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COOKING LOCAL Cajun Maque Choux with Blackened Cat Fish

September 10, 2011

    Welcome back to the kitchen. Well, we are back into the warm weather and summer has

apparently returned. And if you head out into the garden or to a local farmers market, you can see that there is

still plenty left to harvest.
    One crop I want to make sure I make more use of during the

season is corn. I grew up in a farming community in Western Massachusetts, and it made me into a bit of a sweet

corn snob. I tend to turn up my nose if the ear had to travel more than 50 miles and was picked more than 12 hours

ago. Of course, modern corn varieties have overcome many of the shipping and storing limitations of older corn

types. But I will still never buy supermarket corn out of season. It is sure to be starchy, flavorless, and

pointless.    
    But lucky for us, we’ve got plenty of great, sweet

Quincy corn coming our way, at least for a little while longer. And while a boiled or grilled ear of corn,

buttered and eaten right on the cob is just about the perfect way to enjoy this crop, I want to try a bit more

creative application today.
    My friend Ashley is a southern girl by birth, and over time

I’ve been drawn in to a number of her down home family recipes from Louisiana and Georgia. I decided I

wanted to borrow some of that Cajun inspiration, which fuses rustic French creole cooking with new world native

recipes and the African influence of southern black culture.
    I came across a recipe for

maque choux (and please, as always, pardon my French), which is sort of a cajun take on succotash. It is basically

corn simmered with onions, bell pepper, sometimes some other veggies, spices and butter and or bacon grease. Milk,

chicken stock, or water are added as necessary while the veggies cook. It’s a pretty simple dish overall,

but with a hint of heat, plus the bacon we are going to add, it is pretty much irresistible.

/>    Now, ideally I would like this corn maque choux to be a side dish or topping for perfectly

seared blackened sea scallops. But I am well aware that being a bit inland, we may or may not have easy access to

quality fresh scallops. So if you can find them, grab scallops for this recipe. To get a nice, crusty,

restaurant-quality sear on a scallop make sure it is patted nice and dry, that the pan is quite hot, and that it

sits undisturbed in the pan for just two minutes per side, flipping only once.
But again, that is IF you can

find good, fresh scallops. Otherwise, just grab whatever fish fillets seem freshest. I would aim for catfish,

tilapia, or even salmon. But try to aim for wild salmon instead of farm raised, and if you are getting farm raised

white fish try to make sure it comes from the United States. There are real environmental problems with fish farms

in some parts of the world, especially in China where we get much of our seafood and there is very little industry

oversight.
To go along with our Cajun blackened fish and maque choux with bacon, I might recommend some

braised collard greens, kale, or other hardy garden green. But for simplicity’s sake, we could also just

save time and sauté fresh fall spinach with onions and garlic.
The fish (or scallops) are going to be

supeer simple. Basically we will just dredge them in a blackening seasoning mix (which we can either mix up custom

at home or buy at the store) and then saute them in butter or oil for a few minutes per side.
So let’s

start instead by making up the maque choux. Today, the side dish is the star! Like many regional family recipes,

this one has been handed down by generations of cooks. The concept is simple, and corn is the backbone, but there

are several vriations out there. This means you are free to tweak the recipe as well, customizing it to your

taste. I’m going to make a big batch, using a dozen ears of corn. This way, we might even end up with some

leftovers for later.
So for our Cajun maque choux with bacon we’ll need:

-12 ears sweet

corn, shucked
-1 large onion, peeled and diced
-1 bell pepper, seeded and diced
-2 tomatoes,

chopped
-1 or 2 celery stalks, chopped
-4-6 pieces of thick cut smoked bacon, chopped into ¼ inch

pieces
-up to 1 stick of butter (you may be able to use less but remember, this is Southern cooking! Butter

is a must…)
-1 big pinch of salt
-fresh ground black pepper
-cayenne pepper and/or Louisiana

style hot sauce to taste
-1 heapig
-1 cup of milk, chicken stock, or water for simmering
-

(optional) 2 green onions, finely chopped, for garnish

Start out by cutting the kernals off all the

corn cobs. We also want to use all the juice or “corn milk” that comes out, as this sweet liquid will

help the cooking process. The trick is to use a sharp knife to cut off as much of the kernals as you can, not

cutting too deep. Then go back over the cob with the knife to extract all the corn juice into a bowl.
Cook

the chopped bacon in a large pot over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it is nice and crispy. Set the

bacon bits aside on some paper towels to drain. Pour off about 2/3 of the bacon grease and set aside. Add ½

stick of butter to the pot if you are cautious, or the whole stick if you want full flavor authenticity.

/>Stir in the onions, tomatoes, pepper, and celery and sauté unitil the onions are translucent, about 5

minutes or so. Next add all the corn kernels. Cook for about 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Next stir in

the spices, the reserved corn milk, and a splash of cow milk as well. Turn down the heat to a simmer and let

everything cook until it is tender, another 5 or 10 minutes. Stir in the finely chopped green onions last.

/>And that is the basic idea of fresh corn maque choux. Some recipes have no meat, others use ham. Some add

garlic, thyme, and other seasonings. Some recipes even add cream and a bit of sugar. But I think this version

gives the basic idea for a simple and truly delicious, sweet and slightly spicy Cajun side dish that is so good

you may end up ignoring the rest of your plate.

So we’ve got our superstar side dish, let’s

pull the rest of this Cajun feast together. As I said, sautéed blackened fish filets are super simple. If

you’d like to mix up your own spicy blackening seasoning at home and store it for future use, more power to

you. You will need:
•    1 heaping tablespoon paprika
•    2

teaspoons salt
•    1 heaping teaspoon garlic powder
•    1

heaping teaspoon onion powder
•    1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

/>•    2 teaspoons black pepper
•    1/2 teaspoon leaf thyme

/>•    1/2 teaspoon leaf oregano
•    (optional) ½ teaspoon

sugar
Mix all the spice rub ingredients together well in a bowl and funnel it into a small jar for future

use. Spill out a fair amount of the blackening seasoning onto a plate and thoroughly coat both sides of each of

your cat fish or other fish filets.
In a cast iron skillet, heat up 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1

tablespoon of butter. Heat until the butter browns a little bit and the foam subsides. Then add your filets.

Don’t crowd the pan too much, we want these to cook fairly hot, medium high heat. 
Sautee the

filets for a few minutes per side, until they are somewhat blackened and the flesh flakes easily with a fork. And

there you have it, simple spicy Cajun blackened cat fish. These filets are also incredible in a sandwich with red

pepper mayo, sliced tomato, and sautéed onions.
    Finally, let’s sauté

up about a pound or so of fresh spinach. Just heat up a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan and mince up 2

cloves of garlic. Chop ½ onion into small pieces. Add the onions and garlic and cook over a medium heat for

a few minutes, until the onions are translucent. Rinse off the spinache and don’t dry it off completely,

because the water will help it to steam and cook properly.
    Sautee the spinach, stirring

constantly, for just a few minutes. It will wilt quickly and needs very little cooking. Add a pinch of salt and

some black pepper. If you are picky and want your spinach to be perfect, remove it from the pan when it is wilted

but not yet overcooked to a dark green. Then reduce the liquid in the pan until it is down to about 1/3 or

¼ what is was. Then add the spinach back to the pan to stir for the briefest moment. This concentrates the

spinach flavors and cooks off some of the excess liquid without overcooking the tender greens. Now would be the

time to add a squeeze of fresh lemon before transferring the spinach to a bowl.
    Well,

there we have it! One Yankee transplant’s take on simple Cajun cooking. I am in love with this fresh corn

maque choux. I love its sweet, smoky spiciness. And I think it goes great with seafood, but it would also be a

great side dish for chicken, pork, or really anything at all. Again, the original idea was to pair the sweet corn

and smoky bacon flavors with sweet, seared sea scallops. But I think the cat fish or tilapia are more realistic

and affordable options.
    I’d love to hear some of your favorite southern recipes, or

how you have been using fresh sweet corn. Please send me any questions or comments to Isaac@kohoradio.com. Cooking

local in the KOHO Kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.