A Cajun chef living in New Orleans, Melissa Martin is the founder of Mosquito Supper Club, a tribute to the food of her childhood. We couldn't think of anyone better to share the ingredients of a real Cajun pantry — and she couldn't think of anyone better than her mama.
I'm on the phone with my mom. She's in Chauvin, in my childhood home on Bayou Petite Calliou. She's been married to my dad for 48 years and she raised six kids in a ranch-style house on Delta land. I'm asking her questions about her Cajun pantry. I know most of our items will be the same, but I want to hear her perspective. She is my touchstone and I can't think of anyone I love or trust more to keep Cajun real.
Her first answer is rice. We ate rice with everything: gumbo, jambalayas, étouffées, and stews. I remember one of my brother's girlfriends making fun of us for our rice consumption. But the fact is that rice stretches food and when you have six hungry mouths to feed, rice is a savior. We also loved rice; I still could eat a bowl of rice every day.
Tip: I like Baker's Farm popcorn rice from Gueydan, LA. It's nutty and fills your house with the faint scent of popcorn while you're cooking it.
White beans, red beans, lima beans — all kinds of beans were another staple in our pantry. Pared with salt pork and onions, you could start dinner in a heavy bottom pot in under 10 minutes.
Tip: My mom swears by Camellia beans for being fresh. She says if the beans wrinkle and soften quickly while cooking then they are fresh.
I love when my mom says, "Well, vinegar, Melissa. We need vinegar to eat our thistles." As kids we loved picking thistles, removing their thorny tops, and pairing them with vinegar, salt, and pepper. A steady stream of vinegar is also essential for pickling okra, peppers, and eggs.
4. Cane Syrup
Cane syrup is a Cajun staple, and the yellow Steen's can is what you'll find in most Cajun pantries, including my mom's. Steen's Cane Syrup, thick and with a slightly bitter edge, has been made the old-fashioned way in Abbeville, LA, since 1910.
Tip: Mr. Charles Poirier of Youngsville, LA, makes a high-quality cane syrup that's gourmet and irresistible. When I make beignets we pour Poirier's Cane Syrup onto a plate and sop up every last bit.
My mom made pancakes, biscuits, beignets, king cakes, monkey bread, rolls, and so much more for breakfast, and she always made desserts. You need flour to make a roux, too ... so we needed a lot of flour.
Tip: Graison Gill of Bellegarde Bakery and Mill went out on a limb and started milling flours in New Orleans, a town known for white, white bread. It's been a welcome addition to the food scene and I love using his freshly milled Turkey Red Wheat flour while I'm recreating all the flour creations my mom liked to serve.
6. Evaporated Milk
Speaking of white flour, bread custard was a staple dessert and my mom always made it with Pet Evaporated Milk. I still crave her custardy bread pudding that she cuts in little slices and leaves out on the island in her kitchen. You can't walk by without grabbing one. It is a curse, because you never know how many bite-sized pieces you've eaten until you've overdone it.
Tip: You always need to have Pet Milk in your pantry in case you have a late-night craving of Pet Milk, sugar, and bananas.
Louisiana is a sugar state and every Louisianan, Cajun or not, probably has a five-pound bag of cane sugar in her pantry.
8. Bay Leaf
My mom seasoned her dishes simply with salt, pepper, cayenne, and a bay leaf — and I do the same.
Tip: For bay leaves, fresh is better. I like to buy fresh bay leaves at the Crescent City farmers market or find a tree in New Orleans to pick them fresh.
9. Hot Sauce
Everybody has their favorite hot sauce and Louisiana Hot Sauce, produced in New Iberia for the last 80 years, is my family's. Whether I'm seasoning poultry or seafood, making marinades, or dipping fried shrimp in it, it is a sweet, low-heat variety I can't live without.
10. Corn Meal, Corn Flour & Grits
We are known in South Louisiana for our fried food. My mom actually kept fried stuff to a minimum, and I'm thankful for that. But you always need some corn flour or corn meal to whip a fish fry.
We also ate grits, although we never had shrimp and grits or grillades and grits. I learned these favorites after living and cooking in New Orleans and I like cooking them now, but they certainly were never served on Maxine's table. Grits were reserved for a pat of butter and served with eggs or alone.
Tip: I use Bellegarde Bakery and Mill for freshly milled grits, corn flour, and corn meal.