I've said it many times before and I'll say it again: We're not building any rocket ships, we're cooking -- plain and simple. Sure, some dishes are a little more complicated than others, but that doesn't mean you can't do them. And don't go thinking that we're using exotic or weird ingredients. Look, if you don't have crawfish, use shrimp or scallops, or chicken. If you can't get a certain item, or maybe you don't like some of these things, there's no rule that says you can't substitute something else. Just use some common sense. Remember, the only thing that's important is that the food taste good. It doesn't have to be pretty, although that sometimes helps, but it should give you a thrill when you put it in your mouth.
Now, before you begin cooking anything, just be sure you have everything that you need. Read and study the recipe you plan to make. Make a grocery list. Get organized. There's nothing more frustrating than to begin preparing a dish and having fun, then have to drop everything because you're missing an ingredient.
Make a quick check of the kitchen. Do you have the right pots, pans, baking equipment, utensils, good sharp knives, measuring spoons and cups, clean dishcloths? Man, you can't whip up something without the proper equipment. You don't have to go and spend a trillion dollars, but you will need some basic stuff.
Be sure you have salt, fresh peppercorns, cayenne and a few dried herbs in that old spice cabinet. Don't go buying that stuff in those big containers unless you're opening a restaurant or cooking for an army. Buy small containers so the herbs and spices will be fresh.
This is as good a time as any to tell you about my philosophy on seasoning. Do as I do: Put your seasonings in small saucers or bowls rather than using the box or jar, and keep them handy near the stove and work area. Season as you cook, and don't over-season. Just add a pinch here and a pinch there. Taste as you cook, so you'll keep on top of it. If you add everything at the end, the seasoning will not have balanced out during the cooking time.
Usually I use regular old table salt, unless otherwise specified in a recipe, and freshly ground black pepper or freshly ground white pepper. Then again, I think there are certain dishes that need a little jazzing up with a bit of cayenne as well. And there are times when you need not only salt and some kind of pepper but maybe a hit or two of "Bam!" which is simply my own personal blend of seasonings, which we all know as "Essence." But look, you can make up your own blend. Check out some of the blends on the market. In Louisiana, just about every cook worth his or her salt (ha, sorry about that) has a preferred combination of spices and herbs. Experiment -- that's the fun of it.
The same goes for hot sauces. I personally like Tabasco sauce, my assistant Felicia has the hots for Crystal Hot Sauce, and Marcelle, my cowriter, says that Tabasco is great to use as a condiment to season things at the table, but she also likes a green hot sauce put out by Cajun Chef, which she uses both as a condiment and a marinade for meats, poultry and fish.
So you see, to each his own. After you've tasted a few, you'll figure out which one feels good on your palate.
Do you know what the "trinity" is? If you've watched my show, you know --it's onions, bell peppers and celery -- and it's very important to many of my dishes. Most of the time I use all three, sometimes I might use one or two together. If you add carrots to the trinity and take out the bell peppers, you then have what's called, in French, a mirepoix. I like to use green onions, which are called scallions everywhere else. I am also a great fan of garlic. Fresh parsley, chives and other herbs are very aromatic and flavorful, and are often used for garnishes as well.
When you're getting ready to cook, it's best to have your mise en place, which is a French culinary term referring to having all the ingredients necessary for a dish prepared and ready to combine up to the point of cooking. All that really means is to have your onions, bell peppers, or whatever else needs chopping done and measured, liquids measured, butter measured, spices and herbs ready -- get the idea?
I also believe in having homemade stock, if at all possible, prepared and stored in the refrigerator or freezer. I don't know why, but many people are intimidated by the word stock, which is really nothing more than a strained liquid made by cooking vegetables, meat or fish and other seasoning ingredients in water. Sure, you can buy stocks, broths and consommés in cans, or you can make some by adding water to granules or cubes that you can get at your neighborhood grocery store. But, ah, they are full of salt and the ones you can make at home are so much better. I've said it many times, we're not building a rocket ship; we're only really boiling water with bones and seasonings, then straining it. Once you've mastered making stocks, you'll never go back to that commercial stuff again. You don't need all kinds of special equipment and gadgets to make stock, just a stockpot (an eight- or 12-quart size), a strainer or a colander lined with cheesecloth, and if you wish to store the stock in the freezer, some pint- and quart-size containers.
The ingredients are simple enough. First you'll need some bones -- chicken, beef, veal, pork or fish -- or shrimp and lobster or crab shells and/or fish frames (bones). Now don't be getting crazy about this. You can usually get bones from your butcher or, in the case of fish, shrimp or crabs, your seafood supplier. Hey, you can begin collecting stock ingredients yourself. Whenever you buy something with bones, if you don't need them, store them in an airtight container in the freezer. Same goes for fish bones, crab shells or shrimp shells. Store them in the freezer until you have time to make your stock. Then you'll need some carrots, onions, garlic and, of course, salt, pepper, and what is called in culinary terms a bouquet garni (boo-KAY gahr-NEE), which is simply a bunch of herbs (the basic trio being parsley, thyme and bay leaf, but sometimes I add my own stuff) that are either tied together or placed in a cheesecloth bag and used to flavor the stock. Hey, you don't have to call it a bouquet garni, you can call it a flavor bag or pouch of herbs, whatever makes you happy. You can wrap the herbs in your sock if you want -- just make sure you wash it first.
See, very simple!
Now, let's go in the kitchen and have fun!