About Roux

Here in the deep Mid-South, our cooking is heavily influenced by the distinctive Creole and Cajun cooking of Louisiana. One of the basic building blocks of these cuisines is the roux, a blend of starch, usually flour, and a liquid fat that’s cooked to varying degrees and used to thicken stews and soups, sauces and gravies. Roux are used in most “Continental” (i.e. European) cuisines as well, and the word itself comes from the French for “red” (rouge).

Starch has been used in kitchens to thicken liquids even before kitchens existed, but anyone who has tried to mix raw flour into a soup to thicken it knows it will just bubble and clump into a wet paste that takes forever to blend. When you combine flour with oil, the starch granules become coated with the fat and blend into stock or milk. Heating the flour in the oil cooks out the raw, pasty flour flavor, and though roux means “red”, roux are cooked for varying lengths of time to different colors for different uses.

Plain flour is most often used for a roux, and it’s the best for general use; save that corn starch for Asian dishes (more about that later). The best rule of thumb is one-part flour to one-part oil in a paste. As to what kind of oil, that depends on what you’re cooking. Generally speaking, if you’re making a white roux, use butter (not margarine, dear hearts). Since butter will burn at higher temperatures, use vegetable oil for darker roux as in most meat dishes and seafood, adding a little olive oil (particularly in a gumbo roux) for added flavor. Use lard or bacon drippings for that authentic down-home flavor you need in biscuit gravy.

Most roux are made in a sauce pan on the stove top. Yes, I know you can make a roux in the oven, or even in the microwave, but the stove top gives you much more control over the product. Cooking a roux on the stove top requires constant care and concentration. A lot of people call roux “Cajun napalm” for good reason; it will stick to your skin and burn, so when you’re cooking roux, avoid any distractions, use long-handled utensils, and for heaven’s sake, keep your children under control or out of the kitchen. Use a skillet with flared sides; cast iron is perfect. Never use a non-stick surface. Some people heat the oil first, some mix the oil and flour together before adding it to the pan, and some keep a mixture of oil/butter and flour in the refrigerator to make a roux on the fly.

Do it your way, but unless you’ve had a lot of practice, don’t use a high heat to make a roux. Cook the roux slowly, and scrape the bottom of the pan to achieve an even color throughout the mixture. If black specks appear, you’ve burned the roux, and you have to throw it away and start over. Never, never, never use a scorched roux; your gumbo, etouffee, or what have you will smell (and taste) like an ashtray.

Just like a slice of bread, a roux will toast; the longer you cook the flour, the darker the “toast”. It smells like popcorn cooking; at least, it does to me. Those of you who grill a lot may be familiar with the Maillard reaction, the reactions of proteins and sugars under heat that give meats and vegetables that roasted flavor. The same process is at work here. Cooking roux to different degrees of browning render different flavor and colors. They also thicken to a greater or lesser degree; the longer you cook a roux, the less it will thicken. You’ll find you will need to add more roux to thicken a dark dish such as a gumbo or an etouffee.

For white sauces—béchamel and other dairy sauce variations—cook the roux only long enough for it to stop bubbling, not long enough for it to brown at all. When making a white roux for soups and gravies it’s better to use slightly more butter, but for a thicker, stiffer sauce such as one you might use to hold a casserole together, use more flour. As a general rule, you’ll use lighter roux for dishes involving poultry or fish, darker roux for beef or game as well as most gumbos with the exception of a file gumbo, which traditionally doesn’t involve a roux at all. With experience, you’ll learn to customize your roux to your cooking.

photo by Vicky Wasick

Maque Choux

This old Louisiana dish is best made with fresh sweet corn cob right out of the garden cut and scraped from the cob, not only for incomparable taste, but also for the starchy corn “milk” that does double duty as a creamer and a thickener. If you can find fresh corn, by all means use it, but for most of us—and for most of the year—the best substitution is frozen sweet corn kernels and a good heavy cream. This recipe is very basic; purists might even leave out the tomatoes. Smoked sausage is a nice option, as are shrimp.

Cut four or five strips of bacon into about one-inch pieces and cook in a heavy skillet over medium heat until the bacon is crisp. Remove the bacon, cool and crumble. Add one large yellow onion, a green and red bell pepper, all diced, and two minced cloves of garlic. Cook until the vegetables are soft, then the bacon bits, either 3 cups fresh corn (scrape the juice from the cob!) or a 16 oz. sack of frozen sweet corn, and a drained 14 oz. can of petite diced tomatoes. Mix well until heated through, then add about a half cup or so of heavy cream, reduce heat to a simmer and stir until the vegetables are coated. Salt and pepper to taste; some people like this dish on the sweet side, some like cayenne pepper—or Tony Chachere’s—for a kick.

Recipes for Success

In his introduction Oscar Rogers writes, “The title of this book could well have been My Mother Cooked My Way Through Life with These Creole Recipes. Her skill in cooking fine foods, prepared with loving care, assured her of a living and me of my survival. She places part of herself into each dish she prepares—in fact a part of herself is in everything she does. This is her priceless legacy to me.”

Dr. Oscar Rogers was one of the most distinguished educators in Mississippi. He received his A.B. from Tougaloo in 1948, the B.S. in theology in 1954 and an M.A. in theology in 1954, both from Harvard. He returned to Natchez to accept the position as dean of students and registrar at Natchez Junior College in 1954, and was appointed president of Arkansas Baptist College in 1956, serving until 1959. In 1958, he received a doctoral fellowship to enroll at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and there he completed his doctor of education degree in social science in administration in 1960. Rogers’ wife, Lee, insisted that her children (three sons) live near and learn to know her father, Jefferson O. Lewis, a longtime employee of Tougaloo College, so the family moved to Jackson where she became a teacher in the Jackson Public Schools, and Oscar accepted the position as dean of students at Jackson State College from 1960-68. During 1968-69, the family moved to Seattle, where Lee taught and Oscar engaged in research. They returned to Jackson in later 1969, where Dr. Rogers became dean of students at JSU, a position he held for fifteen years. In 1984, he became the seventh president of Clafin University, a position he held to his retirement in 1994. Dr. Rogers died in July, 2011.

This book was published in December, 1971, when Rogers’ mother, Mrs. Walter Tillman, affectionately known as Pinky, was still alive. She attended the reception and signing, which was held by the University and College Press of Mississippi in the H.T. Sampson Library on the JSU campus. Some may be surprised that Oscar calls the recipes “Creole”, since they originate not in New Orleans, but upriver in Natchez, but in its strictest definition, Creole is defined as “a person descended from the early French and Spanish settlers in the U.S. Gulf States”. Natchez was founded by French colonists in 1716. In the culinary sphere, however, Creole implies the cooking of the well-to-do, more urban inhabitants of the region; one authority, Howard Mitcham, defines it as “city” cooking as opposed to “country (Cajun)”. And many of the 200+ recipes are sophisticated indeed: cauliflower Hollandaise, Doberge cake (a distinctly New Orleans dish, by the way), shrimp remoulade and floating island pudding, but there is also an abundance of good home-style recipes such as Southern-style pork chops, a meat loaf, baked beans and spoon bread. It’s also well worth noting that a recipe for Harvard beets makes an appearance on page 49.

Courtbouillion of Red Fish

1 large red fish, snapper or sheepshead, 5-6 lbs.
1/2 cup salad (vegetable) oil
1 c. flour
2 large onions, chopped
2 1/2 cups canned tomatoes
2 bay leaves
4 green bell peppers, chopped
4 shallots or green onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 slices lemon
1 cup claret or port wine
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 1/2 cups water (scant)
a few sprigs parsley

Slice fish across back into 2 or 3 in cuts. In a large skillet heat the salad oil, add the flour and stir until very brown. Add onions, stirring until cooked a bit. add chopped tomatoes and remaining ingredients except wine and fish, cook for 1/2 hour or more. Add sliced fish (you may lay fish in roasting pan or large pot if skillet isn’t large enough and pour sauce over fish). Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until fish is cooked. Add wine and let come to a boil again. Serve with rice or creamed potatoes. (Serves 6 to 8).