Tears of joy, not stinging

Cajun Kate's, a tiny Delco stand, has a bead on genuine New Orleans fare.

Posted: August 31, 2008

It's a pity the Geneva Conventions haven't been invoked to end the cruel abuses regularly inflicted on Cajun and Creole cuisine hereabouts - horrible bread suffocating the po'boy, gumbos salty beyond belief, gummy rice, unrecognizable jambalaya, odd olive salads that insult the great state of Louisiana.

I have taken to squirming and averting my eyes upon encountering Cajun-themed eateries, unleashed by the blackened-redfish craze of the 1980s, still popping up now and then, often in the worst of all possible hands.

It was with that hard-won prejudice that I approached on a recent Saturday a lively six-seat po'boy stand called Cajun Kate's. It is in the sprawling Booth's Corner Farmers Market in Boothwyn, Delaware County; so deep in Delaware County, in fact, that a few hundred yards farther and you're in the state, not the county.

It is tucked in a hodgepodge warren of pet shops and Amish butcher stands, fireworks stalls and cinnamon-bun bakeries. But there were promising hints, right off: Several stools were occupied by emigres from Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and the Big Easy proper; there was a rack of Zapp's New Orleans potato chips; and hyper chef-owner Don Applebaum was shoving sample cups of his gumbo, jambalaya, and red beans and rice at first-timers as quickly as he could fill them. The samples, blessedly, were spicy with homemade Creole seasoning, the heat just a mild glow, not that harsh flavor-killing fire.

This is not his "take" on the Cajun canon, Applebaum says. This is as authentic and nuanced as he can make the basics; as authentic as he learned them living and cooking for seven years in New Orleans, last as sous-chef at Emeril Lagasse's bistro NOLA. (His wife, Kate, cooked at Bayona at the time, until 2002, and is now a top chef at Harry's Seafood Grill in Wilmington.)

So key ingredients are imported unless they can be faithfully replicated. The muffaletta sandwich, for instance, is made on the iconic catcher's mitt of a loaf, baked to order by Serpe & Sons in Elsmere, Del., seeded and split. The genuine item is so rare in these parts that a Louisianan encountering it recently actually began to cry. It is stuffed with an olive salad - the crunch perfect! - that Applebaum ships up from Baton Rouge, mortadella, capicola ham, salami and provolone.

The po'boy (available in shrimp, catfish, alligator or, on occasion, oyster) uses Serpe bread too, in this case, the roll's eggshell-thin crust and airy interior as close to the original as any I've had outside Louisiana. It's slathered with a Creole mustard-mayo, lettuce, tomato and sweet pickle, and topped, on the one I had, with fluffy catfish fried cracklingly crisp on the outside. Here, finally, the sandwich done right.

The bulk of the stand's offerings are made early in the week while the market is closed. (It's open Friday and Saturday only.) On Monday, Cajun Kate's crew chops boneless chicken thighs and andouille sausage for the gumbo; Tuesday, the puff-pastry crawfish pies get made; Wednesday, the red beans and rice, and garlic croutons (for the tomato soup); Thursday, the jambalaya rice is mixed, the bananas foster bread pudding finished, and a creamy four-cheese mac and cheese with tasso ham and sweet crabmeat baked and, yes, later deep-fried, giving it a crunchy shell and, after your nutritional consciousness is blunted by an evening of drinking, a certain devil-may-care irresistibility.

Most of the stand's output, in fact, is takeout, the weekly specials of brooding smoked duck-mushroom gumbo and such mostly accounted for by the time you climb up on one of the six stools.

But if you can't beat 'em, you can join 'em, adding your name to the 871 on the e-mail alert list: I'm on it now, two years after Cajun Kate's opening, sorry only that residual prejudice slowed my embrace.


Cajun Kate's

Booth's Corner Farmers

Market

1362 Naamans Creek Rd.,

Boothwyn, Pa.

484-947-8914

www.cajunkates.com


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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