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An authentically Cajun Thanksgiving

Ellen Sweets
A Cajun turkey feast for the Thanksgiving Day holiday featuring a turducken and assorted side dishes.

There's Thanksgiving, and then there's a Cajun Thanksgiving, which means a table spread of almost ludicrous proportions - at least two meats, not necessarily including generous chunks of boudin and andouille; seafood gumbo; sweet and white potatoes; dirty rice; macaroni and cheese; cornbread; Spinach Madeleine; green beans; something with eggplant; pies and cakes; and coffee and tea and maybe a little rum punch to launch the meal.

Yes, like the Pilgrims, Acadians, as they were known before the British drove them out of Nova Scotia's Acadian province and into Louisiana swamps, are annually thankful for their survival, and the bounty nature provided them in their new Low Country home.

They had rice, wild turkeys, crawfish, shrimp and alligator, and they found ways not just to survive off the land, but to eat well . They created a unique food culture that has spilled into the Lone Star State.

Some are Cajun or Creole by birth, others by default, but what they have in common is an entrenched love affair with foods that are an amalgam of French, Spanish, Italian, American Indian and African cultures, a veritable gumbo, which also has a presence at the Thanksgiving table. Enriched by such flavorful aromatics as thyme, sage, basil and oregano, every dish brings a whiff of cultural heritage.

So for those looking for a Turkey Day change of pace, think turducken (yes, it really is a de-boned chicken, stuffed in a de-boned duck stuffed in a de-boned turkey), fried turkey, pork roast, roast beef, dirty rice (a blend of chicken giblets, long-grain white rice and the trinity of Cajun cooking (onion, celery and pepper) - garlic is a given). Think of a groaning table laden with a glorious range of savory and sweet goodies: The meal might launch with a liquid libation to prime the appetite, followed by appetizers of grilled andouille and boudin sausages and oyster patties. Those oyster patties were a childhood favorite of Sharon Richardson, a seventh-generation New Orleanian who was driven from her city by Hurricane Katrina. On Thursday, Richardson will look back not so much on her Katrina experience as she will the meals that her great-great grandmother, great-grandmother, grandmother and mother served.

"We had roasted turkey, pot roast and ham," she says. "Typically, we'd serve file gumbo, oyster patties and oyster dressing in the turkey. Then we'd have baked macaroni and cheese; a vegetable medley of corn, peas and green beans; giblet gravy; potato salad; sweet potato pone (casserole) with grated orange zest; sweet potato pie; pecan pie; and a coconut cake from my aunt. Our food is so rooted in history - Africans, Spanish, Italians, American Indians and French, they all blended in a melting pot before anyone in the South ever thought of it." Richardson's lagniappe is a selection of pralines she now makes and markets online (see Where to Buy box, below right), throughout Austin and at the Cedar Park Farmers Market.

Thanksgiving also holds warm memories for Jim and Eileen Carr Dew. She is a 13th-generation Cajun from Lake Charles, La. The Dews moved to Austin three years ago but joyfully continue a traditional meal. They previously lived in Pittsburgh, Pa., where condiments pretty much consisted of salt and pepper. "People there thought `rice' mean Minute Rice," she says. "I joined a gourmet club and they never wanted to cook anything other than meat and potatoes. After seven years I said we had to get out of there."

Now the family is back to the Turkey Day meal they love: gumbo, boudin, cornbread dressing with giblets; turkey filled with onion, apple, celery and bay leaves to season pan drippings that go into gravy; mashed potatoes; rice and gravy; sweet potatoes; and fresh green beans tossed with bacon and onions.

Catherine Slocombe, a native of Houston, is neither Cajun nor Creole, but much of her clientele is. She and her husband, Doug, own Sambet's Cajun Deli and Fiery Foods Store in North Austin. It's a funky place, reminiscent of a Cajun-country roadside eatery - only this one is tucked into a strip mall on Spicewood Springs Road. The shop sells all things Cajun, from spices and sauces to rice, pasta and coffee with chicory. In the back is a serving space where her cook, Chevis Eaton, whips up gumbo, red beans and rice, muffalettas, Po'Boys, crab cakes, and crawfish etoufee.

At Thanksgiving about a half-dozen friends gather to fry turkeys to sell. From mid-November right up to Thanksgiving Day, Slocombe's fried turkeys, which are injected with a blend of butter and garlic and finished with a rub of secret not-too-spicy spices, will be available to those who call in early enough.

Eaton, also displaced by the 2005 hurricane, brought fond food memories of his own, especially his mother's six-cheese macaroni and cheese, a recipe she has in her head but not on paper. Try as he might, he has not been able to replicate it nor pry it out of her. "I bet I asked a hundred times," he says, "but she always tells me the same thing: `I don't have a recipe, I just make it from memory.'"

Those memories are becoming easier to preserve, thanks to the wealth of Cajun and Creole cookbooks on bookshelves these days. Those recipes also are being preserved through restaurants and quaint shops like the one Kurt Knies and his business partner Tim Garrett launched a year ago in Northwest Austin.

Knies, his wife, Casey, and Garrett translated friendship into a business that replicates the kind of old-fashioned country meat market found around Lafayette, Breaux Bridge, St. Martinville - deep in the heart of Cajun country.

"I grew up in southern Indiana, but Southern cooking is Southern cooking," Knies says. He had an office at one time in Baton Rouge, La., "And when I started spending time in Louisiana, I fell in love with the place and been a fan ever since."

"When Tim and I were looking for next thing to do, we looked around and saw how popular Cajun food had become. We put together a business plan and decided Texans were ready to have their own piece of Cajun country in Northwest Austin," Knies says. Together they launched what has to be the most unlikely name ever for a business: Stuffed.

Not toys or cupcakes or doughnuts or other, well, stuff, but de-boned turkeys stuffed with jambalaya; bacon-wrapped, de-boned chicken thighs stuffed with crab dressing; pork tenderloin stuffed with cornbread dressing; bell peppers stuffed with crawfish rice; sausage-stuffed mushrooms; or even your choice of stuffing for a roasted baby suckling pig.

Alligator. Quail. Frog legs. These men, despite their differing geographic origins, come from a food culture that subscribes to the notion that too much is never enough. Double that for Garrett, whose unmistakable accent pinpoints his origins. He still lives in New Roads, La., roughly halfway between Lafayette and Baton Rouge, population 6,000. He makes bi-monthly trips to Austin to bone, season, stuff and market his wares.

"When I was a kid we'd have 35 people at our Thanksgiving dinner," he says. "We always had three or four kinds of meat. Somebody would bake a turkey, somebody would do a brisket, and the table would be filled with two or three different kinds of dressing, two or three vegetables, always including my grandmother's Spinach Madeleine. She even made couscous. I don't know where that came from; Cajuns use everybody's food.

"Last year we had 30 people and I did most of the cooking. I made 18 gallons of jambalaya and 20 pounds of sausage. We had roasts, we had ribs. I even did my own turduckens. My wife looks at all the food and says, `Why you cooking so much? Who's gonna eat all that food?'

"And I look at her and I say, `everybody.'"

Cajun Party Punch

1 quart strong tea

11/2 cups sugar

10 mint sprigs

4 3-inch cinnamon sticks

1 tsp. whole cloves

1 quart dark rum

2 cups unsweetened pineapple juice

1 cup fresh lime juice

2 quarts club soda

Ice ring or a large block of ice

1 lemon, sliced

1 lime, sliced

1 orange, sliced

In a heavy, 3-quart saucepan over medium heat, combine tea, sugar, mint, cinnamon and cloves. Cook, stirring until sugar dissolves. Cool slightly and refrigerate until chilled. To serve, strain tea into a punch bowl; discard slices. Add rum, pineapple juice, lime juice and club soda. Stir until blended. Add ice and fruits slices. Ladle into punch cups. Makes 5 quarts.

- Terry Thompson-Anderson, "Cajun Creole Cooking" (Shearer Publishing, 2003)

Seafood File Gumbo

This is the gumbo I learned growing up in St. Louis and living next door to a Creole family from New Orleans. I buy shrimp with the heads on to make shrimp stock. If you're squeamish about beheading, shelling and de-veining shrimp, Knorr makes cubes for shrimp stock. Add two cubes to five cups of water and fortify it with 2 cups of bottled clam juice.

For shrimp stock:

21/2 lbs. large shrimp, heads on (this will yield about 2 lbs. shrimp)

1/2 small onion, chopped

1/2 cup celery leaves and stalks, chopped

2 whole garlic cloves

1 bay leaf

1 Tbsp. Old Bay, Zatarain's or other Creole/Cajun seasoning

8 cups water

Remove heads, peel and de-vein shrimp, and rinse in cold water. Place shrimp in a dish, cover and refrigerate. Place shrimp heads, shells, onion, celery, lemon, garlic, bay leaf, seasoning and water in a large saucepan. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer, covered, for 2 hours. Remove from heat and set aside.

For gumbo:

1 tsp. cayenne red pepper

2 tsp. sweet paprika

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. white pepper

1 tsp. black pepper

1 tsp. dried thyme

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 large bay leaf, broken in half

3/4 cup bacon drippings or Crisco

21/2 cups chopped onions

21/2 cups chopped celery

2 cups chopped green bell pepper

4 Tbsp. file powder

1 Tbsp. Tabasco sauce (or to taste)

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups canned tomato sauce

6 cups shrimp stock

2 lb. shrimp, peeled and de-veined

2 cups crabmeat (about 1/2 pound)

20 small oysters (with liquid)

3 cups cooked long-grain rice, prepared according to package

In a small bowl, combine cayenne, paprika, salt, white, black and red pepper, thyme, oregano and bay leaf. Set aside.

In a 5-quart, heavy-bottomed stockpot, heat bacon drippings (or Crisco) over a medium high heat. Stir in onions, celery and bell peppers. Increase heat and stir in the file powder, Tabasco, garlic and seasoning mix. Reduce heat to medium and add tomato sauce, stirring continuously to avoid sticking. As ingredients tend to stick more, scrape more vigorously, taking care not to let anything scorch. Add stock and bring gumbo to a boil. Reduce heat again and simmer for about 45 minutes. Add shrimp, crabmeat and oysters and return pot to simmer for 5 minutes. Cover and remove from heat. Serve over rice. Serves 8-10 as an appetizer.

- Ellen Sweets

Oyster Dressing

2 Tbsp. olive oil

11/2 cups chopped green onions (white and green parts)

11/2 cups diced yellow onions

11/2 cups chopped celery

11/2 cups chopped green bell peppers

2 quarts oysters with liquid

1 Tbsp. salt

1 Tbsp. cayenne pepper (or to taste)

1 Tbsp. garlic powder

1 Tbsp. thyme leaves

3 cups coarse fresh whole wheat bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350. Coat a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan or casserole with nonstick cooking spray. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat and sauté green onions, yellow onions, celery and green peppers. Add oysters and oyster liquid. Cook until onions and celery are translucent, about 5-6 minutes. Stir in salt, cayenne, garlic powder, thyme and bread crumbs. Pour mixture into casserole and bake for about 20 minutes, or until top is golden brown. Serves 12.

- Judy Walker, "Cooking Up A Storm" (Chronicle Books, 2008)

Spinach Madeleine

This is a Cajun favorite. It's like a spinach dip, only in a casserole. Spinach, butter, cream, artichokes: what's not to like? This should be made the night before, brought to room temperature and baked just before dinner is served.

2 packages frozen chopped spinach, blanched

1/2 cup finely chopped artichoke hearts, drained

4 Tbsp. unsalted butter

3 Tbsp. flour

3 Tbsp. chopped onion

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup vegetable stock

1/2 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. celery salt

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

Salt to taste

6 oz. jalapeño jack cheese, cut into small cubes

Dash of Worcestershire sauce

Red pepper to taste (optional)

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1/4 cup melted unsalted butter

Blanch spinach in 1 cup water. Save 1/2 cup of liquid. Drain thoroughly. Melt butter in saucepan over low heat. Add flour, stirring until blended and smooth, but not brown. Add onion and cook until soft. Add cream slowly, stirring continually to avoid lumps. Cook until smooth and thick; continue stirring. Stir in black pepper, celery salt, and garlic powder. Add Worcestershire sauce and cheese and stir until melted. Add spinach and artichoke hearts and mix well.

Preheat oven to 375. Transfer to a casserole dish. Sprinkle with buttered bread crumbs. Bake until bubbly. Serves 4-6.

- Ellen Sweets

Maque Choux

Pronounced "mock shu," this is a favored traditional Louisiana concoction believed to be a take on an American Indian dish. It is best in the summer with fresh corn (when you can scrape the milk from the cob after removing kernels), but frozen will do just fine.

2 Tbsp. canola oil (bacon grease is better)

1 yellow onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper

1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper

1 14.5-oz. can chopped tomatoes, drained

5 cups frozen yellow corn kernels

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. sugar

A pinch of cayenne pepper (or more)

1/2 tsp. dried basil

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 Tbsp. chopped parsley

2 slender green onions, sliced thin

In 12-inch nonstick skillet, heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Add diced onion, red bell pepper, green bell pepper, garlic and cayenne and sauté until vegetables are tender and slightly browned (or thoroughly wilted), about 10 to 15 minutes.

Add tomatoes, corn, salt, sugar, cayenne pepper and basil and raise heat to high for about 2 minutes then reduce to low. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in cream and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Garnish with parsley and green onions and serve. Serves 4.

- Ellen Sweets

Eggplant Stuffed with Shrimp

My mother this eggplant casserole several times a year, but it was a standard at Thanksgiving. I think it ended up on our table because we once had dinner at Galatoire's restaurant in New Orleans and she was determined to replicate it. She actually scooped out the pulp, mixed the ingredients, returned them to the shell and baked it. This way is much easier, and just as tasty. It can be made with shrimp, crab or no seafood at all.

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1 onion, chopped

1 small bell pepper, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

2 medium eggplants cut into cubes

1/2 cup uncooked long-grain rice

One 14-oz. can diced tomatoes

1/2 tsp. basil

1 tsp. thyme

1 Tbsp. dried parsley

1 cup clam juice

1 cup Italian breadcrumbs

2 cups shrimp, cleaned and deveined (or 1/2 lb. crabmeat, rinsed and picked)

Kosher salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350. Sauté onions, green pepper, celery and garlic in butter. Add eggplant and continue cooking until it softens. Add rice and sauté for another 10 minutes or until vegetables soften and eggplant liquid is reduced. Add tomatoes, basil, thyme, parsley, and clam juice. Stir to combine all ingredients and simmer for about 10 minutes. Turn into a 2-quart casserole for 45 minutes. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and cook 15 minutes longer. Serve hot. Serves 6 to 8.

- Ellen Sweets

Where to buy

Christen's Gourmet Pralines

250-8365, christenpraline.com

Evangeline Café

8106 Brodie Lane

282-2586, evangelinecafe.com

Sambet's Cajun Deli and Firey Foods Store

8650 Spicewood Springs Road

258-6410, Sambets.com

Stuffed Cajun Meat Market and Specialty Foods

12226 RM 620

918-1600, stuffedfoodstores.com