Vegan Cajun and Creole Cooking

By Kate O'Neill

Long before Chef Paul Prudhomme started the "Cajun" food craze of the last two decades, the culinary traditions of southern and central Louisiana were well-loved throughout the world by those in the know. Although commonly associated with very spicy dishes, neither Cajun nor Creole food is usually found to be quite as hot in Louisiana as it is outside of the region. As in so many aspects of popular culture, sensationalism has won the day.

Nevertheless, the reputation for peppery, flavorful food is well deserved, and fortunately, the main characteristics of Cajun and Creole cooking easily cross over into the vegan kitchen.

What's In It for Vegans?

In conventional Louisiana cooking, seafood plays an undeniably major role. But vegan and vegetarian diners can take comfort in the abundance of vegetables that grow readily in the area as well.

Inventive cooks can modify virtually any Cajun or Creole recipe with a little experimentation. If you're unsure, use the recipes in this article as guides until you feel comfortable with the flavors and styles of preparation. Then, try adapting one on your own!

Cajun? Creole? What's the Difference?

These two culinary styles have little in common other than geography and the use of locally available ingredients. Cajun (a term that derives from a contraction of the word "Acadian") food is typically hearty, a little spicy, and generally comforting. Most Cajun dishes are simple, peppery, one-pot meals. Its closest culinary relative is probably Southern food or soul food.

Creole (pronounced 'CREE-ole'), on the other hand, owes more to French and Spanish cooking than to traditional Southern fare. In fact, its influences are commonly cited as some combination of French, Spanish, Indian, and African cuisines. Creole chefs aspire to grand cuisine by using French cooking techniques and employing locally grown ingredients. (The term "creole" is also applied to dishes made with a rich tomato sauce and usually served over steamed rice.)

Both styles of cooking rely heavily on the "Holy Trinity" — a blend of chopped or diced celery, green bell pepper, and onion. Garlic is a staple in both Cajun and Creole dishes, and rice enjoys favored grain status. Both styles of cooking use filé (pronounced 'FEE-lay'), okra, pecans, oranges, and wine, as well as the usual variety of common Southern vegetables: green peas, string beans, carrots, yams, tomatoes, and so on. Beans of all kinds are also critical to Cajun and Creole foods.

Another key similarity is the use of a roux (pronounced 'roo') to start many dishes. A roux consists of oil and flour in some proportion (chefs differ over how much of each to use) cooked slowly and stirred constantly until it forms a thickening paste.

Don't Skip the Stock!

Good homemade stock is essential to successful Cajun and Creole cookery, and it isn't very difficult. It can be a simple matter of preparing your standard vegetables and boiling the trimmings in a pot of water to make a very basic stock. Even this is an improvement over using plain water.

Making the Roux

For the uninitiated, making a roux may seem excessive. But just try to duplicate a classic Cajun dish like gumbo without homemade stock and a roux, and you'll truly face a daunting task. Preparing a roux can be a relaxing, almost meditative experience.

Traditionally, a roux consists of one part fat to one part flour. The fat-conscious cook can make a dry roux. Dry roux will impart nearly the same flavor and serve as a thickener, just like traditional roux, but will lack the rich decadence of the original.

For the traditional version, melt vegan margarine or heat oil in a heavy pan over low to medium heat. Whisk in an equal amount of the flour until the mixture is smooth. Whisk constantly so that it does not burn, but allow the mixture to bubble slowly. Cook for about 2-3 minutes, or until it is pale golden in appearance. This is a white roux, and it will have lost some of its raw flour taste.

The longer you cook the roux, the more flavor it will develop. Blond roux is slightly darker and thinner in texture than a white roux. It cooks for approximately 6 minutes.


Basic Cajun Seasoning

(Makes 10 Tablespoons, or ⅝ cup)

Filé is ground sassafras leaves. It has a delicate flavor and acts as a thickener in soups and gumbos. Be cautious of adding it too early, though; it can become overcooked and sticky.

  • 1 Tablespoon cayenne
  • 3 Tablespoons cumin
  • 3 Tablespoons paprika
  • 3 Tablespoons filé

Mix together and store in an airtight container.

Total calories per serving: 19 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 3 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 5 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Saffron Rice

(Serves 6)

  • 4-½ cups water
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups uncooked long-grain white rice

Combine water, saffron, and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add rice, cover, and let cook for 15-20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.

Total calories per serving: 225 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 49 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 784 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

LowFat Vegan Creole à "Les Sisters"

(Serves 4)

At Les Sisters Restaurant in Chatsworth, California, you can specially order the popular seafood creole without the seafood, but it still contains chicken stock. This version is lower in fat and tastes remarkably like the "real" thing!

The dish takes about 25 minutes to prepare and about an hour from start to finish. If you have the space, you can easily double this recipe and freeze the leftovers; it reheats well.

  • 2 cups quartered white or wild mushrooms
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
  • 2-½ cups diced scallions
  • 1 cup diced onions
  • 2-½ cups diced celery
  • 1 cup diced red bell peppers
  • 1-½ cups diced green bell peppers
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1-½ cups diced carrots
  • 2 cups chopped tomatoes, or one 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 cups homemade stock or store-bought fat-free vegetable broth
  • ¼ cup red wine or, if you'd prefer not to use alcohol, another ¼ cup stock or vegetable broth
  • 1-½ teaspoons cumin
  • 1-½ teaspoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1-½ teaspoons filé
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Sauté mushrooms in 1 teaspoon of oil. Set aside. In a large stock pot, heat the remaining oil. Add scallions, onions, celery, and peppers. Sauté 3-5 minutes.

Add the garlic and carrots; sauté another 2-3 minutes. Pour in the tomatoes, broth, and wine. Add the cumin, paprika, cayenne, and bay leaves. Let simmer for 20-25 minutes.

Add filé, salt, and black pepper until flavors are prominent. Serve over saffron rice and with sweet cornbread.

Total calories per serving: 177 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 32 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 338 milligrams Fiber: 9 grams

Kate's Gumbo Z'Herbes

(Serves 4)

Traditionally, gumbo z'herbes is eaten on Good Friday and contains as many greens as the cook cares to prepare. My version only calls for turnip greens, but if you want to add collards, mustard, spinach, or other greens to the gumbo, so much the better! This dish takes about 20 minutes to prepare and about 45 minutes from start to finish.

  • 2 cups sliced okra
  • 3 Tablespoons nonhydrogenated vegan margarine or oil
  • 3 Tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1 cup diced bell peppers
  • 2 cups diced onions
  • 4 cups homemade stock
  • ¼ cup Gimme Lean or other vegan sausage, torn into small pieces, or ¼ cup rehydrated Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) in stock or water
  • 1 cup turnip greens, shredded
  • 2 Tablespoons Basic Cajun Seasoning
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 cups cooked long-grain white rice

Fry the okra (without using margarine or oil) in a non-stick skillet until edges are lightly browned. Set aside.

In a large non-stick skillet, melt the margarine or heat the oil over medium heat and whisk in the flour. Stir constantly for about 15 minutes until the roux is a golden color. Add celery, peppers, and onions, and sauté until vegetables are softened and onions are clear. Pour in stock, and add the sausage or TVP pieces, turnip greens, and Basic Cajun Seasoning. Simmer for 20 minutes. Serve over rice.

Total calories per serving: 445 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 78 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 508 milligrams Fiber: 9 grams

Dirty Rice

(Serves 4)

  • One 14-ounce package Gimme Lean or other vegan sausage, crumbled, or 1-½ cups rehydrated Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
  • 2 Tablespoons homemade stock (or as needed) or 1 Tablespoon oil
  • ¾ cup minced bell peppers
  • 1 cup minced onions
  • ¾ cup minced celery
  • 1 Tablespoon minced garlic
  • Additional homemade stock as needed
  • 1 teaspoon Basic Cajun Seasoning
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 cups cooked rice
  • ½ cup chopped scallions
  • Salt to taste

In a large non-stick pan sauté sausage or TVP in vegetable stock or oil until golden brown. Add peppers, onions, celery, and garlic, and sauté until soft. Add more stock as needed to prevent sticking.

Reduce heat to medium and add Basic Cajun Seasoning and pepper. Cook for 2-3 minutes. Add rice and scallions, and combine well. Cook just until heated, about 10 minutes. Add salt and additional seasonings to taste.

Total calories per serving: 367 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 67 grams Protein: 21 grams
Sodium: 546 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Quick & Easy Red Beans & Rice

(Serves 4)

This healthful take on red beans and rice is reminiscent of chili but has a distinctive Cajun flavor. My version of this well-known Louisiana classic takes some liberties with tradition. Using canned beans instead of dried ones saves planning, but feel free to substitute dried beans that have been soaked and cooked.

  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • ½ cup chopped onions
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • ½ cup chopped bell peppers
  • ½ cup chopped celery
  • ½ cup chopped carrots
  • One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • One 14-ounce package Gimme Lean or other vegan sausage, or 1 ½ cups rehydrated Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
  • 1-½ teaspoons Basic Cajun Seasoning
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ¼ teaspoon marjoram
  • Black pepper to taste
  • One 15-ounce can dark red kidney beans, drained
  • One 15-ounce can light red kidney beans, drained
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 teaspoon fresh parsley
  • ½ cup chopped scallions
  • 4 cups cooked long-grain white rice

Heat oil in large non-stick skillet and sauté onions. Add garlic, peppers, celery, and carrots, and continue to sauté until soft and lightly browned. Add tomatoes, sausage or TVP, Basic Cajun Sea-soning, bay leaves, marjoram, and black pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add beans and cook until heated and liquid is reduced, about 5-7 minutes. Add salt, parsley, and scallions. Serve over rice.

Total calories per serving: 592 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 104 grams Protein: 36 grams
Sodium: 1,450 milligrams Fiber: 18 grams

Kate O'Neill is a freelance writer and songwriter living in Nashville, TN. In her five years as a vegan, she has become an award-winning amateur cook.