When I think of Mardi Gras, I think of New Orleans and recall all of our adventures to the city during carnival season. New Orleans has a distinct and rich cuisine; we’ve eaten at many restaurants over the years during these times. Blackened redfish, made famous by Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme, is one of the memorable dishes of this city. With carnival season and Mardi Gras arriving soon, here’s my “blackened recipe,” a version using chicken rather than redfish.
Chef Paul Prudhomme is largely credited with making Cajun cuisine known around the world. He was a rather robust man with a Cajun accent and deep laugh. Whatever he cooked was just simply delicious–from gumbo to bread pudding to his blackened dishes. Prudhomme had simple beginnings and grew up in Opelousas, Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun country. He learned Cajun cooking skills from his mother. Eventually, Prudhomme made is way to New Orleans and worked his way up in the restaurant business, opening his own restaurant along with his wife, K-Paul’s Restaurant, in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Prudhomme refined the technique of making blackened foods — using spicy Cajun seasonings to coat the meat and cooking it at a high temperature. The dish is very spicy and hot! At one point in the 1980’s, blackened redfish (or red drum) was so popular that the species was in danger of becoming depleted causing restrictions to be placed upon the catch. Blackened dishes are is relatively new, dating to the 1980’s, and wouldn’t be considered a traditional Cajun recipe.
A person can make many kinds of “blackened” dishes — chicken, pork, fish. I’m making blackened chicken just because chicken is easily available although I admit I really love blackened fish dishes, too. Here’s what I do:
To make this recipe you need a cast iron skillet. This skillet can be heated to a very high temperature, it cooks evenly and there is no coating on the skillet to worry about. These skillets are relatively inexpensive; everyone should have at least one cast iron skillet. Care of the skillet is easy, after cooking with it a few times it should be “seasoned.” Don’t wash in the dishwasher or use abrasive scouring pads or the skillet will rust. Simply wipe it out with a paper towel. I store my skillet wrapped in saran wrap to avoid oxidization and rust.
You need a Cajun seasoning mix to make blackened dishes. Many commercial mixes are available — Paul Prudhomme has a series of “blackened” mixes and I happen to have several of the the jars in my kitchen cabinet. It’s also easy to make your own mix with ingredients in the kitchen — starting with cayenne pepper (not alot of this), paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, thyme. I add lemon pepper to my “blackened spice mix” because I like the lemon flavor and cracked black pepper. Since this seasoning contains salt, you don’t need additional salt.You need some sort of meat, chicken of fish. I am using boneless, skinless chicken breasts. These chicken pieces, as purchased, are about 8 oz each and are really too thick to cook completely by the “blackening” method. The cooked chicken breasts turn out tough, there’s just no way to get around it. So I split each breast in half lengthwise cutting through the center of the piece of chicken to make thinner chicken “cutlets.”Next, dip each chicken piece in oil or melted butter (the traditional method), then coat with the seasoning mix. My recipe easily coats 4 of these breasts. Don’t use olive oil — you need an oil that can take the high heat such as peanut oil.Next, heat the dry skillet on high heat on the stove until the skillet smokes. Don’t add any oil. Just get the skillet really, really hot. Add the coated chicken pieces. Cook about 45 seconds per side until charred. Flip and cook the other side, too. Don’t flip back and forth. Just fry briefly on each side.
So this burning the meat? Technically, yes, it is charring the meat. I stop cooking long before the chicken is burnt to a crisp. I just really “sear” the chicken pieces. Many recipes give the instructions to cook on each side for 5 minutes or so. In my opinion; this is too long.
With my short cooking time, the chicken pieces aren’t completely cooked. I transfer them to a baking dish or baking sheet and finish cooking them in a 400 degree oven for 18 minutes or cooked through. And with this technique, the breasts turn out flavorful and tender. An alternative is to turn the skillet to low, partially cover and cook until done.
Fish filets cook much quicker than chicken pieces. It is likely that you can completely cook a fish fillet in the cast iron skillet. But at home, I’ll stick to chicken pieces. My technique might be slightly adapted from the traditional one (mine includes finishing the dish in the oven) but it works for me. It is easy to make this popular Cajun dish.
Cajun Blackened Chicken
Ingredients for Blackened Spice Blend:
- 1 Tbsp paprika
- 1 tsp dried thyme leaves
- 1/2 tsp dried ground oregano
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1-1/2 tsp lemon pepper (or 1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp course black pepper)
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Ingredients for Cajun Blackened Chicken:
- 2 (8 oz) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 1 recipe Blackened Spice Blend
- peanut or canola oil
Method and Steps:
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a baking sheet or rectangular casserole dish.
- With a large sharp chef knife, trim fat from chicken breasts. Holding securely with one hand, carefully slice each chicken breast in half lengthwise, starting at a thickest area. Set cutlets aside.
- Make spice mix by combining together all spices (paprika, thyme, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, lemon pepper, cayenne pepper) in a small bowl. Mix well.
- Brush chicken breasts with peanut or canola oil on both sides.
- Generously sprinkle both sides of each side chicken breast cutlet with the spice mix.
- Heat seasoned cast iron skillet on stove on high heat until it smokes and is very hot, from 3 to 5 minutes.
- Add 2 chicken chicken cutlets to the hot skillet. Sear for 45 seconds on the first side. Using spatula, turn over and repeat with second side. Don’t flip chicken cutlets back and forth. Sear once per side only. Transfer to oiled baking sheet or casserole dish. Repeat with remaining 2 chicken cutlets.
- Bake in pre-heated 400 degree oven for 15 to 18 minutes.
- Remove and let set until cool enough to handle. Then on cutting board and using clean knife, slice each breast crosswise at an angle into slices about 1/2″ thick. Carefully transfer slices to plates.