“While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.”
The fairytale American Christmas dinner is a special occasion; guests wear velvet dresses, and jackets in holiday colors. The table is decked out with fine linens, China, and silver. A crown roast or a goose emerges from the kitchen on a silver platter, presented to a chorus of oohs and aahs.
That scene, of course, is really the stuff of storybooks and television commercials. America is an eclectic nation with a melting pot of holiday traditions. Since reading New Orleans chef Isaac Toups’ new cookbook, Chasing the Gator, I’ve become particularly curious about that region’s holiday feasts. I recently talked to Toups about his family’s traditional Cajun Christmas, and got him to share his Mama’s famous crawfish cornbread dressing, too.
What’s your family’s holiday scene like?
“The big meal is usually Christmas Eve. Everybody arrives that night. Certain people get fed right [away]—kids first—we don’t have this one humongous big table. Some people will eat at the kids’ table with the kids. We always play secret Santa. It’s always a communal affair; everybody’s always cooking something…My family, we come from different backgrounds, political views, and religious views, but that all gets dropped at Christmas time. You love each other. You have some drinks.”
What’s always on your Cajun Christmas table?
“The holiday always has both seafood and meat. There’s always a sack of oysters and I, of course, do the meat–sometimes a whole roasted pig or a whole dry-aged ribeye. My Mom’s crawfish cornbread dressing is out of this world, so that always makes it to the table.”
Are your oysters a fancy affair?
“Nine out of 10 times, we eat them raw, shucked outside, with a little cocktail sauce. Every once in a while you might get fancy and [cook them] over a fire with crab fat butter and Parmesan.”
What are your go-to cuts of meat?
“I like a ham, especially a fresh country ham [that I brine and season], or to smoke a brisket overnight or do a pork belly roll. For the brisket, I’ll use Aleppo pepper, black pepper, a salt-sugar crust, and maybe curry and cayenne, but I’ll definitely get a good, hard, thick crust. I might smoke it all night or smoke it halfway and finish it in oven. It depends on how frisky I’m feeling with said brisket. For the pork belly roll, I’ll take a skin-off belly, zest a lot of citrus, lemon, orange, grapefruit, and a lot of garlic. I might tie it up, and slow-roast it till fork tender.”
Given that your restaurant Toups’ Meatery is famous for its wide selection of meats, do you ever eat anything that’s unusual on Christmas?
“Every once in a while I’ll do a cochon de lait, a whole 100-pound pig. We always have dirty rice and green beans stewed down with bacon and tomato, or Brussel sprouts with lots of butter, cream and cheese on top. We have our veggies but they’re very unhealthy…Christmas and Thanksgiving are not the times to think of your waistlines. And my father will normally bust out one of his wild duck gumbos.”
Does your father shoots the ducks himself?
What are the main spices in Cajun cooking?
“We use a lot of our ‘trinity’ and garlic. Our trinity is different from [the French] mirepoix (celery, carrots and onions), swapping in bell pepper for celery. It’s not ‘Thai hot.’ We like our food warm. People come down [to Louisiana] and expect to have their mouths burned out, but that’s just not true.”
Tell me about the crawfish cornbread dressing.
“That’s definitely my Mother’s concoction. It’s not crawfish season, so it’s a perfect way to bust out the crawfish shells from freezer. It’s delicious, everybody loves it, there’s never any leftover.”
I call this dressing. You call it what you want. But we’ll both agree that it’s delicious. Mama warms up her cornbread and her sauce, then folds in her cornbread and it’s done. It’s probably not a true dressing, but I don’t care. It’s awesome. We bake it just to get crispy bits on the edges, not to cook it through. I prefer to use fresh crawfish meat, but since the dressing is creamy and you won’t notice the odd texture that frozen crawfish can get, frozen will do. You’ll see the dressing at Thanksgiving even when you know there’s not a fresh crawfish to be found.
- 2 Tbsp Unsalted butter, divided
- 1 medium Onion, finely diced
- 1 Red bell pepper, finely diced
- 1 Rib celery, finely diced
- 5 cloves Garlic, minced
- 1 pound Cooked crawfish tail meat
- 1½ tsp Kosher salt
- ¼ tsp Finely ground black pepper
- ¼ tsp Cayenne pepper
- 2 cups Crawfish Stock or any seafood stock
- 5 cups Crumbled cornbread
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- In a large Dutch oven, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, and celery and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 10 minutes, the trinity should start to brown a little bit—this is intentional; you want it more than just translucent—you want it thoroughly softened and beginning to brown. Since we’re not braising this dish down, you really want to have your trinity cooked—I don’t like crunchy trinity. Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute.
- Stir in the crawfish, salt, black pepper, and cayenne. Add the stock. While still over medium heat, slowly bring the mixture to a low simmer then remove from the heat. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and stir until it’s fully melted. Once the butter has melted, gently fold in the crumbled cornbread until it’s well incorporated, being careful not to smush it all to bits. Scoop the mixture into a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish and spread out evenly. Bake for 10 minutes, or until the edges are browned. Call your Cajun mother and thank her.
Excerpted from Chasing the Gator Copyright © 2018 by Isaac Toups and Jennifer V. Cole. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved. Photography Denny Culbert.