May 20, 2010

Review: Donald Link's Real Cajun

I've been pushing this review back since Feb because... 
* I didn't feel like gathering my thoughts (bad/lame reason)
* I found more seasonal things that I just had to talk about (borderline bad reason)
* I lost my entire file of food porn pictures and had to start from scratch while I was starting a second job and moving to a new house (very, very good reason)

My apologies to Donald Link for the delay because I have bonded with his book Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking From Donald Link's Louisiana ($23 + change on amazon).  That's melodramatic and perhaps a bit weird.  But I tell ya after reading this book, I feel like Donald Link may be my long lost brother...or something less creepy and stalkeresque.  Again, my apologies to Donald Link.

The food pictures by Chris Granger (not Granger like ranger; it's Gron-jhay) grabbed me.  This is the food I grew up eating. 

The pictures of families interacting in the kitchen together and eating together grabbed me.  This is how I grew up. 
At every family gathering standard greetings were/are hugs and kisses.  This is also true among close friends.

The pictures of South Louisiana scenery grabbed me.  This is where I grew up. 
Although these pictures do make me wonder what's to become of our marshes, coastline, and beloved Gulf seafood due to the Deep Horizon "Spill."  Yeah--I went there.  Tried to avoid that subject, but it seems to always be on my mind lately.

I only wish that Donald Link would have written this book when I lived away from Louisiana.  It would have filled such a void.

When I read the first few sentences in the introduction, I felt as if I could've (almost) written them about myself:

"I grew up on the back roads and bayous of southwest Louisiana, a place I did not fully appreciate until later in life.  Looking back, I realize that the things I took for granted, like making gumbo with my granny, fishing with my grandad Adams, and family feasts made with produce from the garden, seafood from local waters, and wild game from the woods, were special gifts....  As a child every occasion of my life revolved around food--holidays, festivals, funerals, or any other excuse to call the family together."

This book is much more than a cookbook.  It is filled with personal touches.  Link's thoughts about leaving LA and coming back (like I did) are poignant.  Stories of Link's childhood, cooking and fishing with his Grandad Adams, stories of the uneasy, unpredictable time New Orleaneans refer to as "Post-K" or "After-The-Storm," stories of LA agri- and aquiculture, and stories of family get togethers--both in celebration and mourning accompany each recipe.  The stories, of course, center on the role food plays in our lives.

I find myself grabbing for this book and reading these mini essays over and over, nodding in recognition.

But this is marketed as a cookbook.  So I should be reviewing it as such, no?

Real Cajun consists of 6 chapters:

La Vie Cochon: which means a pig's life.  One of Donald Link's restaurants is named Cochon.  You can't grow up in S LA and ignore the pig.  This chapter provides recipes for homemade bacon, cracklins, and sausages as well as recipes for smothered pork roast, Braised Sausage w/ Chiles (gotta try that!), and more.  I don't see myself making my own bacon or sausage, but you never know!

From Louisiana Waters: obviously this is the seafood chapter, containing recipes for shrimp, crawfish, crab, various types of fish, and oysters.  Classics like Crawfish Etouffee and Shrimp Creole are included.  But Link also includes some "new" seafood recipes.  He gives a nod to New Orleans' large Vietnamese community with Vietnamese Marinated Shrimp.  And the Summer Crab and Tomato Salad looks perfect for hot LA summers.  Personally, I found this section heavy on the crab--but that's quite all right with me!

Family Gatherings: Link explains that the recipes here are ones you'd make for a crowd.  Things like the Seafood Gumbo recipe featured on the cover, from scratch Broccoli, Rice, and Cheddar Casserole, Simple Roasted Chicken w/ Lemon and Basil, and Chicken Sauce Piquante are included.  Many of the recipes in this section would be found on Holiday tables throughout South LA.

All the Fixin's: is all about the sides.  Things like homemade Creamed Sweet Corn, Smothered Collard Greens, Zucchini and Rice Gratin (which I plan to try soon), and Cast Iron Hush Puppies.  Cajuns don't shrug off the sides.

Outdoor Living--Laissez les Bon Temps Roulez!: This chapter features recipes for crawfish boils, fish fries, camp-style cooking, smoking and grilling, and things you might find at outdoor festivals (like Meat Pies--if they taste even a fraction as good as the picture looks...oh boy, I'm in trouble).  The end of the chapter includes cocktail recipes as well...ya know, good times rolling and all.

Louisiana Sweet Tooth: desserts, of course!  Cobblers, fudge, bread pudding, pies...classic southern desserts but many with surprising twists (Satsuma Buttermilk Pie--can't wait for my trees to produce so I can try this).

So what did I try?

Catfish Fried in Bacon Fat: Yes, you read that right.  And, yes, I used all of the precious, precious bacon fat I horde to make this.  And it was good.  I thought it might end up greasy, but no.  Donald Link uses white cornmeal to coat the fish.  I always use yellow corn meal, but I loved the white cornmeal.  It gave a light quality that is needed considering the bacon fat.  Genius!  But that's why he has a book and I don't.  Unfortunately, this is one of the many pictures my computer ate.  See?  Everyone loves catfish fried in bacon fat.

Cast-Iron Hush Puppies: I know, I know.  More fried food.  Hush puppies and fried fish just go together.  In fact, it's a sin to keep them apart.  You can look it up.  Link's hush puppies contain chopped green onion, jalapeno, parsley, and thyme.  He mentions the "greenness" of these hush puppies and gosh darn it, he's right.  This was a different and unexpected flavor--in my opinion mainly because of the thyme, but they were good.  Light and airy and beignet-like.

Scallion Buttermilk Dressing: A mix of buttermilk, mayo, sour cream, several herbs, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, and green onions--this was great!  Lemon and green food obsessions for going on a year now, so I had no doubt this would work for me.  I loved the tangy quality from the lemon juice and vinegar and also thought all the herbs made the dressing interesting.  Since there's so much going on in this dressing, I opted to use it on a simple mixed lettuce salad.  Link likes to add bacon bits--but he is the pig king.

Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits: This is the only recipe I tried that I won’t make again. The texture was great, but I found the baking powder taste to be overwhelming.

Old-School Chicken & Sausage Jambalaya: Link’s jambalaya is a brown, Cajun style one. His method differs a bit from mine in that I found it to be “chefy.” A lot of steps I wouldn’t normally take such as reducing the chicken stock down to practically nothing. I have to admit that the flavor was great. But I overcooked the rice and thought I ruined the whole pot. Then I remembered Link’s Boudin-Stuffed Turkey Breast. I used the mushy jambalaya as a stuffing for chicken breasts. Then I used the method from my favorite recipe (so far) in this book, Chicken & Bacon Hash, and formed the jambalaya into patties, dusted with flour and pan fried. Real Cajun keeps given’ and given’!

Creamed Sweet Corn: fresh sweet corn kernels simmered in a bath of cream, green onion, and jalapeno, then splashed with lemon juice. Yum. I brought this to a pot luck packed with little old Cajun ladies and it was well-received. Pretty too.

And my top two recipes...

Blueberry Cobbler: I've had many cobblers, but never blueberry.  Link adds lemon juice and zest to the berries, which is a classic combo.  He also adds cinnamon to the dough.  I was iffy about cinnamon w/ blueberries.  But it was fantastic!  The Husband liked it so much, he asked for it again--in place of his birthday cake.

Chicken & Bacon Hash: This could be my favorite recipe of the whole year.  No kidding.  I loved it!  The idea behind this recipe is like any hash--use leftovers.  Link uses leftover grilled chicken which he finely shreds.  The special thing about this hash is that Link came up with a terrific idea to chill the hash, form it into patties, lightly dust with flour, and pan fry.  The result is one I coo over all the time: crispy exterior, soft, creamy interior.  Absolute heaven. 
I heart Donald Link.

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Chicken & Bacon Hash
from Real Cajun by Donald Link (slightly reworded)

1 medium russet potato, peeled
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 strips thick-sliced bacon, cut into 1/2" cubes
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
1 1/2 tsp fresh sage or thyme
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
ground black pepper
2 1/2-3 cups finely shredded cooked chicken, preferably leftover from BBQ chicken
2 Tbsp to 1/4 c chicken broth or water
1/2 bunch green onions, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp vegetable oil or rendered bacon fat
flour for dusting

Cut the potato into a small dice and place in a small saucepan. Cover with 2 inches of water and add a generous pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer until tender, 13-15 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. add the bacon and saute until the fat renders and the bacon is lightly browned but still soft, 3-4 minutes.

Add the onion, celery, garlic, jalapeno, sage, paprika, cayenne, black pepper, and salt. cook, stirring, until softened and fragrant, 4-6 minutes.

Add the chicken and broth and cook over medium high, stirring frequently to break up the meat, 6-8 minutes. Add the potato and continue to cook, stirring well to break up the pieces (**this will help bind the mixture**), until the liquid is absorbed. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if needed. Stir in the green onions and allow the mixture to cool (for faster results, spread on a cookie sheet and place in the refrigerator).

Form the hash into 3-4 inch patties. Heat the vegetable oil of bacon fat in a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the patties with flour on both sides, then add them to the pan. Fry until golden brown and crisp on both sides.

**The patties will have the best texture and hold together better if finely shredded chicken is used and if the potatoes are thoroughly broken up during heating.

I recently found a great interview with the man himself.  This site includes a brief bio as well as Donald Link's thoughts on Cajun cooking and his favorite places to eat.

Linking this with Carole's Chatter where there is a great round up of "Your Favorite Cookbooks."


  1. That blueberry cobbler does look good.

  2. This sounds like a fantastic book Michelle and you did a great job reviewing it! It is really hard to gather your thoughts together on something like this. I love everything you made, especially that bacon and chicken hash. I'm definitely bookmarking that one to make, especially since you said it was your favorite recipe of the year!

    So sorry about everything going on down in the gulf. I can't even begin to imagine what it feels like to all of you who live there.

  3. Thanks for linking this one in. Have a good one


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