a peanut butter/reddish-colored roux, containing the Cajun trinity (onions, celery and peppers). The main component is typically — but not always — seafood. Étouffées are always served as an entrée, usually topped with or served over rice.

Gumbo: A thick, stew-like soup containing the Cajun trinity served over rice. The main components vary from sausage to chicken to seafood. The dish can be served as an appetizer or an entrée.

Jambalaya: A thick, stew-like dish containing the Cajun trinity mixed with rice (sometimes the rice is cooked in the dish). The main components are usually sausage, chicken or seafood. Jambalaya is also normally served as an entrée.

Even with the general guidelines, there are still many variations to étouffée. Most étouffées are thickened with a roux, others may use starch, and still others may not be thickened at all. With a little work, you can make a great entrée for your upcoming Mardi Gras party!

The main flavor in any thickened Cajun dish is the roux. A roux is a thickening agent made of fat and flour cooked to different stages. This creates a flavor that depends on the final color of the cooked roux.

Start with rendered fat or vegetable oil. Heat the fat in a sauté or sauce pan and slowly add to a little more than the equal amount of flour. The white stage of the roux will smell of baking bread. While it has the most thickening power, there is almost no flavor created. Blonde roux will start to smell like slightly toasted nuts and has a toasted flavor. Light brown to peanut butter starts to intensify the toasted flavor. Brown to black intensifies that toasted flavor to an almost coffee richness. I prefer a roux that has the color between peanut butter to brown for étouffée.

Roux thickens by emulsifying (suspending the fat globule within the liquid) the mixture of flour and fat into the liquid. This process is similar to a mayonnaise or hollandaise, but with a more permanent outcome. In order to achieve the emulsification, the roux and liquid being thickened must be opposite temperatures. This can be done in two ways: whisking cold liquid into a hot roux or whisking a cooled roux into a hot liquid.

Some variations may contain tomato while others just contain the Cajun trinity. Seafood is normally the main component, but chicken or other vegetables such as sautéed eggplant or zucchini can make a great variation. Most recipes focus on the roux and trinity as the main flavors, but a little tomato paste can help give the étouffée a distinctive reddish color and rich flavor.

Fat Tuesday Flavor
The type of stock used is the heart of the dish. You can use store-bought stock or broth, but it will lack depth of flavor. By just taking a little bit of time, you can make your own stock from the shells of shrimp, crawfish, crab … or even a package of chicken wings.

Seafood shells add a great complement of flavors to the dish. Simmer the shells for 45 minutes to an hour (chicken wings for a few hours) with carrots, onions, celery, peppers or any other vegetables that fit your flavor profile for the dish. Strain and cool. Freeze any extra stock in ice cube trays and save for another dish.

Crawfish/Shrimp Étouffée
Serves 4 to 6

2 ounces oil or rendered fat
2 ounces flour
2 bell peppers, small diced (red, green or both)
2 stalks celery, small diced
3 onions, small diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 bay leaves (remove at end of cooking)
3 cups stock (crawfish, shrimp, chicken or vegetable)
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
Cayenne, paprika, salt and pepper to taste
1 pound crawfish tails or shrimp, peeled

4 to 6 cups cooked rice
Sliced scallions as desired

Heat oil in a sauté or sauce pan over medium heat and slowly add flour while whisking continuously to create the roux. Cook roux until it becomes a reddish brown and has a strong toasty aroma. Add Cajun trinity (peppers, celery and onions) and stir for 1 to 2 minutes. Add garlic and bay leaf, and cook for another minute or two. Slowly whisk cold stock into mixture and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until flour taste starts to dissipate. Add herbs and season to taste with cayenne, paprika, salt and pepper. Add crawfish or shrimp and cook for 3 to 4 minutes until cooked all the way through. Adjust seasoning as needed. Serve over cooked rice and garnish with sliced scallions as desired.

Variation: If replacing crawfish or shrimp with other meat (such as chicken), cut into ½-inch pieces, season and fully cook before adding to the dish at the end.

Reverse Roux Variation: Make roux ahead of time and cool. Sauté vegetables in oil or butter, add liquid, bring to simmer and whisk in a small amount of cool roux, adding slowly a little at a time until liquid is just short of desired thickness. Follow the original recipe from the step after adding liquid.

Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.