For someone raised in the desert Southwest, I have an inexplicably great affinity for Cajun cuisine. Though I’ve never been to Louisiana (or anywhere in the South except Jacksonville, Florida and a brief weekend in Oxford, Mississippi) I harbor rich fantasies about eating crispy beignets in the shade of a cypress tree while jazz music floats through the air. Admittedly, most of this probably stems from visits to New Orleans Square in Disneyland…so my dreams of Cajun culture may not be the most authentic.
Still, I know there’s authenticity to my love of Cajun food. Case in point: recently, a new seafood restaurant opened in our neighborhood. I had no particular interest in trying it, but kept hearing rave reviews. Once my husband and I finally visited, I discovered it was a Cajun seafood restaurant, with some of the best Cajun catfish I’ve ever had. Now it’s our favorite spot for a lunch date. There’s something about the mix of spices with flaky breading and hot fish that is piquant perfection, if you ask me.
Though Cajun food often centers around fish or meat fried in oil, it can also easily be made vegetarian, and it doesn’t have to be a grease-fest. Take these Cajun Chickpea Cakes. They pack the sublime flavor for which Cajun food is famous in a fiber-rich, lower-fat package. After tinkering with this recipe for years, I think it’s finally ready for prime time. Served with dirty rice, these cakes are a unique, flavorful vegetarian meal!
Not only are these Chickpea Cakes quite healthy as is, full of veggies and beans, they’re easily modified for dietary restrictions. Need a gluten-free meal? Sub cornstarch for the flour. Going vegan? Replace the egg with 1 Tablespoon flax seeds + 3 Tablespoons water. You can also feel free to experiment with the spices to achieve whatever level suits your taste.
P.S. Fun trivia: did you know the word “Cajun” is a shortening of the term “Acadian”? Acadians were French immigrants who initially settled in Canada and the Northeastern U.S. (which is why Acadia National Park is in Maine) but eventually migrated south to Louisiana.
Nice of them to bless American culture with their delicious food traditions!
Cajun Chickpea Cakes
A unique vegetarian main dish with all the flavor you expect from Cajun cuisine!
In a large nonstick skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add diced celery, onion, and green pepper and saute about 5 minutes or until tender. Remove from heat and reserve skillet.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mash drained chickpeas until only some chunks remain (you don't want them super mushy). Add sautéed vegetables and all remaining ingredients. Mix until the mixture begin to hold together. Add more flour if necessary.
Form mixture into 1/2 thick patties (should make about 8).
Heat remaining 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium/medium-high in the same nonstick skillet you used for the veggies. Add patties and cook about 3 minutes per side or until browned and crispy. Serve immediately (especially good with dirty rice)!
Here’s a cooking question for the ages: is it possible to take a classic, tried and true recipe and improve upon it? Is there a quintessentially perfect basic blueberry muffin, for example, or pot roast, and is it a sacrilege to modify them? Or how about a ham and bean soup? As far as I know, Americans have been making ham and bean soup since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. (Or at least once they figured out how to not starve–go read Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent book Mayflower for a lesson on how the Pilgrims were kind of boneheads when it came to agriculture.) Anyway, if not since Plymouth Rock, ham and bean soup has been an American staple at least since the 1980s–I know because there’s a recipe for it in my very own passed-down Better Homes and Gardens “Red and White” cookbook.
Which, come to find out, is now going for 90 bucks on the Internet. Sweet!
If a recipe is in the red and white cookbook, I consider it a classic. But to tell you the truth, last week when I read through the Ham and Bean Soup recipe in the BHG Bible, it just didn’t excite me. It used water instead of broth, had minimal seasonings, and called for dried navy beans when I wanted canned. The one thing that DID match my criteria was that it used a ham bone, which I had saved from our Christmas Ham-fest. Still, that wasn’t enough to give it the pizzazz I was hoping for, so I decided to tempt fate and tinker until I came up with something a bit more interesting. Adding chicken broth, carrots, dry mustard, and nutmeg gave this hearty soup enough flavor to eliminate the need for added salt–always a plus, if you ask me. And cutting out the dried bean soaking time got it from prep to table in under an hour. After two bites, my 7-year-old proclaimed it his new favorite soup of all time.
So, if I dare say it, I think our family has a new classic Ham and Bean Soup. Try it out and tell me if you feel the same.
Ham and White Bean Soup
A hearty soup to warm you from the inside out!
In a large stockpot, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add carrots, celery, onion, and ham bone and saute until vegetables have softened, about 6-8 minutes. Add garlic and saute another 30 seconds.
Add all remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer at least 30 minutes.
Remove ham bone and bay leaves and serve.