I am probably the last person in the world who should be writing about Cajun food.
I mean, hello, I live in Indiana. I’ve never even driven through Louisiana, let alone actually stopped and had authentic Cajun cuisine there. I have pretty much no tolerance for spicy foods. And I certainly don’t have access to the freshest gulf-coast shrimp or Louisiana crawfish (hence why this recipe is made with chicken—we can do chicken here in the Midwest). I can write about corn. Or pork tenderloins. Or tomatoes. But I really have no business writing anything about chicken étouffée.
But I have to write about this étouffée, because it is so flipping good, it’d be a sin not to share it with you guys. And hey, it’s Mardi Gras, so we’re all a little bit Cajun (or Creole) today, right? So I’m going to go ahead and get it out of the way—I’m 100% sure this recipe isn’t even close to authentic. I’m also 100% sure it is insanely delicious and totally worth you overlooking my culture appropriation (misappropriation?) of this beloved dish. Please forgive me.
My first experience with chicken étouffée was in college. My college town is blessed with a rockin’ good restaurant selection. Name the cuisine, and you can find a restaurant serving it. You can get Turkish food. Or Thai. Or Afghan. There are three Tibetan restaurants (one owned by the Dalai Lama’s nephew). And, there is one Cajun restaurant that serves you big heaping portions of classic Louisiana dishes on top of rice in styrofoam containers. The place is always packed. They only offer a few dishes per day (written on a chalkboard). And they’re kinda mean to you when they take your order. It was awesome.
I’ve been working on my Cajun cooking skills ever since. I’ve done a lot of research about étouffée, and the verdict is—no one agrees on anything about it. Ha! Some people swear étouffée doesn’t have tomatoes or a roux or cream sauce. Some people will yell at you for even suggesting an étouffée is made without tomatoes or a roux or cream sauce. Some folks will tell you it should be thick. Others will tell you it needs to be thin. I think there are as many chicken étouffée recipes out there as there are religions. And people are equally passionate about them. Don’t get between someone and their Mama’s étouffée recipe!
Worth noting, my Mama doesn’t have an chicken étouffée recipe (that I know of), but she does have a delicious red beans and rice recipe that I should share with you. I’m sure it isn’t authentic either.
One of the biggest points of contention in the étouffée is the roux. If you’ve never made a roux before, it’s basically a thickener made of fat (in the case of this recipe butter, and lots of it) and flour. In some recipes, you’ll barely cook the roux at all, just a few minutes to get off the raw flour taste. I’ve heard this called a light roux. It’s used a lot in cream sauces (think: Alfredo sauce). It doesn’t add much flavor to the dish, it’s mostly just for thickening purposes.
In other recipes, you cook the roux for much longer, and it helps give an incredible nutty, smoky, rich flavor to the dish. It takes a while, but the flavor is so, so, so worth it. These types are called dark roux. Which can be a bit of a misnomer, because a dark roux can span anywhere from being very light in color (called blonde, and cooked just slightly longer than a light roux) to super dark, black in color. The darker a roux gets, the less thickening power it has.
Some folks swear you don’t use a roux in étouffée. Others say you do, but it should be light. Or caramel colored. Or mocha colored. Or peanut butter colored. Some others say it should be dark (chocolatey or weathered penny colored). For my étouffée, I tend to go with something that looks like you mixed together peanut butter and chocolate. It’s dark enough to have some smoky flavor, but not so dark that you feel like you are licking a grill grate.
It takes about 20 minutes of constant stirring time to get the roux to this point. And it’s totally worth it. Making a roux is definitely an art form—one that I have yet to master. Getting a roux perfectly smooth and even and beautiful like you see on TV isn’t my strong suit. My roux never looks that way, but it does the trick. The roux for this dish is particularly ugly because it’s picked up all the delicious bits from browning off chicken thighs. Delicious, but not very attractive.
Something I think most étouffée lovers can agree on—it really is best the second day. I mean, it’s good fresh off the stove—really, really good. But when it sits in the fridge overnight and melds and marinates, it becomes something out-of-this-world. I know there are a lot of you out there that don’t like leftovers, but please make an exception this time, because you are going to have the best lunch ever tomorrow if you do.
I like to serve my étouffée with a big pile of white rice (because, really, when you’re using this much butter, might as well go all in), but you can also serve it on top of mashed potatoes or with some crusty bread. If you do choose to go the rice route, I highly recommend cooking your rice with chicken stock and tossing a bay leaf or two while it is simmering away—it’ll give the rice a really subtle flavor that is beautiful with the étouffée.
One last word on étouffée, don’t try to whip this up on a crazy Tuesday evening after work. This is event cooking. As in, clear your schedule, put on some comfortable shoes, and go to town. This is the kind of dish you only make once or twice a year (around Mardi Gras, mayhaps?), and enjoy the heck of it while it’s around, but thank your lucky stars you don’t have to spend that much time over a hot stove every day of the year.