There’s an old joke regarding cajun cooking: “First you chop up the onion, green pepper and celery – then you decide what you gonna cook!”
This is the “trinity” at the heart of so much cajun and creole cooking from South Louisiana and New Orleans.
This differs quite significantly from the aromatic base of so much Italian cooking – the carrot (and sometimes leak) is replaced by the capsicum.
This is all quite odd, and I don’t really understand the science of it.
Some Italian recipes and cookbooks I’ve come across specifically warn against using capsicum in pot-on-stove recipes and stock spots lest it make the dish/stock bitter.
Yet in New Orleans and South Louisiana, the trinity is used incredibly widely – and not just in downhome food like red beans ‘n’ rice and these black eyed peas, but also in fancier fare and restaurant dishes.
This recipe is lifted, with a few tweaks here and there, from John Folse’s The Evolution of Cajun & Creole Cuisine.
Specifically, I use less meat than him – he calls for a pound of “heavy smoked sausage” and “half a pound of smoked ham”.
I use whatever is handy or easy to get hold of – in this case some smoked Polish sausage from Slavonija Continental Butchers.
Truth is, though, even a couple of bacon bones or a couple of crispy-fried rashers of bacon will do.
It’s not about the meat – it’s about the flavour.
And because the black eyed peas have a sort of built-in smokiness anyhow, you can go full-on vegetarian and still have a fine meal.
As with, I suspect, a lot of people, we don’t use a lot of dried basil in our cooking, but it gives this a nice sweetness and helps elevate the household cooking aromas to giddy heights!
Black eyed peas are eaten a whole less than ubiquitous red beans in South Louisiana, but for some reason I have much more success with the former than the latter in making an authentic gravy with the pulses available to me here in Melbourne.
These freeze really well – just thaw out and reheat nice and gentle.
500g black eyed peas
meat – smoked sausage, ham, bacon bones, bacon rashers or even bacon fat.
1 cup each approximately of onion, green capsicum and celery
3-4 finely chopped garlic cloves
1 tsp dried basil
freshly ground black pepper
1. Soak peas overnight or for the afternoon. Truth is though, black eyed peas cook pretty easily, so at a pinch you can get away without soaking them at all. It’ll just take a bit longer. These particular unsoaked pulses went on the boil at 4.30pm and were ready about an hour and a half later. But even though the peas were cooked through, generally things were still a bit runny and unintegrated, so I kept them going for another hour or so.
2. Put some primo cajun, zydeco or New Orleans R&B or gutbucket jazz on the sound system.
3. Turn up loud.
4. Heat oil and brown off meat or sausage, if you’re using any, at medium-high heat.
5. Finely chop – as finely as your knife skills will allow – the onion, capsicum and celery.
6. When meat is browned, turn down heat to medium and throw in the vegetables and garlic; cook and stir until wilted.
7. Add basil, salt, pepper.
8. Add black eyed peas.
9. Add water so the peas and vegetables are covered at least by an inch. As with dal, it’s important to keep this brew soup-like and watery in the pot so it doesn’t end up claggy and dry on the table.
10. Your black eyed peas are done when some of them start to break up and begin to form a gravy. You can hasten this process by crushing some against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon, but with these particular pulses it shouldn’t be necessary.
11. Cook a while longer to make a really fine and smooth gravy.
12. Just before serving, throw in and mix in a handful of reasonably well chopped parsley.
13. Serve over rice.
14. Add Tabasco or hot sauce of your choice to taste (optional).