The Gleeful Gourmand: April 2016

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Chicken Étouffée, Take Two

Readers! Friends! Countrymen! It's so good to be "back in the saddle" here at The GG after taking a few months off. Lest you think that my time off meant that I had rolled over and wasn't cooking anything interesting, well, you're right. Mostly.

In winter, after the holidays have come and gone I usually find myself in a culinary slump. Dinners most nights of the week for my family are not gorgeous, ambitious affairs in the slightest (unless you think that tacos made with a taco kit counts as ambitious. Or gorgeous). In the past I've been able to get out of the slump by taking on culinary challenges for myself that I set as New Years Resolutions, dishes that I've typically thought of as too intimidating to tackle; but this year, even after putting the shout out to my Facebook friends, I didn't have one suggestion and I couldn't come up with anything that even remotely interested me. Hence, taking some time off. And yet, I did get around to making a couple of fun dishes, Wild Mushroom Risotto for one, and even taught my very first cooking class (which was super fun!). But still, I was definitely in a culinary rut.

Then Mardi Gras rolled around. If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know we take Mardi Gras very seriously. As the last hurrah before a long Lenten season, we typically blow it out like they would in New Orleans, but you know, with kids, and without bead throwing. This year, my first priority was to make a Sazerac, that most traditional cocktail of New Orleans. I'd never had one before, so what better time to try it out? I followed this great recipe, and really enjoyed crafting the cocktail, which was absolutely delicious. We turned up The Preservation Hall Society and got our Mardi Gras on.

For the meal itself I wanted to make something that was delicious, yet not too time-consuming or difficult, that still showcased all the delicious Creole flavors we associate with the Crescent City. If you'll remember, a couple of years ago I tried my hand at this Chicken Étouffée. It turned out to be incredibly lackluster and bland, but something was telling me that if I dug a little deeper, I could hit on the right Chicken Étouffée recipe, the one that I was looking for.  The word "Étouffée" means "smothered" in French, and anything smothered has to be both savory and sumptuous.

I definitely found what I was looking for over at Saveur. I could tell right away that this recipe had all the depth of flavor I was looking for thanks to the inclusion of the herbs thyme and dried basil, plus all the classic Creole and Cajun kick-in-the-seat-of-your-pants spiciness we crave on a cold winter's night. Check out this great recipe by clicking here.

Chicken and Andouille Sausage Étouffée

The only problem was it was way, way too spicy. It kicked the seat of our pants with a little too much gusto. With a generous full teaspoon of cayenne, plus Andouille Sausage, it wasn't long before we were feeling the heat. We all dove into the bowls of Étouffée, and at first everyone seemed to enjoy it. The kids were the first ones to fold, complaining that it was too spicy (though in fairness, they also think the tacos with pre-packaged taco seasoning is too spicy), and filled up on French bread instead.

I started to notice that I was glugging down my crisp white wine a little too fervently. I turned to my Mom, who was sitting next to me.

"Do you think this is too spicy?" I asked her. She was dabbing at her face delicately with her napkin. "It is, but it's delicious," she replied. "Your face is beet red, dear," she also informed me.

That's when I noticed that I, too, happened to be sweating, and that my mouth was on fire. Like, 7th circle of hell on fire. Cayenne pepper is a heat that creeps. It moves along slowly at first, as though it's out for a Sunday stroll - a nice flavor. Then it quickens its pace just a bit, things are heating up now. Finally it breaks into a sprint, causing one to try and drench their tastebuds in any liquid that's closest to quell the fire. In my case, it was wine, but that's beside the point. Pair that creeping heat (all 1 teaspoon of it, which doesn't seem like much, but is actually a tremendous amount) with the Andouille Sausage, one of the spicier sausages on the market, and the heat was most definitely on.

My husband, on the other hand, who finds ghost peppers to be a bit bland, was of course chowing down and saying things like, "I can't believe you think this is spicy. It's terrific! Are you actually sweating? Wait, are you crying?"

The tears were indeed filling my eyes, and snot was perilously close to breaking free from my nostrils, but I held it together and powered on, eating nearly the whole bowl. Underneath all that heat was the lusty sumptuousness and aromatic wallop of flavor I had been looking for.

As the Lenten season came to a close during Holy Week, I found myself bound and determined to make the Étouffée again, keeping all the original players that make this recipe so great, but also tweaking a few things to bring the spiciness under control. The first thing I did was swap out the Andouille Sausage. I thought this would be the biggest culprit in the heat factor, so I swapped it out for a Kielbasa instead, a nice, mild sausage, still with plenty of flavor. Paired with the chicken thighs, I felt this would work nicely. I also took the full teaspoon of cayenne down to about 3/4 of a teaspoon. As the pot bubbled and simmered (their take on the perfect roux is absolutely foolproof and on point, by the way), the kids traipsed through the kitchen and remarked on how great it smelled. I served it up, once again on a bed of fluffy white rice and we dove in.

It was at this point that I realized that it wasn't the Andouille Sausage that had been the problem, it was the cayenne; and taking it down to 3/4 of a teaspoon wasn't enough for my delicate, tender tastebuds. The kids got about halfway through their bowls this time, and were completely dismayed that I had forgotten the French bread. While it was still beyond delicious, I think I might take the cayenne down even further next time to a half teaspoon, or maybe even a fourth. I know. I know. What an absolute wimp I am.

Try this recipe out for yourself and please let me know what you think. If you really love spicy stuff, go for the original recipe, but if you want to tone it down, try the tweaks I made, and get ready to laissez les bon temps rouler - even though Mardi Gras is long since past.

P.S. - One final note. You'll see that they want you to brown the chicken thighs in a separate skillet to get them to a nice golden color. It recommends a lot of butter so that you can put the leftover melted butter into the finished Étouffée. Both times I attempted this, I ended up with sautéed chicken instead. It's my opinion that they call for WAY too much butter. If you want that gorgeous brown sear, take the butter down to maybe 2 tbsp. and see how that does.