I lived on the West Bank of New Orleans (Gretna) for a couple of years in the 70’s. I have eaten my fair share of real Cajun food, and I have a good idea what it should taste like. If I am just cooking a dish for a weekday meal I will usually just use a Paul Prudhomme’s “Magic” blend. One thing I will not be doing is using the Prudhomme recipe I saw him make on TV one time. While I am sure it was delicious, I am too much of a Californian to follow a recipe that starts, “when the two pounds of butter has stopped frothing, add the three cups of onions.”
I am trying to make a dish “mine” for this blog, so the seasoning mix is a good place to start. I looked at a lot of recipes for Cajun spice blends to decide what make them “Cajun.” The key ingredients are: black pepper, cayenne pepper (or some other source of capsicum), garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, paprika (sweet or smokey), thyme, and usually salt. As usual, it is not just what is in the mix, but how much of each ingredient that is the true difference. Some recipes were salt with some added spices. Other recipes heavily emphasized the paprika, pepper, or cayenne. There is very little agreement on how much of each ingredient, so there is plenty of room here to craft my own balance of flavors.
Less common additions to Cajun blends included: bay leaf, caraway seeds, cardamom, chili powder, Dry mustard, Filé powder, red pepper flakes, raw sugar, sweet basil, and white pepper. Most of these ingredients seemed quite out of place to me, wrong and definitely not Cajun.
Filé (fea-lay, powered sassafras leaf) seemed like a good addition, as a souring and thickening agent. Red pepper flakes and white pepper were possibilities. If I was going to use this blend as a dry rub for meat I would consider adding the sugar to aid in browning, but in a jambalaya I think it would be an “off note.” Now I have a strong opinion about adding salt to spice mixtures. Salt is an ingredient that commercial blenders use to boost the number of items in their mix and to add cheap bulk. Salt does not belong in a spice blend. It should be added by itself, at the end of cooking, to suit the taste of the final dish.
Many blends I looked at emphasized the spices for their heat or color and the herbs are left to role of bit players. Smokey Spanish paprika, rather than sweet Hungarian, seems “right.” Black pepper could be supported by the white pepper (two very different flavor profiles to my taste), But only by cutting back on one to add the other. But my memory says that the oregano and thyme have bigger parts to play than they did in the recipes I examined.
Cayenne pepper has always struck me as a single note, a lot of heat but a simple flavor profile. I much prefer Indian red pepper power, which has a much more complex flavor. Indian red pepper power is like coarsely ground red pepper flakes. I am not seeking to make an “authentic” blend, just one of my own so bringing in a “foreign” spice seems OK to me. Still it should be balanced. Jambalaya should be spicy, but it is not supposed to be a Texas 5 Alarm Chili.
Karl’s Cajun Spice Blend
1 Tbs. Spanish paprika
1 Tbs. Indian red pepper power
2 tsp. black pepper, fresh cracked
2 tsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. onion powder
2 tsp. oregano
2 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. white pepper power
1 tsp. Filé powder
1. Put all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Makes 5 tablespoons.