Sunday, April 27, 2014

Martin Accordians, the swamp and more food!

Penny ( with Junior and Joel) explains the Accordion
Note the Craw-fish branding on the bellows
Any description of our group’s field trip to Martin Accordions last evening will not capture the richness of the experience.   Our bus delivered us to an understated building immediately behind a Waffle house in Scott LA.   Sixty+ Road Scholar participants from two separate program groups filed into a good sized hall where our emcee – Penny Martin - immediately captured our full attention.  She told fun stories, made us laugh, chronicled the evolution of Cajun and Zydeco music, explained the importance of the music in keeping Cajun culture alive and shared the musical tradition of her very talented family.   Penny’s father (Clarence “Junior”- founder) and nephew (Joel) joined her on stage, explaining their instruments and playing a wide variety of music from many eras.  Joel's talent and mastery of the accordion was on display throughout.  A couple of other musicians showed up at the hall and joined the Martins for an entertaining jam session.  Upon leaving and throughout the remainder of the evening our group was unanimous in their appreciation for the music and what we learned.  

The group shares a water
break on the Swamp.
("Mr. Butch" standing
in the back.)
Our boat plowed through anything!
The next day we took a break from cooking and traveled to Lake Martin (any relation to Martin Accordions is uncertain) where we boarded a 12 person flat bottomed boat for a “swamp tour”.  “Mr. Butch” made our adventure memorable by explaining every form of life we saw in the swamp – from trees, to fish, to alligators and the endless variety of birds – he knew them all and more.   Our listening devices allowed us to get within a couple yards of a 10 foot alligator while Butch quietly explained the importance of the bull’s “solar panels”.  He helped us distinguish and understand the difference between a bayou and a swamp – and I’ll never forget how he contrasted the manner in which brooks, streams and rivers work in the northern and southern states.   As we made our way back to shore, “Mr. Butch” told us he loved the swamp, but he didn't need to we all sensed his passion throughout the journey.

King's Cake
In the afternoon we met “Ms. Marie” whose passion brought her from a grammar school vice principal to starting her own business - the Cajun Food Tour – where she educates a more mature audience.   Our adventure started with a discussion on roux – of course!   (Folks in southern Louisiana love to debate the color of roux.)  Marie suggested that a lighter colored roux, the way her mom made it, was the best roux.  Our sampling of the lighter colored roux in the chicken and Cajun sausage gumbo at Vermilion Village made a convincing argument.   We visited three additional establishments featuring foods of southern Louisiana including a smoke house for some more boudin (a local sausage), the Olde Tyme Grocery for a fried shrimp Po-boy (sandwich) and lastly a bakery for a little Kings cake.  Throughout the afternoon Marie entertained us with local history and humor.

If you've been reading along, just like “Mr Butch”, I don’t really need to tell you that I loved my first Road Scholar program.   Sure I learned a lot about Cajun cooking and culture, made some friends and laughed a lot – but more importantly I was reminded of the importance of passion in our work and lives.  Whether it was the three different chefs who taught us about Cajun Cooking, The Martin Family, “Mr. Butch” or “Ms. Marie” I gained access to passionate folks whose enthusiasm for their work profoundly impacted my experience.  Our Road Scholar Coordinator and Group Leader, “Ms. Patti” deserves great credit for finding such a wonderful group of people.  “Ms. Patti” handled every detail perfectly – even when things weren't always perfect – allowing all of us to focus on learning and having fun.   I know Mrs. Top Chef and I will be thinking of "Ms. Patti" when the weather turns cool in the fall and we fire up our first gumbo.  (And we’ll also be thinking of our cooking partners Bill and Dolly when we drop a dash of rum in there to make it a Rumbo!)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Barbequed" Shrimp New Orleans Style

Bill the Ragin' Cajun cooked the
apples to perfection.  (He also
did well to keep Dolly away from
the rum!)
Chef Nick Landry, who had a wide variety of experiences in his impressive culinary career, guided the group through today's lunch preparation of mixed green salad with spiced walnuts and strawberry vinaigrette, New Orleans style bar b que shrimp with creamy smoked cheddar polenta and fresh apple cobbler with sweet potato crumble.  We took our time today and strategically prepared those items that could sit - allowing us to later focus on the polenta and shrimp.  Bill got right to work on the apples while three of us prepared the cobbler crumb topping of melted butter and sweet potato pancake mix, spiced baked walnuts and strawberry vinaigrette for the salad.  We also roasted roma tomatoes which we had dipped in olive oil, balsamic vinaigrette, oregano and basil.  After the tomatoes cooled their refined flavor diversified the salad flavors.  With our salad and cobbler under control we turned to the polenta - cooked with chicken stock, milk and corn meal.  Once we had a creamy polenta we added smoked cheddar and mascarpone cheese.  Lastly we we sauted our shrimp on a bed of olive oil, butter, onions celery and garlic.  (No one knows why they call this "barbecued" shrimp!)  We covered the polenta with the shrimp and our gourmet New Orleans style lunch was complete.  Do I have to tell you that everything was delicious?  Tonight we'll take a deeper dive into Cajun culture and listen to an entire family of musicians from the area.  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Gumbo and Boudin

Diana and Irma must be
debating the color of their roux.
Crawfish at the Hook and Boil
Today we returned to campus to again make our own lunch.  Chef Sanders Thomas skillfully guided the group – step by step - through the preparation of a Caesar salad, seafood gumbo and Creole bread pudding.     We started out by making a roux (of course) – only this time we used canola oil and flour as opposed to butter.  When the roux was good and dark we let it cool, so that we could later pour off some of the excess oil and then add the remainder to the boiling water of our gumbo.  At last we were able to utilize the “holy trinity” of Cajun cooking – green bell peppers, celery and onions in the gumbo stock.   In the end we smothered our rice (that we actually baked in the oven) with the gumbo.  We used half of a loaf of French bread to make the croutons for the salad and the other half to make the base for our bread pudding.  There was a fun mishap when the rum for the pudding dressing found its way into the gumbo – but our gumbo survived the ordeal.  Stuffed again, we boarded the bus and headed to Billeaud’s Grocery where they showed us how they make boudin – which is a local sausage made with rice.   A fun video is posted nearby. 
I think this group could take on any task!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Get cookin'

Etouffee on the stove.
Crawfish to be added.
Hard at work!
This morning we worked in teams of 3-4 to prepare our own lunch at the cooking classrooms of the University of Louisiana Lafayette.  We prepared four dishes fried eggplant with tasso cream sauce, broiled catfish topped with crawfish etoufee, shrimp and tasso corn maque choux and chocolate pecan pie.  Chef Becky Dubois who teaches at the University walked us through each recipe and then set us to work.  In the process, which felt busy but pretty relaxed, we were introduced to many general cooking concepts as well as some Louisiana specific foods.  We made a roux (a basic sauce), etoufee, a smothering or gravy and maque choux which was a dish influenced by the Indians who once lived in the area.  We worked with tasso, a smoked pork shoulder, crawfish, peppers, onions, mushrooms, corn and lots of butter!


Monday, April 21, 2014


Beignets (french donuts) to
start the day
Road Scholar provided suggested reading in advance of our trip and I read a short book on Arcadia and Cajun history on the flight down.  The story is sadly familiar to the fate that so many minorities have faced - expulsion from their original homeland, scattered throughout the world and finally some of them finding a home here in southern Louisiana where they still faced further abuse for practicing their customs.  Finally in the last 50 years there has been an acknowledgement and celebration of their unique culture - maybe just before the information age wiped it out.  We arrived on Easter Sunday and all the local restaurants were closed, but we had an amazing local dinner - shirmp creole and catfish - right here at the hotel!  We're even more excited to check out the local establishments.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

What to do......

One week ago Mrs. Top Chef and I were without a plan. For the week of April 19, our nest would be empty, as our youngest traveled to Europe with her high school and our son wrapped up a semester in college. We searched the Road Scholar web site for adventures starting between April 19 - 21. There were many options but the spiciest and most intriguing was Cajun Cooking in Lafayette Louisiana. Mrs Top Chef and I booked it and are headed to the airport today. After a winter in the polar vortex, we're pretty excited to break away, learn something new and warm up in Cajun Country.