Tribute to Chef Paul Prudhomme

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I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of one of my favorite people in the food world. I first met Paul Prudhomme over 20 years ago during an International Association of Culinary Professionals regional meeting in New Orleans. I had stood in line for over an hour with some of my colleagues to eat at his famed restaurant K-Paul. During the long wait one of the people in line told us about chef Paul's "Cajun martini." I made sure to order one and it was the first and only time that alcohol cured my sinus headache instead of making it worse! Here's how it is made: Take a bottle of gin and insert a Jalapeno pepper. Fill the neck with vermouth. Close the bottle and let it sit for several days depending on how much "heat" you desire. The amazing results are ice cold gin with a surrounding blast of hot pepper. Chef Paul gave a lecture the following day and I was so moved by his sincere eloquence that I stood in line once again but this time to talk to him. After telling him my thoughts about his lecture he put out his arms to hug me. It was the warmest hug I've ever received, not just because of this 500 pounds filling every nook and cranny, but because of the sentiment behind it. Chef Paul was scheduled to visit New York a few months later to give a demo on making Cajun popcorn shrimp. I made the most delicious dessert in my repertoire to bring to him: a Galette des Rois (King's Cake, made with puff pastry filled with frangipane). A few weeks later, I was lying in bed reading next to my husband when the phone rang. A beautiful deep voice said: "This is Paul Prudhomme." My New York sarcastic response was "Yeah right! Who is this?" "It's Paul! I'm calling to thank you for that incredible pastry. But please never do that again--I ate the whole thing by myself!" We were friends ever since. Several years later Paul's weight made it difficult for him to stand or walk so he used an electric scooter. At various food events, he would drive down the aisle to my booth, beaming with the joie de vivre that was so much a part of his being, for another of his incomparable hugs. Here is the feature that I wrote about him in 1994 for my former column at the LA Times Syndicate, along with the recipe that propelled him into the public eye, which had a stunning effect on our appreciation of Cajun cooking, and the population of redfish.

THE MAGIC OF CHEF PAUL PRUDHOMME I first met chef Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans, over 10 years ago, at a lecture/demonstration he was giving on his unique style of Cajun cooking. The audience was utterly mesmerized by this great chef's passion and understanding of the interaction of ingredients and flavors. And I was also moved by the eloquence with which he expressed his cooking philosophy which clearly seemed to reflect his values regarding people and life. It was at this demonstration that I tasted, for the first time, what was to become such a major national craze that it seriously threatened the survival of an entire fish species: blackened red-fish. This technique of searing a butter and herb coated fish fillet in a white hot cast iron pan produces an exceptionally flavorful and moist fish. It also produces billows of smoke and therefore can only be performed safely outdoors or with a cook top graced by an industrial strength hood. It has been my goal ever since to possess a hood of this variety!

So it is because of Chef Paul that my recent kitchen renovation evolved around the hood. I chose a 42" Ventahood 900 CFM fan (6" wider than my cooktop to ensure collection of all potential smoke) and had the motor mounted on the roof to diminish its powerful roar. When the renovation was complete, my contractor Andrew Badding took off for a much deserved vacation at Cape Hatteras. On his return, I found a package of frozen Mahi-Mahi fillets, from a large fish he had caught, tucked into my freezer. Along with the fillets came a warning that the fish had a strong flavor and firm texture similar to swordfish and a recommendation of the Paul Prudhomme blackening technique which Badding had perfected on his outdoor grill. I saw this, however, as the perfect opportunity to test my new hood.

I defrosted the fish and soaked it in milk for several hours to tame the flavor. When cooking time came, I preheated my favorite seasoned cast iron skillet for 15 minutes, until I saw a white cast on the bottom of the pan, and then dropped in the first herbed fillet. Instantly smoke rose and curled around the left side of the hood. I quickly moved the pan to the center burner of my 6 burner cooktop and watched as all the smoke was collected by the hood. The fish for the two of us cooked in 4 minutes and when it was done, no smoke or burned-fishy odor remained in the kitchen!

With the fish I served steamed fresh baby brussel sprouts, lightly seasoned with salt (15 minutes) and buttered couscous (10 minutes). The slightly sweet-nutty flavor of the couscous nicely complemented the assertive flavor of the fish and the bright cabbagey crunch of the brussel sprouts added further balance. It was probably the simplest and quickest dinner I've ever cooked and one of the most pleasing. Now I'll have to reseason the skillet, but it was worth it.

Serves: 4

1 stick (4 ounces) butter, preferably unsalted
Blackened Redfish Magic™ to taste
4 firm-fleshed fish fillets, (redfish, red snapper, pompano, Mahi-Mahi*, salmon, tile fish, grouper) about 1/2" thick (not more than 3/4") 8 to 10 ounces

Preheat cast iron pan for at least 10 minutes on high heat or until a white haze appears on the bottom. Heat serving plates in a 250°F. oven

Melt the butter in a skillet or pan at least the length of the longest fillet. Pat fillets dry with paper towels and dip the fillets in melted butter to coat both sides. Sprinkle evenly on both sides with the herbs, patting in well with hands.

Place 1 or 2 fillets in the hot cast iron skillet and pour 1 teaspoon of the melted butter on top. Cook, uncovered, over high heat about 2 minutes or until underside looks charred. Turn the fish over and pour on another teaspoon melted butter on top. Cook 2 minutes more or til underside is charred. Cook only two fillets at a time.

Note: *If using Mahi-Mahi, be sure to soak it in milk (covered tightly and refrigerated) for 2 to 4 hours.

To make your own "magic" seasoning here's the recipe from "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen", William Morrow & Co., Inc. 1984 :

1 tablespoon sweet paprika 2 1/2 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon onion powder 1 teaspoon garlic powder 1 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne) 3/4 teaspoon white pepper 3/4 teaspoon black pepper 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves In a small bowl, thoroughly combine the seasoning. Store any leftover in a jar with tight fitting lid.

Caveats: It is essential to use a cast iron pan for this cooking method. It is essential to have an industrial strength hood directly above cooktop. Alternatively you may use an outdoor grill. Have a large pot cover ready as a precaution against flare-ups. Should they occur, clamp the cover on top of the pan for a few seconds until the flames subside. Be sure to use the dry herbs as fresh herbs will burn and taste bitter.