Humble Beginnings: The Holy Trinity
The Southern kitchen is never without its special flavor base, and the particular base of aromatic vegetables used there highlights the French influence on New Orleans and Louisiana dating back to the early 1700s and French Colonization. At the base of Cajun cooking is the holy trinity or Cajun holy trinity – onions, bell peppers and celery. The holy trinity is the Cajun and Louisiana Creole variant of the French mirepoix and it is the first step in preparing Cajun and Creole dishes such as étouffée, gumbo and jambalaya. A few variations use garlic, parsley or shallots in addition to the three trinity ingredients. For the mostly Catholic French Cajuns and Creoles, the Holy Trinity reference is reverent and a sign of respect. When garlic is included, it is referred to as “the Pope,” or in New Orleans vernacular, “wit da Pope.”
Holy trinity is usually equal measures of the three ingredients or two parts onion, one part celery and one part green pepper. These are mixed in roughly the same quantities and the basis of preparation for several Cajun/Creole dishes including gumbo, étouffée and jambalaya.
Green onions and parsley (and, more often than not, more garlic!) are generally sprinkled on top of a finished dish. With these 5-6 ingredients, one has the makings of almost any savory Cajun/Creole entrée. Other seasonings include pepper — often black, white, and cayenne — bay leaves, and dried green herbs such as thyme, basil, and oregano. The trinity vegetables are known as “seasoning vegetables,” meaning they break down during the long, slow cooking process and season the rest of the ingredients.
At Plāyt and sister restaurant Picán in Oakland’s Uptown, Holy Trinity is part of our “DNA,” a kitchen staple here, just as it is in the tradition of the humblest to grandest kitchens in the South. It adds a depth, a complexity to flavor profiles and turns a dish into what our founder (and New Orleans native!) Michael LeBlanc terms as “Wow!”
How to Make Holy Trinity at Home
Cajun/Creole Holy Trinity is usually a 1:1:1 ratio; a good starter version is 2 cups chopped onion, 2 cups chopped celery, and 2 cups chopped green bell pepper. In terms of how much to buy for this proportion, this amount is roughly equal to 2 medium onions, 3 stalks celery, and 2 large green pepper. Garlic to taste…we highly recommend “wit da Pope“!
Chop the ingredients. Then coat a heavy skillet with a film of olive oil, place on low heat and add the vegetables. You want to “sweat” them, not fry, stirring often. Cook far slower than the sizzle of a sauté. No browning is allowed, only a slight release of steam.
The result can only be described as mushy, a term most often used as something to avoid at all cost in cooking vegetables! But, ohhhh my heavens, what a “mush” it is! Slow cooking releases, but does not caramelize, the sugars in the three veggies. Their flavors meld together, crafting an entirely different taste. Once you have the base you can proceed to create Gumbo, Jambalaya, Étouffée, Sauce Piquants, Shrimp Stews, She Crab Soup, Oyster Artichoke Soup, Red Beans and Rice, as a flavoring in sauces, soups, braising liquids, whatever. It does not take the place of onions, celery and peppers, so if a recipe calls for them, add them in as called for.
Or, you can just come on in, join us for a meal and savor what Southern “scratch” cooking and comfort food is all about.