Book Review – Real Cajun

Real Cajun – Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link’s Louisiana by Donald Link with Paula Disbrowe.  Photographs by Chris Granger.  Clarkson Potter Publishers 2009

 I can’t help but be intrigued by a book that opens with instructions on how to make bacon in a home kitchen.  Upon reading the instructions for Homemade Bacon you start to think to yourself “hey I could do that”.  Without giving away too much information: ten days, sitting undisturbed, curing in the back of the refrigerator and then one hour in a smoker.  Sounds a lot easier then you probably thought.  Don’t worry that this recipe will make too much bacon, every bite of it will get used.  Before reading this book I thought that 60% of the dishes served in Louisiana contain bacon, 30% use shrimp, sausage or crawfish and the remaining 10% use bacon, sausage and shrimp, but I was pleasantly surprised at the variations and different fresh, locally sourced ingredients that are used in traditional Cajun cooking.

 Cajun cooking is not just a piece of meat or chicken coated in some hot spices and cooked in a cast-iron pan until it looks burnt.  The idea of spicy, blackened food as “authentic Cajun” may have been served up for TV viewers and by chain restaurants in the 1980’s, but this is not the type of food an honest Cajun would serve to family and friends.  Link provides us with true, down home, style dishes that his family cooked back home in Acadia Parish.  This means rice, crawfish, gumbo, corn bread and greens in pork fat.  This is the real Cajun food not the generic, citified and over seasoned dishes served to the tourists on Bourbon Street.

 Link is the owner of two very popular New Orleans restaurants, Herbisaint and Cochon.  The James Beard Foundation named him the Best Chef in the South in 2007 and Cochon is listed on many of the “Best in America” surveys.  Link has a solid grounding in the classics, having graduated from the California Culinary Academy before returning home to New Orleans, so his wife could attend Tulane University.

 The 80 photographs give a real feel for what life is like on the bayou.  Link, writing in an easy, conversational style, talks about growing up in the Acadian region of Louisiana and the joy of family gatherings.  There are even suggestions for activities when planning a trip to New Orleans for Jazz Fest or what not to do the next time you go turtle hunting.  The way Link talks about his family and friends comes across the page as real love and not as if he was just using them to set the mood for his book.

 The traditional Cajun recipes all start with a brief personal introduction about the dish, contain a list of easily purchased ingredients and excellent, well written instructions to help even the inexperienced cook recreate the dishes.  No Cajun cookbook would be complete without recipes for such dishes as: Smothered Pork Roast over Rice, Crawfish Etouffee, Seafood Gumbo, Fried Chicken, Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya or everything you need for a do-it-yourself Crawfish Boil.

 Cathy’s Shrimp, Corn and Tomato Stew is a hearty mixture served over rice.  The Broccoli, Rice and Cheddar Casserole is a church basement, style classic that is given a new life when Link uses his homemade Cream of Mushroom Soup instead of canned concentrate.  The Cast-Iron Hush Puppies contain a puree of jalapenos, scallions and parsley, which adds a bright fresh taste, as well as green color, to a traditional southern side dish.  Link includes recipes for dessert, and before you ask, no they don’t call for either bacon or crawfish.  The picture of Chocolate Yummy might look like a typical pot-luck type of desert that was quickly thrown together using a box of instant pudding and a container of frozen whipped topping, but the quality of the fresh ingredients, homemade custard and whipped cream elevate this home-style dish to something that you would proudly serve at any family gathering.

 With heartfelt stories of real life in Cajun country and wonderful recipes that are well written and easy to follow Real Cajun easily earns a rating of three spatulas.

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