If you’ve never had Paul Prudhomme’s gumbo, it’s not too late. Although the Cajun chef died recently at age 75, his cookbooks are still available and worth digging into.
Several decades ago, when I was editing a gourmet food trade mag, I interviewed Chef Paul at the Fancy Food Show in New York.
He told me that he’d made a big mistake in his first cookbook. He didn’t realize that the cayenne pepper he used in his kitchen was fairly mild. If you use a teaspoon of commercially sold cayenne, what you get is the incredibly spicy hot food that has come to characterize “Cajun”. He felt frustrated and apologetic. He couldn’t change the cookbook, but he did explain that his food was much milder and much more evenly tempered.
His gumbo recipes is astonishingly flavorful. The seasoning mix for Seven Steak and Okra Gumbo from Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen starts with two tablespoons of salt, a tablespoon of sweet paprika and 2 teaspoons of white pepper. Yes, that’s TBSp and TSP. Basically, you blend together an entire bottle of spices, and use the whole thing in one huge pot. This is the antithesis of timid food. It’s breathtakingly good.
Prudhomme’s influence was profound, both in the kitchen and outside. Yes, he’s credited with planting the flag for Cajun cuisine and inventing blackened redfish (still amazing.) After Hurricane Katrina, he made sure that his restaurant reopened, not to make a buck, but to feed the rescue workers. He was among the first to viscerally declare that no rain, no matter how big, was going to wipe out New Orleans.
Next time you cook gumbo, think of Paul Prudhomme and use a ton of spice, but if you’re using cayenne, lighten it up just a little.