Admit it, when you think of Cajun recipes, gumbo comes to mind. Maybe jambalaya or even crawfish étouffée are in your limited wheelhouse of South Louisiana cooking. But, that’s only scratching at the topsoil of this lush culinary landscape, and it’s my goal to dig deep and get to the roots of Cajun cooking. Plain and simple, backbone stew made the traditional French Acadian way is an induction into the inner circle of rural Cajun cooking.
You won’t see this Cajun recipe on mainstream menus, and aside from an occasional steam table lunchroom, this dish is relegated to home stovetops and backyard propane cooks. At every boucherie, there’s a backbone stew pot in the background simmering away with what will become the most sought-after prize of the day–a bowl of pork cloaked in rich dark gravy.
Such was the case on a recent trek to Eunice, Louisiana for an early morning boucherie and a bowlful of backbone stew. Pulling up to the fairgrounds on the outskirts of the small St. Landry Parish town, local culinary icon Lance Pitre led me across the field to a cluster of spreading oaks and a crew of two dozen men and women already hard at work. The 160-pound hog was spread out on a large wooden table and scalding hot water was poured over to loosen the skin so the hair could easily be scraped away.
Torches, butcher knives, and saws were busy burning, slicing, and dissecting through the hair, skin, and meat of the pig. Chopping boards spread out across long tables, and folks were busy tending to a dozen or so cast-iron and Magnalite pots. Smokers, meat grinders, and sausage stuffers were prepped and ready to receive their cuts, and charcoal grills were fired up with embers aglow. These are artisans of French Acadian heritage that clearly know their task at hand, and each is an expert in their specialty Cajun recipe.
The hog’s head was severed and moved off for head cheese-making; the pig’s feet were cut above the shank and blowtorched to remove any remaining hair; liver for boudin; stomach for a Cajun recipe called ponce; organ meats for fraisseurs; ribs for the grill; and the backbone–the prize cut of all–was reserved for the stew pot. A propane burner blasted away as pork stock infused with dark roux boiled gently in an enormous black iron caldron. The Cajun trinity of chopped vegetables–onions, celery, and bell pepper–soon joined the bony chunks of meat in the backbone stew pot. A heavy dose of cayenne and garlic spiced the brew, and a low and slow simmer produced the magic.
And magical it is. Backbone Stew is the Cajun recipe that, during an episode of Travel Channel’s No Reservations, left Anthony Bourdain momentarily speechless and prompted him to say of his first South Louisiana boucherie, “With all the smells coming from six different directions, smoking and simmering and sizzling … I’m absolutely blown away by the depths of flavor and deliciousness that I’ve rarely encountered anywhere.”
And it strikes me the same; Backbone Stew is the underbelly of Cajun black pot cooking. A complex, darkly divine stew of pork backbone floating in a bowl of roux-infused and pig’s feet-thickened gravy, this is a dish so regally rich, so potently porky, so decadently deep in flavor that you might never come up for air.
Now, don’t be intimidated: This Cajun recipe for Backbone Stew can easily be made in your home kitchen no matter where you live. It might take a search for some out-of-the-norm ingredients (pork backbone and feet), but truth be told, much of Cajun cooking uses familiar ingredients, many of which are easily sourced. But the fun is in adventuring past your culinary comfort zone, and if you sometimes feel uncomfortable, then I have succeeded. And if you awaken your taste buds to new flavors you never knew existed, then you have succeeded.
- 8 strips smoked bacon, chopped
- 2 cups diced yellow onion
- 2 cups diced celery
- 2 cups chopped green bell pepper
- 1 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 8 cups pork (preferably) or chicken stock, plus more if needed
- 1 cup dark roux, plus more if needed (see the recipe for Dark Cajun Roux here)
- 4 pounds pork backbone with meat attached, cut into 4-inch chunks
- 2 tablespoons Acadiana Table Cajun Seasoning Blend, see recipe here
- 2 pig’s feet
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Dash of hot sauce
- 6 cups cooked long-grain white rice, such as Supreme
- 2 cups diced green onion tops
- In a large cast-iron pot with heavy lid over medium-high heat, add the bacon and cook until crispy. Remove the bacon for later use. Remove all but 2 tablespoons of the remaining bacon grease.
- In the same pot over medium-high heat, add the onion, celery, and bell pepper to the remaining bacon grease. Cook until the vegetables are browned, about 8 minutes, and add the parsley and garlic. Add the stock and roux, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer.
- Sprinkle the pork backbone pieces with Cajun seasoning, and add to the pot along with the pig's feet and cooked bacon pieces. Cover and cook on simmer for 1 hour.
- Check to see that the stew is thickening and if needed, add more roux. If too thick, add a bit more stock. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and cook for another 1½ hours.
- Uncover and check to see that the meat from the backbone is fork tender and turn off the heat. Taste the gravy and add hot sauce to taste. (The stew should be spicy, but not enough to disguise the pork flavor.)
- Remove the pig’s feet from the pot and pick the meat from the bone, discarding the skin, bones, and cartilage. Add the picked meat back to the pot.
- Serve a couple of the backbone pieces over white rice in a bowl with plenty of gravy. Garnish with a sprinkle of green onion tops and serve with hot French bread.
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