Not long after Billy Durel moved to Amelia nine years ago, people started asking whether he could cook. Not to be rude or forward or anything. But he did grow up near Lafayette, La., and he comes from a long line of Cajuns. Even the license plate on his minivan reads "Kajuns.''
So naturally, Midwesterners thought he must be whipping up some kind of gumbo or frying a turkey or two every night. Gare-on-TEED.
Well, Durel, who works as an insurance claims adjuster, was honest enough to admit he doesn't cook that often. His wife, Denise, a Texas native who also lived in Louisiana, prepares most of the family meals. But this of course doesn't mean Cajun Man can't cook.
"Everyone down there is a great cook," he says matter of factly but modestly, with only a soft hint of southwestern Louisiana in his voice.
IF YOU GO
What: Mardi Gras Mambeaux VI.
When: 7 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday (dinner served 7-8 p.m.).
Where: St. Bernadette School Gymnasium, 1479 Locust Lake Road, Amelia. Cost: $60 per couple.
Reservations required: 231-6731.
Surely it's genetic. His mother is a fine cook. His grandmother, who spoke Cajun French, was such a great cook, "she could take something off the street and make it taste good." She made jambalaya, etouffee, rice dressing and more.
And even though Durel didn't learn to whisk roux as a little boy, he had been eating authentic Cajun food since he was old enough to peel crawfish. With a little practice and advice from his brother, who owned a restaurant in Louisiana, Durel could make it taste right - even 930 miles from Lafayette.
All he needed was a good reason to cook. And for someone with his heritage, there's not a better reason than Mardi Gras. In 1998, friends finally convinced the Durels to cook for a dinner dance, a Mardi Gras Mambeaux, in Amelia. The event benefits the St. Bernadette Athletic Boosters in Amelia and it gives the Durels a good way to celebrate the joie de vivre so far from home.
"For the first three years we lived here, I think we just whined on Mardi Gras," Denise says.
Now they cook for what may be the most authentic Mardi Gras event in the Tristate. Last year, with help from five Cajuns-in-training, the Durels fed 250 people - gumbo, jambalaya, fried turkey, corn maque chaux. On Saturday , they expect to serve as many as 300.
Billy will deep-fry two dozen turkeys Saturday. The night before, he'll start stirring 12 to 15 gallons of gumbo. The flavor, he says, comes from the dark-brown roux, the cooked thickener of flour and fat added to the stew, and from the sausage he imports from Louisiana.
Until they return to Lafayette for a visit, the Durels may not eat gumbo again. Making it is such a chore, and remember, Billy doesn't cook often. They have tried eating gumbo in restaurants here, but now avoid it.
"It's not that it tastes bad,'' Billy says. "It's just not gumbo."
Billy Durel's Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
1 large chicken, rinsed and drained
1 large onion, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
11/4 cups flour
11/4 cups vegetable oil
1 to 11/2 pounds sausage (mix of spicy smoked and fresh), cut into bite-size pieces
Salt, garlic powder, black pepper, Tony Chachere's Famous Creole Seasoning, to taste (see notes)
Green tops of scallions, chopped
File powder, to taste (see notes)
Place whole chicken in large soup pot and cover with water, about 3 to 4 quarts. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Bring to boil, cover and simmer chicken until cooked through and tender, about 1 hour.
While chicken is cooking, make roux: Heat oil in heavy cast iron pan over medium high heat. Add flour slowly, constantly whisking. Continue to cook and stir until roux is thick and dark brown, then remove pan from heat. (If roux turns too dark, it will taste burned and you will have to start over. See note)
Add chopped bell pepper, onion and garlic to cooked roux and simmer over low heat until vegetables are soft. Remove pan from heat.
Remove chicken (reserve cooking liquid) and pull meat from bones. Shred chicken and return it to pot with cooking water. Scrape roux and cooked vegetables into pot with shredded chicken. Add salt, pepper, garlic powder and Tony Chachere's to taste. Add cut sausage to pot, cover and simmer over low heat for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Skim any fat off the top of gumbo and add chopped green onion tops. Stir and simmer 5 minutes.
Serve gumbo over rice with file powder, to taste. Makes 8 generous servings.
Notes: Tony Chachere's is Billy Durel's favorite seasoning blend, available in some stores. (Other spice blends can be substituted, but remember to taste gumbo before adding more salt.). File power is ground sassafras root, used as a seasoning and thickener in gumbo and other Cajun dishes.
Durel also makes roux by this microwave method: Mix oil and flour in microwaveable container and heat on high 6 minutes. Remove and stir well. Microwave for 1 minute, stir and check color of roux. Continue microwaving and stirring at 1 minute intervals until roux is cooked to desired color.
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