Despite its humble Louisiana origins, some famous Cajun dishes show up frequently in restaurants all over the country and appeal to even the most northern taste buds. Cajun cuisine offers a great deal of variety, but two basic terms every Cajun cook knows are roux (flour cooked in lard, oil or butter) and the 'holy Cajun trinity' (onions, bell peppers and celery).
Crawfish, or crayfish, are known as mud bugs to the locals and resemble lobsters. Etouffee means 'to smother' in French, as in stewing seafood or meat. An etouffee is usually prepared with roux and onions, bell peppers and celery.
Served over rice, traditional crawfish etouffee is prepared with light brown roux, achieved by browning flour in vegetable oil rather than butter. While recipes vary slightly, the basic steps necessary to prepare this Cajun dish are: sauteeing the vegetables; adding the roux, stock, tomatoes and crawfish; and simmering the entire dish slowly on low to medium heat for about half an hour.
Gumbo is a brown stew or soup that combines Spanish, Indian, African and French influences. It contains some combination of seafood, duck, sausage, pork, chicken or even blackbirds and is thickened with okra. While no two people seem to make gumbo the same way, this Cajun favorite always starts with a roux prepared with flour cooked in lard, bacon drippings, butter, oil or shortening. Cajun cooks often season gumbo in the Native American style, with file powder, which is made from sassafras leaves.
Popular in rural Cajun areas, jambalaya is similar to gumbo but is cooked with rice. It contains various combinations of poultry, beef, ham, pork, seafood or smoked sausages. Start with sauteed seasoned vegetables, then add the liquid and rice. Once the water is mostly absorbed, add the meat and seafood. The most important rule when making jambalaya: Never stir the rice-turn it with a spatula to keep the grains together.
Dirty rice, also known as Cajun rice, is made with fried white rice and achieves its brown, 'dirty' appearance by mixing it with meat. Traditional recipes use boiled chicken livers, gizzards, wings and necks. Saute rice with seasonings and the obligatory peppers, celery and green onions in butter before adding the chicken parts and liquid.