Cultivate own vegetables for
Cajun cuisine


April 29, 2011

by Jean Wofford, Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt
PHOTO BY JOE JANAK/VICTORIA COUNTY EXTENSION AGENT
Vegetables grown in a Cajun garden resemble those that can be grown locally including, from left, eggplant, okra, peppers - including bell and cayenne, as well as various tomatoes.
PHOTOS CONTRIBUTED BY DENISE STAFF
LEFT:  This Bay tree exists in the back yard landscape of Gwen Willis in El Campo. Bay trees do best in full sun although they will grow in partial shade and with good drainage, and once started, they can grow as tall as 20 to 30 feet.
RIGHT:  The leaves of the Bay tree are very dark green in color with a leathery feel. In winter months, the tree can almost resemble an evergreen. When added to foods as fresh leaves, they provide mild seasoning. When dried they will hold their shape well and add more pungent flavor. No doubt the bay leaf contributes to gumbo, soups and seafood in Cajun cuisine.
I grew up in South Louisiana and just thinking about what was in our garden, I found it wasn't too different from the gardens I have had in Texas. Of course, there are a couple of exceptions.

TYPICAL CAJUN TREES

Bay tree

Having a bay tree at the back of the garden or field was a must. Those pungent, flavorful leaves are just part of the ingredients used in so many foods I ate as a child. Our bay tree was about 30 feet tall, and there is no telling how old it was. I remember as a child going out to pick the leaves for my mother to put into some of our foods.

Bay trees can be very difficult to get started. They do best in full sun and good drainage, as do many other trees. However, once you get one started, they make a very nice shapely tree and one that could be used in your landscape. The leaves are a very dark green with a leathery feel. When they are dried they will hold their shape well.

Bay leaves give a very specific flavor to foods. It can be a subtle flavor or a very strong, pungent flavor. The fresh leaves have a mild flavor, but when they are dried caution must be used with adding them to foods, since the dried bay leaves tend to be much stronger in flavor.

Bay leaves are commonly used in gumbo, dried beans and soups. When you are accustomed to having food that contains bay leaves and it is left out, you just know something is missing.

Root beer tree

Something else that a Cajun garden wouldn't be complete without is a sassafras tree. It used to be found in the country growing in the landscape as an undergrowth tree. It is not a very noticeable tree, and not one I would use as a primary plant in my landscape since it is a scrubby sort of plant.

While the leaves and bark were used for making a root beer drink - and even a spring tonic - and the leaves were dried, ground and used as filé in gumbo, be very cautious with this plant and research it before you use it as it is listed as a poisonous plant and should not be consumed in large quantities. Furthermore, it requires acidic soil and probably won't grow well locally.

COMMON CAJUN VEGETABLES

Cayenne peppers

Other plants were commonly found in the Cajun garden. Bell peppers were grown in most gardens and green onions played a very important part in the culture. Not to mention cayenne peppers. Cayenne peppers grow very long and dry to a brilliant red. The longer they stay on the bush, it seems the hotter they get. They are very commonly used green or allowed to dry and turn bright red and are ground up to use as pepper flakes.

A Cajun meal would not be complete without an addition of these spicy peppers. Cayenne peppers were commonly pickled in vinegar and added to the table as an addition to the meal.

Chayote (squash)


Many gardens would have a mirliton vine. A mirliton is a type of squash and is also known as chayote. Many people would have a couple of the vines climbing on their garden fence or make a trellis for them. They were commonly stuffed using shrimp or crabmeat, although I have seen them stuffed with ground beef.

Eggplant

Eggplants are a very common addition to the garden, as well. We all know about eggplants and how versatile they are to work with in the kitchen. I like them stuffed with crab, shrimp or a mix of ground pork and beef. They are fairly easy to grow and like the summer heat.

Creole tomatoes

Creole tomatoes are another given for the Cajun garden. This tomato has a flavor like heirloom tomatoes. It is a treasured addition to the garden. I have grown them from seeds. I have brought seedlings home, but am unable to achieve the flavor that is unique, in South Louisiana, to this tomato.

Okra

Okra is another standard vegetable for Cajun cuisine. Okra is used in gumbo, sometimes cooked with tomatoes, onions and bell peppers. It can be fried or cooked with field peas. It likes the heat of the summer like some other vegetables do. Refer to last week's article on okra at www.vcmga.org for more information.

As you can readily see, the Cajun garden is much like any other garden with a couple of exceptions. I have a friend in El Campo who shares her fresh bay leaves with me.

Now, I have to wonder if someone nearby has a sassafras tree.
Bay Leaf Flavor in Chicken 'N Dumplings

*1 (3-4 lb.) chicken, cut into pieces
*Salt and black pepper, to taste
*1 cup chopped onions
*1 cup chopped green onions
*1/4 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
*1 Tbsp. minced garlic
*1 small bay leaf
*1 (32 oz) can chicken stock
*1 small tube canned biscuits (5-6)
Salt and pepper chicken and place in a large pot. Let cook, until chicken is slightly browned.  Add onions, pepper flakes and garlic.  Let it cook, covered, until chicken is done (no pink along the bones) or about 30 minutes.  Add all the stock and bay leaf and cook for 30-45 minutes longer.  Remove the chicken from broth and place broth back on burner to simmer.  When chicken is cool enough to handle, removed from bones.  Flour a surface and open can of biscuits.  Using a rolling pin, flatten biscuits and cut into small pieces.  (You might like larger dumplings, and if so, leave them larger.)  Add them to the boiling broth, stirring after each addition.  After you have added all the dumplings, let them simmer, covered for 20 minutes and add chicken.  Let cook until chicken has heated thoroughly and serve.  Serves 3-4.
SOURCE:  JEAN WOFFORD

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The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.