Traditional Cajun Cuisine?
When I first learned to make blackened chicken or fish, I thought I was partaking of a centuries-old traditional Cajun method of preparing food. Boy, was I wrong. Turns out blackening was invented by the New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme in the sixties. Imagine that. So although it has swept the Cajun cooking world by storm, blackening is not a traditional Cajun cooking technique. Still, Prudhomme gets points from me for making this one up.
Blackening spice rub. Make your own. Yeah, you can buy Chef Prudhomme's Authentic Cajun Spice Rub in little bottles, but the bottles are small and so really only good for sprinkling, not coating. And besides, you have more control over your ingredients if you make things yourself. No preservatives, no additives...unless you choose to add them yourself. (Don't, though.) Anyway, Blackening Seasoning will get you started on how to make a spice rub. More pepper and cayenne will make it spicier; less will make it less so. Be sure you get garlic powder and/or onion powder, and not garlic salt and/or onion salt because that would make the whole thing way too salty. If you can find a bulk food store that sells spices, that will make your rub very inexpensive to prepare; if you can't, you'll have to buy all those little bottles of spices from the supermarket, and it will cost more. Keep any extra spice rub in a tightly sealed jar away from light or heat for up to 1 year.
Did you know you weren't supposed to keep spices for more than a year? They lose their flavour. So clean out your spice rack one rainy afternoon and restock. Things will taste better.
Background on Making It
Now then, the first recipes I found when I was trying to figure out how to make blackened stuff told me that I should leave a cast iron frying pan on a burner at maximum heat for one hour, until the pan was white hot, to prepare for cooking my chicken or fish or whatever. A recipe for disaster, is what that sounds like to me. dannye will back me up here, for as he warns, blackened tuna smokes like hell. You may also want to check out ZamZ's horrifying description of The Undoing Of How To Cook The Perfect Steak for an idea of the dangers you face trying to put food into a white-hot frying pan. My advice is, unless you have an industrial-quality exhaust duct that sucks all the air from above your stove and sends it somewhere far away from everyone you care for at all, just don't go there.
What's a home cook to do then? Don't despair! You can make perfectly good, properly fried blackened stuff without choking or setting off your smoke detector. You'll need a heavy-bottomed skillet with a tight-fitting lid, large enough to hold as many pieces of food as you want to cook without the sides of the pieces of food touching each other.
Coat your food on all sides with the spice rub. I usually use chicken breasts or salmon; a piece about 1/3 lb (150 gr) per person is a good size. Catfish is great too, and what I think Prudhomme used when he invented this dish. I've never tried this with any vegetables, and I'm not sure what would work. Eggplant, maybe?
Heat about 1 tblsp (15 ml) each olive oil and butter in your skillet over medium-high heat till almost smoking. (This is a standard culinary instruction, and I know that seems like a ridiculous one, for how can you know that something's almost smoking until it passes that point and actually starts to smoke? Here's what you look for: the butter finishes sizzling and starts to brown. Or, if you're just using oil, you can see swirls forming in the oil.) You can hold your hand over the pan to see if it feels hot if you must, but don't touch the oil. See what ZamZ has to say if you need to be told why.
Add your chicken or fish, reduce the heat to medium, and slap on that cover to contain the smoke. Cook for about 4 minutes on one side, then quickly remove the lid, flip the food over, and slap the lid on again. Work fast to avoid billowing smoke.
After about 4 minutes, hold your breath, lift up the lid, and check to see if your food is cooked. Chicken will feel firm to the touch when pressed; fish should flake with a fork on the outside of the piece but still be a little mushy in the middle.
Only if absolutely necessary, cook your food for another minute. Don't forget that your food is hot and will continue to cook a little after you remove it from the pan, so it doesn't have to be 100% totally and absolutely completely cooked at this point. 95% is fine. And about the firm to the touch chicken thing: it's a skill you will pick up with experience. Keep practicing. If you haven't got it yet, poke the chicken with a knife to see if the juices that escape are clear; if pink, go another minute.
Another Helpful Hint
I know that those who dread food poisoning often overcook their chicken and fish because of fear. Fine, if you're willing to settle for dried up, tough meat. But if not, trust me: 8 minutes sauteeing for a piece of chicken or fish that is the weight I have specified will yield succulent, tender results that will earn you gold stars from your loved ones.
I had wanted to write about the Cajun cooking method of making blackened food, and I've been dithering around about this for a while now, trying to figure out if I should put this writeup under someone else's kind-of-similar-but-not-really-the-same (or, as they say in Thailand, "same same, but different") node, or hive off and make one of my own. Where would I put this? dannye has a nice w/u on blackened tuna that contains much useful advice, but is a little more focused than what I'm envisioning. oknos has a recipe for a spice rub that looks pretty much like the one I use - except I use less salt and add basil - and then tells how to broil blackened chicken or fish. But I don't think broiling is the way to go on this one. I could lobby Evil Catullus for inclusion in the Creole/Cajun Cuisine Metanode, which has some good background, but the recipes linked from there are really more classy and Creole than downhome and Cajun, as far as I can see. So here I am, on my own.