July 20, 2009

Ramblings of Blackened Fish, Rancid Food and Chef Paul

blackened does not mean burnt
In rambling around my recipe files for today’s Cajun feature, I came across a few for blackened redfish. This prompted me to go off on a tangent down memory lane to a disgusting dish I had many years ago. To me, blackening foods have nothing in common with Cajun cooking except maybe its origin.

Invented by Cajun country’s own Chef Paul Prudhomme in the early ‘70s, the method of cooking took off around the country just as fast as the redfish depletion did in the gulf. To many, then and today, this cooking style envisions what Cajun food should taste and look like. Because of the broadened appeal of this dish do we owe Chef Paul a pat on the back as the interest in Cajun cooking is now known to untold numbers. These poor souls otherwise would have been in the dark of all the great recipes and worst, kept Cajun cooking in the bayou. That is about the only good thing I have to say of it.

Now, back down memory lane. It was in the early ‘80s when I first tried my first blackened dish and it took a lot of courage to try it again many years later. The craze was on; everybody cooked everything imaginable, seasoned the hell of it, burned it and called it ‘blackened’. But what few cooks knew, overly-charred and unbearable tasting spiced foods is not what Chef Paul had in mind, so I believe. My first experience recalls, and from what many more knowledgeable than me have told, there was a lot more going on and that is why this craze caught on like it did. To many inexcusable and unsanitary cooks, this was a great way to mask over foods. And I mean old and rotting foods. Fish, which was my first blackened experience, in case you don’t know has a horrific smell after sitting around for a couple of days (kind of like company) and the odor is just that, horrific. Now envision kitchen cooks, who apparently thought more of bottom line profits than pleasing palates, decided not to dump old inventory. They said, “Let’s do what Paul is doing,” coat it in unthinkable seasonings and cook it to death on high heat. “By golly, if he can do it, so can I.” In fact, let’s redo our whole menu so we won’t have to throw away any spoilage at all. I knew when the server presented me with this burnt, blackened beast something was wrong - very wrong. But, hey, it’s supposed to be that way, right? First bite: kind of what charcoal would taste like after a whole lot (like a jar) of seasoning rub had spilt on it. Second bite: Still tastes like charcoal, and piled high with a few cayenne peppers, but wait, what is that other taste? It’s supposed to be fish. The flesh tastes rancid and smells like sewage. Third bite: no, not even I took a third bite.

Today, I will throw away all of the recipes except the one from Prudhomme and my own version of blackening season mix. Like I said, Chef Paul would not approve of anything less and to end, I leave you his words of wisdom in blackening fish. Special note from Chef Paul: "Because this method is simple, any variation will make a dramatic difference. Be sure the skillet is hot enough and absolutely dry. Be sure not to over season - - the herbs and spices should highlight the taste rather than hide or overpower it. You don't want to overcook the filet - - there's a big difference between blackened and burned. Avoid a burned, bitter taste by wiping out the skillet between batches."

Chef Paul's Recipe for Blackened Fish
My Recipe for Blackened Seasoning

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