Chicot State Park near Ville Platte, Louisiana, a multifarious, 6,400-acre wildlife reserve, is the setting of one of my earliest cooking lessons. In addition to places to hike, swim, go fishing or boating, the park also features plenty of covered pavilions outfitted with big barbeque pits adjacent to them, as well as fire pits and picnic tables right out in the open.
I was a curious child, barely old enough to understand English or Franglais – the language of my elders – let alone instructions for making anything more involved than cereal and milk, and my teacher in this memory was my grandfather, DeJean, more affectionately known to us all as Pépère. It was on one of my family’s regular trips to the popular park that Pépère cooked courtbouillon* (“coo-bee-yon”) in a big, covered cast-iron Dutch oven over an open fire for us.
As I watched Pépère, he talked me through his process and, while I’ve long forgotten the specifics, I took away this early culinary lesson: you can make a pretty delicious broth with very few ingredients, and more important, you can engage a child by including him in your cooking process.
I was too young to chop the vegetables or handle the fish, but he allowed me to plop each one of a dozen or so little new potatoes into the pot after he had sautéed the onions, garlic, celery, and bell peppers (the Cajun “Trinity” plus garlic). The new potatoes were peculiar to Pépère’s courtbouillon – most other recipes I know of don’t include them. But for him, the potatoes were essential: in the pot, they were to serve as “bricks” that held up the thick pieces of fish to keep them from breaking apart as they cooked. I loved the little potatoes and the sweet/savory broth that flavored the fish as it cooked, so to this day, I still make courtbouillon using Pépère’s potato “brick” method.
*The Cajun version of this dish has its roots in French courtbouillon, which is more of a brine to steam fish in and is not itself consumed. In Louisiana, unlike its French predecessor, courtbouillon is meant to be eaten along with the fish or other seafood that cooks in it.
3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 large white onion, coarsely chopped (about 2 cups)
1 big head of garlic, minced
1 large bell pepper (green or red), diced (about 1 ½ cups)
1 rib of celery, diced
2 lbs. of chopped fresh tomatoes (blanched to remove skin) or one 32-ounce can of whole stewed tomatoes with the juice
10-12 small new potatoes (size of a ping pong ball)
6 cups of chicken stock
2 ½ to 3 pounds of a good solid whitefish (such as catfish, bass, grouper, haddock) cut into pieces the size of a medium russet potato
Seasonings (formula below)
4 scallions, coarsely chopped
1 bunch of chopped parsley
Seasonings: 2 teaspoons of sea salt; 2 teaspoons of coarsely-ground black pepper; 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper; and ½ teaspoon of white pepper
1 – Coat the bottom of a large Dutch oven with the olive oil. Sauté the onions until they are translucent, about five minutes. Make a space in the center of the pot to add the chopped garlic. Sauté for about 30 seconds before adding the chopped bell pepper and diced celery.
2 – Add the whole stewed tomatoes with their juice, and the chicken stock. Add the seasoning and stir it in completely.
3 – Space the potatoes evenly on top, making sure the liquid covers them. Cover the pot and cook on medium-high heat for 15 minutes, making sure not to overcook the potatoes.
4 – Add the chunks of fish. The fish should rest on the potatoes, not be fully submerged. Ladle some of the broth over each piece. Do not stir! Cover the pot and reduce the heat to a low simmer. Let the whole thing simmer for another 5 or so minutes (depending on thickness of the fish).
5 – Remove the lid, ladle some more broth over each piece of fish, then add the scallions and parsley over it all. Serve in bowls over rice with a side of Mémère’s Yeasty Rolls.
C’est tout! – M
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