Classic & Quick

Among the many problems facing families today, surely one of the most perplexing is the weeknight dinner. 

Everyone wants to eat tasty, healthful meals, but the time available to prepare them seems to get shorter and shorter and shorter. In some ways, the difficulties are even greater in Louisiana because so many of our dishes, which require long, slow cooking, just aren’t feasible after a day at the office.

Yet there are ways to get around this and to put delicious home-cooked dinners on the table with a minimum of last-minute preparation. One approach is that taken by committed cooks who put up foods when they’re
in season. For example, my dentist and his wife cook and then freeze enormous quantities of their homegrown okra, onions and tomatoes. When they want a shrimp-and-okra gumbo or any other okra-and-tomato dish, it’s a snap to prepare.

Another method of ensuring that you’ll have quick and tasty meals during the week is to cook large pots of gumbos, stews, soups, étouffées and such on the weekends and freeze portions that can be defrosted during the week. If you’re committed to doing this, you’ll soon have a freezer holding a number of different dinner options that can be defrosted and served with rice or pasta and a salad for a quick, satisfying meal.

As bucolic as that may sound, many people don’t want to spend their time preparing and stocking a freezer with home-cooked food. If you’re one of those, you can still put Louisiana dishes on the table during the week without a lot of advance preparation. To do so, you’ll need to keep a number of staple ingredients in the pantry, freezer
and fridge. And you’ll have to alter a few familiar cooking techniques in order to speed things up.

Three of the most useful ingredients to have on hand are dry roux (sometimes labeled “instant roux”), chicken broth and frozen seasoning vegetables. When time is of the essence, a dry roux, which is browned flour, is preferable to an oil-and-flour roux because it dissolves quickly and you don’t have to skim the pot to remove excess oil. Chicken broth (or a high-quality chicken base) provides instant flavor, and frozen seasoning vegetables don’t have to be chopped.

Other staples that will come in handy for quick dinner preparations include canned diced tomatoes in juice; dried shrimp; smoked sausage; ham; tasso; eggs; frozen crawfish tails; frozen rice dressing mix; and a variety of spices, including Creole seasoning, cayenne, bay leaves, filé, thyme leaves, salt and peppercorns (along with a pepper grinder). Because you’re going to be taking shortcuts in your preparations, be sure to purchase excellent ingredients.

If you’re going to skimp on time, you can’t afford to skimp on quality.

Many Louisiana dishes begin with a roux to which seasoning vegetables (some combination of garlic, onions, bell peppers and celery) are added, followed by water or a stock. Preparations that don’t require a roux usually start by cooking seasoning vegetables in oil or butter. In order to save time, dissolve dry roux in broth or stock and then add
the seasoning vegetables, along with other ingredients. This cuts out one or more steps and greatly reduces preparation time. Similarly, for dishes that don’t require a roux, omit the initial step of cooking the vegetables in oil or butter.

One of the greatest time-savers available today is the rotisserie chicken, which is widely available at groceries and supermarkets. Many a weeknight dinner includes one of those chickens, along with salad, French bread and perhaps rice dressing made from a frozen mix. That combination, in fact, is one of my favorites, but it’s not one I want every day. A rotisserie chicken, however, can be a primary ingredient in a chicken-and-sausage gumbo,
a chicken-and-ham jambalaya, chicken stew or any number of other quick preparations.

When you take shortcuts, will your dishes be as good as the best you can make when you’re not pressed for time?

Probably not. On the other hand, they will still be good and tasty, as well as more satisfying and better
for you than fast food or a commercial frozen dinner.

30-Minute Gumbo

Some will say a 30-minute gumbo is impossible; others will call it a sacrilege, but if you’re in a hurry and have a hankering for gumbo, you should give it a try.

8 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup dry roux
4 cups frozen seasoning vegetables
1/2 pound smoked sausage, sliced
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves
1 rotisserie chicken, cut into serving pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cayenne pepper
Hot sauce

In a heavy pot over high heat, whisk dry roux into chicken broth. Add vegetables, sausage, bay leaves, thyme and chicken. Cook at a slow boil for 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt, peppers and hot sauce. Serve with steamed rice and filé.

Serves about 6.

30-crawfish étouffée

This doesn’t take much longer than
the rice you serve it with, and it’s
just about as easy.

2 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup butter
2 cups frozen seasoning vegetables
1 pound crawfish tails, with fat
Coarse salt and cayenne

In a heavy pot, combine chicken broth and flour; whisk until smooth. Add butter, vegetables and crawfish, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat; season to taste with salt and cayenne; and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve over cooked rice. Serves 4.

Quick Chicken Stew

With rice, French bread and a salad, this makes a satisfying weeknight meal.

2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup dry roux
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups frozen seasoning vegetables
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 rotisserie chicken, cut into serving pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cayenne pepper

In a heavy pot over high heat, whisk dry roux into chicken broth. Add butter, vegetables, bay leaves, thyme and chicken. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and peppers. Serves 4.

Quick Chicken-and-Ham Jambalaya

Chicken broths, Creole seasonings, ham and rotisserie chickens vary greatly in salt content. Use a small amount of Creole seasoning in the beginning, and, if necessary, add more after the dish is cooked. If you prefer brown jambalaya, omit the tomatoes and their juice and increase the chicken broth to 4 cups.

3 cups chicken broth
2 cups frozen seasoning vegetables
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
1 cup cubed ham
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
1 bay leaf
1/2 rotisserie chicken
2 cups rice
Freshly ground black pepper

Combine chicken broth, vegetables, tomatoes with their juice, ham, Creole seasoning and bay leaf in a heavy pot over high heat. Meanwhile remove chicken meat from bone, discard skin, and cut or tear meat into manageable pieces; add to pot. When the liquid in the pot is boiling, add rice, stir to combine and reduce the heat. Cover, and simmer until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 30 to 35 minutes. Season to taste with freshly ground black pepper and additional Creole seasoning, if desired. Serves 4.

Quick Crawfish Stew

Another quick and easy preparation suitable for a weeknight dinner.

2 cups chicken broth
3 tablespoons dry roux
4 tablespoons butter
2 cups frozen seasoning vegetables
1 pound crawfish tails, with fat
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cayenne pepper

In a heavy pot over high heat, whisk roux into chicken broth. Add butter, vegetables and crawfish; bring to a boil; reduce heat; and simmer until thickened and crawfish are tender, about 30 minutes. Season with lemon juice, salt and peppers. Serve over steamed rice. Serves 4.

Pantry, Freezer & Refrigerator Staples

Having these ingredients on hand will help you put dinner on the table with a minimum of time and effort:

• Dry roux or instant roux. Browned flour that dissolves quickly in liquid.

• Chicken broth. Instant flavor in a can or carton.

• Diced tomatoes in juice. Ready to use. Avoid tomatoes in purée.

• Dried shrimp. They’re invaluable for their concentrated flavor in gumbos, jambalaya and other dishes.

• Smoked sausage. Use in gumbo or jambalaya, or smother some with frozen seasoning vegetables and a quick gravy made from dry roux and chicken broth.

• Ham. Center-cut ham slices stored in the freezer can be used in gumbo, jambalaya, as a seasoning in vegetable preparations or in myriad other ways.

• Tasso. Seasoned, smoked pork; a more flavorful alternative to ham.

• Eggs. Always useful for quick meals, such as rice dressing topped with fried or poached eggs, accompanied by a salad and good bread.

• Frozen seasoning vegetables. Ingredients vary. The package in my freezer contains a combination of onions, red and green bell peppers, celery and parsley.

• Frozen crawfish tails. Make sure they’re from Louisiana.

• Frozen rice dressing mix. Defrost the mix, and heat it up while the rice is cooking. Combine cooked rice and dressing mix. That’s all there is to it.

• A variety of spices, including Creole seasoning, cayenne, bay leaves, filé and thyme.

Roux Rules

There are several brands of good roux available in supermarkets, but some cooks prefer to make their own, and some of them prepare quantities of roux to keep on hand for speedy meal preparation. Instructions for making traditional roux usually call for a long, slow cooking of flour and oil in a cast-iron skillet while stirring constantly with a spoon or spatula. Some cooks speed up the process by cooking over high heat while using a metal whisk to keep the mixture from burning.

Another method involves cooking roux in the oven, with periodic stirrings. This doesn’t involve the constant attention required by the stovetop method, and it is a technique often preferred by professional chefs who make large quantities at a time.

A more contemporary practice is making roux in the microwave. Oil and flour are combined, cooked for a few minutes and then stirred, and the process is repeated until the desired color is obtained.

Dry roux, which is simply browned flour, can be made either on the stovetop or in the oven. As with making a traditional oil-and-flour roux, the stovetop method demands constant attention while the oven method only requires occasional stirring. Don’t be fooled by the pale color of a dry roux; it darkens when combined with a liquid. In addition to being useful for quick meal preparations, a dry roux is an ideal coating for meat and poultry before browning in oil, butter or some other fat.

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