When a High Priestess of the Kitchen summons, it's best to respond immediately, with a notebook and tasting spoons in hand.
This was my mission last Friday, dispatched by Janice Boo Macomber, otherwise known as Aunt Boo. She's related to David Guas, chef-owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington. Cajun’s her game; she has taught cooking classes at least once a month since 2006 at the New Orleans Cooking Experience, a recreational school on Carondelet Street not far from the French Quarter that caters to mostly “Canadians, foreigners and the like,” she says.
Macomber was born 66 years ago in Abbeville, La., in the southwestern part of the state where fish camps and good company at the water's edge enhance the quality of life. Her mother was Sicilian, and Macomber was raised with understanding that standing at the stove paid off in deeply flavorful ways. She earned a business degree from LSU in 1968 and spent the next two years traveling in the States and Europe; was married and hosting dinner parties in New Orleans in the 1970s; and widowed with two daughters by age 36.
At the cooking school, Macomber had to master a new technique: measuring. The only thing she doesn't have to check these days is the Worcestershire sauce that's part of what she calls the seasoning Trifecta, along with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper: "That's because I've made so many bloody marys in my life, I know what three shakes of a bottle amounts to!" Bon mots fly when she's holding court.
Her purpose in visiting Bayou Bakery, delivered with the appropriate drawl and twinkle in her eye, was to see whether her kin “was really cooking back there” and to make sure at least somebody was on hand to appreciate the right way to make a roux – the browning of flour in oil that is the basis of the cuisine she holds dear. Guas was smart enough to put her to work making catfish sauce piquante, a dish with enough spice to get your attention without assaulting your sinus cavities.
One hitch: Guas planted her in front of an induction burner that refused to sustain a boil, so Aunt Boo's hour-long roux had to spend time in the oven. No matter. It was long enough for her to dispense very quotable quotes and guidance:
• "A good roux should be the color of the bayou after a heavy rain."
• "I once won a gumbo cooking contest where the other finalist and I had basically the same recipe. You know why I won? Bay leaves. Don't leave 'em out."
• "Chew gum while you're peeling cooked shrimp. It'll keep you from eating too many of them."
• A can of Rotel tomatoes with green chilies is right up there, next to the Holy Trinity (onion, celery, green bell pepper), in how religiously Cajun cooks use it. "It might be Mexican but we've adopted it as our own," she says.
A good chicken stock, tomato sauce and Rotel round out the piquante sauce. For me, the real surprise was Macomber's addition of lemon juice and several thick lemon slices, which burbled up to the surface as the sauce was in its final, thickening stages. (I'm going to try it in the chicken and sausage gumbo I make.) Guas was familiar with the notion, saying it meant you didn't need to add as much salt. At intervals, she urged me to dip in and taste the difference time and new ingredients made. It's a tutorial she finds most useful in her classes, and it worked with me as well.
Fresh chunks of catfish went in for the last few minutes -- just enough to remain tender yet pick up the essence of the sauce. The dish was finished with what Macomber calls the Amen: a sprinkling of chopped scallions and flat-leaf parsley.
Orders served over rice started to appear at the pickup window as soon as the clock hands went straight up and down. At least one customer slurped up her catfish sauce piquante quicker than Macomber could get a beer in her hand and slip the bandanna off her salt-and-pepper hair. "I earned it!" the High Priestess said, on her way to sit with a big table of old friends.
Enough folks inquired about Macomber's recipes for her to self-publish "Tastes, Tails & Alligator Tales With the High Priestess of the Bayou, a small spiral-bound gem. Copies cost $15 plus shipping and handling; contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
6 to 8 servings
Adapted from "Tastes, Tails & Tales With the High Priestess of the Bayou," by Janice Boo Macomber (self-published, 2009).
3 medium yellow onions
4 ribs celery
1 medium green bell pepper
6 cloves garlic
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup flour
15 ounces canned (plain) tomato sauce
10 ounces canned Rotel brand tomatoes and chilies, plus their juices
2 bay leaves
4 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, or more as needed
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, or more as needed
Juice of 1 lemon, plus 3 or 4 thick lemon slices
2 pounds bite-size chunks of boneless, skinless catfish fillets (may substitute alligator, rabbit or chicken)
1/2 cup chopped scallion tops (green parts only)
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Chop the onions and celery into 1/2-to-3/4-inch pieces, keeping those vegetables separate. Discard the stem and seeds from the bell pepper, then cut into 1/4-to-1/2-inch pieces. Coarsely chop the garlic.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottom pot (preferably cast-iron) over medium heat. Use a flat wooden spoon to stir in the flour. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 minutes; color should start to develop after about 10 minutes. Avoid burning the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low, then stir in the onions until well coated. Cook for 5 minutes or until the onions have softened, then add the celery, bell pepper and garlic. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring often. The roux should be at least caramelly brown.
Stir in the tomato sauce, Rotel tomatoes/chilies and juices, bay leaves, the broth, salt, cayenne pepper, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and lemon slices. Increase the heat to medium; once bubbles start to form at the center and the mixture has thickened, give it a good stir and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, uncovered, for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, stirring a few times along the way. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
The color of the sauce should be a nice terra cotta; stir in the catfish chunks and cook for 10 to 20 minutes, or just until the fish is opaque and tender. Discard the bay leaves.
Stir in the scallions and parsley. Serve hot, over rice.