A Green Bay chef is encouraging people to give deep southern cooking a try.
Ace Champion is a Louisiana native who brought his Cajun and Creole talents to Wisconsin 11 years ago. He described life in Amite City, Louisiana, as "rough" due to its high level of poverty, and spent his weekdays working at a sausage plant and weekends as a chef. Then, some friends he used to live with, who had moved to Green Bay, urged him to head north where there was more opportunity.
"The fact that no one’s really doing Cajun-Creole out here was a bonus for me because being a good cook in Louisiana is like being a good cheesemaker in Wisconsin," Champion said.
While Cajun and Creole are often confused, there are distinct differences. Cajun refers to the food that’s prepared by the people who live in the bayou areas – typically alligator, raccoon, squirrel, rabbit and turtle, and is heavily spiced, Champion said.
"Oh my God, you need lots of spice to sit down and eat a big bowl of turtle soup," he quipped.
Creole, on the other hand, primarily consists of the high-end food found in New Orleans and is a blend of French, South African, Indian, Spanish and other cuisines. That’s what Champion specializes in.
His Mardi Gras menu for Tuesday will consist of a five-course meal he’s preparing at Gather on Broadway in downtown Green Bay. Courses include a Creole crab dip, chicken and spicy sausage gumbo, wild rice jambalaya, Creole pork tenderloin and bread pudding with Southern Comfort cream sauce.
For those who wish to try their hand at home, Champion — who also hosts the "Cook Like a Champion" television show and authored the book, "8 Steps To Your Perfect Meal" — said there are two very important techniques to follow.
The first is to research recipes to find one that’s authentic and properly tested. A lot of people go wrong, he said, by opting for the first recipe they find online, which is by no means a guarantee that it will yield good results. Instead, individuals should be specific with their online searches.
"If we’re looking for gumbo and we know it’s from Louisiana, I would Google search, 'find the best New Orleans gumbo' or 'the best Louisiana gumbo,'" Champion said. "If you just put 'gumbo' in there, you might get somebody’s Texas version of gumbo with Tex-Mex in it. You never know what you’re going to get."
He also offered this bit of caution: most Cajun and Creole dishes require extended time in the kitchen, so a healthy dose of skepticism toward a "quick fix" may be wise.
Once a recipe is selected, visualize the entire process. He recommended people read the ingredients and the procedure, and imagine themselves doing each step, such as stirring the pot or taking it off the heat. That way, when individuals are cooking for real, it’s going to feel like déjà vu.
Champion also highly-advised having all the ingredients measured out, prepped and ready to go so people can fully enjoy the cooking process. In addition, he implored people to make sure those ingredients are of high-quality, because not only will the food taste better, it will be better for them.
"No processed food, no GMO food, just meat from a real cow, real eggs from a real chicken, stuff like that," he said. "If you can eat like that, man, your health is just going to go so much better and you’ll live so much better."
That philosophy has become engrained in Champion’s cooking since having a stroke at age 30, partly due to hereditary high blood pressure, which left him blind in his right eye. Doctors also told him he needed to give up smoking and improve his diet. It was that experience, he said, that sparked his "food revolution" toward healthier habits.
"I really want people cooking for themselves, because I really believe that obesity, all the sickness that’s going around, it’s all tied to what you put in your face, in your mouth," he said. "They put it best — you are what you eat."
Champion also had one final piece of advice when it comes to cooking: have a positive attitude. Don’t allow negative thoughts like, "This is going to take forever" or "I can’t do this," to fester.
"All that negative energy actually creates more negative energy, so it’s very important to keep a positive attitude when you’re in the kitchen to attract positive results," he said.
So, take that can-do spirit and give these Cajun and Creole recipes by Ace Champion a try.
Hot Green & Yellow 3 Cheese Creole Crab Dip
- 8 ounces Crystal Farms real Wisconsin cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup real mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup of 6 cheese Italian blend shredded
- 3/4 cup finely-diced shallots
- 2 tablespoons each: finely-diced green and yellow bell pepper (about a half of bell pepper)
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
- 1 teaspoon of Old Bay seasoning
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons Louisiana hot sauce or your favor pepper sauce
- 1 teaspoon Stone Ground mustard
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 shot of your favorite liquor. Suggested Southern Comfort
Serve with homemade pita chips.
- Prep and place all of the ingredients in front of you. Combine all ingredients except for the bell peppers, garlic, whiskey and crab meat.
- Turn stove on a high heat. In a medium skillet add oil and allow to heat for about 30 seconds. Add the green and yellow bell peppers and sauté for about 1 minute. Add the garlic and crab meat and cook for an additional 30 seconds. Add the Brandy and flambé. Remove from heat.
- Gently fold in the crab meat mixture into the cream cheese base, making sure to mix well.
- Transfer to a 9-inch round au gratin dish (a 9-inch glass pie plate will work fine, too) making sure to spray well with nonstick spray. Spread the mixture across the bottom of your baking dish. Top with the Asiago and Parmesan blend.
- Bake on center rack of preheated 325-degree oven, 30 to 35 minutes. Note: Crab dip will be puffed up in the center, lightly golden on the top and slightly bubbly around the edges. Garnish with slivered green onions. Remove from oven and cool about 10 to 15 minutes prior to serving. Serve with Champion Pita Chips or your favorite dipping crackers.
Double Award Winning-New Orleans Style Bread Pudding
- 12 to 14 cups, day-old French Bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 2 1/2 cups whole milk
- 6 large eggs
- 1 3/4 cup light brown sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons real vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon dark rum
- 1/2 cup confectioners sugar, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the bread in a large bowl. Grease a 9-inch by 13-inch casserole dish with the remaining tablespoon of butter and set aside.
- In a large bowl combine the heavy cream, milk, eggs, brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, rum and raisins in a large bowl. Whisk to mix well making sure all ingredients are bonded well. Pour the cream mixture over the bread, and stir to combine. Allow the mixture to sit at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes mixing every 10 minutes to make sure all liquid is absorbed.
- Transfer the bread mixture to the casserole dish and bake until the center of the bread pudding is set, about 50 minutes. Remove from oven and wait about 20 minutes while it finishes cooking.
- Garnish the bread pudding with confectioners’ sugar and serve warm with warm whiskey sauce (see recipe below).
Whiskey Cream Sauce
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 cup white granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons Madagascar vanilla bean (or regular vanilla extract)
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1/2 cup whiskey (or your favorite liquor)
- 2 teaspoons salted butter
- In a 1-quart saucepan set over medium heat, combine the cream, milk, vanilla and sugar. Place the cornstarch and 1/4 cup of the bourbon in a small mixing bowl and whisk to blend and make slurry.
- Pour the slurry into the cream mixture and bring to a boil. Once the sauce begins to boil, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes or the sauce has thickened. Stir in the butter and the remaining 1/4 cup of whiskey. Serve warm.