Mardi Gras in Cannon Beach?

Mar 7th, 2009

My wife and I have a bucket list. All the things we want to do yet! And this time of year we think about our fantasy of being in New Orleans in the middle of the celebrations. Of course we want to enjoy the parades, the jazz and seemingly free flow of festivities. But as foodies, we really want to taste the foods of New Orleans first hand—Creole, Cajun, and Acadian. Then it occurred to me that I could increase my knowledge and experience with this cuisine right here in Cannon Beach. I just had to pick up the phone and call chef John Sowa.

Locals may already know that besides his current success as owner/chef of Café Sweet Basils here in Cannon Beach, John previously opened and managed Lil’ Bayou in Seaside for seven years before settling into Cannon Beach. I spoke to John to find out how he became connected to the cuisine of the bayou and he had a lot to tell me.

John’s first exposure to New Orleans was during his stint in the army. In the late 60’s he was stationed in Georgia. On leave one of his platoon members invited a group of his buddies to Louisiana. As John puts it, “I fell in love with the cuisine immediately.” He was there when the king of Cajun, Paul Prudhomme, was at the helm. Not to pan TV’s Emeril Lagasse, John says, because Emeril was one of the youngest chefs to take over for Paul Prudhomme at Commander’s Palace.

But being a native New Yorker Sowa ended up back home after the army and settled in Long Island. It was there while working during the day in sales and marketing that he took evening and weekend opportunities to learn the ways of the kitchen. Tony’s Crab House, Busters (in Manhattan), and Main Street (in Long Island) were a few of the restaurants that fueled his passion and gave him the experience to open his first restaurant in 1992. At first he was going to open with a southwestern theme until he hooked up with an old friend, Pete Lutzen, who had worked under Paul Prudhomme and even married into the family, marrying Paul’s niece. It was at Pete’s urging that The Pepper’d Owl was created as a Cajun/Creole dinner house with live Blues, Jazz and Zydeco (a Cajun style with a zippy washboard sound). A good call as the restaurant secured four stars from the New York Times and News Day.

With this success in his pocket, Sowa moved on to one more venture before heading west or rather northwest to Seaside with his wife Deborah, a native of the community. Lil’ Bayou’s tenure is pretty well known to this area and to anyone who has had the pleasure of dining on John’s food.

So what makes good Cajun food? Well to start I had to learn a little about its roots. It begin in Nova Scotia with the French Acadians, who to escape religious persecution from their new landowners, the British, moved to Louisiana. They populated the bayous, marshes and prairies. The food of the area became known as Cajun, which as it turns out is a somewhat bastardized word for the French word, Acadian. Creole cuisine was thought to be the city version of Cajun, derived from the aristocracy of the main cities of the day.

Today however most agree that Cajun and Creole are intertwined. And that the migration of other European cultures to the area brought significant influences. For example the French dish, Bouillabaisse, is said to be the forerunner of Gumbo, the Spanish dish Paella, the predecessor of Jambalaya, and the use of charcuterie and sausages is attributed to the Germans. From my research and speaking with Sowa, one thing that is clear and consistent is the use of butter and pork products. Of course these are two of my favorite flavors, and are perhaps the reason John’s latest venture (Café Sweet Basil) is more mindful of the balanced use of such ingredients. But for the occasion of Mardi gras, let’s bring it on with the real thing.

Here are two of Chef John Sowa’s favorite recipes to make and enjoy with friends. You can watch for these on my family meals coming again this June. Thanks, John, for sharing this romantic and interesting side of your life.

CHICKEN AND SAUSAGE JAMBALAYA The word Jambalaya comes from the African word “Jamba” which means Ham and the “Ya” is Rice. The French Cajuns somehow put the “la” in there for luck? This serves about 4 main meal portions or eight appetizers.
1 pound of boneless chicken cut into bite size pieces
½ pound chopped Tasso Ham or other smoked Ham. (Tasso is a highly seasoned Cajun product.)
1-Pound Andouille Sausage (In a pinch Kielbasa could be used but is not recommended)
3 TBS Butter
1 Cup Chopped Yellow Onions
1 Cup chopped Green Bell Pepper 1 Cup chopped Celery
(These 3 ingredients are the Trinity of Cajun Cooking add add garlic and you have the Holy Ghost!)
3 TBS minced Garlic
¾ Cup Tomato Sauce
1 Cup chopped tomato
2 ½ cups Chicken Stock
1 ½ Cups Uncooked Rice (converted)

Jambalaya Seasoning
2 Bay Leaves
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp White Pepper
1 tsp Dry Mustard
1 tsp Cayenne Pepper
½ tsp Cumin
1 tsp Paprika
½ tsp Black Pepper
½ tsp Dried Thyme Leaves
Combine all spices well and set aside

Melt butter in a cast iron pot or heavy aluminum one over high heat. Add chicken and Tasso Ham Stir frequently and scrape bottom of pot. When chicken is almost cooked lower heat to medium heat, add Andouille sausage and garlic. Cook 2 minutes while continuing to scrap bottom of pot. Add ½ the seasoning mixture, ½ cup each of onion, pepper and celery, and cook till vegetables are tender.
Add tomato sauce cook scraping bottom of pot for 2-3 minutes. Add remaining seasoning, remaining vegetables, and chicken stock, stirring well. Bring this mixture to a boil; add the rice and stir together. Reduce heat to med and cover. Cook about 30 minutes or till rice is tender. Remove cover and continue cooking till liquid is just about gone.
CRAWFISH ETOUFFEE This is one of my favorite Cajun dishes and the fresh crawdads become available just around festival time. The word “Etouffee” translates to smother and the it’s the tail meat that is smothered in this wonderful sauce. This recipe makes about 6 servings.
½ Cup chopped yellow onions
½ Cup chopped celery
½ Cup Chopped Green Bell Peppers
1 TBS Minced Garlic
3/4 Cups vegetable Oil
¾ -1 Cups all-purpose flour
3 cups of basic seafood stock (Chicken Stock can substitute in a pinch)
½ pound unsalted butter (2 Sticks)
2 pounds cooked crawfish tail meat (no substitute!)
1 cup finely chopped green onion
4 cups of hot cooked rice

Etouffee Seasoning
1 ½ tsp salt
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp dried sweet basil leaves
½ tsp dried thyme
1 tsp paprika
Combine the seasoning mixture

In a large heavy skillet, cast iron if possible, heat the vegetable oil on high heat until smoking, with a whisk gradually add the flour and stir till smooth. Continue stirring until roux is a dark red brown. Care should be taken with this part, as the roux is extremely hot! Remove from the heat and add all the vegetables and garlic (be careful as this may splatter) and ½ the seasoning mixture. Stir until cooked for a few minutes. Return to low heat; slowly add 2 cups of stock whisking till smooth.

In a 4-quart pot melt 1 stick of butter over medium heat, add the crawfish tail meat and chopped green onions cook for 1-2 minutes. Gradually add the roux and vegetable mix and whisk until well combined and smooth. Add the remaining seasoning and remaining stock till you a have smooth silken sauce consistency. Cut remaining sick of butter in to 1 inch pieces, individually melt into the mixture stirring constantly. Serve immediately, with a mound a ½ cup of rice on each plate surrounded by Etouffee.