Cajun dishes rank among the most misunderstood regional cuisines in the United States. That’s not surprising since it is part of the melange of cultural influences that make up southern Louisiana – French, Spanish, Native American, African, Caribbean and Central America. Often confused with its spicier neighbor, Creole, true Cajun dishes share similarities but are less complex. Today’s Louisiana Cajuns are descendants of the survivors of the Grand Derangement – the British ethnic cleansing of Acadia, French Canada’s Maritime provinces, in the 1760s which resulted in the death of half the Acadian population. Given refuge by Spanish controlled Louisiana, they settled in undesirable disease ridden bayous and marshes. Liz Williams, Director of the New Orleans Southern Food and Beverage Museum stated, “It is very peasant food; a one pot food…it’s more the practices, the mindset rather than the ingredients” that determined Cajun recipes.
Acclaimed New Orleans Chef Frank Brightsen commented, “The roots of Acadian culture are living off the land and that means hunting. The heart of Cajun culture around Lafayette is not coastal. Even in grocery stores you’ll find butchers. The pig is central to Cajun culture…”
Simple Acadian dishes such as salt cod cakes became impossible in the absence of potatoes and salt preserved fish. Rice became the starch and the abundance of fresh fish, game, alligator and seafood the additions. Rice, shrimp, and peppers replaced potatoes, cod and cabbage, but a basic Cajun meal is still one dish or simply prepared.
What else constitutes Cajun cuisine – and traditional Acadian fare? Anything deep fat fried – alligator and crawfish (not in Acadia) fish fillets, potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, pork chops, rabbit, game, chicken, and shrimp. Crabs, shrimp and crawfish come steamed as well. Lots of carbohydrates accompany a Cajun meal – and an Acadian meal – with rice, potatoes and corn not uncommon on the same plate along with okra and beans.
The greatest difference separating Cajun and Acadian cooking is spices. Acadian rarely goes beyond salt and pepper although they do use pickled combinations such as chow chow to enliven a meal. Cajun uses spices borrowed from Creole cuisine – a different fusion altogether. Of course world famous Tabasco sauce made for the past century and a half on Avery Island has become a Cajun standard even though its origin is clearly West Indian.
Maque Choux is a classic Cajun side-dish that has elements of both Acadian and Cajun dishes. Most of the ingredients are Native North American – corn and peppers – with pork introduced by European colonists. If you visit Louisiana’s Cajun country you will experience variations including some that add sugar – a later 19th century addition.
There are many variations on “Cajun seasoning.” It’s basically a mixture of salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic, onion and assorted spices. The “assorted spices” are best determined by an internet search. Especially important if you have a salt preference, packaged mixes have varying degrees of salt – both Cajun and Creole cooking love salt – but I prefer less (more for taste and thirst than health reasons).
Cajun Maque Choux with Pork Chops Ingredients – 2 servings (simply multiply all ingredients for more servings)
for the pork:
- 4 – 1/2 inch boneless pork chops
- low-salt Cajun seasoning
for the Maque Choux
- 1/4 cup small dice salt pork
- 1-1/2 cup diced sweet onion
- 1 cup diced celery
- 1/3 cup diced bell pepper – green, yellow or red
- 1 cup diced, peeled fresh tomato
- 1/8 cup minced fresh parsley
- 2 cups corn kernels – cut from the cob or frozen
- 1-1/2 teaspoons low-salt Cajun seasoning
- hot sauce to taste (optional)
- Rub the pork chops with a thin layer of cajun seasoning and refrigerate while preparing the Maque Choux.
- To prepare the peeled tomato: bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Drop a large tomato into the boiling water for 30 seconds (small tomato) to 60 seconds (large tomato as pictured.) Remove the tomato to a cutting board. With a sharp knife make a thin cut around the tomato. The skin will easily slip off with your fingers or the blunt side of a dinner knife.
- In a heavy frying pan – preferably cast iron – sauté the salt pork until crispy and all the fat has been rendered. Remove the salt pork with a slotted spoon and discard.
- Add the onion and sauté for 2 minutes.
- Add the celery and sauté for an additional 2 minutes
- Add the peppers, tomato, parsley, corn and Cajun seasoning. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In an oven proof baking dish spoon some of the Maque Choux to make a bed the size of a pork chop and place the chop to cover half. Overlap the corn and pork for the remaining chops.
- Cover with foil and bake for 90 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 30 minutes.
Serve with rice, a green salad, cold beer or a nice red wine.
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