When Cajun/Creole chef and author Marcelle Bienvenu was growing up in St. Martinville, La., she believed she lived in Eden.
Spend a weekend savoring the flavor of her cookbooks, Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux? and Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic and Can You Make a Roux? The Sequel, and it’s easy to understand why.
As Bienvenu tells the story, the parish in the heart of Acadiana — where she still lives — emerges as a kind of Catholic heaven on earth where extended families bask in the warmth of their relationships, their religion and the wonderful food they prepare from sunrise to sunset.
The books are more than just guides to preparing fine food, they are albums laced with photos and text that convey the exuberant lifestyle of the French-Acadian region of south Louisiana where faith and food are enduring passions.
“We’re a very Catholic French community,” Bienvenu said. “If you aren’t eating, you are probably at church. It was that way when I was growing up and it still is. There’s a great emphasis on food, on entertainment and tradition, with the Church at the heart of everything.”
Bienvenu recalled how she once interviewed an elderly man about what made him Cajun. “He replied: I like to dance, I like to eat and I go to church on Sunday. Really, that says it all.”
The chef, whose weekly column, Cooking Creole, appears in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, writes for several Louisiana publications including Louisiana Life magazine and The Times of Acadiana.
She is coauthor with Emeril Lagasse of Louisiana Real and Rustic, Emeril’s Creole Christmas and Emeril’s TV Dinners.
Her take on how the liturgical calendar glides from Christmas to Fat Tuesday in a cascade of rich gumbos, crawfish pies, punches and pralines is lovely.
So is her Ash Wednesday reflection on setting aside the bounties of the Bayou during Lent: “Ah, that was behind me now. It was the first day of Lent and I was eager to get my ashes at church. Just as it was a time to cleanse my soul, it was also a time to cleanse my body.”
Bienvenu shares a number of favorite Lenten recipes in her book. Many originated in her mother’s kitchen. “Mama’s Lenten tradition was to eat light and clean,” she wrote. “No heavy, festive meals save, perhaps on Sunday… sometimes we had dishes made with canned salmon or tuna. With a deft hand, Mama was able to stretch the salmon or tuna into absolute delights.”
For this second entry in The Monitor’s celebrity chefs series this Lenten season, may we tempt you with Mama Bienvenu’s Salmon Croquettes with Mayonnaise-Mustard Sauce accompanied by Marcelle’s own Spinach Bake.
– 1 egg, beaten
– 1 cup mashed potatoes
– one, 6½-ounce can salmon (or same amount of tuna), drained, boned and flaked.
– 1 tbsp. chopped pimiento
– 1 tbsp. minced onion
– 1/4 teaspoon salt
– dash black pepper, dash cayenne pepper
– 1/4-1/2 cup dry unseasoned bread crumbs
– 1 egg slightly beaten
– 1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs
Mix the first eight ingredients in a bowl, adding enough bread crumbs so that the mixture can be handled and is not too sticky. Pat the mixture into hamburger-sized patties, or, if you prefer, into balls the size of a large egg.
Dip into the second, slightly beaten egg and roll in seasoned bread crumbs. Place on a platter lined with waxed paper and chill for one hour. Fry in deep, hot oil for about five minutes or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve with tartar sauce or mayonnaise-mustard sauce.
– 2/3 cup mayonnaise
– 2 tbsp. prepared yellow mustard
– 2 tbsp. capers
– 1 tsp. lemon juice
Mix the ingredients in a bowl and serve chilled with croquettes.
– Two, 10-oz. packages frozen, chopped spinach
– 4 tbsp. butter or margarine
– 1 cup onions, chopped
– 1 cup celery, chopped
– salt, cayenne pepper, garlic powder to taste
– 8 oz. cream cheese
– 1 pint sour cream
– 1 cup canned, sliced mushrooms, drained
– grated cheddar or mozzarella cheese
Cook the spinach according to package directions and drain well. Melt the butter or margarine in a large skillet and add onions and celery; cook until wilted. Add salt, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder to taste. Add the cream cheese and sour cream and using a fork, cream together with the onions. Add the mushrooms and spinach; mix well. Spoon into a buttered casserole dish and sprinkle with grated cheese and paprika. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 15-20 minutes or until the cheese is melted and bubbly.
Let us pray
Lord Jesus Christ, may our Lenten fasting turn us toward all our brothers and sisters who are in need. Bless this table, our good food, and ourselves. Send us through Lent with good cheer, and bring us to the fullness of your Passover. Amen.