Paul Prudhomme who passed away last week was a food rock star before the Food Network Channel existed. In fact Emeril Lagasse who was the first star of the Food Network Channel, succeeded him at Commander’s Palace; the restaurant Prudhomme made famous. The New York Times recently wrote a loving article which gives context for Prudhomme’s expansive influence on the American regional cooking movement.
Last week I celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary, so my mind was already reminiscing about a time when blackened redfish was on every restaurant menu and an invitation to dinner would probably be gumbo or a jambalaya from one of Prudhomme’s cookbooks. It seems fitting to honor his memory by making a recipe from the Prudhomme Family Cookbook; written in 1987, not too long before I met my husband. It is a heartfelt and chatty book with charming stories about Prudhomme’s family. It also has to be the most authentic collection of Cajun recipes in print. Unfortunately I do not have any squirrel, frog, turtle, pork stomach or alligator on hand. I also do not have the time or skill to make his 7 page recipe for Turducken.
I found a charming recipe for couche-couche; a Cajun comfort food requiring little more than cornmeal to make. I also like saying the name which is pronounce koosh-koosh.
One interesting point about Prudhomme’s recipe is he calls for yellow cornmeal which is a bit confusing because Southern cooks traditionally use white cornmeal and Northerners use yellow. As a Yankee growing up, I don’t think I ever met white cornmeal until I moved South of the Mason Dixon. Since I couldn’t find a reason why yellow cornmeal is called for, I use my favorite stone ground fine white cornmeal from J.T. Pollard; an Alabama company with Southern creds.
I have never encountered couche-couche so I have no reference for how it should look or taste. This clears the path for my own interpretation. (I would still love hearing stories from folks who grew up eating this though.)
Instead of the de rigueur cast iron pan suggested for this dish, I often use a nonstick pan which helps cut down on the oil needed yet still creates the lumpy, crunchy golden crust the couche-couche demands.
Even though couche-couche is made with cornmeal and has no eggs, it’s somehow reminiscent of the homey Passover breakfast treat, matzo brei, which is matzo soaked in water, drained, then fried with egg to make a jagged and comforting jumble of crispy matzo and egg. The technique for couche-couche is also somewhat similar to Asian pan fried dumplings which are fried, then steamed in the same pan.
The recipe calls for couche-couche to be eaten with milk and fig preserves; like a porridge of sorts. Couche-couche seems like a willing vehicle for all sorts of toppings. I channel my Vermont born pedigree and eat it with melted butter and maple syrup. Some scratch-made concord grape jam I found in my freezer also tastes sensational on top.
I offered a small bowl of couche-couche with syrup to my teenage son who has a remarkably sensitive awareness about food and sense of taste despite his age related love for meat, junk food and carbohydrates. He tentative tasted a bite, asked if he could eat the rest, then asked what it was. I asked him what he thought it was….he paused, and asked “matzo brei?” Seems I can even make Southern country food taste like Jewish comfort food
adapted from Prudhomme Family Cookbook
2 cup medium or fine white or yellow cornmeal
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp brown sugar
1 cup warm water
2/3 cup warm milk
3 Tbs canola oil
- Set aside 1/3 cup of the water.
- In glass measuring cup combine 2/3 cup of both water and milk.
- In a medium bowl combine cornmeal, salt and the 1 1/3 liquid.
- In a 10” nonstick or cast iron pan heat oil over medium high until a drop of the cornmeal mixture sizzles and dances when dropped in the pan.
- Add cornmeal mixture, spread over bottom of pan and smooth as best you can. There will be multiple pieces of batter cobbled together in pan. Cook without disturbing, except as necessary to check doneness, until a deep golden brown crust forms; about 5-6 minutes.
- Turn corn cake over in chunks with a fork or spatula. Cook an additional 3 or 4 minutes until pieces are browned, but not as dark as initial side. Make sure not to burn or cornmeal will taste bitter.
- Pour 1/3 cup water in pan. Pan will sizzle and sputter. Quickly cover and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes until water evaporates.
- Remove from pan and serve immediately.
Serve with butter and maple syrup or jam of your choice, or with yogurt and fresh or cooked fruit. I understand a true Southerner might serve couche-couche with cane or sorghum syrup; a treat I will explore in the future.