Creole Gumbo-Southern Food Challenge 6

Calvin came into town this past weekend to hang out, spend time in NYC, and celebrate his birthday with us.  Of all the things we miss about our life in California, spending time with Calvin is near the top of the list. So, as usual when we do see him, we took the opportunity and crammed about a month’s worth of hanging out into one long weekend. I think we may have crammed about a month’s worth of eating into one weekend too. I had my first ShackBurger in Madison Square Park and my first John’s Pizza on Bleeker Street. Eataly was a culinary mosh pit; we got espresso and dodged elbows. We drank beer at the Blind Tiger and the Ginger Man. We got cannolis and lobster tails at Georgio’s across the street. For Calvin’s birthday, we took him to a little Japanese “soul food” restaurant we tried for Scott’s birthday called Hakata Tonton.  The three of us shared their signature hot-pot, full of vegetables, pork belly and feet, dumplings and goji berries in an amazingly unctuous broth. And before we put him on the train back out to JFK, we had lunch at  Ippudo, the best bowl of ramen I have ever eaten. I had tonkotsu ramen in Hong Kong for the first time last year; the creamy white pork broth and dark garlic oil with chewy ramen noodles, so lip-smacking and savory and have been craving it since……I ate so much I felt like a pork belly myself.

It made me think about the nitty-gritty of what it is that makes great soup really great. I think it is unarguably the broth. It’s the bones and cartilage and collagen and meat that slowly infuse their essence into water, creating something that tastes incredibly rich without fat. In beauty, one hears about having “good bones”; stock is literally the “good bones” of beautiful flavor.  I’m not asserting that good soup can’t be made with bottled chicken broth or water and aromatics, but every once in a while, it’s worth it to go the extra mile to make a rich, collagen filled stock, full of the most intense essential flavors and make a special meal superlative.

The easiest entry point for stock has to be fish (or seafood) stock. Using the shells, heads, and bones of the seafood going into this gumbo to make a simple stock creates a layer of flavor that deepens and echoes the sweetness of the shrimp and fish in every rich, spicy bite.

Creole Seafood Gumbo

1 pound of head-on shell-on shrimp

1-2 pound fish, fileted, bones and head reserved (I used red snapper)

about 1 cup bay scallops

1/3 to ½ pound of andouille

roux

1 medium white or yellow onion, diced

2 stalks celery diced (celery leaves have lots of flavor, chop them up too!)

½ green bell pepper, diced

2 fat cloves garlic, minced or micro-planed

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon thyme

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 bay leaf

salt

1 can diced tomatoes, undrained

2 cups sliced okra (frozen works well off-season)

1 ½ quarts fish stock*

hot rice

hot sauce

Rinse the shrimp and fish. De-head and peel the shrimp. If you’re hard-core like me, filet the fish, slicing the filets into bite-sized pieces. Keep all the bones and shells for the stock. If you get a whole fish from a market and have the fishmongers do the dirty work of fileting, specify that you want to keep the bones and head. Some stores will sell packages of fish trimmings for stock; get a white-fleshed fish for this recipe.

Make a roux

I use less roux for seafood gumbo than for meatier gumbos. For this recipe, I used about ¼ cup each of flour and oil.

After the roux is dark enough, add the Trinity of diced onion, celery, and bell pepper (similar to mirepoix, onion, celery, carrot) to the roux and stir until the vegetables are softened.

Slice and quarter about a link’s worth of smoked andouille (maybe 1/3 pound). The only brand I could find here in town this week was D’ Artagnan; I don’t prefer their seasoning though. Stir it into the roux in the pan, getting it to brown a little on the edges.

When the sausage begins to render a little of it’s fat, add the garlic and spices; I usually gently toast spices for a moment before I add any liquid. When I began learning about Indian cooking and their treatment of spices, I started assimilating the technique of dry toasting or frying spices and herbs often along with the aromatic vegetables and it really seems to bloom and infuse their flavor and fragrance better.

Add the tomatoes, okra and stock. Bring to a simmer and stir until the roux is smoothly incorporated into the stock and cook it until the okra is tender. It shouldn’t take too long, maybe 20 minutes, but cook it slowly and gently so that the assembled throng has time to mingle their flavors. Taste for salt.

Finally- and I mean finally so as not to overcook- stir the scallops, shrimp and fish into the soup. Heat just to a simmer, very gently stirring the seafood into the broth so that it is just opaque and barely cooked through. Be gentle with the fish so the pieces don’t get too broken up

When the seafood is cooked, scoop some hot rice into a bowl and pour the gumbo over. Shake a bit of hot sauce on top.

*Make this basic seafood stock with the fish bones and head and shrimp shells and heads, a little onion and celery. I used the shells and heads of 1 pound of shrimp and the bones and head of a 2 pound red snapper, a stalk of celery and ¼ onion and two quarts of water. Bring it all to a simmer, covered and let it burble away for about 20 -30 minutes. Strain out the solids and reduce the stock to about 1 ½ quarts.

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It was a super bowl

I’m not going to say that I choose my Super Bowl team based on the city with the most appealing gustatory traditions, but if someone wants to draw that conclusion based on my making gumbo today, I can offer only a half-hearted defense. What do Colts eat? I don’t know, but I do know that I’ve had gumbo on the brain for weeks.

Last Friday found me in Old Oakland at the Friday farmer’s market and the Old   Housewives  Market.  A bustling farmer’s market in February is one of the loveliest things about living in this area. It was full of greens and citrus, cruciferous and root vegetables. I briefly considered what looked like a rubber chicken which was actually a real chicken complete with head and feet and suitable for stock-making, but I was single-minded and on my way to Taylor’s Sausage for some hot smoked sausage, then on to Ranch 99 for a duck.

My gumbo today was based loosely on Southern Living’s Chicken and Sausage Gumbo recipe with several notable differences. When I made the roux, I used a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat that I had in the refrigerator to add a little smoky depth to my peanut butter colored roux. The duck had been broken down and the bits and bones made into stock. The breast and legs were poached in the stock and shredded and the stock de-fatted before pouring it into the roux and vegetables.

While I love okra and tomatoes in gumbo, I was looking for a deep smoky winter gumbo. The dark roux added so much body and flavor to the soup that it didn’t miss the okra thickener.

Let’s just say that if we had had a cooler full of icy Gatorade lying around the house this evening, it would not have been inappropriate to douse me with it after supper, cause, baby, that gumbo was a winner!

First you make a roux

There are certain kitchen skills that, once gotten the knack of, allow the cook to appear to effortlessly “whip a little something up” without cracking a cookbook or breaking a sweat. One such trick up the cook’s sleeve is the roux which is then used as a thickener for liquids. If it thickens milk, you have made a sauce béchamel- think cheese sauce or cream of mushroom soup; if stock, a sauce velouté- think gravy.

It is my ever so humble opinion that people who use condensed cream soups just can’t be bothered to learn how to make a béchamel, which really takes far less time to concoct than it does to go to Safeway, find the soup aisle, search through the scores of available canned soups, make your purchase, and drive home. Do you really not have milk, flour, and fat in your house? Then what a deeply sad house it must be, and indeed, that may be my new definition of what a “home” is- milk, flour, and fat inside a house.

There is no real measuring involved. One takes equal portions of fat and flour, and by fat, I mean butter, oil, bit of rendered bacon fat, or lard I suppose, and mixes them into a smooth paste over medium-low heat with perhaps a wooden spoon if one is at hand. About a tablespoon of each will thicken a cup of milk to a creamed soup consistency. They should begin to foam up and toast the flour gently. Cooking the flour should produce a nice toasted fragrance and, after a few minutes of stirring, a pale golden color. Congratulations, you have just made a blonde roux! You can certainly take this process further if you wish to make gumbo, cooking your roux ‘til it is the color of peanut butter, but that is a topic for another day.  It is now time to add the milk. I have heard that hot milk incorporates into the roux more smoothly and less lumpily, but honestly, I usually don’t remember to heat the milk beforehand and count myself foresighted indeed if I remember to take the milk out far enough ahead to come up to room temperature. However, a whisk will come in handy for beating out any lumps that may form in the velvety depths of your sauce. Pour in the milk and stir. When it comes to a simmer, the sauce will be thickened and ready for the many and various guises that it so ably assumes.