THE BLOG
02/14/2012 11:19 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2012

Secret in the Roux

It all made sense once. Read a recipe and identify its geographical origin. Study its variants and root recipes and understand its order of operation. Make predictions. For years now, I've been cooking and reading and writing about food this way. I've made my way through all those main courses with a great confidence in their primary ingredients, yes the wellsprings of dinners everywhere: The Sofrito. The Mirepoix. The Roux.

All of this turned around on Christmas Eve when, after hours of searching through Mississippi Gulf Coast and Louisiana Creole cookbooks, I set our cast iron pot on the stove to begin my Coubeyon and Granny came over and declared, "we're not going to do the roux first" and to hell with the recipe. The Sieur de Bienville might have turned over in his grave just then but, paying him no mind, we carried on. We have always been a family of agitators.

Coubeyon (see also, coobeyon, coubion) is a Creole recipe whose geographical origins lay in a great many kitchens. The name, like the recipe, is a variant of Court Bouillon, or short broth, a French concoction made for poaching fish and seafood. Unlike most bouillons or broths, which rely on the richness of meat and vegetables cooked over a long and slow fire, Court Bouillon uses wine, or sometimes lemon or vinegar, to pull flavor from the aromatic vegetables. The short broth, which cooks for no longer than an hour, has a lighter body and brighter notes and makes a great base for seafood.

But like most Creole recipes down on the Gulf of Mexico, this one has only a vague resemblance to its French counterpart. It is equally influenced by the other cooking traditions that found themselves down in the Southern American Swamps -- namely, Italian, Native American, Spanish, West African, and Portuguese. So, thankfully, our Coubeyon was made heavy with fresh tomatoes, and made pungent from the garlic, peppers, and herbs added. Redfish replaced the cold-water white fishes of the Biscay and Mediterranean. And then that roux.

As it stands today, there are only three types of roux that I give a damn about. White roux is made of white flour and butter, is as imperious as it is French, and carries three out of five of the 'mother sauces.' Creole roux is, like Cajun roux, made from flour and oil instead of butter, which, due to its higher smoke point, produces a darker color and nuttier flavor. The difference lays in cooking time. Creole roux is often called blonde by Cajuns, while a Cajun roux is only so called if it cooks on the flame until the moment just before burning, and is quite smoky and nearly black. In Louisiana and Mississippi, I have oft been told, every recipe begins with the roux.

When Granny took over cooking my Christmas Coubeyon, she said we "might-could do without a roux altogether." If it grew thick enough after cooling overnight on a quiet stove, we'd leave it out. The tortured historian inside me crossed her fingers and was delighted to find Granny and the bag of flour set beside the stove that Christmas afternoon. We would, in fact, prepare a blonde roux, then slowly add the short broth, prepared the night before, and finally add the Redfish. And then we could call it Coubeyon.

The process was, in the end, ingenious like Granny. The roux served more as an instrument of flavor than as a carrier of weight. We had tomatoes for that. But adding it the day after preparing our short broth meant that the bright notes from the vegetables and herbs stood out more, like their French ancestors preferred.

STEP ONE: THE SHORT BROTH

In a heavy pot over medium-high heat, pour a very small dollop of olive oil, and add 1 large sliced onion, 1 chopped green bell pepper, and 1 chopped clove of garlic. Quickly add a can of good tomatoes, chopped and without the juice, a peeled and thinly sliced carrot, a couple bay leaves, a few sprigs of parsley, a handful of black peppercorns, and some sweet basil. Of course if you are cooking like Granny, and you should, you will add as much or as little of these herbs as you like. Once simmering, add a cup of white wine and three cups of water. Bring to a boil and then reduce to low heat for an hour. Transfer to another pot and let cool overnight.


STEP TWO: THE BLONDE ROUX

Start by pouring three tablespoons of olive oil into that heavy pan you used yesterday, and heat it up. Then add three tablespoons of white flour and stir or whisk until caramel brown, about five minutes. There will be no answering the phone or going to the bathroom. In case of emergency, hand the spoon to the nearest person and be sure to hurry back before they've burned it.

STEP THREE: COUBEYON

Once the Roux has cooled slightly, pour in the broth and mix, about a cup at a time, over medium heat. While the broth heats to a simmer, salt four pounds of Redfish or Red Snapper and cut into slices. Once the broth is simmering, add the fish and poach for 12 - 15 minutes, or until the fish is ready.