Thursday, March 27, 2008

It's All Good Friday Gumbo

I am indirectly responsible for a terrible sin. The kind of sin even this heathen child can understand. A sin against family, against tradition, against the dignity of the departed.

A sin against gumbo.

Years ago, I worked for a publication that misprinted a fine woman's gumbo. She was reduced nearly to tears.

"Tomatoes in gumbo?! My gramma would kill me for such a thing."

My family's not gumbo folk, but I have an idea of what a mistake like this could mean. I wouldn't be surprised if a few of her cousins never spoke to her again, even after we printed a correction. You don't mess with gramma's gumbo.

My first experience with gumbo was on a chilly day in St. Paul, MN. It was made by Walter McFarland and I dare say it changed my life (I'm not exaggerating: it may have influenced by move to New Orleans for college). He's one of my dad's best friends, a charismatic bear of a man who's known in his family as Peewee. Three or four years running, on autumn days, he channeled his Louisiana-born grandma to make gumbo for 70 people or more. The pot was large enough to bathe a golden retriever. He stirred it with a paddle.

Sometimes it seems like everything in my parents' lives is a fund-raiser, and the gumbo parties were no exception. One year they collected checks for the late Senator Paul Wellstone, one of the few heroes of American politics. But it wasn't about the cause. It was about the gumbo, the communion of warm bowl in one hand, a spoon in the other, your mouth completing the circuit; an echo not only of the father, son, and holy ghost, but of that holy trinity of Creole cooking: green pepper, onion, and celery.

On Good Friday, I tried to recreate that mood. My roommates and I threw a gumbo party for a confirmed guest list that seemed to jump from twelve to thirtysomething overnight. The three-gallon pot that I borrowed from a friend was not going to be big enough (part of the sacred mystery of the gumbo pot is that it seems bottomless). A turkey roasting pan stood in as our second pot.

And since I was making two pots, I decided (on Friday morning, mind you) that the only thing to do was make two gumbos, one with a roux cooked to a nut brown color and the other thickened just with okra. (Both, by the way, would have just enough tomatoes to give the gumbo some color. I cut my teeth on Louisiana-style gumbo, and so, with apologies to that woman we wronged and every ancestor in her family tree, tomatoes in gumbo are right by me.)

The roux-based gumbo can best be described as a "kitchen sink" Creole gumbo. It's from Howard Mitcham's Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1997) and has shrimp, oysters (which I would omit to save money), crab (ok, imitation crab), chicken, stewing beef, country ham (or, in my case, turkey ham -- for no particular reason), and a hambone for flavor. The other was based on Eugene Walter's Chicken Gumbo, published in Gourmet in 1962. Instead of 1 link of chorizo, I put in about 3 of Andouille and declared it Chicken and Andouille Gumbo.

I cooked my butt off. I put on my custom NOLA mix -- the Meters, Rebirth Brass Band, Kermit Ruffins, Dr. John, Fredy Omar, and all those obscure gems on the "Big Ol' Box of New Orleans" -- and got into the zone. I communed.

And then I started to panic, when the clock struck noon and I'd only just finished shelling 5 pounds of shrimp (and making shrimp broth from the scraps) and realized I hadn't even begun the chopping. Oh, the chopping. The thing about gumbo is, there's a helluva lot of chopping.

The ideal gumbo, Walter taught me, must have a couple pieces of "something" in every spoonful: a shrimp, a meaty disc of Andouille sausage, a moist chunk of chicken. The only way you're gonna get all those pieces is by chopping them.

Mitcham's recipe actually calls for "assistant cooks." I was overwhelmed. I ran out for a six-pack of Abita Strawberry Harvest. If I was making 5 gallons of gumbo alone, I'd do it pleasantly buzzed.

And then, as if the lord Jesus himself sent them home to me, my roommates appeared. We cruised through the chopping in an hour or so, got everything going, and by 3 pm, both gumbos were doing their thing on the stove.

Guests started arriving early. By 7 pm, the appointed start time of the party, we already had a half a dozen people at our door with six-packs of Abita and bags of Zap's chips. This is the kind of thing that happens when gumbo is in the offing.

The party was so good, so full of bonhomie, spicy, steaming bowls, and cold bottles of beer, that I was already nostalgic for when it had only just begun. A perfect mix of people: new friends and old, and everyone, including my roommates and I, was strangers to at least a quarter of the other folks in the room.

The genius of gumbo is that it needs nothing more than rice, cornbread (as buttery as you dare), and my light brownies (not because you're watching your weight -- oh lawd no, this is a gumbo party -- but because they are that damn delicious.) And by the time your friends start knocking, all the hairy cooking is but a distant memory, and you're ready to let loose.

By midnight, it was, in my mind at least, official: the Good Friday Gumbo is a tradition, or it will be, when I hold the next one on April 10th, 2009. Save the date.

It's All Good Friday Creole Gumbo
Based on a recipe from Howard Mitcham, Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz.

4-5 pounds frozen shrimp
3-4 pounds artificial crab flakes (or frozen real crab meat)
2 pounds chicken pieces
1 pound stewing beef, diced small
1-2 meaty hambones
1 pound ham, diced
4 strips bacon
3 large onions, chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
6 scallions with their green leaves, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped parsley
3 pounds fresh okra, sliced
32-ounce diced tomatoes, drained (or 4 large Creole tomatoes, peeled and diced)
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon thyme
2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons salt (or more)
6 quarts stock
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
3-4 cups uncooked rice for steaming

  1. The assistants should begin by cooking the chicken and shrimp. Place the chicken pieces in a pot, cover with water, and add a tsp. of salt. Boil for 30-40 minutes, until chicken is tender. Remove the chicken and reserve the cooking water for the big gumbo pot. Meanwhile, wash the shrimp and cover them with water in a pot, adding a tsp. of salt. Bring to a boil and cook for 5-7 minutes, until the shrimp are pink. When cool, peel the shrimp and set them aside. Take the shells and heads (if available), crush them thoroughly. Pour the shells into the shrimp water pot and boil vigorously for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid and reserve the shrimp broth for the big pot.
  1. The head cook should make the roux: melt the butter in a very large soup pot, add the flour, and, with the heat low, stir until it turns dark brown. (This will take about 10 minutes). Add the onions, green pepper. scallions, garlic, and celery and stir well. Adding more butter as necessary, cook the vegetables until they're limp and transparent, but don't brown them. Add the okra and keep cooking until the okra loses its gummy consistency (another 10 minutes or so.)
  1. Add the chicken cooking water and shrimp broth to the big pot. Add the imitation crab meat, the tomatoes, parsley, hambone, and all the flavoring elements except salt (if you’re using real crab meat, hold off until the end of cooking). The liquid should cover everything in the pot by about 2 inches, so add more liquid if necessary: any type of stock will do (or combination – it’s all good!). Bring the pot just to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low, and cook for at least 1 ½ - 2 hours, being very careful not to let it scorch on the bottom. You can’t overcook it.
  1. About 30 minutes before you’d like to serve, start cooking your rice. If you’re using real crab meat, add it to the pot about 10 minutes before you’re serving. Taste the gumbo and add salt – it’ll need it. As Mitcham says, “A good gumbo must have plenty of salt in it if it’s to be savory as it should be. Keep adding the salt to the pot and stirring until it achieves this deep, rich savor. Don’t be timid! A bland gumbo is a disaster.) Serve the gumbo in large (possibly preheated) bowls: about ½ cup of rice and 1 cup of gumbo.

It's All Good Friday Chicken and Andouille Gumbo

Based on a recipe from Eugene Walter, published in Gourmet.

3-4 pounds of chicken, cut into serving pieces
2 tbsp. bacon fat or Canola oil
4 links of Andouille sausage, sliced
1/2 cup chopped ham
2 bunches of celery, chopped
2 onions, diced
1 green pepper, diced
1 pound fresh okra, sliced
2 cups cooked tomatoes
1 meaty hambone
2 bay leaves
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup chopped parsley
A few good cranks of freshly ground black pepper
Dashes of Tabasco
Pinch of cayenne
Big pinch of salt
2 1/2 quarts chicken stock

  1. Brown the chicken pieces in the bacon fat or oil. Add Andouille sausage and ham. Add enough additional fat to cover the bottom of the pan. Add celery, onion, green pepper, and okra. Cook, stirring, until all the ingredients are nicely browned. Add cooked tomatoes, hambone, bay leaves, and lemon zest.
  2. Cover the pot and simmer the gumbo slowly for 30 minutes, without letting it boil. Add parsley, black pepper, Tabasco, cayenne, and salt. Taste and add more of any of the spices if desired.
  3. Add chicken stock, cover, and simmer for at least 1 1/2 hours, or as much as 4 (you can't really overcook gumbo, so long as you watch that the bottom of the pot doesn't scorch.) Correct the seasoning and serve with about ½ cup rice in every bowl.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Saturday's Child

Sure, there’s no book deal in the works, but blogging has gotten me far, and fast: a killer job, a purpose in life, a newfound respect for ketchup, an entrance into an awesome online community complete with new (real world) friends – and even a hot date this Thursday!

There’s been some luck involved, but, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the harder you work the luckier you are. And lord my roommates know I’ve put in the hours.

If I had to put a number on it, I’d say my good fortune is the result of about 90% blood/sweat/tears/long hours at the computer. That remaining 10% percent? Call it the luck of the honorary Irish (below: proof that it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive – on the Devil's Causeway in Northern Ireland in 2005.)

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, this lucky girl enjoyed a table-heaving spread prepared by her lovely roommate, Jane: corned beef with boiled cabbage, carrots, and potatoes; precious slices of nutty soda bread (stowed in the freezer since my trip to Dublin); and, of course, a good-for-you glass of Guinness. Dessert was from American Food Writing: Irish potato pudding.

Confusingly enough, the pudding is a Jewish food, "one that will do for Passover" because it is an unleavened substitute for bready treats. The recipe, published by Esther Levy in 1871, calls for grated, boiled potatoes lightened with separated eggs, sweetened with sugar, and flavored with ground almonds and lemon.

My day was hectic, so sweet Jane offered to make the pudding (I told ya I’m lucky!). Unfortunately, I had already gotten us started on the wrong foot when I forgot to boil the potatoes a day ahead. They are supposed to cool overnight, which would have made them much less mealy. As it was, they were quite mushy and heavy. The whipped egg whites were powerless against them. Jane spread the concoction in a dish, dotted the peaks with butter, and baked it for 1 hour at 350 degrees F, until prettily golden brown on top. (By the way, we halved the recipe, and thanks bejeesus we did!)

The pudding looked tasty (that's it in the glass casserole dish) … but we could take no more than about three bites apiece. The flavors of the lemon and almond were a confusing pairing with the starchy, mealy texture. Overall, it was a food with an identity crisis: it needed to be either savory (with classic potato herb pairings such as rosemary or parsley) or quite sweet (in which case it needed about twice the sugar and a swig of cream).

There are better versions out there: an 1878 recipe adds milk and suggests baking the pudding in a pie crust (creating a dish similar to sweet potato pie). And an 1855 recipe does it one better, adding heavy cream and brown sugar.

As it was, the only circumstances I could imagine eating this pudding are if you were bound to do so by religious convention or nearly starving in a famine and were down to your last 3 potatoes (in which case, unlucky you, for what a waste!).

But of course I didn’t toss the pudding! My ancestors, though not Irish, must have gone hungry somewhere along the line – my thighs can attest to that – and their blood in my veins means I will never willingly waste food.

The Roman philosopher Seneca said, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." Well, I'm so lucky that my lack of preparation has presented me with an opportunity. My mission: do something with our mealy mush to make it not only palatable but exciting. I will debut the second reincarnation of the pudding at a shindig I’m having this Friday: a gumbo party (for this project of course)! Stay tuned, y’all!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

One Hot Dish

I hope you've studied your American Century Cookbook and did your Internet research because it's time for a POP QUIZ on presidential food preferences!

1.) Which American president’s favorite food is broiled swordfish with lemon butter?

A. William Howard Taft
B. Richard Nixon
C. Jimmy Carter
D. Ronald Reagan

2.) What is George W. Bush’s favorite food?

A. Cheeseburger Pizza
B. Chicken enchiladas
C. Peanut butter and honey sandwiches
D. Hamburgers

3.) Match the Roosevelt with the favorite food:

1. Franklin D.
2. Theodore

A. Roast suckling pig
B. Boiled salmon with egg sauce

4.) Which president’s favorite food is that mid-century American classic, Beef Stroganoff?

A. Harry Truman
B. Dwight Eisenhower
C. John F. Kennedy
D. Lyndon B. Johnson

5.) Bonus Question: What's the favorite food of the 44th President of the United States?

A. Shrimp and grits
B. Boca Burgers
C. Pizza with pepperoni and onions
D. Fried squirrel

ANSWERS:

1.) He wore a cowboy hat well, but is it really any wonder that the golden boy from Hollywood would love chichi food? That’s right, President Reagan adored grilled swordfish and other California cuisine (his second favorite dish was roasted vegetable pizza). Lobster Newberg (surely you remember it?) turned Taft on, while Richard Nixon favored Beef Wellington, a dish that pretty much defines the discreet charms of the bourgeoisie. Jimmy Carter liked himself some real down-home cookin’: buttermilk biscuits and Brunswick stew, a Southeastern specialty with lima beans, okra, corn, and, traditionally, squirrel and rabbit meat.

2.) This was a trick question (not unlike the Bush presidency itself). Dubya favors both PB and honey sandwiches and Cheeseburger Pizza, an artery-clogging whopper that was invented by reality show contestants as a marketing scheme. (N0t unlike the way that certain activities of the Bush presidency have felt). The other two foods -- chicken enchiladas and hamburgers -- are Big Boy Billy Clinton's favorites.

3.) He might have been born a millionaire, but Franklin Delano enjoyed the simple pleasures: boiled salmon with egg sauce (would it have hurt his cooks to at least poach the fish?!). Theodore, on the other hand, ate like the wealthy man he was. Only a young pig roasted to crispy-skinned perfection could satisfy his palate.

4.) Truman was a true salt-of-the-earth type who favored meat loaf and tuna noodle casserole, while Eisenhower was known to crack his creepy smile for quail hash. As faithful readers know, dirty-mouthed Lyndon B. was like a pig in shit when Lady Bird cooked him up a pot of Pedernales Chili. That leaves JFK as the lover of one hot 20th century dish, Beef Stroganoff -- that is, when he wasn't "loving" the hot blond dish of the moment. More on Beef Stroganoff in a moment, but first, the answer to the bonus question...

5.) Senator Obama makes a mean chili and he likes fried chicken, but his favorite food is shrimp and grits. Senator Clinton's favorite snack is Boca Burgers (though this Wesleyan girl also likes lamb). Senator McCain could polish off a whole pepperoni and onion pizza pie by himself, with a plate of shrimp on the side. And only Governor Huckabee could have fried squirrel meat in a popcorn maker in his college dorm room.

So the answer is ... ?


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Beef Stroganoff, thin strips of lean beef served in a sour cream sauce with, traditionally, mushroom and onion, was a pervasive force in American cuisine from the 1930s to the 1980s. (I remember eating it -- or scheming ways to NOT eat it -- at my grandma's house for Sunday suppers).

The roots of the dish are in 19th century tsarist Russia but it took post-WWII American economic boom time to elevate it to iconic status. James Beard, that late, great bear of a gastronomical god, laid out his recipe in The James Beard Cookbook, 1959.

Mr. Beard's Beef Stroganoff is certainly a crowd pleaser, but if you ate enough of it you'd end up looking like, well, Mr. Beard. When I took the recipe on this past Monday, I decided to try to reduce the fat, but I had doubts that it would work. (Comfort foods are fattening for a reason).

I replaced steak with lean turkey cutlets, used low-fat sour cream, and reduced the butter by one third. And I am happy to report that it turned out so deLIGHTfully well, I think even JFK would approve. (Of course, for him I'd change out of my Monday sweats, which are good enough for my roomies but not Mr. President, and into my lipstick-red polka dot dress and high, high heels.)

I served the dish with rice pilaf (from a box) and a very American salad of butterleaf lettuce, button mushrooms, baby carrots, toasted pepitas, and a light coating of Ranch dressing. The meal recalled meals gone by without being weighed down with nostalgia.

Low(er)-fat Turkey Stroganoff

1.5 lbs turkey cutlets or breast meat
4 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
3-4 tablespoons chopped green onions
1/4 cup white wine
2 dashes Worcestershire Sauce
4 drops of hot sauce
1 1/2 cup low fat sour cream
Salt and pepper, to taste
A few sprigs of parsley

  1. Slice turkey into strips, as thin as possible. (About 2 inches by 1/2-inch and 1/4-inch thick).
  2. Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter and the olive oil in a deep-sided skillet over high heat. (The oil will help prevent the butter from browning.) When good and hot, add the turkey strips and fry until cooked through, about 4 minutes. Fish out the turkey strips and keep them warm.
  3. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and green onions and cook 1 minute. Then add the white wine, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, sour cream, and a good shake of salt. Stir well and heat through, but don't boil or the sour cream will curdle. Just before serving, give it a few good cranks of freshly ground black pepper and garnish with parsley. Pour the sauce over the turkey strips and serve immediately with rice, rice pilaf, or egg noodles.