New Iberia, La.—Almost every classic dish from Louisiana's Cajun country either contains rice or is served with rice. And with good reason. The state has been a top producer of rice for over 200 years.
Rice was first grown commercially in Louisiana along the Mississippi River and the industry gradually moved west. The success of early crops was determined by the weather: Plenty of rain resulted in a good yield, while a drought meant no rice at all—thus earning it the name of "providence" rice.
Prior to 1880, the timberless prairies of southwestern Louisiana were thought to be infertile wasteland, and early settlers left them for cattlemen, trappers, and outlaws. But in 1881, the railroad pushed through the region, and with it came a promotional campaign to increase immigration to the area.
The biggest response to the campaign came from Midwestern wheat and corn farmers, who were being plagued by severe climate conditions, high interest rates, and occasional grasshopper infestations. Louisiana prairie land could be had for as little as 12 cents an acre, so frustrated farmers pulled up roots and moved south.
The immigrant farmers first tried to grow wheat on their new land, but high humidity, torrential rains and drought resulted in crop failures. Out of desperation to put food on the table, they began to grow rice, applying their technology of wheat farming to the more primitive cultivation methods being used by locals. This time Providence smiled upon them. By the end of the century, the "infertile" virgin prairie land had sired a prosperous rice industry.
Today rice shows up on Cajun dinner tables virtually every day, often twice a day. It is an essential companion to the ubiquitous "rusty gravy" here, as it is to countless gumbos, stews and etouffees.
Rice dressing, known to some as "dirty rice," is another everyday favorite that almost always appears on holiday and Sunday dinner menus. Traditional rice dressing usually begins with onions, bell pepper, and chicken livers or ground meat that are simmered together with plenty of seasoning, then the mixture is tossed with hot cooked rice.
For the approaching holidays, a festive version of this Cajun classic was created here in New Iberia at America's oldest rice mill, the Conrad Rice Mill. Dried cranberries, tart apples, toasted pecans and a touch of thyme and sage have been added.
Bring chicken broth to a boil in a medium saucepan; add rice and return to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to simmer, and cook 20 to 25 minutes or until rice is tender and broth is absorbed.
Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add liver and cook 1 minute, stirring often. Add onion, celery, apple, thyme, sage, salt and red pepper; cook 5 minutes or until vegetables are tender, stirring often. Stir in pecans, cranberries, parsley and warm rice and mix well.
Makes 8 servings
Provided by Conrad Rice Mill, Inc.
This page originally published as a FoodDay article in 1997.
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This page modified January 2007
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