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October 31st, 2004

Redfish Sauce Piquante
By Capt. Marty Authement

Piquante (pronounced "pee-caw" or "pee-cawnt," depending on what side of the bayou you're standing on).

The instructions for this dish are a bit lengthy, but don't be intimidated; it's not difficult. Half of the instructions are for just the first step, making a roux. Once you get past that, it's just adding ingredients and simmering.

This is a classic Cajun dish. Piquante roughly means "picky," as in hot or peppery. The traditional dish has a good amount of fire, but it's fine adjusted to anyone's tastebuds. My rule for adding pepper is the same as what wine to drink with certain dishes; whatever you enjoy is the best choice.

Most people believe Cajun food is very peppery, that we all live off of cayenne peppers. That's a common, but very wrong misconception. Cajun food is spicy, but not "hot" spicy. The spiciness is the mix of many spices giving it a unique flavor. Cajun food is a mixture of several cultures that created the cuisine over time - French, Spanish, English, Native American, African, Caribbean and others. They all had something extra to add to the pot, and this incredible mix of flavors is what makes Cajun cuisine so special.

For example, the slave trade brought okra to Louisiana from its native Africa, which was eventually added to gumbo to give it flavor and help thicken it. But along with adding the seasoning vegetable to the pot, the slaves also gave the dish its name: "Gumbo" was the African word for okra, and after it was added, it so transformed the dish that it was named after the transplant.

Sauce Piquante, as its name implies, was created to be "hot" spicy, with extra pepper, but it doesn't need to be hot to be good. Redfish is the most common fish used in south Louisiana for the dish, but any firm, white-fleshed fish should work nicely.

Also, it's a great sauce for chicken and game meat. Try it with deer or elk; it's wonderful.

Ingredients:

    cup flour

    cup cooking oil

    1 cup finely chopped onions

    cup finely chopped bell pepper

    cup finely chopped celery

    1 cup of water

    3 cans peeled, diced tomatoes (sometimes labeled "stewed" tomatoes)

    Creole seasoning, to taste (if you can find it, Tony Chachere's brand is my personal favorite)

    1 teaspoon sweet basil

    3 bay leaves

    1 tablespoon minced garlic

    2 pounds of redfish filets, whole or in large chunks

Instructions:

As with most Cajun recipes, this begins with the same instruction: First, make a roux.

For those uninitiated in Cajun cooking, a roux is an equal mixture of oil and flour cooked long and slow until it turns dark. It adds a nutty flavor to the dish and is a thickening agent.

To make a roux, you need a heavy-bottomed pot; a well-cured cast iron pot works best. If the pot doesn't have a non-stick surface that can be scratched with metal utensils, you can use a whisk to stir it, which works best.

Turn the fire to low-medium, add the oil and flour, and stir until it reaches a smooth consistency. It needs to be stirred nearly constantly to prevent burning and clumping, and should be cooked until it's a fairly dark brown - about the color of a Michelob bottle, for those cooks who enjoy a nip at the stove.

Making a roux is a labor of love; it takes time, sometimes 30 minutes, so be patient. Whether you make a proper roux will make or break the dish. And while it needs to be dark, a burned roux is a ruined roux; if it starts smoking, immediately remove from the heat, and if it smells burnt, throw it out and start over. Cooking a roux really isn't difficult, but it is an art that sometimes requires a little practice.

Once the roux is properly browned, turn the fire to medium-high and add the "Holy Trinity" of Cajun cooking: onion, bell pepper and celery; no self-respecting Cajun dish is without these ingredients. Stir this nearly constantly to prevent the roux from burning, until the vegetables wilt and the onions begin to turn translucent.

Now it's time to add the liquid. Adding cold liquid to hot roux is not a good combination; it will spit and splatter all over the place, not only making a mess, but endangering the exposed skin of the cook as the hot oil goes flying. To help prevent this, as you are cooking the Holy Trinity with the roux, put the cup of water in a small pot and heat it up; not boiling, but hot. Adding it to the roux and veggies will even out the temperature of the mix so it doesn't splatter, and cool it down just enough to be able to add the cooler ingredients.

Once the water is added in and stirred, the mixture will be very thick, maybe even a paste; that's OK, it's supposed to be. Remember, roux is a thickener; the addition of other liquids will thin it out.

Next, add the three cans of tomatoes, including the liquid, and stir everything together. It should be fairly thin at this point, almost like a stew. If it's still too thick, add more liquid, either water, or broth for extra flavor; I usually use canned chicken broth.

Once the consistency is right, add the seasoning, basil, bay leaves and garlic, and stir well. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and let it simmer for at least an hour. During this cooking time the roux and the tomatoes will blend to create an entirely new flavor; not like a roux, not like a t-mato sauce. The long, slow cooking is the key. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking on the bottom of the pot.

Also, as you stir occasionally, check the consistency of the mixture. If it is too thin, you don't want it soupy, allow to simmer uncovered a little while to thicken it a bit. If the mixture gets too thick, more liquid can be added. In the end, it should be about the consistency of beef stew.

Once it has reached the proper consistency, and simmered at least an hour, test for flavor and add seasoning, if needed.

Add the fish, cover and simmer 5 to 10 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through and flakes apart.

Ladle the sauce and a chuck of fish over a bed of cooked rice. Enjoy with some good bread and a favorite salad or vegetable sidedish; but above all, enjoy! ~ Capt. Marty Authement


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