Monday, January 3, 2011

Courtbouillon: A Cajun Classic

The French culinary term “court bouillon” (or court-bouillon) conjures images of royalty and kings (court) as well as wealth and gold (bouillon). In reality, of course, it is something far more mundane, loosely translating to “quick broth.”

Courtbouillon
Courtbouillon at Danton's

In practice, court bouillon is usually just boiling water that’s been seasoned and infused with aromatics and then used to poach fish. In the grand encyclopedia of French cuisine, court bouillon is really rather simple and boring.

Now consider the term courtbouillon (one word), a Cajun dish. Pronounced koo-bee-yahn, it’s a fish or seafood stew that’s a tomato-based cousin of gumbo and etouffee. And unlike the weak sauce of it’s French ancestor, courtbouillon is a rollicking, rich and flavorful dish worthy of its Cajun provenance. In musical terms, court-bouillon is a delicate French minuet while a Cajun courtbouillon is a full-on fais do-do, fiddles and accordions blazing.

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You start with a roux. Then add the Cajun trinity: bell pepper, onion and celery. Fresh, diced tomatoes are next, followed by seafood stock and then any number of additional spices and herbs: thyme, garlic, marjoram, basil. Bring to a boil and then simmer, allowing the mixture to reduce and thicken, stirring occasionally. Then add thick chunks of fish and allow them to cook in the stew. Once cooked, ladle the fish and stew into a bowl over steamed white rice. In general, the recipe can be lengthy and involved. (A Google search will turn up many versions for the ambitious home cook.)

I asked Jim Gossen, a native of Lafayette and owner of Houston’s Louisiana Foods seafood distributorship, about the recipe for courtbouillon. “It’s traditionally a dish made at home, using family recipes. After I make the stew, I layer in thick pieces of redfish, then top it with thin slices of lemon. After you add the fish, you can’t stir it anymore, otherwise the fish breaks into pieces. So as it simmers, you grab the handles of the pot and twist it back and forth to make sure everything cooks evenly,” Gossen said.

Like most dishes that are handed down through traditional family recipes, courtbouillon has many variations. There always is a roux, but whether it is light or dark is up to the cook (tradition says dark). The Cajun trinity is a must, but some recipes call for garlic at this step. Once the stew ingredients have been added and are ready for simmering, a whole fish head sometimes is thrown in for extra flavor (don’t forget to fish it out before serving!). The fish used is another subject of debate: redfish is the traditional choice, but catfish often is used and red snapper is not unusual. And why stop at fish? Many recipes call for a “seafood courtbouillon,” which includes shrimp, oysters or crawfish.

So what do you do if you want to try out this Cajun classic in Houston and you don’t have access to a friend-of-the-family Cajun cook or don’t want to make it yourself? While not as prevalent on restaurant menus as gumbo and etouffee, some of Houston’s best Cajun and Creole restaurants include courtbouillon on the menu, including Danton’s Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen and Mardi Gras Grill, both of which serve a mixed seafood version. Brennan’s, traditionally known for New Orleans Creole-style cooking, includes a redfish and shrimp courtbouillon as part of its “Brennan’s Classics” menu, and properly describes it as “Acadian style.”

Danton's
Danton's Gulf Coast Kitchen

During a recent weekday lunch, I sampled the seafood courtbouillon at Danton’s on Montrose near the Museum District. It’s a throwback seafood joint offering classic Gulf Coast dishes using traditional recipes, as well as signature dishes (“Crab Danton”) created by chef and co-owner, Danton Nix. Danton’s makes my favorite gumbo in Houston — extra rich, dark and smoky — so I had high hopes for the courtbouillon.

The courtbouillon at Danton’s is excellent. A huge portion served on a big oval plate, the stew has a perfect consistency and reddish-brown color. It came out steaming and so hot I had to wait, torturously, to take a bite. The Cajun trinity is prominent — big, tender chunks of onion, bell pepper and celery are splashed throughout. The flavor of the stew is the perfect combination of smoky richness from the roux and tangy sweetness from the tomatoes. Big, intact chunks of fish (no stirring!) are generously spread throughout. My server identified the fish as red snapper, though it easily could have been redfish. Perfectly cooked shrimp and fresh oysters round out the dish. For sides, I always get steamed white rice and garlic bread for sopping up what’s left of the stew.

I can’t wait to find and taste more versions of courtbouillon on Houston restaurant menus. And if I get ambitious, I may have to try making my own, hopefully with a little help from some of my Cajun friends.

This blog entry was originally posted 20 December 2010 on the www.29-95.com website.

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