By Ken Wells
When I was growing up on the banks of Bayou Black, my mother made an amazingly tasty dish she called smothered potatoes. To cook a dish big enough to feed our family—six boys, my parents and my Wells grandparents who lived with us—she would caramelize six to eight large yellow onions, chopped, in a big pot. Then she would throw in her diced potatoes (about double the volume of onions) and stir everything together.
She’d add chicken stock, enough to cover the mixture, and bring everything to a boil. Then, she would lower the heat to a simmer and cover the pot. The dish required a lot of attention. She would remove the cover from time to time, stir like crazy, and, as the potatoes absorbed the chicken stock, add more stock to keep everything moist and prevent the concoction from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
Toward the end, she would add her seasonings—salt, pepper, a dash of Tabasco or cayenne pepper, maybe a little garlic, parsley, thyme, and a bay leaf or two. Her goal was to cook the potatoes to a consistency just north of mashed potatoes. She had a variation of this, sometimes adding cut green beans to the recipe and cooking them down with the potatoes to a delicious tenderness. Neither variation ever failed to please.
What made this dish “smothered”?
Well, for my mom, a Toups by birth from a French-speaking Thibodaux family that cooked Cajun food, the explanation was that the onions made it smothered.
Of course, there’s another explanation for why this dish is called smothered potatoes: the cooking technique itself. Cajun and Creole food experts describe “smothering” as a variation of braising meat, seafood, or vegetables. Like braising, smothering happens in a closed environment (in this case, a lidded pot or Dutch oven) with plenty of water, broth, or wine, and the process is a long one; smothered meat dishes often require four or more hours of low heat and high patience. You could, as some do, call smothering a kind of “stove-top braising.”
Stove-top braising? My mom would’ve looked at anyone who used that term and said, “What’s that, cher?” Call it what you will, the fact remains that smothered potatoes (and chicken, and pork, and just about anything else) are delicious and quintessentially Southern. We eat so well in the Gumbo Belt because we cook so well. But even our professional chefs admit that there is a fair amount of befuddlement about our terminology, especially when it comes to beloved dishes and styles of cooking—stews, fricassees, etouffees, and various smothered food recipes.
Do you know the difference between a crawfish stew and a crawfish etouffee? And since etouffee is a bona fide French word meaning “smothered” or “suffocated,” why can’t it be called smothered crawfish? (Answer: it probably could be; it’s just not done.)
And what about the difference between a chicken stew and a chicken fricassee? Again, my mother spoke French and cooked a mean chicken stew with a dark roux. But I never heard the term fricassee used in our house or our kitchen.
I decided I needed help to clarify this confusion, so I consulted two of my favorite chefs and people, Pat Mould and Randy Cheramie. Pat is as rooted as a cypress tree in South Louisiana food culture. He’s a Southwest Louisiana native who has served as a chef for two of Lafayette’s renowned Creole-Cajun eateries, Café Vermillion and Charley G’s, and for years was chief organizer of the city’s annual Festival Acadiens et Creoles which has a huge foodie component. He is widely credited with inventing a much-copied version of smoked duck and andouille gumbo.
Randy also has impeccable South Louisiana cuisine cred. He is a Golden Meadow native who for 20 years owned and operated Randolph’s, a South Lafourche fine-dining restaurant founded by his father in 1946. Since 1999, he has been a mainstay at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute on the Nicholls State University campus where he’s taught everything from classical French cuisine to perfecting the Cajun roux. (A man of many talents, he also ran the joint for a few years.)
I asked Pat about the chicken stew/fricassee confusion.
“There’s really no rhyme or reason as to why some people call it a stew and some call it a fricassee. I go back and forth on it. For instance, when I do shrimp I call it a stew, and when it’s chicken I call it a fricassee—and I use dark roux in both. I think it’s simply a generational thing; whatever the dish was called in your family is why it became either a stew or fricassee.”
I asked Randy to weigh in.
“So, the difference between stewed, fricasseed, and smothered, huh? That’s a good question. A chicken fricassee in France, in the classical tradition, is made with a blond roux. Weird, right? The first dish I remember enjoying as a very young child was my grandmother’s smothered potatoes, or patate etouffee as she would call it, cooked much like your mother’s recipe.”
As for crawfish stew or etouffee: “When my dad made shrimp or crawfish etouffee, he melted grated onions in butter over low heat for a long time, then added the shrimp or crawfish with more butter, or crawfish fat, seasonings, and sliced green onions and minced parsley. It was never made with a roux! So, to us, etouffee meant ‘smothered in onions.’ Our shrimp or chicken fricassee was made with a medium brown roux with peeled potato chunks cut one inch, then garnished with sliced green onions and served over cooked white rice. Could that fricassee be called a stew? Sure it could!”
You’re probably noticing that this isn’t necessarily clearing up the confusion.
Chef Randy agrees. “I think cooking method titles have been a little muddled for a long time. To me, braising and stewing are two distinct techniques. To many home cooks, it’s the same thing. We say most bread and pastry goods are baked and most meats are roasted. What’s the difference? There is no difference! Baked potatoes, baked bread, roasted chicken, baked fish, roasted vegetables—the technique is the same. My family, and many others, never make a roux for sauce picante or courtbouillon, but I know many who do. Which one is right or definitive? It’s the same as asking which is the definitive gumbo. My friend, you are treading murky waters here!”
Of course, outside of South Louisiana (that is, the traditional South that for us lies more or less north of I-10), smothered dishes take on a whole new meaning and complexity. A cursory search of the web, for example, produces a recipe for Smothered Chicken: A Soul Food. In this elaborate concoction (which includes milk!), clearly the smothering comes from not just the slow cooking, medium-low-heat technique, but also from the rich café-au-lait colored gravy that literally smothers the chicken. (It looks delicious—you can see it here: https://www.munatycooking.com/smothered-chicken/)
On the SoulFoodandSouthernCooking.com website, the smothering technique comes with a declaration that—while chicken, pork chops, and steaks are the favorites outside of Louisiana—you can pretty much smother anything if you understand the technique. It sounds simple: “First, you must brown the meat. Second, you saute the vegetables. Third, you make the gravy. Fourth, slow-cook.”
You can divine a few major differences between Cajun-Creole smothering techniques and traditional Southern ones. Some of our dishes start with a roux, but in others, onions predominate. We smother our chicken, but also favor seafood and vegetables. The Southerners have their thick gravies, often made with milk, and tend to favor not just chicken but pork chops and steaks.
As for the stewed versus fricassee debate, some people do offer a distinction. I found a blog by a food columnist named Miranda Trahan, who described herself as a South Louisiana native who was living on the outskirts of Baltimore. She had at the time of writing her blog recently visited her Louisiana father, determined to learn the difference between a chicken stew and a chicken fricassee.
This is what her daddy told her: He began both dishes with a roux, then said, “It’s all in the way you cook the chicken, you see. In a stew, it’s boiled. In a fricassee, it’s smothered or pan-fried first, then boiled.”
In Miranda’s view, this was an epiphany. “This was it! This explained the slight difference in taste. When the chicken is smothered or pan-fried first, as in the fricassee, it creates little fried chicken bits in the gravy. These fried bits, in my opinion, overwhelm the gravy with an almost burnt taste. In a stew, however, the chicken is cooked more evenly as it is boiled, giving the dish a more consistent texture and flavor.”
I think that simply proves what Chef Randy and Chef Pat alluded to—that what these dishes are called pretty much depends on what your family called them when they made them and passed on the recipes and techniques. I recall my mother browning her chicken before making her chicken stew, so in Miranda Trahan’s eyes, my mom was making a fricassee. I believe, in retrospect, this would have pleased Bonnie since she was proud of the fact that she spoke Louisiana French and, anyway, fricassee sounds like such a sophisticated dish compared to a simple stew.
As for the difference between crawfish stew and crawfish etouffee, that also makes for a good bar argument. One iteration is that a crawfish stew is made with a dark roux, while an etouffee is made with a roux made lighter by the addition of cream. Some people say crawfish stew is the Cajun interpretation of the dish, while etouffee is the Creole version. Yet, except for the variations in the roux, they are cooked pretty much the same—and often identically.
My personal god of Cajun-Creole cooking, Chef John Folse, offers clarity in two recipes. One is for a dish he calls Louisiana Crawfish Etouffee. It contains no cream, but starts with a “white roux” made by browning flour in butter. Chef also has a recipe for River Road Crawfish Stew. It starts with a dark roux, and has neither butter nor cream. Both contain tomatoes.
I found a crawfish etouffee recipe in “Southern Living” magazine by a Cajun named Hebert who would never on earthput tomatoes in her etouffee.
We can save that argument for next time.
But as for stews, fricassees, etouffees, and smothered dishes? I’d say call them what you want. A rose by any other name, and all that. You simply know that if a South Louisiana home cook or chef rustles one of them up, you’re in for a tasty treat.