GROWING UP in St. Martinville, La.,
enjoyed regular helpings of turtle and alligator meat, frog legs and rabbit, courtesy of her father’s hunting and fishing trips. He’d brown the meat in an iron skillet, make a nice roux of fat and flour, then simmer that with tomatoes, peppers and hot sauce, among other ingredients, to create a punchy red sauce piquant. “It’s something Louisiana hunters did a lot back then, whether they were in their camps or at home,” said Ms. Bienvenu, a former Times-Picayune food columnist who now teaches classes on Louisiana cuisine at Nicholls State University. “And it’s something they still do.”
Louisiana’s sauce piquant is as beloved by Cajun home cooks as it is by the Creole gourmands of New Orleans. The name piquant (pronounced PE-KAWNT) is French for tangy or spicy—both signature characteristics of a sauce that chef
once suggested should “hover between pleasure and pain when you eat it.”
The problem is, the piquants I tasted while living in New Orleans a decade and a half ago hovered somewhere between basic and boring. But recently, after eyeing an enticing photo of a chicken sauce piquant in my beat-to-hell copy of Donald Link’s 2009 cookbook “Real Cajun,” I wondered what I’d been missing. Like gumbo, sauce piquant is one of Louisiana’s polyglot dishes, combining elements of Cajun, Creole, Italian, French and Spanish cuisines. Surely there must be greater depths to tease out.
Consulting experts in Louisiana, I quickly learned that one seldom finds good sauce piquant in restaurants. It’s more of a home-cooked thing, requiring time and attention and—dare I say?—love. Sauce piquant is a natural byproduct of an afternoon spent watching the Saints game or talking about the old times with hunting buddies over a case of Abita Amber. The dish follows some of the basic techniques of gumbo-making: Start with a roux, add the ubiquitous Louisiana trinity of onions, celery and peppers, and stew it all with stock and protein and tomatoes (canned or fresh).
Paging through regional cookbooks, I learned that, also like gumbo, a sauce piquant can cloak most any protein under the Louisiana sun, from alligator to venison and all manner of fowl; I even found a recipe calling for black-bear meat. None of those sounded off-key in a cuisine I know to be an equal-opportunity appropriator of whatever is at hand, but I was confused by the inclusion of tomato. Years ago, while researching a story on gumbo, I was told by several Cajun chefs that they wouldn’t be caught dead cooking with a tomato, since that was mostly a New Orleans (i.e., Creole) thing. So how did it find its way into this iconic Cajun dish?
“That’s a good question,” Mr. Link said when I pressed him on the issue. “I guess it’s just a Cajun deviation of Creole food.” A native of Acadiana fluent in both cuisines, Mr. Link then launched into a history of tomatoes in the region. Though native to the New World, this fruit didn’t begin making inroads into Louisiana’s regional dishes until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when thousands of Sicilians immigrated to the Port of New Orleans to work on nearby sugar plantations. Some of these newcomers remained in the city and opened restaurants and groceries that served or sold tomatoes. Before long, like African okra and Choctaw Indian file powder, this “Italian” ingredient made its way into Creole cooking.
Sauce piquant carries echoes of other cuisines, too, that have intermingled in Louisiana’s kitchens. Cooks of French descent must have appreciated piquant’s similarities to their espagnole, made with beef broth. In a collection of recipes compiled by the Los Islenos Heritage and Cultural Society, which documents Louisiana immigrants from Spain’s Canary Islands, I came across a recipe for guiso de conejo (rabbit stew) that, aside from an added splash of Sherry, was almost identical to sauce piquant.
Getting to work in my kitchen, I carefully followed Mr. Link’s instructions, coating the chicken in a mixture of flour, chili powder, paprika and other spices. I fried the meat in vegetable oil, and I whisked flour into the same oil to make a peanut-butter-colored roux. Then I added my trinity—which immediately made my Brooklyn apartment smell like Acadiana itself—and stirred in chicken stock, fresh and canned tomatoes, and several enthusiastic shakes of hot sauce.
Having commanded Alexa to cue up some Mamou Playboys, I plated my chicken sauce piquant with white rice and inhaled it standing at my kitchen counter. It was, no doubt, a rich, rustic, truly Cajun-style stew—honestly, among the tastiest one-pot dishes I’d ever made—but the Italian in me longed for more tangy tomato. And so I did what real Cajun cooks do: I improvised, doubling the chopped tomatoes and adding a tablespoon of tomato paste. I also upped my starch game, opening up a bag of
Gourmet Rice (arguably the best in Louisiana).
This time, I served my chicken piquant to family and friends for Sunday supper. And after years of underestimating this time-honored Cajun dish, I finally understood what the fuss was about.
Chicken Sauce Piquant
TOTAL TIME: 1½ hours SERVES: 4-6
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon white pepper
- 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons chili powder
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and 4 boneless skinless thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 2 small onions, diced
- 3 celery stalks, diced
- 1 tablespoon jalapeño chile, diced
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 5 plum tomatoes, diced
- 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 5 cups chicken broth
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 4 bay leaves
- 4 dashes hot sauce
- 4 cups cooked white rice
- 1 small bunch scallions, thinly sliced
1. In a large bowl, whisk together salt, black pepper, white pepper, cayenne, chili powder and paprika. Add chicken and toss to coat. Add flour and toss to coat.
2. Line a plate with paper towels. Heat oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it begins to smoke slightly. Shaking off excess flour into bowl, transfer chicken pieces to hot oil and fry in a single layer, turning occasionally, until golden brown all over, 5-7 minutes. (If necessary, fry in batches as to not overcrowd the pan.) Use a slotted spoon to transfer chicken to paper towel-lined plate. Reserve leftover flour in bowl and oil in pot.
3. Add reserved flour to reserved hot oil and cook over low-medium heat, whisking constantly, to make a peanut-butter-colored roux, about 5 minutes. (If it seems the chicken has absorbed too much of the oil, add another tablespoon or two.) Add onions, celery, jalapeño and garlic, and cook 5 minutes more.
4. Add tomato paste, chicken, tomatoes, broth, thyme, bay leaves and hot sauce. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until liquid thickens to a light gravy and chicken is fork tender, 45 minutes.
5. Serve over rice, garnished with scallions.
—Adapted from “Real Cajun” by Donald Link
Source : WSJ